I know what you’re thinking. How is it possible she moved away from the UK two years ago, lived in another country, and then moved back home, yet she’s still sharing stuff from the UK? I hear you. It’s about time I wrapped up this segment of my life, so for the rest of this month I’ll be publishing my final posts from London and thereabouts, starting with Westminster Abbey.
If you’re planning a trip to London and hope to visit this famous holy place while you’re there, then keep reading because I’ve got all sorts of helpful tips for visiting Westminster Abbey below!
History of Westminster Abbey
Originally a small Benedictine monastery built in 960, and later a Norman abbey rebuilt and enlarged by King Edward (aka St Edward the Confessor) in 1065, we have King Henry III to thank for Westminster Abbey in its current state which has been gracing the London landscape with its iconic Gothic towers since the mid-13th century.
With a timeline spanning over ten centuries, I won’t bore you to death with a complete history of the church, but Westminster Abbey has certainly played a key role within both the religious arena and that of the British monarchy over the years.
Some of the major highlights:
- Every king and queen’s coronation has been held at Westminster Abbey since 1066.
- Sixteen royal couples have tied the knot here, including Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, and Britain’s sweethearts, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
- In addition to royal weddings, the church has been the venue for many state funerals (royalty) and funeral ceremonies for other highly distinguished people. Princess Diana’s widely televised funeral was held here in 1997.
- Westminster Abbey is the final resting place of several British monarchs, including both kings responsible for building the church, as well as hundreds of other noteworthy figures in Britain’s past.
These days, Westminster Abbey operates as a fully functioning place of worship as well as one of London’s top tourist attractions. Along with St Paul’s Cathedral, it is the most visited church in the UK. (Both receive between 1.5 and 2 million visitors a year.) If you’re visiting the city and trying to decide between the two, the correct answer is you need to visit both. They’re near opposites in terms of architecture, and the history you’ll discover in both will be well worth your time.
Fun Fact: Westminster Abbey gets its name from King Edward’s era. Back then, the church was known as the “west minster” to distinguish it from the “east minster” which was St Paul’s Cathedral. The nickname stuck, and although it’s not the official name of the church, it’s what everyone knows it by today.
Located along the River Thames near the infamous Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, you’re sure to pass Westminster Abbey at some point on your trip, but before you head inside, take a look through the tips below so you’ll be fully prepared for what will surely be a memorable visit.
Things to Know Before Visiting Westminster Abbey
First things first, unlike many other cathedrals and churches in Europe, entrance into Westminster Abbey is not free for tourists. And it’s not cheap either. A single adult ticket will set you back £20 if you buy online, or £22 at the door. The best deal if you’re visiting as a family is the Family Ticket for £40. That covers two adults and one child. Each additional child is another £9. I know it stings a little, but the proceeds do support the church. Just try to think of it as investing in your afterlife. Or, you know, whatever else makes you feel better about parting with your paycheck.
Tip #1 – I suggest buying your tickets online if you can, not only because they’re cheaper, but because it will allow you to skip the ticket queue that forms outside the church, which is particularly long on Saturdays and pretty much anytime during the summer months. If you’re visiting in the summer and don’t fancy the idea of standing outside in the hot sun (or more likely the rain) for an hour, you’re definitely going to want to purchase tickets beforehand.
Tip #2 – If you’re put off by the high prices for entrance tickets into Westminster Abbey, you should give one of the church’s daily services a go. They’re free, and you’ll still get to see the main part of the church, plus experience its incredible acoustics if you visit for Evensong or an organ recital. Service times can be found here.
Included with your ticket into Westminster Abbey is an audio guide (providing information and historical tales) to carry with you as you follow the tourist trail through the church. The audio guide allows you to explore at your own pace, but you’re not allowed off the trail or to turn around if you want to see something again, so take your time and only move on when you’re ready. Bonus: If you choose English on your audio guide, you’ll be wandering through the church accompanied by the sexy voice of Jeremy Irons. Good call, Westminster Abbey, good call.
Tip – If you are like me and have trouble paying attention to audio guides (even when they are narrated by Jeremy Irons), there are daily verger-led tours available for £5/person. The tours last 90 minutes and cover all the main public areas of the church, as well as the Tomb of St Edward the Confessor which is closed off to regular visitors. We didn’t know about these tours prior to our own visit and arrived after the last one of the day had already left, otherwise we would have jumped on the opportunity. More info about guided tours here.
Other Important Info
- Westminster Abbey is closed to tourists on Sundays, so you’ll have to plan your visit one of the other six days of the week unless you’re coming for a service.
- You’ll enter the church via the North Door on the North Green if you’re a tourist, and the Great West Door for services.
- There is no specific dress code, but guys will be asked to remove hats. Generally speaking, everyone we saw within the church (even in June) was fairly covered up, so I’d suggest bringing something to at least cover your shoulders with, just in case.
- No photography is allowed in the main parts of the church. I know, it’s a serious bummer, but you can still take pictures outside, in the cloisters (which are stunning), and in a couple other areas listed below.
- If you’re using the audio guide and never press pause, it’ll take you about an hour to complete a tour of the church. I’d recommend planning for at least two, though. It can get pretty crowded at times, requiring you to pause your guide, and chances are there will be more than a few things you’re going to want to linger over anyway.
Things to See Inside Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey’s soaring ceilings, massive marble columns, and glittering stained glass windows are just as dazzling in person as in photographs, but the architecture of the church’s impressive nave certainly isn’t the only thing worth seeing here.
The Lady Chapel
So beautiful that I couldn’t help but break the rules and grab a quick shot (directly above), Henry VII’s Lady Chapel was my favorite area inside the whole church. Built in the 16th century, the Lady Chapel has the most extraordinary fan-vaulted ceiling I’ve ever seen and features 95 statues of saints set into tiny alcoves around the chapel. Hanging from the ceiling are colorful banners belonging to the Knights of the Order of the Bath. New knights are inducted (knighted?) here in an official ceremony every four years.
Tip – Don’t leave without checking out the misericords! What the heck’s a misericord, you ask? They’re hinged seats that tip up to form a ledge, providing a surface to lean on for those standing for long periods of time. Okay, great, but why check them out? Because of the detailed carvings of funny scenes, mythical beasts, and animals you’ll find on them – some are really cool.
The Coronation Chair
Stolen by Scottish Nationalists, defaced by Westminster schoolboys, and damaged in a Suffragette-organized bomb attack, the Coronation Chair and the Stone of Scone that rests inside it have somehow both survived humanity for over 700 years. The Stone of Scone lives in Edinburgh Castle (except for coronations when it’s brought back to Westminster Abbey), but you’ll still be able to get a glimpse of the Coronation Chair which stands proudly in St George’s Chapel in the nave.
When wealthy monarchs and their consorts die, they don’t go six feed under with a small granite marker punctuating their lives like the rest of us. Oh, no. They are given prime real estate in places like Westminster Abbey, often with elaborate chapels built around them, and their likenesses preserved in the form of gilt bronze effigies.
Westminster Abbey is the eternal home of several impressive royal tombs – fifteen kings and queens are buried in the Lady Chapel alone, and you’ll find many others scattered throughout other chapels in the church. The only ones not open to the public are the five kings who are buried in St Edward the Confessor’s Chapel, but if you hop on a guided tour you’ll be allowed in to see their tombs behind the High Altar.
Tip – Several other non-royal, yet nonetheless significant figures in history are buried here as well. Be on the lookout (i.e., keep your eyes on the floor) for the graves of famous folks such as Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Stephen Hawking, among many others. Your audio guide will alert you when you’re coming up on the big ones, but keep your eyes peeled just in case.
The Unknown Warrior
Another important grave to be on the lookout for – the Unknown Warrior, an unidentified British soldier killed in battle during the First World War, is buried in the nave of Westminster Abbey near the West Door, his memorial stone surrounded in delicate red poppies. Along with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior was the first to symbolically honor unknown soldiers killed at war.
Although it may look like it, I didn’t actually have a stroke while taking the photo above. I just really wanted a shot of my second favorite spot inside Westminster Abbey, so I kept my camera at my waist, nonchalantly clicked the shutter, and hoped for the best. I didn’t get the best, but at least I got some lopsided evidence to show you how cool Poets’ Corner, where over 100 British writers are buried and memorialized, is.
FYI: I promise there is more to see at Westminster Abbey than graves of those who’ve passed on, but they do take up a significant portion of the floor…
Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson are just a handful of the famous poets, playwrights, and authors buried here. William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, the Bronte sisters, and so many others also have memorials in Poets’ Corner, but are buried elsewhere in the UK. (You can pay your respects to William Shakespeare in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon.)
Tip – A full list of Poets’ Corner graves and memorials can be found here.
Just off of Poets’ Corner is Chapter House, a beautiful, octagonal room whose ancient walls are made up of stained glass windows and faded murals depicting scenes from the Book of Revelation. Sporting what they claim to be the oldest door in Britain, Chapter House is where Benedictine monks used to meet to pray and discuss business. Later, it was where Parliament met before moving to the nearby Palace of Westminster.
Tip – If you’re visiting Westminster Abbey on a busy day, Chapter House is a quiet and uncrowded place to escape if you need some air. Also, you are free to take as many pictures as you like in here, so snap away!
Just when you thought Westminster Abbey couldn’t get any prettier, you’ll enter the cloisters. Dating from the 13th to the 15 centuries, the cloisters were where the monks came to meditate, exercise, and socialize. Walking the cloisters’ quiet passageways feels like taking a trip back in time. (Or apparating into Hogwarts!) And as a bonus, photos are allowed here as well as the church’s other outdoor areas – College Garden and Little Cloister Garden.
Tip – The cloisters are open any time the church is open to tourists. The gardens, however, are only open on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.
Other Places to Visit Near Westminster Abbey
After you’ve completed your tour of the church, if you’re looking for ways to stay occupied the rest of the day, here are a few spots to check out nearby.
- Not so much near it as in it, the recently opened Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries are something else you might want to check out at Westminster Abbey. Requiring a separate £5 ticket, the galleries showcase 300 of the church’s greatest treasures and offer a unique view of the nave and abbey floor below.
- If you’ve got the time as you’re leaving Westminster Abbey, pop into the adjacent St Margaret’s Church before you go. It’s a modest building, especially in comparison to its big sister, but it’s got an interesting history and is part of the UNESCO site here.
- Wander through Parliament Square a few steps from the church and say hello to Winston Churchill and eleven other statues of statesmen and important figures.
- Cross the river and take a walk along the South Bank. Sure, it’s touristy, and if it’s summertime, it’s going to be packed, but you’ll have a fabulous view of some of London’s greatest historic sites, including the towers of Westminster Abbey, from across the water.
- Or, to keep the royalty theme of the day going, take a walk over to Buckingham Palace, passing St James’s Park along the way, and watch the Changing of the Guard.
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