You’d be hard pressed for time to cram in every architectural wonder in London – it’s so full of beautiful buildings and structures. Still, you can get started with some of the most well-known (and some that aren’t), and tick them off your list, so you’ll know what to do when you visit next.
St Paul’s Cathedral
St Paul’s Cathedral has stood at Ludgate Hill – the city’s highest point – for over 1,400 years. As natural and manmade calamities have ravaged the site, the structures have been destroyed and reconstructed many times. The current St Paul’s Cathedral, designed by Britain’s most famous architect, Christopher Wren, is perhaps the fourth to grace the site. The giant dome towers over Ludgate Hill, still managing to outshine the numerous skyscrapers that have sprung up over the last century.
You can climb up to the dome to marvel at the clever acoustics of the place, and go even higher up to the Golden Galleries, where you can enjoy beautiful, panoramic views of London.
Some say Westminster Abbey is one of the finest examples of early English Gothic architecture, but a keen observer will notice that it is a mixture of architectural styles. The reason behind this is the inconsistent building and rebuilding of parts of the structure over many centuries. What began in the 11th century under the aegis of King and later, Saint Edward the Confessor – who is buried behind the chapel – was finally completed in 1519, resulting in a delicious mish-mash of styles.
The abbey is significant for another reason: there are a number of personalities buried here. This is the resting place of legends like Chaucer, Dickens, Hardy, Tennyson, Dr Johnson and Kipling as well as Charles Darwin and Sir Isaac Newton. While there, check out the Chapter House, Pyx Chamber and the neighbouring Abbey Museum.
If your friends or family have visited London before and brought you back a souvenir, chances are there’s a Tower Bridge magnet stuck on your fridge. One of the city’s most iconic structures, this bridge was built in 1894, when London was a thriving port city. The drawbridge allows ships to pass through, although it now runs on electricity as opposed to the original steam engines. You can get a closer look at the bridge by taking a lift up the northern tower to the Tower Bridge Exhibition, where you will learn about the history of the structure. Hold on to that ticket, though, because it will also allow you entry into the engine rooms.
Eliza Doolittle’s “Bucknam Pellis” is every bit as grand as it was when Shaw wrote Pygmalion 101 years ago. This magnificent building has served as the official residence of London’s sovereigns since 1837, ever since Queen Victoria decided it would make a lovely home. Today, it functions as the administrative headquarters of the monarch, and is used for many official events and receptions. The palace has 775 rooms, including 19 state rooms, 52 royal and guest bedrooms, 188 staff bedrooms, 92 offices and 78 bathrooms, of which the state rooms are open to visitors three months in a year.
Every day at 11.30am, between May and July, and every alternate day for the rest of the year, you can watch the famed Changing of the Guards ceremony when the old guard (foot guards of the household regiment) goes off duty to be replaced by the new. The show lasts about half an hour, and, if you reach early, you can hear the band practise – they’ve even been known to play the Austin Powers movie series’ theme song.
When British architect Inigo Jones travelled to Italy and saw the buildings of yore, he was so inspired that he decided to recreate a piece of ancient Rome back home. Thus was born Banqueting House, one of the first examples of Palladianism applied to an English building.
This Neo-classical building brought about a revolution in British architecture, and was intended to host masques, entertainments and receptions. The ceiling was later painted by Peter Paul Rubens and installed in the main hall.
Hampton Court Palace
The cross-between-Tudor-and-restrained-Baroque-styled Hampton Court Palace is a delightfully higgledy-piggledy former palace. It was built by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in 1514, but that rascal Henry VIII wrested it from him just before the cardinal fell from favour. Christopher Wren, that fantastic architect, built the extension in the 17th century, causing the aforementioned style mash up. You can take a tour around the palace with a costumed historian (always a delight) or you can zip through by visiting the main points of interest by yourself, namely Henry VIII’s state apartments, Tudor kitchens and the Wolsey rooms. If you happen to get lost in the 300-year-old maze, cancel your plans for the rest of the day – it could take you a while to get out.
You’ll know why it’s called what it’s called when you see it, and you’ll also be grateful that it’s not been named after the other thing it looks like. The Gherkin, known officially and more prosaically as 30, St Mary Axe, is London’s most distinctive skyscraper. Though local opinion about the building is varied (some despise the ‘modernity’ of it), there’s no denying it’s eye-catching and worth a look, even if just from the outside. Built to the design of Norman Foster, this eco-friendly building has ‘sky gardens’ within it, which recycle stale air, and it uses low-energy lighting and minimal air conditioning. You’ll have to be content with seeing this one from the outside, though, because public access is restricted.
Take a break from all that architecture and treat yourself to a performance. The Scoop at More London is an outdoor sunken amphitheatre that seats about 800 people. In the summer, there are a variety of free events including films, music and theatre and even local community events and activities to be enjoyed. It’s open to all, so grab a friend and make a beeline for it.
You might imagine that the city hall in a place like London would be a stately, imposing historic structure, all gilding and brick. What you would definitely not imagine is a glass snail-shell, twinkling in the sunlight. But then again, the name is misleading. City Hall is neither located in nor does it serve a city. It is, in fact, the headquarters of the Greater London Authority (GLA) and home to the Mayor of London. Free exhibitions relating to the city are held here periodically. It is located next to the similarly spiral Scoop amphitheatre, and its odd shape has been variously compared to an onion, a misshapen egg, a motorcycle helmet, a gonad, a woodlouse, and, best of all, Darth Vader’s helmet.