Helicopter tours: 5 great cities to see from above

CNN  — 

Sure, you want to see Big Ben and Venice Beach, Corcovado and Kowloon Bay, Sydney Harbour and the neighboring New South Wales countryside.

Maybe you just don’t want to have to do it at ground level with every other sweaty tourist negotiating traffic-clogged streets, grungy star-studded sidewalks, ticket lines and Australian wine country travel maps.

Hovering a thousand feet above all that riffraff on a deluxe private helicopter tour might be sky-high pricey. But is there a better use of the word “splurge” at this altitude?

Here are our favorite five cities to board a chopper – and five head-spinning tours to get above and beyond it all.

1. Sydney

Pub crawls are faster when you use a helicopter.

Sydney Helicopters, Hunter Valley Pub Tour

Approx. US $750

This helicopter pub crawl departs from Sydney, Australia, whirling above the city’s famous waterfront for a checklist-notching aerial view of the Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge before soaring into the wild, bucolic yonder of outer New South Wales.

Rosehill Heliport-based Sydney Helicopters’ roster of full-day heli-pub tours includes excursions into the state’s rugged Blue Mountains and Southern Highlands, where multiple touchdowns at out-of-the-way bars and charming country inns factor in enough vintage Aussie drink stops to keep the propellers spinning even when they’re not.

Our top pick is the Hunter Valley Pub Tour, a seven-hour journey into one of the country’s prime, picturesque wine-producing regions.

Highlights along the way include stops at quirky rustic ale houses, boutique wineries and elegant vineyard estates for a wine-paired multi-course gourmet lunch – capped with a late afternoon visit to the historic Settlers Arms Inn in St. Albans for one last pint or two of counter fuel before the curiously blurry ride home.

How much would you pay for a flight upgrade?

2. Los Angeles

Orbic Air, Mountain Top Landing Tour

$349 per person

In sprawling, traffic-choked Los Angeles, sitting pretty above all the tailpipes on Laurel and Coldwater Canyons, Sunset and Sepulveda Boulevards and the Freeway Interchange in a sleek whirlybird is a perch usually reserved for cops and car chase reporters.

Orbic Air’s standard 15 to 25-minute L.A. flyovers lift off from Burbank Airport and cover all the standards – from cool close-ups of the Hollywood Sign to vital views of celebrity home rooftops in Beverly Hills and Bel Air.

For the real California dreamin’ “Romance Package,” Orbic’s Mountain Top Landing Tour covers several Tinseltown landmarks en route to the city’s most natural charms along the coast – featuring a climactic landing on a secluded Malibu plateau with complimentary bubbly, dessert and a rose. Diamond ring not included.

20 planes for flying buffs – from Boeing to Airbus

3. Hong Kong

Heliservices' chopper takes off from The Peninsula Hong Kong, the oldest luxury hotel in town.

Heliservices, Complete Hong Kong Experience

Approx. $3,500 (for up to six passengers)

What tops an unbeatable harbor view from a window seat in the lofty China Clipper Lounge on the 30th floor of the Peninsula Hong Kong?

An even more unbeatable view from inside an MD902 helicopter lifting off from the famed hotel’s twin helipad.

Then it’s up, up and away into a visual overload of Hong Kong skyscrapers, glimmering bays, secluded coves and forested peaks as collectively incomputable from high in the sky as from anywhere down below.

Heliservices’ lineup of flyover trips from the Peninsula Hotel (tours also depart from Wanchai Heliport) introduces passengers to the spectacular Victoria Harbour skyline and the beaches and bays of South Hong Kong Island in a whirlwind 15 minutes – with optional hotel spa or dining packages available to go with the flight.

Longer 30-minute chopper trips include tours over Kowloon or Hong Kong Geopark.

The ultimate wish list tour: a private, 45-minute Complete Hong Kong Experience stretching it out to the New Territories and Lantau Island.

A visual tour of Hong Kong’s beautiful places

4. London

The London Helicopter, London MAX Tour

Approx. $2,000 (for up to six passengers)

Gazing down upon London’s spectacular cityscape from St Paul’s dome, the London Eye, The Shard, or (at a pinch) a double decker bus seat may be a jolly good start.

Upping the vantage point over 1,000 vertical feet over the River Thames via bright yellow G-ORKI helicopter takes urban sightseeing to an entirely different level.

Lifting off from southwest London’s Battersea Heliport (only recently opened to tourists), The London Helicopter’s London Buzz and London Sights tours cover a range of riverside essentials in and around the city center – from Big Ben and Buckingham Palace to St. Paul’s Cathedral and Canary Wharf. All crammed into 12 or 18 breathless minutes.

The London MAX Tour clocks a full half-hour of airtime, offering private groups of up to six an extended flight-seeing odyssey that includes nearly forty iconic London landmarks.

For an encore, book a package heli-trip from London to Highclere Castle (a.k.a. “Downton Abbey”) or Stonehenge.

Some tips before you ride the London Eye

5. Rio de Janeiro

Best way to see the iconic Cristo Redentor statue?

Helisight – 60-Minute Panoramic Flight

Approx. $570

Brazil’s Wonderful City may be impossible to digest at any height – from the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana to the 220th step at the base of Cristo Redentor on Corcovado mountain, to the country’s largest soccer stadium and current ceremonial host of the 2016 Summer Olympics. And everywhere in between.

Only a helicopter ride through one of the most legendary, multi-textured urban landscapes on earth can briefly fool passengers into having a handle on it all.

Helisight’s seven chopper routes begin with a sub-10-minute out-and-back along the beaches from either Sugar Loaf or Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon Helipads.

Flight times and prices go up from there, peaking with the Goliath of Rio flight-seeing bucket-listers – a 60-Minute Panoramic Flight which culminates in circling around the world’s largest and most recognizable Art Deco statue in the biggest urban rainforest on the planet.

Flights are currently paused during the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games, but will resume after the sporting action has finished.

Los Angeles-based Jordan Rane is a Lowell Thomas Award recipient from the Society of American Travel Writers. His work on travel and the outdoors has appeared in over 50 publications.