St. Paul’s Cathedral looks down on London from the highest point in the city. Not only does its familiar dome dominate the skyline, but also the cathedral itself carries so much history of London. This august cathedral has witnessed royal weddings, funerals of the famous, fires and destruction, wartime bombs, and the birth of new worldly ideas.
A visit to this stately cathedral is one of the top pleasures of London. Whether you are a fan of architecture, a student of history, a follower of the British royal family, or simply someone who seeks out the best views of a city, St. Paul’s should be on your itinerary.
Here is what you will want to know before you visit, including the cathedral background, events that have taken place here, and the areas of the cathedral you won’t want to miss.
How Old Is St. Paul’s Cathedral?
A cathedral dedicated to St. Paul of the New Testament has occupied this site for 1,400 years. The Catholic church built in 1087 survived for about 600 years. This was the third of the churches on this hill and was known for its medieval splendor. It fell into disrepair when King Henry VIII broke with the Catholic church during the English Reformation. The Great Fire of London in 1666 caused further damage, making a complete overhaul necessary.
The present cathedral, built between 1675 and 1710, was designed by Britain's most famous architect, Sir Christopher Wren. Services in today’s cathedral first took place in 1697 and are still held regularly.
Relish This Superb Example Of Architecture
The cathedral is designed in the English Baroque style favored and made popular by Christopher Wren. Elements of classicism are combined with continental baroque style to result in cleaner lines. Construction fell under the program to rebuild the city after the Great Fire of London. Wren worked on 53 churches, and St. Paul’s Cathedral is his masterpiece. This cathedral can compare favorably with well-known domed churches in France and Italy.
What Famous Events Have Taken Place Here?
Millions watched the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer at St. Paul’s Cathedral on July 29, 1981. The cathedral’s magnificence proved a suitable venue for this world-famous ceremony.
Another major event held at St. Paul’s was the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill. During World War II, Prime Minister Churchill was well aware of the place the cathedral holds in the hearts of the British. He declared during the Blitz: “St. Paul’s must be saved at all costs.” Rescued from fires and repaired after bombings, St. Paul’s is forever associated with British resilience. It was fitting to have the service honoring Churchill in this place.
You can see the bronze memorial plaque commemorating Churchill inside the cathedral. It marks the spot where his coffin rested during the state funeral on January 30, 1965. His service was attended by Queen Elizabeth and dignitaries from around the world.
What To See When You Enter The Cathedral
At the entrance to the cathedral at the west end of the nave are the Great West Doors, which stand 30 feet tall and are used for special services and the arrival of visitors such as HM The Queen and the Lord Mayor of London.
St. Paul’s offers many areas you can explore once you are inside. The ground floor is wide and open, with a central aisle called the nave running down the middle. Take a seat and remain quiet and respectful as you soak up the elegant atmosphere.
As the nave reaches toward the High Altar, a Grand Organ stands. Installed in 1695, the organ has 7,189 pipes, five keyboards, and 138 organ stops.
The High Altar is made of marble and oak. Note the canopy, which is based on a sketch made by Wren but not built until 1958. The older altar suffered damage during a WWII bomb strike, so Wren’s design was finally used.
Visit The American Memorial Chapel And Book Of Names
Somewhat hidden behind the High Altar is the American Memorial Chapel, a lovely part of the cathedral built after this section’s destruction during the Blitz. The people of Britain opted to use this space to commemorate the Americans stationed in the UK during World War II. Notice the images decorating the wood, metal, and stained glass. These include flora and fauna of North America.
Most striking in this memorial based on the friendship of the British and Americans is the oversize leather-bound book open on a stand. The 500 pages of the book list the roll of honor: The 28,000 Americans who gave their lives during the war. The book opens with this statement: “Defending freedom from the fierce assault of tyranny they shared the honor and the sacrifice. Though they died before the dawn of victory, their names and deed will long be remembered wherever free men live.”
Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force and later president of the U.S., visited this memorial. He spoke these words: “Fittingly, this roll of honor has been enshrined by the Mother Country of all English-speaking democracies in this special chapel of St. Paul’s, once a target of barbaric attack.”
Pro Tip: This area is not visible from the main floor or nave. A priest heard us speaking with our American accent and invited us behind the altar to this small chapel. He was already ushering another American there. The priest helped him find his family member’s name in the heavy leather book. It was quite an emotional experience. If you are from the U.S., be sure to go on your own to seek out this moving tribute that I almost missed.
Climb The Dome And Take In The View
St. Paul’s Cathedral dome is one of the most recognizable sights of London. And you can wind your way up the stairs, stopping at a couple of viewpoints (also known as resting stops) to end up high above the streets below.
At 365 feet high, the dome made the cathedral the tallest building in London from 1710 to 1963. It’s just 528 steps to the Golden Gallery, the highest point inside, where you can enjoy panoramic views of London. Those iconic red buses look like tiny toys from up here.
The first stop on the way up, after 257 steps, is the well-known Whispering Gallery. It gets its name from the amazing feature that allows a whisper on one side of the round gallery to be heard on the opposite side.
You can then continue climbing and stop at the Stone Gallery, which is 376 steps from the ground floor. After catching your breath, continue to the Golden Gallery and your reward of wonderful views.
Pro Tip: Wear sturdy walking shoes when you visit St. Paul’s. I wore flats that kept falling off as I climbed the steep stone stairs. Now I know better.
Discover The Crypt
In the underground of the cathedral, the crypt is the final resting place for some well-known English people, including Sir Christopher Wren, who designed St. Paul’s. His tomb at the east end of the crypt is marked with a simple stone, and his epitaph says, “Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.”
Also buried here is Lord Nelson, killed at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. His black marble sarcophagus was first made for Cardinal Wolsey, Lord Chancellor, during Henry VIII’s reign. He fell out of favor, and the sarcophagus sat unused until hero Nelson’s death.
The crypt also contains many tombs and memorials of artists, scientists, and musicians. These include painter Sir Joshua Reynolds and scientist Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin.
Marvel At The Monuments
St. Paul’s is home to about 300 monuments. These can be found in the aisles, the nave, and the crypt.
Many are memorials to military figures in English history. You can also find memorials to honor civilians. The memorial of Randolph Caldecott in the crypt honors the British artist who inspired the literary Caldecott Medal. The memorial carries this inscription: “An artist whose sweet and dainty grace has not been in its kind surpassed: whose humor was as quaint as it was inexhaustible.”
Wander Around The Gardens And Courtyard
In the garden, you will immediately notice a tall column mounted with a gilded statue of St. Paul. This serves to honor the public preaching of the Christian faith here.
At the west entrance to the cathedral, a triangle-shaped relief shows St. Paul’s conversion to the Christian faith. Above that stand St. Paul and other apostles and evangelists.
Also in front of the cathedral is a statue of Queen Anne, who ruled at the time of the cathedral’s completion.
How To Plan Your Visit
St. Paul’s Cathedral is open daily. Four or five services are held every day. You can visit during these times. Just remember to be quiet and respectful. You can check for organ recitals and other programs you may want to attend during your time in London.
Your entrance ticket includes a 20-minute talk that will introduce you to the cathedral’s history and architecture. Guided tours in English show you some areas not usually open to tourists. These 90-minute tours are also free of charge.
To reach St. Paul’s, you can take the underground to the St. Paul station and walk 130 yards to the cathedral.
One of the best-known photos of London in World War II shows St. Paul’s Cathedral dome wreathed in smoke. A direct bomb hit set the church on fire. Churchill himself telephoned the firefighters to say that the church must not fall or the country’s morale would be sapped. And through heroic efforts, St. Paul’s survived. The dome and the cathedral symbolize strength. When you tour, you will be walking in the footsteps of so many, the famous and the everyday people, and you’ll long remember your time in this imposing cathedral.