A bar doesn't mean you have to drink
I'm not sure how it began. Centuries of almost continuous warfare meant Sikh soldiers were known for carrying around certain natural painkillers. One of the leading Sikh Misls (conferederacies) of the 18th century, the Bhangi's, were given their name due to their love of cannabis and some Nihang Singh's protect their practices of taking Sukkha (peace giver) passionately to this day.
However drinking alcohol, although recorded, wasn't a Sikh favourite until Sikh's started to get power and money in the early 1800's. Left unchecked, alcohol consumption in Panjab has reached epidemic proportions, its now one of the largest areas of alcohol consumption per capita in the world.
My mom tells me a story that during her pregnancy with me, she went into labour while my dad was out drinking in the pub. And although alcohol didn't kill him, it certainly didn't help. Back home in the Midlands I worked behind the bar of the largest club in the city when I was a student and also worked part time in an Asian wedding hall. I've pretty much been surrounded by alcohol my whole life, and I'm sure thats the same for many Panjabi families.
Sikh's are so closely linked with alcohol that if my friends offer me a drink and I refuse they look confused, even my white friends ask me "what sort of a Sikh doesn't drink?". Something isn't right in our community. But thats another post for another day.
So when I talk about my favourite rooftop bars, I'm not saying go out and get drunk (that's on you). I love these places because they are a world apart from the small town in central England where I was born. Tall buildings with amazing views of a beautiful city, whats not to love.
Now thats out the way, here are my 5 favourite FREE rooftop bars in the City...
5. Aqua Shard @ The Shard, London Bridge
The Shard is associated with excess, and therefore you'd imagine that it costs a fair few pounds to get inside the tallest building in Western Europe. And you're right. It costs £25 to see 'the View at the Shard', however, to visit Aqua Shard, a bar two thirds of the way up is totally free.
As you'd imagine everything inside is pretty expensive, from the food to the drinks, however you do manage to get a good view of London. From the ceiling to floor windows you can see all the skyscrapers in the City of London across the river, as well as the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf. To the west you can see St Paul's Cathedral which looks fantastic from this angle.
The best part about Aqua Shard is the toilets. I know it sounds weird but you are literally looking over London as you do what you got to do. It feels weird, I won't lie.
The biggest drawback is that its usually quite busy and cramped, its difficult to get a position by the window so you always end up looking over somebody's table.
In terms of getting in; as long as you are dressed smart they tend to be quite liberal in terms of who they let in. I've never been refused entry, and that's pretty rare for a brown guy to say.
4. Radio Rooftop, The Strand
Located on the Strand, the long road that separates the City of London from the City of Westminster, its pretty easy to walk past the entrance to Radio Rooftop without realising.
I've only ever been to Radio Rooftop in the daytime to get food but the views from this part of the city are quite different to the skyscraper cluster around the City/London Bridge area. You can see all the main sights and the food isn't too bad either.
As with Aqua Shard, getting in isn't too much of a problem and staff were generally quite friendly.
3. Attic Bar, Canary Wharf
Attic Bar is really cool. Located in South Quay, a short walk from Canary Wharf, Attic Bar is slightly different to the others in that it feels more like an actual bar with loud music and strobe lighting.
The view of Canary Wharf and the O2 is incredible and unmatched in its beauty. The first time I walked out the lift and saw the lights of One Canada Square I stood there for a good five minutes just staring at it. There is a very small outdoor space which removes some of the glare you can get from the windows when looking outside in the evening.
Getting in isn't too much of a problem, and because I work in Canary Wharf, I'm usually wearing a suit which helps.
2. City Social @ Tower 42, The City
I love City Social. Located in Tower 42, the former headquarters of Natwest Bank, the entrance to City Social is a small unassuming door down a small alleyway. Unlike the three buildings before it, a solitary security guard does a short and minimally intrusive bag check before a hostess shows you to a lift.
The dark lights of the bar and restaurant allow you to have a perfect view of the outside. I found City Social gives the best view of the Gherkin and good views of other skyscrapers in the city, as well as the Shard. Unlike the Shard, no matter what time or day I go to City Social, there is always space, always a table free. The food isn't too bad either.
I've never had a problem getting it, I do always have a problem getting out. Press the wrong button in the lift, and you end up inside offices, and if you do that, its very hard to get back out.
1. Skygarden, The City
Its one of the newest additions to the London skyline, and also one of the most controversial. Its unique shape has divided opinion across the city, but I'm a big fan personally.
Although its free to get inside, you have to book tickets in advance and these tickets tend to go quite quickly, especially for the best times. I will admit, I hate the entrance, its basically like airport security and just like airport security I take a deep breath before approaching, always fearing the worst. However, I've never once had a problem getting in and once you reach the top you realise exactly why tickets go so quickly. An absolutely huge open space has a small bar near the centre. The windows are huge giving you a 360 panoramic view of the city. In fact, its the only building on this list where you can get a true 360.
The Skygarden is separated into a number of areas. A small outdoor part faces the east, west and south, while a staircase leads to a higher section that faces the north. In middle of the two areas are hundreds of plants that give the top floor its name. It's one of my favourite views of London, and the best part is that its completely free. Just make sure you go online and get the tickets 2/3 weeks in advance.
Honourable mentions, Madison Bar
I don't really like Madison Bar. Its free to get in but inside its expensive, its pretentious and there's always someone at the door who's job it is too see if you are dressed appropriately. Seriously, thats a persons job. Someone gets paid to do that. Nothing about the Madison Bar experience is pleasant...until you get to the top.
It gets a mention just based on the view which is absolutely incredible. The large open air roof gives you amazing views of St Paul's Cathedral which is just across the road but also further across of the Oxo Tower and the London Eye.
Getting in is hit and miss; I will say one thing, I don't think getting turned away is to do with my skin colour, I think its because I refuse to buy expensive shoes or clothes. If you can afford it, go check it out.
St. George's Hotel Roofbar, Regent Street
With views of east and west London, St George's Bar seems a world away from the rush of Regent Street below it.
The building itself is an old hotel and is the shortest of all the other buildings on this list, but the fact that its so central means you get to see all the famous attractions and the best thing is, because the building doesn't stand out, its always quiet.. The only things that really brings this place down is that the inside looks about 30 years out of date.
British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.