Come step inside a few centuries of history...
I've been visiting houses of worship around the world for as long as I can remember. I may have all the spiritual sensibilities of a rock, but that hasn't stopped me from enjoying the beauty, architecture, art, history, and geneaology found within the walls of the grandest mosque or the tiniest church. And as a budget minded traveler, spiritual sites top my list of value all-stars. They are tremendously affordable (usually free!), your donations go to a good cause, there are often special events like free music recitals - and you may even get a fantastic meal too!
There are thousands of houses of worship in London and I've only visited a fraction - but I'm happy to share a few of my favourites here. If I do say so myself, I think this is a perfect list for a first time visitor to London as it gives you a little bit of everything. Famous, obscure, old (and really old), music, community, and food. I'm hoping with each subsequent visit to London my list will continue to grow!
Why isn't St. Paul's Cathederal on this list? It is indeed one of my favourites but I haven't had the chance to visit since 2001 and therefore I can't really offer any personal insights into things like their cafe, their music program, or their tours. Hopefully, I'll be back for a return visit soon!
This is going to sound a bit silly, but I don't think I actually appreciated that Westminster Abbey was a functioning house of worship until my last visit. And what made all the difference in the world is that I went in through the small side entrance normally reserved for groups. Out front, there are hoards of visitors and you can easily lose site of the fact that this isn't just another tourist attraction.
Once inside, I was hugely touched to see members of the clergy walking among the crowds, welcoming as many visitors as possible. There was also a brief moment of silence when they called for a prayer to think of those in need around the world. It was a moving and inclusive occasion that reminded me of how lucky I am to travel.
This is one place where you'll want to take your time and go slowly. There is so much to see and to take in; you wouldn't want to miss anything. An hour or so doing a bit of online reading about the Abbey would be a wise investment so you can fully appreciate its role in British and royal history. (PS: Believe it or not, it's perfectly okay to walk on the tombs and memorials that cover the floor - it would be impossible to get around if you didn't! But there's one tomb which is never stepped on and that is the Tomb of the Unknown Solider, near the front doors of the building).
St. Ethedreda's Church
It's not every day you get to step in a building that dates back to 1250. With nearly 8 centuries under its belt, it's no surprise that St. Etheldreda's has seen some spectacular history. It's just one of two buildings in London to date from the reign of Edward I. Built as a town chapel for the Bishop of Ely, "Ely Palace" is mentioned in Shakespeare's Richard II and Richard III - the building was already a legend in Tudor times!
With Catholicism banned in England in 1620, the church was granted to the Spanish ambassador to be used as a private chapel. Therefore, it was considered to be on Spanish soil and thus allowed to continue with Roman Catholic services. Today, St. Etheldreda's is one of the oldest Catholic churches in London.
St. Bride's Church and Foundation
Fleet Street is the home and heart of the British media, so it's only fitting that there's a church to minister to its soul. St. Bride's is known as the "Journalists' Church," but its ministrations predate the press. There has been a church on the site for over 1,000 years (with Roman ruins that date back even earlier). Its current form is thanks to the legendary Christopher Wren, who rebuilt the church after it was destroyed in the Great Fire.
St. Bride's really is a treasure trove of history. After suffering devestating damage in World War II bombing raids, the restoration efforts revealed some incredible archeological gems - as well as thousands of human remains, including many dating back to the Great Plague of the 1600s!
Today, a visit to St. Bride's is a cheerful affair, especially if you go at lunch time when there's free music recitals. Their next door neighbour, the St. Bride Foundation, is equally lovely. It's a community hub for the arts and education and has a theatre program and an amazing collection of print and typography artifacts.
No guided vacation to England is complete without a visit to the heart of London - Trafalgar Square. And hidden in plain sight at the corner of the square is St. Martin-In-The-Field church - your Travel Director will easily be able to point it out to you. It's easy to overlook it among all the excitement of the square but once you see it, there'll be something oddly familiar about it. That's because the church's design - unusual for London - was widely copied throughout the United States.
Like all London churches, St. Martin has plenty of fascinating history (a 2006 excavation found a grave dating back to 410AD!) but the real reason you want to go here is for the food. YES! Trust me on this. The "Cafe in the Crypt" underneath the church is my absolute favourite place to eat in London. The cafe serves up hearty, hot British food (made with local and organic ingredients where possible) and plenty of cold offerings like sandwiches and salads - all at incredibly reasonable prices and all in support of the church's outreach work. The floor is a sea of gravestones, your neighbours are real honest-to-goodness locals, and the fruit crumble is served with a massive pitcher of homemade custard on the side. What's not to love!?!
Honorable Mentions: St. Mary-le-Bow and St. Mary Aldermary
St. Mary-le-Bow is a lovely church that is well worth a visit. They also runs a cafe in their crypt and I've heard great things about it. During my last trip to London, I was keen to try some good homemade food in the heart of the "City" (as the financial district is known) and I set out on a quest of sorts. And of course I arrived in between lunch and dinner service when they were closed. Alas, my review remains incomplete! If you get a chance to check this out, please let me know and we'll add information about your experience here!
If, like me, you find yourself in the area between meal times and want a snack to tide you over, The Host Cafe in the nearby St. Mary Aldermary offers tea, coffee, sweets, and light snack - right inside the church itself. Sitting on a pew, hand curled around a hot mug, gazing up at the incredible architecture - I can't think of a nicer way to enjoy some travel reflections.
Loving London, Loving Life
In 1777, Samual Johnson said that when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life - and I think that sentiment holds today, nearly 250 years later. London really is the city of everything and for everyone and, when you visit a house of worship, you're doing more than just seeing the sites. You're stepping back in time, soaking in centuries of London's history, and delving just a bit deeper into this multi- facted, diverse city.
Tell us what you love about London! Have you had the chance to visit a spiritual site or house of worship - from any faith - during your travels?
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