Craig recommends… Here’s my latest St. Paul’s Cathedral review. If you enjoy visiting the cathedral then how about attending an Evensong choral service? Other big churches in London include Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral. Brompton Oratory and Southwark Cathedral are also worth a look. Check out our list of churches in London for some more ideas.
St. Paul’s Cathedral is No.3 in our list of London’s best landmarks, No.9 in our list of London’s most popular attractions, and No.8 in our list of London’s best photos. Their Evensong service made it to No.5 in our list of the best free events in London.
The St. Paul’s Cathedral that we see today is actually the fifth religious building on the site.
The first church burnt down in 675 AD, and the second was sacked by the Vikings in 962 AD and replaced by another in stone. The fourth church was begun by William the Conqueror and suffered fire damage in 1087 and 1136. It was finally finished two hundred years later, only to burn down again during the Great Fire of London.
The task of rebuilding the cathedral was given to Christopher Wren. The English architect began building it in 1675 and finished it in 1708. The resulting masterpiece boasts the second largest dome in Europe (after St. Peter’s in Rome) and is the only domed cathedral in the whole of England.
If you walk directly under the central dome then you can read Sir Christopher Wren’s epitaph on the floor: “Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice”, which translates as: “Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.”
You start your St. Paul’s Cathedral tour with a view of long processional nave . This is where Princess Diana walked in her long flowing train when she married Prince Charles in 1981.
To the left is All Souls’ Chapel, St. Dunstan’s Chapel  and the entrance to the bell tower . Don’t miss the Duke of Wellington’s monument on the left (his actual tomb is next to Admiral Nelson’s in the crypt). Over to the right is the chapel of St. Michael and St. George .
The woodwork around the altar was carved by Grinling Gibbons , and the iron gates were made by Jean Tijou. You’ll also find a 20th-century statue by Henry Moore.
The canopy over the altar is a copy of the cover in St. Peter’s in Rome, but only dates from 1958 (the original was damaged during the Blitz in World War II).
Another damaged artefact worth seeking out is a small burnt effigy of the poet John Donne – one of the few pieces to survive the Great Fire of London in 1666. John Donne was famous for his immortal lines: “No man is an island,” and “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”
No tour of St. Paul’s would be complete without climbing up the stairs to the cathedral’s domes, all of which are open to the public (assuming that you don’t mind the heights, of course).
If you look directly up from the centre of the cathedral then you can see the famous Whispering Gallery. If you want to enjoy the interior views then be prepared to climb a hefty 257 steps. Due to a bizarre acoustic effect everything said on one side of the gallery can be easily understood on the other – even if you whisper.
‘Big Tom’ is the name of the clock face on the right-hand tower. Whilst nowhere near as impressive as Big Ben at the Houses of Parliament, its minute-hand is still taller than a human being. But Great Paul, on the other hand – the 17-tonne bell that rings out at 1 o’clock every day – is actually larger than the one at Westminster.
St. Paul’s Cathedral houses the largest crypt in Europe, containing over 300 memorials to the great and good. The most notable are Lord Nelson, the Duke of Wellington and Sir Christopher Wren himself, who has a rather modest little tomb at the end. There are also memorials to Florence Nightingale and Lord Kitchener.
This review originally appeared in his London blog
I went to St. Paul’s Cathedral today and climbed all the way to the top (nearly), and i’m bloody knackered now – they need to get a lift installed for lazy people like me. They should get Christopher Wren back to design a lift.
I did the whole audio guide thing just to make sure I got all the history but I ended up skipping most of it. The one at Westminster Abbey was too short but at least it was interesting. But this one had too much about religion and not enough about the bricks. It was like they were trying to convert you through the headphones. Westminster Abbey had stuff by Jeremy Irons, but this was full of big long passages by the priests, emploring you to sit down for a minute and revel in the glory of God.
The interior is a lot more impressive than the one at Westminster Abbey… but in a funny way it’s not. The St. Paul’s Cathedral architecture is very airy, open and white. There’s lots and lots of room in the Cathedral, whereas the Abbey is crammed to the brim with every kind of memorial imaginable, almost brushing your nose as you walk past. But when you look up at the ceiling there is no contest because St. Paul’s is plastered with golden mosaics everywhere you look, all the way down the nave. And the dome goes almost up to the sky with paintings all around. Westminster Abbey is just stone. I sat in the seats underneath, until I had neckache from bending it.
They’ve got a few chapels dotted around but none as impressive as the Abbey’s. This place is all about peace and quiet and prayer time for the locals. They don’t even let you take any flash photos in case it upsets the devoted. Presumably they don’t mind the three thousand tourists walking around listening to their audio guides.
Once you’ve plucked up the courage you can head for the stairs and the half-hour traipse to the top of the dome. Everyone always asks how many steps there are in St. Paul’s Cathedral; well, let me tell you: for the first level up to the Whispering Gallery it’s a mere 257 steps – which even I could do. The steps are very wide, and wood, and easy peasy. Once you get to the top you can look down onto the floor far below. You’re supposed to be able to whisper to the wall and hear it clearly round the other side, but seeing as I was on my own and both of my ears were stuck to my head, I couldn’t test that out. But you’d be hard pressed to hear it above the three hundred other people doing it anyway. You couldn’t even hear a whisper if they said it two feet from your face.
After that you’ve got to climb another 119 steps to the Stone Gallery. These ones are of the narrow little windy type, and I was pretty happy to get to the top. You come outside at the very bottom of the dome and get some decent views across London.
If you’re fitter than Sebastian Coe and have got balls of steel then you can climb another 150 steps to the Golden Gallery. This one takes you to the very top of the dome, with even better views of the city. But unfortunately there’s no stone tunnel to climb. No wide wooden steps either. What you have to do is climb a twisty old rickety iron thing that goes straight up vertically, with fabulous views of the floor far, far below where you can plummet to your death. The steps are see-through too, which just makes it even worse.
I reckon Christopher Wren must have been having a joke when he built those, because even Edmund Hilary would baulk at climbing up that death trap.
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If you enjoy this then try: Brompton Oratory (catch the tube from St Pauls to South Kensington); Westminster Abbey (catch the tube from St Pauls to Westminster) and Westminster Cathedral (catch the tube from St Pauls to Victoria).