Exploring London's St Paul's Cathedral: A Visitor's Guide
St Paul's Cathedral, seat of the Bishop of London and "parish church of the British Commonwealth", is the largest and most famous of London's many churches. Located on the site of a Roman temple, the present structure was built after the original church was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, the resulting masterpiece is today one of Britain's most recognizable landmarks. Wren's version of St Paul's was begun in 1675 and completed in 1711, approved only after long wrangling with the church commissioners who turned down his first two designs. The result was a compromise between Wren's original idea of a dome and the commissioners' preference for a plan in the form of a cross.
As finally built, however, St Paul's is Wren's masterpiece and a Renaissance church of spectacular dimensions: 515 ft long and 227 ft wide across the transepts, with two 212 ft high towers and a magnificent 365 ft dome. Since the repair of damage suffered by the cathedral during WWII and the cleaning of the facade to remove 250 years of accumulated grime, St Paul's has been restored to its original majestic beauty.
Room for Great Views: The Magnificent Cathedral Dome
No visit to St Paul's would be complete without scaling the interior of the Dome. All told, you'll face 528 steps to the top - a height of nearly 365 ft. One of the largest such structures in the world, St Paul's dome weighs almost 65,000 tons and consists of a unique three-dome structure including a decorated interior dome, a middle dome built of brick (and largely unseen) for strength and support, and the exterior dome. Stunning 360-degree views are available from the exterior platforms accessible from both the Stone Gallery and Golden Gallery.
Quiet, Please: The Whispering Gallery
There are 259 steps leading up to the spectacular Whispering Gallery which runs round the dome at a height of 100 ft. So-called because of its remarkable acoustic properties, it's possible to hear a whisper from across the dome's total width of 112 ft. From here visitors can see Thornhill's paintings up close and gain a breathtaking impression of the size and proportions of the Nave far below. From the Whispering Gallery a further 117 steps lead up to the Stone Gallery round the outside of the dome, and a further 166 steps above this is the Golden Gallery.
It's from the Nave - the long main section you walk along after entering the cathedral - that visitors get their first breathtaking glimpse of the interior of the Dome. Both a ceremonial and public space, it's where you'll see the huge Great West Door (it's 30 ft tall), as well as the eight scenes from the life of St Paul painted by Thornhill. In the north aisle stands an imposing monument to the Duke of Wellington, as well as two groups of statues representing valor and cowardice, truth and falsehood.
St Paul's is home to a number of interesting chapels, most of them accessible from the Nave. All Souls' Chapel is a memorial chapel dedicated to Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, while adjoining St Dunstan's Chapel (reserved for private prayer) has a 17th century oak screen and a mosaic by Salviati.
Other chapels of note include one dedicated to St Michael and St George, the Middlesex Chapel, and the American Memorial Chapel commemorating the 28,000 Americans killed while travelling to (or stationed in) Britain during WWII. Two others are located in the Crypt: the Knights Bachelor Chapel and the OBE Chapel.
The Quire (Choir)
In addition to its choir stalls by Grinling Gibbons - of particular interest due to their fine oblong panels with carved foliage ornaments in pear wood - the choir boasts a magnificent high altar built based on sketches by Wren. In the south choir aisle are the Lady Chapel and a statue of poet John Donne, the only monument from Old St Paul's to survive the Great Fire.
The vast crypt contains the tombs of many notable figures, including the painters Constable, Turner and Reynolds. Under the south aisle lies the simple tombstone of Sir Christopher Wren, as well as the tombs of two of England's greatest heroes, the Duke of Wellington and Lord Nelson (the latter's coffin was made from the mast of the French flagship L'Orient).
Oculus: An Eye into St Paul's
A must-see while visiting St Paul's is Oculus, a fascinating 270-degree film experience outlining the cathedral's 1,400 years of history. Also on show in the theater in the crypt are Resurgam: I Will Rise Again, a short film showing the devastation caused by the Great Fire and the Blitz; Virtual Access: The Dome, a short film featuring the cathedral's magnificent domes; and Virtual Access: The Great Model, a birds-eye view of Wren's famous model of St Paul's.
Exterior features of interest include the 180 ft long West Front with its main entrance and columned portico surmounted by an upper colonnade, as well as the statue of St Paul above the pediment and the two flanking statues of Saints James and Peter. On either side of the portico are two Baroque towers - the West Towers - one of which houses a peal of 12 bells, the other the largest bell in England, Great Paul, which weighs almost 17 tons and was cast in 1882. The bells are rung together on Sundays at 9:45-10:15am, 11-11:30am, and 2:40-3:15pm.
The Cathedral Collections
The Cathedral Library houses St Paul's superb collection of more than 21,000 books and manuscripts dating from 1690. As it's name suggests, the Object Collection contains numerous artifacts associated with the history of St Paul's and includes models, paintings and archaeological findings, while the Architectural Archive contains papers and drawings charting the building's design and construction.
Touring St Paul's Cathedral
Admission to St Paul's includes use of excellent hi-res, touch-screen guides that feature film footage, images, interviews and commentary relating to the cathedral. A version is also available for families that includes quizzes and fun interactive games. Guided tours are also available and are included in the price of admission, and provide access to areas usually closed to the public.
Tips and Tactics: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to St Paul's Cathedral
The following Tips and Tactics will help ensure you get the most out of your visit to historic St Paul's Cathedral:
- Shopping: The Shop at St Paul's offers a selection of gifts, souvenirs and books (an online shop is also available).
- Food and Drink: As a place of worship, food is not permitted within the cathedral. However, a number of excellent food options exist, including the Café at St Paul's and the Restaurant at St Paul's, each offering a selection of meals and snacks.
- Worship: Services take place daily and all are welcome. Evensong is always popular and includes either the Cathedral Choir or a visiting choir.
- What's On: Be sure to visit the cathedral calendar prior to your visit to check for any scheduled closures or special events.
Getting To St Paul's Cathedral
- By Underground: St Paul's station (Central Line) is just two minutes walk away. Blackfriars, Mansion House and Cannon Street stations (District and Circle Lines) are also an easy walk.
- By Bus: The following bus routes stop directly outside the cathedral: 4, 11, 15, 23, 25, 26, 100 and 242.
- By Train: The nearest railway stations are London Bridge (20 minutes walk), Cannon Street (8 minutes) and Blackfriars (5 minutes). For travel times and tickets, visit www.nationalrail.co.uk.
- By Bicycle: Free bike parking is available onsite.
- By Road: Don't do it - take public transport instead. If travelling into London from outside the city, park and take a train.
- Parking: No on-site parking is available, and street parking is very limited.
- Sightseeing: Mon-Sat, 8:30am-4pm
- Worship Services: Sun
- Adults, £16; Children (6-17), £7; Families, £39
- Save by booking tickets online
- St. Paul's Churchyard, London
If you're wondering what tourist sites there are to visit around St Paul's Cathedral, all you need do is visit the viewing platforms surrounding the Dome and take a look about you. From here you'll see many famous London sightseeing landmarks, including the Shard, the London Eye, Buckingham Palace and Tower Bridge, each of which is a relatively easy walk. The Tower of London attraction is also close by, as are the shopping areas of Covent Garden and Oxford Street.