Image by Photographer:Phill Beale Phill Beale
Towering over diminutive Ludgate Hill in a superb position that's been a place of Christian worship for over 1400 years (and pagan before that), St Paul’s is one of London’s most magnificent buildings. For Londoners, the vast dome is a symbol of resilience and pride, standing tall for more than 300 years. Viewing Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece from the inside and climbing to the top for sweeping views of the capital is an exhilarating experience.
The cathedral was designed by Wren after the Great Fire and built between 1675 and 1710; it opened the following year. The site is ancient hallowed ground, with four other cathedrals preceding Wren's English baroque masterpiece here, the first dating from 604.
The world's second-largest cathedral dome is famed for surviving Luftwaffe incendiary bombs in the 'Second Great Fire of London' of December 1940, becoming an icon of London resilience during the Blitz. Outside in the churchyard, north of the church, is a simple and elegant monument to the people of London, honouring the 32,000 Londoners killed.
Inside, rising 68m above the floor, is the dome, supported by eight huge columns. It actually consists of three parts: a plastered brick inner dome, a nonstructural lead outer dome visible on the skyline and a brick cone between them holding it all together. The walkway around its base, accessed via 257 steps from a staircase on the western side of the southern transept, is called the Whispering Gallery, because if you talk close to the wall, your words will carry to the opposite side, 32m away. A further 119 steps brings you to the exterior Stone Gallery, 152 iron steps above which is the Golden Gallery at the very top, with unforgettable views of London.
The crypt has memorials to around 300 of the great and the good, including Wellington and Nelson, whose body lies directly below the dome. But the most poignant is to Wren himself. On a simple slab bearing his name, part of a Latin inscription translates as: 'If you seek his memorial, look around you'.
As part of its 300th anniversary celebrations in 2011, St Paul's underwent a £40 million renovation project that gave the church a deep clean. It's not looked this good since they cut the blue ribbon opening the cathedral in 1711.
There's no charge to attend a service. To hear the cathedral choir, attend the 11.30am Sunday Eucharist or Evensong (5pm Monday to Saturday and 3.15pm Sunday), but check the website as a visiting choir may appear for the latter.
Otherwise, the standard admission price includes a free video- and audio guide. Free 1½-hour guided tours depart four times a day (10am, 11am, 1pm and 2pm); reserve a place at the tour desk, just past the entrance. Around twice a month, 60-minute tours (£8) also visit the astonishing Library, Geometric Staircase and Great Model, and include impressive views down the nave from above the Great West Doors; check the website for dates and hours and book well ahead. Filming and photography is not permitted within the cathedral. Book online for cheaper rates.