Anyone who regularly travels for business will know all too well that you never get to find out much about the location you're visiting. It always sounds really glamorous, but the truth about business travel is that, for the most part, you are likely to see very little else of the city you're staying in other than an airport, a conveniently placed hotel, a few taxis and the inside of an air-conditioned office.
In these terms, many of Europe's - and indeed the world's - great cities become eerily similar and you find yourself grasping for a bit of the local culture in the gift shop of the departure lounge, or, if you're lucky, when you get some time to eat lunch.
On a recent whistle stop tour of Madrid and Paris I wasn't even able to get my hands on any truly authentic local cuisine, which was a real disappointment. A decidedly average Italian meal in Madrid, and some weird 'fusion' fodder in Paris, was hardly what I had in mind when I set off from London. At the very least I like to try and eat a bit of local grub when I'm on these trips, but on this occasion there wasn't a plate of tapas or a steak au poivre in sight... Ah middle class problems, eh?
Not that you can't get these 'local' dishes on seemingly every street corner of Britain these days anyway. And I guess that's part of the reason why it's difficult to get a genuinely 'local experience' of anywhere when you visit for such a brief period. On a certain level, our cities have become somewhat homogenised. One airport blends into another, and if you've seen one business hotel, you've seen them all.
Where you can get a bit of a passing sense of the essence of these major cities, I've found, is from up in the air. Looking down on these urban metropolises from above does give you an opportunity to get a brief, but genuine sense about the 'personality' of each location - both in terms of their architecture, geography and size.
Last month, from the relative (dis)comfort of my low-cost aeroplane window seats, I felt I learnt more about the contrasting characteristics of the cities I was flying over, than I was able to in 24 hours on the ground.
Madrid, Paris and London look very different from the air, yet there are also similarities. Each has a clearly identifiable set of modern buildings sticking out into the sky, carving a new skyline amongst all the classical architecture. It's a fantastic view of how these great cities have evolved over the years. The many cranes and construction sites which intersperse their surroundings is evidence of how they will continue to change with the times.
You get a feeling that these cities are survivors. They have remained relevant over thousands of years by rethinking themselves over and over again. Nowhere is that more apparent that when looking down on them from several thousand feet.
Madrid, like Spain, has reinvented itself into a lively, modern 'first- world' location in the last thirty years or so - and you can see that in the abundance of contemporary architecture, contrasting with the historic neighbourhoods and classical structures such as the Plaza Mayor. The advent of Spanish economic growth is encapsulated by the buildings in the 'Cuatro Torres Business Area', featuring the four tallest skyscrapers in Spain, as well as other impressive structures such as the 'Gate of Europe'.
There's modernity in Paris too. The largest dedicated business district in Europe, La Defence, for example, sticks our impressively on the Parisian skyline. However, perhaps it's because Paris is so much bigger than Madrid, or maybe it is because the French have resisted the advancing tide of change more persuasively, but the older, lower-rise buildings are much more noticeable here.
Even though the prominence of La Defence is unquestionable, it is still the iconic structures of The Eiffel Tower and The Arc de Triomphe that catch the eye. It's a view which instantly leaves you in no doubt where you are flying over - one of the great cities of the world.
I may be somewhat biased, but I'm absolutely sure which of these three capital cities has the edge when viewed from above. London's skyline is a cut above the rest. On a clear day, flying into Heathrow, right over the centre of town, you get a real sense of the pulsating vibrancy of the metropolis.
It's not only a vast city - its size alone is astonishing when you try to take it in from the air - with more clearly discernable historic landmarks than either Madrid or even Paris - but I think that the innovative new buildings, many of which have been criticized in some quarters for ruining London's skyline, have done precisely the opposite.
The striking proportions of The Shard, set against the refined majesty of St Pauls Cathedral and Tower Bridge, sat beside the power and elevation of The City and Canary Warf skyscrapers, with the playfulness of the London Eye, to name just a few interesting contrasts, make for a truly original and remarkable panorama.
So, whilst you're looking down from above, you may get a sense of Madrid's growing confidence and modernity, Paris's rich history and proud resistance to the over-zealous influence of change, but when flying over London you see a city which has managed to incorporate both the old and the new.
London's skyline has been transformed in the last twenty years or so, and although some of the buildings may not be to everyone's taste, it's a city which has something for everyone. From up in the air it looks every inch a global city for the 21st century, a place where 300 different languages are spoken and over 8.5 million people live and work.
The architecture tells its own story of a city packed with excitement, opportunity and diversity, as well as a fair dose of congestion and commotion. Either way I, for one, am always very happy to be back.Suggest a correction