London's Tate Modern Reopens Its Controversial Viewing Deck—and It's Still Free!
Tate Modern changed London forever in 2000.
That's when a dilapidated old power station on a dreary, semi-industrial stretch of the River Thames' southern shore was refitted to display the country's contemporary art treasures. Crowds flooded in to see the spectacular conversion, and, seemingly overnight, London's riverfront was rediscovered and began to thrive again. By 2015, the Tate was attracting nearly 5 million visits a year.
But even its cavernous halls were not enough. In 2016, over budget and over schedule, Tate Modern opened a second building—Switch House, later named the Blavatnik Building. The 10-level tower with galleries, offices, and a restaurant was attached to the existing former power station, which was renamed Boiler House (and is now called the Natalie Bell Building).
Tate Modern is still packed from cellar to rafters with the cream of contemporary art, from classic but esoteric pieces in the original building to experimental and performative works in the former fuel tanks under the newer Blavatnik Building.
September 2023 saw the long-delayed return of another attraction visitors might like: a free, open-air observation deck. It once operated as the Viewing Level, but is now simply called Level 10.
After opening in 2016, the deck soon ran into trouble. First, it was unpleasantly overcrowded.
Then, in 2019, a troubled teenager threw a 6-year-old boy from the platform. Miraculously, he survived the fall.
Then the platform shut down for Covid-19 precautions, a closure that lasted more than three years, until this summer.
Finally, after years of unavailability, this free view has returned to the tourist menu in London.
This is the first thing visitors see after leaving the elevators. That's the legendary dome of St. Paul's Cathedral in the middle.
Once you leave the enclosed elevator lobby, you're on an open-air balcony that encircles the building, facing the back of the stylized chimney that served the old power station. You could get a similar view from the Golden Gallery at the top of the dome of St. Paul's, but that costs more than £20 ($25) and requires a 550-step slog up.
The views from the back, or southern, side of the Tate's Level 10 are largely blocked by modern condos. Those flats, which were marketed as architectural trophies to some of London's most moneyed buyers, are encased in glass that exposes everything within to view. And even though those residents knew the kind of apartments they were buying, they still got together and sued to halt what they called an invasion of their privacy by the Tate's observation deck.
It was that lawsuit, and not the pandemic or even the attack on the child, that prevented Level 10 from opening for so long.
Even now, access to the southern side of the viewing deck is blocked. The Tate also had to slap up a bevy of warning signs that beg visitors not to take photos of the wealthy locals inside their showy enclaves.
Level 10's front and side views are the ones most tourists care about, anyway. Those vantages are more about history and London's world-famous riverside grandeur than surveillance.
But you'd better keep your camera lens trained solely on the northern, river side. Immediately after Level 10 reopened, there were reports that visitors are being chastised for pointing cameras anywhere near the direction of those apartments, even if just taking westerly photos of the river like the one below, taken in 2016.
Best to think of Tate Modern's Level 10 as an excellent spot for capturing Thames-facing photos of St. Paul's Cathedral.
Looking west, you can see Blackfriars Bridge, the BT Tower, and the West End. A tiny snippet of the tower containing Big Ben is visible over the roof of a nearby building, but if the Houses of Parliament are what you really want to see, the view from the London Eye can't be bettered.
Of course, the London Eye can cost £35 ($44) for adults, and you have to wait in line. And when it comes down to it, the Tate Modern is closer to the rest of central London and gives you a better idea of the city's ongoing growth spurt.
Looking east, there's the Shard, Europe's tallest skyscraper. Its own observation deck, the View from the Shard, is so high in the clouds you can barely make out the people down below, and visiting that can set you back more than £30 ($38) per adult.
But the Tate's Level 10 costs nothing. It can be seen as part of a visit to Tate Modern, which is free.
This is the view toward The City in 2016. London's skyline has proliferated considerably since then.
Observation decks are all the rage in London these days as a new crop of skyscrapers is erected throughout The City district, but those new viewing areas are often hemmed in by other giant buildings.
The Tate Modern, though, is the tallest building in its area, and Level 10's northern view sweeps without obstruction across the river, so you'll actually recognize the places in your pictures. Snap a few—London's skyline is in constant flux.
A small cafe for coffee and snacks was added for the 2023 reopening of Level 10, but there's actually a better place in Tate Modern for refreshments.
The better place is pictured above, and it shares Level 10's stupendous panorama. The spot in question is the bar seating at Kitchen and Bar, located on the 6th floor of the other building (the Bell Building) of Tate Modern. Facing St. Paul's Cathedral and the Thames through floor-to-ceiling windows, you can even order a beer there, which you can't do at Level 10.
To reach Kitchen and Bar from Level 10, cross to the other building from the Blavatnik Building on either the ground level or the 4th level and take the lifts up to the 6th floor. This area opens at noon and can get busy. If you can, head up a few minutes before opening time to secure a good seat.
Level 10 at Tate Modern is open from 10am to 5pm daily (last admission at 4:45pm). No advance reservations are required, and admission is free.