History comes to life at St Paul’s Cathedral.
When you cast your eyes over the London skyline, there’s plenty of iconic sights that catch your eye. Think Big Ben, The Shard, the Wembley Arch, and you’ll have landmarks that have graced the skies of London for years now. Those, however, are mere striplings when compared to St Paul’s Cathedral, whose outline has been framed against sunsets and sunrises for over three hundred years. The cathedral holds a treasured place in British history, and regularly enchants visitors with a heady mix of history, architectural flair, and winning views over the city. Our nifty guide will help you make the most of your visit to St Paul’s Cathedral.
St Paul’s Cathedral overview
Famously, the current St Paul’s Cathedral isn’t the original one – the fearsome inferno we know as the Great Fire of London put paid to that – but did you know it’s actually the fifth version? A cathedral dedicated to St Paul has stood upon the highest point of the old Roman city of Londinium, which roughly corresponds to the modern day City of London, for over 1400 years.
The first one is thought to have been a wooden church built in 604 by Mellitus, Bishop of the East Saxons. In a pretty awkward harbinger of what was to come, it promptly burned down in 675 – and the second (torn down by the Vikings in 962) and third (burned(!) down in 1087) didn’t fare much better either. For over four hundred years, it looked like the Normans had solved it with St Paul’s Cathedral IV, which was the longest and tallest Christian church in the world from its completion in 1240 until meeting its fiery end in 1666, along with most of the City of London.
The current St Paul’s Cathedral is, famously, the work of architect Sir Christopher Wren, who’d cut his teeth redesigning churches in the City of London after the Great Fire. Though it was consecrated in 1697, the building wasn’t declared complete until 1711, and even then work continued, with Sir James Thornhill (who’s also responsible for the breathtaking Painted Hall) dangling fifty metres above the floor to paint the interior of the dome.
Despite the somewhat iffy survival rates of its predecessors, the cathedral weathered the Blitz with only moderate damage – further cementing its place as a symbol of both London and Britain. It’s played host to Jubilee celebrations, the funerals of Horatio Nelson, Winston Churchill, and Margaret Thatcher, the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, and even a sermon from Martin Luther King. Now can your Shard do that?
Though it’s primarily a place of prayer and worship, St Paul’s Cathedral unsurprisingly draws the tourists in their droves. There’s plenty to see within these historic walls, but if you plan on paying a visit, do remember to be respectful of worshippers, and the cathedral as a whole. For instance, photography for personal use must be “respectful [and] non-flash”, and strictly limited to sightseeing hours.
Things to see at St Paul’s Cathedral
Upon entering St Paul’s Cathedral, the first sight to greet you will be the nave, the huge central aisle which leads towards the famed dome. Over to the west of the cathedral, you’ll catch a glimpse of the Great West Doors, which the Queen uses when she drops by on special occasions. Elsewhere at ground level, you’ll find monuments to both the Duke of Wellington and Admiral Nelson, The Grand Organ, which was installed in 1695, and a marble effigy of John Donne. A former dean of St Paul’s Cathedral – in addition to a stellar literary career – the monument to Donne is once of the few artefacts to have survived the Great Fire, and you can still see the scorch marks around the base.
For a better view of the cathedral, you simply must make your way up into the dome, which hides myriad delights. Up a mildly taxing 257 steps, you’ll find the Whispering Galleries (which, sadly, are currently closed until December 2019). Stretching around the interior of the dome, they are famed for a fun architectural quirk – if you whisper across the gallery to someone standing opposite you, they’ll hear it as clearly as you were standing right next to them!
Further up in the dome, you’ll get your first chance to head outside when you arrive at The Stone Gallery. At 376 steps and 52 metres above the ground, you may be a little out of puff by the time you arrive here, but the views are certainly worth it! Those with a head for heights can continue up to The Golden Gallery (528 steps, 85 metres up), where sweeping panoramas of the city unfold before you; The Shard, Tate Modern, and Millennium Bridge are all easily visible from up here.
At the other end of the spectrum, you can also have a poke around the crypts of St Paul’s Cathedral, in which you’ll find the tombs of Wellington, Nelson, and Sir Christopher Wren. Fittingly, Wren is buried in a simple tomb inscribed with the words “if you seek his monument, look around you”. Meanwhile, a modern addition to the crypts is Oculus, a mesmerising film experience that tells the history of St Paul’s Cathedral from 604 to present day.
Of course, there’s plenty to see around the exterior of the building, which is winningly ornate. For instance, the West Front of the building depicts scenes from the life of St Paul, including his conversion to Christianity. Curiously, the two western towers – one of which holds Great Paul, the largest bell ever cast in the UK – are topped with a pineapple, which is reportedly a symbol of peace, prosperity, and hospitality. Isn’t that nice?
When to visit St Paul’s Cathedral
If you’re hoping to wander round, the only day to avoid St Paul’s Cathedral is Sunday, when the cathedral is open to worshippers only. Aside from that, there’s really no bad time to visit – Christmas, with carol services and warm welcomes, is an obvious winner, but can get exceedingly busy. One off events, such as a recent William Blake-inspired light display that was projected onto the building, are worth keeping an eye on too.
As wonderful as it is inside, one of the greatest joys of a visit to St Paul’s Cathedral is finding that perfect shot of the exterior. A longstanding law establishing viewing corridors of St Paul’s Cathedral – laws that prevent any construction that might impede views of the cathedral – has led to some wonderful, ‘gram-friendly spots. Instagram giants and wannabes alike all make a pilgrimage to the One New Change shopping centre, for a dramatic shot of St Paul’s Cathedral mirrored between glass-fronted buildings.
Elsewhere, crouching among the flowerbeds in springtime can yield some gorgeous shots of the exterior, whether that be flowers in bloom or blossom emerging from the boughs.
However, all views of St Paul’s Cathedral bow down to one – the infamous roof terrace of One New Change shopping centre.
It’s home to a rather nice restaurant – more on that in a second – but you don’t have to dine here to catch the views, for a public lift can whizz you up here for a wander on the spacious terrace. With the cathedral a mere stone’s throw away (please don’t do this though!) a plethora of dramatic skyline shots have been birthed here.
Restaurants, pubs, and bars near St Paul’s Cathedral
Plenty of eating options surround St Paul’s Cathedral, but as promised, one stands head and shoulders above the rest – namely, because it sits on the One New Change roof. Madison Restaurant & Bar wins plaudits for their Josper-grilled main dishes and their riffs on contemporary cocktails, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to have the beautifully lit cathedral dome as the backdrop to your dinner.
Fans of quality steak and reality TV shows should make a beeline for the Paternoster Chop House, better known as the First Dates restaurant. Because honestly, what better way to bond with a new beau than over roast dinners and bottomless red wine? Elsewhere around the neighbourhood, the Gordon Ramsay-owned Bread Street Kitchen offers up modern European fare and a futuristic space capsule, The Fat Bear caters for homesick Americans with Southern-style comfort cooking, and Burger & Lobster serves up… well, you can probably guess.
St Paul’s Cathedral does many things, but cocktails ain’t one of them, so if you’re thirsting for a drink, you’ll need to head elsewhere. The local branch of Dirty Martini can mix you up no-frills cocktails, or there’s Beas of Bloomsbury for endless cups of tea. Aptly-named spot The Saint overlooks St Paul’s, serving wines by the glass, and if you fancy pints in characterful places, historic pub Ye Olde Watling lies just around the corner.
St Paul’s Cathedral visitor information
Fancy a pilgrimage to St Paul’s Cathedral? We’ve got all the information you need to plan your visit. 👇
Please note: bags larger than airline hand luggage (56cm x 45cm x 25cm) won’t be allowed in, and there’s no cloakroom to store them in – so if you’re bringing a bag, keep it small!
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Featured image: @london.little.magic
Also published on Medium.