It’s not often that I initiate a conversation with a stranger on a plane. A long and very one-sided discussion with a pig farmer from Norfolk a few summers ago taught me the pitfalls of doing so. But last week on a hop from Lisbon to Stansted I abandoned my policy of in-flight isolationism. Why? Because my neighbour was in the window seat and I wasn’t. And the views outside were utterly beguiling.
I’ve enjoyed spectacular sights from my plane seat before, but never have I seen such a variety of landscapes in such a short period of time. Having soared north from the Portuguese capital, where, from my middle seat on the right-hand side of the aircraft, we enjoyed a grandstand view of the Vasco da Gama Bridge, Western Europe’s longest, we followed the meandering Tagus river, and crossed the Serra da Estrela range, before powering across Spain’s barren and rust-coloured Meseta.
We then skirted the lush Picos de Europa, all lumpy green peaks and deep blue lakes, soaked up views down the coast towards Santander and Bilbao, before crossing the Bay of Biscay and spying the inviting French islands of Oléron, Île de Ré and Noirmoutier, each linked to the mainland by bridges.
The distant cityscape of Nantes, perched on the Loire, came next, before we crossed Brittany for the pièce de résistance – a staggering view of Mont St Michel from above. The home straight delivered the welcoming sight of the south coast, from Bognor all the way to the Seven Sisters, before we passed directly over west London, giving us the perfect view (from the right side of the plane) of the sprawling capital.
I’m a compulsive plane window gazer, but on no flight have the sights I encountered been so special (the full route can be seen on the FlightRadar24 website). Gratitude is needed for the good weather – and the kind woman who didn’t mind me leaning over her for two hours.
And it got me wondering. Scheduled flights between two cities inevitably follow very similar routes – so which offers the finest views on the planet? Is there a rival to Lisbon-Stansted?
I had a look at the typical routes taken by the most popular services (in terms of passengers per year) from British airports. Number one on that particular list is Heathrow-JFK (1.9m available seats in 2018). One might assume there’s little to see but ocean, but airlines actually take a surprisingly northerly route.
Some services skirt the Peak District, the Isle of Man and Northern Ireland (you might even see Giant’s Causeway if you’re very lucky); others pass the Cotswolds, the Brecon Beacons and Ireland (promising fine views of its Atlantic Coast). Landfall is usually made at the frozen Canadian province of Newfoundland. Look out then for the Gulf of St Lawrence, the forests of New England and the city of Boston. Bag a seat on the left side of the plane for views of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, or the right side for New York City. If you get put in a holding pattern over the Big Apple, of course, everyone wins.
For even chillier landscapes, try Heathrow-Los Angeles. The Highlands (cold), Iceland (colder) and Greenland (freezing) will be visible, followed by Hudson Bay. The US highlights might include Yellowstone, Great Salt Lake and the Grand Canyon.
Heathrow-Dubai is the second most flown route from the UK (1.6m seats in 2018). Passengers, on a clear day, can expect to pass Dover and Dunkirk before carving a path between some of Europe’s greatest cities. Look left for Brussels, Frankfurt, Budapest and Bucharest, or right for Munich, Salzburg and Istanbul. Aircraft usually cross the Austrian Alps, the Carpathians and the Black Sea, while Cappadocia promises to be another highlight. A kink in the route takes planes around Syria (for obvious reasons), but look out for Baghdad (to the right) – and then enjoy views on the run-in of the beaches and reefs of Iran (on the left) or Kuwait, Bahrain and Doha (look right).
Heathrow-Edinburgh is Britain’s busiest domestic route. The best side of the plane depends on your allegiance. Yorkists should go right, for views of Leeds, Sheffield and the Dales. Lancastrians ought to go left, for Manchester and the Forest of Bowland. Also on the agenda, diversions notwithstanding, are the Chiltern Hills, Milton Keynes, Leicester and the Lake District (left) or Nottingham and the North Pennines (right). The approach to Edinburgh usually involves a late left turn – so the left side is the best bet for views of the Scottish capital.
Heathrow-Paris is another well-worn route. Look out for Virginia Water and Windsor Great Park, Woking and Guildford (both left), Farnborough, Aldershot and Farnham (all right), The Surrey Hills, Ditchling Beacon and Brighton, Dieppe (left), the Foret d’Eawy and Rouen (right). The final approach follows the Seine, with Paris on your right.
For something very exotic, the long journey from Heathrow to Singapore looks to be a winner. While there’s room for variation – some flights go as far north as Copenhagen and Moscow, while others pass Austria and Romania – the second half typically combines Central Asian steppe, distant views of the Himalayas (for those on the left), and the idyllic coastlines and tropical jungles of Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia. Now that might even trump Lisbon-Stansted.
What’s been the greatest views you’ve seen from an aircraft? Which route has the best sights? Leave your comments below.