A tour of St Paul's is fascinating and provides spectacular views of London. It's a shame that photography is restricted in such a stunning building.
In this review one of our guest reviewers, Dan Pie, visits the magnificent St Paul’s Cathedral for a tour of London’s most treasured landmarks.
St Paul’s Cathedral Tour Review
It’s a dreary Wednesday in London, and I happen to have a day off. I’ve been living in London for three months now, and I’ve experienced most of the major attractions that London has to offer. There is one glaringly obvious attraction that I have yet to check off my list; it’s something I have been overlooking for far too long now. It reads, “Visit St. Pauls Cathedral.” Well, today, I finally cross this off my list.
First off, let it be known that before moving to London, I had never even heard of the St. Paul’s Cathedral. Even up until last week when I read about the “whispering walls phenomenon,” from a story which happened to appear in my Facebook feed, I didn’t really plan to visit the St. Paul’s. I’ve seen plenty of Cathedrals and they’re usually all the same, also, no one that I know ever suggested checking it out. St Paul’s usually overshadowed by attractions like Big Ben and The British Museum among many others. However, after doing a little research and browsing some quick photos, I could hardly believe that I’ve overlooked this for so long.
Getting to the Cathedral is quite convenient. St. Paul’s Station is on the central line and has its own station. It’s easy to walk there from virtually anywhere in central London. I did however take a detour before entering and circled the entire building using the designated footpaths inside the churchyard. Apart from it being a lovely walk, I gained a profound appreciation for the sheer size of this behemoth work of architecture.
When I approached the main entrance, it struck me that the steps were littered with tourists snapping photos. I couldn’t believe that on such an abysmally gloomy Wednesday, this many people would be coming out to visit a church. Then again perhaps it did seem kind of fitting, with the brooding, domineering facade of the cathedral matching the foreboding clouds behind it seamlessly. I could only imagine how packed with tourists this place must be on a hot sunny weekend.
Before walking up to purchase my ticket I noticed signs forbidding photography of any kind inside the building. I really wish I knew this before bringing my heavy SLR camera with me. I have to admit, this was rather disappointing, especially since the cost of admission is £18 for an adult. (I should note that since St Paul’s Cathedral is indeed a working church with hourly prayer and daily services, if you intend to worship in the church, admission is free).
At the ticket counter I was warned that the Cathedral would be closing at 16:30, which gave me exactly an hour to explore. I felt an hour was a perfect amount of time but I asked the woman at the front desk just in case. It turns out that it’s recommended to give yourself at least an hour and a half to two hours to experience the Cathedral in all of its glory. Despite not having that extra time I decided to buy the ticket anyway.
The first thing I felt upon entering was a kind of humbling feeling. The calm sound of the organ and the sheer size and openness of the space puts you in a lovely, calm state of mind, which is only furthered by the regal aesthetic and the quiet ambiance of the surroundings.
As you walk through the Nave, toward the Dome and the High Alter, your eyes will attempt to take in all the exquisitely intricate detailing everywhere you look. It’s hard to imagine just how much time and labour was put into the construction of the building. Many questions started coming to mind, so I decided to pick up a complimentary multimedia guide. The guide is essentially a device with a high resolution touchscreen, which displays interactive content and provides a wide range of informative audio commentary regarding all the different parts of Cathedral. It’s easy to use and well designed.
Among other things, I learned that the building itself was designed by the architect Christopher Wren, and was completed in 1710, taking a whopping 35 years to complete. The church was originally founded in 604 and dedicated to the apostle Paul. Remarkably, during the Blitz in 1940, when London was bombed consecutively for 267 days, St. Pauls Cathedral made it through unscathed. This last fact made me appreciate the Cathedral even more. So if you would like to enrich your experience and satisfy your curiosities, I do highly suggest grabbing the multimedia tour. You really can’t go wrong.
From the main floor you can choose to climb 257 steps or take the lift to get to the Whispering Gallery. The winding staircase wasn’t as arduous as I thought it would be, since the steps are comfortably spaced. The first thing that struck me is how high up the Gallery is situated. When you look over the rail, which spans the entire outer perimeter of the dome, you’re looking down on the inside of the entire cathedral.
The reason this part of the Cathedral is called the Whispering Gallery is because of an unintended phenomenon, wherein if one whispers along the outer edge of the dome, the whispers can be heard on the other side, 112 feet away. If you visit, I suggest bringing a friend along to give this a try.
The next level up is the Stone Gallery, which is a balustraded balcony which surrounds the outside edge of the dome, revealing a refreshing 360 degree view of London. To my delight, I learn that here you are allowed to take photographs. Bringing my SLR camera was not in vein after all. My only grievance is that the balcony is almost six feet high, making it difficult to take decent pictures. I then realize that this isn’t actually the highest look out point and notice that there is yet another set of stairs. It seems this set of stairs is the most perilous of all. The stairs are made of rickety black steel and wind up and out of sight.
After climbing the remaining 152 steps from the Stone Gallery, and squeezing through an awkwardly narrow passageway, you reach the Golden Gallery. This is the highest lookout point that is accessible to the public. Here the view is utterly breathtaking and well worth the climb, with no obstacles in the way of capturing a great shot. From this impressive vantage point, you are clearly able to see even the furthest reaches of the sprawling cityscape. There is a romantic feeling to it all, despite how tightly packed you are with fellow sightseers.
Looking at my watch, I realize my time at the Cathedral is almost up. Just then the security guards began ushering everyone down. The decent was swift, and during this time I realize I am rather disappointed with myself for not having come earlier. I could have easily spent another several hours here, not only to spend more time exploring the crypts and chapels, but simply to enjoy the inspirational aura of the space. Just then a lady announces through the loudspeaker that at 17:00, the “Choral Evensong,” will begin. I find out that despite the Cathedral being closed for sightseeing at 16:30, guests are invited to stay and enjoy the 45 minute service, which is almost entirely led by music. I decided to stay for this experience since I couldn’t remember the last time I sat through an entire church service. All in all, this unexpected experience was the cherry on the cake of the my day.
St. Paul’s Cathedral seems like an experience that certainly should not be overlooked or dismissed. Far from being like any old Cathedral, this is a historic landmark that should make every Londoner proud. Looking back on all that I’ve experienced in my short visit, this comes up really high on my list of favorite things in London. Some may be dissuaded by the steep price, but when you add up how much you get out of the time spend here, it seems worth every penny.
Top Tips for St Paul’s Cathedral:
- Give yourself at least an hour and a half
- Come on a week day not on the weekend
- If you intend to worship, you may be able to get in for free
- Take the multimedia tour
- Wear comfortable shoes and light clothes if you’re planning on climbing to the galleries
- Visitor toilets are temporarily closed due to renovations so make sure to go to the loo before entering.
- If you have time, stay for the “Choral Evensong”