When you think of the best churches in London to visit, what comes to mind? St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey would surely be the first, and quite rightly – they’re the two most famous churches in London, indeed two of the best places to visit in London.
But after that, it’s difficult to think of another London church that springs to mind quite so readily. What’s that Trafalgar Square church called again? Or the one in The Da Vinci Code? And wasn’t that one in Shakespeare in Love in London as well?
We’ve decided to write about the foremost London churches because visiting them is a great way to delve into London history. Westminster and St Paul’s are two of the most famous buildings in London, but they only tell part of the story. Some of the other City of London churches may not be quite as famous London landmarks, but they have some of the finest London architecture and amazing stories to tell. One is rumoured to have inspired the tiered wedding cake, while another definitely inspired the famous Oranges and Lemons nursery rhyme.
So here’s our run-down of 26 of the best London churches to visit.
- 1 CHURCHES IN LONDON – A PRIMER
- 2 HOW MANY CHURCHES IN LONDON ARE THERE?
- 3 ARE THERE ANY CATHOLIC CHURCHES IN LONDON?
- 4 HOW MANY WREN CHURCHES ARE THERE IN LONDON?
- 5 St Paul’s Cathedral
- 6 St Stephen Walbrook
- 7 St Peter ad Vincula
- 8 St Andrew Undershaft
- 9 All Hallows by the Tower
- 10 St Katherine Cree
- 11 St Helen’s, Bishopsgate
- 12 St Bride’s Fleet Street
- 13 St Olave Hart Street
- 14 St Mary le Bow
- 15 Temple Church London
- 16 St Bartholomew the Great
- 17 St Lawrence Jewry
- 18 St Giles Cripplegate
- 19 Westminster Abbey
- 20 Westminster Cathedral
- 21 St James’s, Piccadilly
- 22 St Clement Danes
- 23 St Martin in the Fields
- 24 St Paul’s Covent Garden
- 25 St Margaret‘s Westminster
- 26 All Souls, Langham Place
- 27 St Pancras Old Church
- 28 Christ Church Spitalfields
- 29 Southwark Cathedral
CHURCHES IN LONDON – A PRIMER
For centuries, the London skyline was dominated by church towers, spires and steeples soaring above the River Thames. Most of medieval London, including Old St Paul’s Cathedral and hundreds of smaller London churches, was wiped out by the Great Fire of London in 1666, so much of it had to be rebuilt.
The architect responsible for much of this was Sir Christopher Wren, who was asked to design and build 51 of the churches that were lost, including St Paul’s Cathedral. Hence many of the City of London churches we now see are in the English Baroque style, with some Neoclassical elements.
The famous churches of London once again dominated the skyline of London for centuries. It’s only over the past century or so that, as the city has become increasingly built up, that many of these historic churches in London have been hidden, dwarfed, obscured and overshadowed by much larger developments, particularly the City of London skyscrapers.
HOW MANY CHURCHES IN LONDON ARE THERE?
There are hundreds of churches in Greater London, including all the outlying boroughs. There are around 50 churches in City of London, the famous Square Mile and financial district, alone, and a further 70 in the City of Westminster. We mainly focus on these churches in central London, also exploring some in the London Boroughs of Kensington & Chelsea and Camden.
ARE THERE ANY CATHOLIC CHURCHES IN LONDON?
Yes. You’ll find that they’re quite heavily outnumbered by Church of England churches, many of which were themselves Catholic prior to Henry VIII splitting with the Catholic Church in 1536.
HOW MANY WREN CHURCHES ARE THERE IN LONDON?
Wren was commissioned to design and build 51 churches in London, mostly within the City of London boundary. Of these 27 survive, including four outside the City boundary. Some of these have been rebuilt in turn, after partial or full destruction during Luftwaffe bombing raids in World War II.
St Paul’s Cathedral
If you only have one day in London, you should spend some of it visiting St Paul’s Cathedral. That’s how impressive this London cathedral is. It was built by Sir Christopher Wren to replace Old St Paul’s, lost in the Great Fire. It’s the masterpiece of English Baroque, and was built in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The dome of St Paul’s is one of the great icons of London, and this was reinforced by photos of it surviving intact during the Blitz of World War II. It dominates Ludgate Hill, one of the most famous streets in London, and the area around it is kept free of tall buildings to protect the view of it. One of the most remarkable things to do in West London is to visit Richmond Park to see St Paul’s Cathedral dome from a protected view all the way out 15 km away, with the help of a telescope and a tiny gap in the trees.
The gilded arches, paintings and dome crossing make St Paul’s one of the most famous churches in England. St Paul’s Crypt has several famous burials, including naval hero Lord Nelson and Sir Christopher Wren himself. If you don’t mind heights, climb the dome to visit the Golden Gallery, which has some of the best views in London. These are all included in standard St Paul’s Cathedral tickets, or or there’s the option of joining a St Paul’s Cathedral tour.
St Stephen Walbrook
This is my nomination as the most beautiful of the churches in the City of London. It was also built bySir Christopher Wren, and I’d go so far as to say that it’s a London must see. It’s a beautifully proportioned Church, appearing quite small from outside but inside there’s a soaring, lofty central dome and wonderful sense of space. It’s now almost totally hemmed in by more recent buildings, mainly office blocks. It’s just across the street from the Queen Victoria Street Bank Tube exit. If you only visit one London church other than St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey, make it this one.
St Peter ad Vincula
St Peter ad Vincula is a Chapel Royal within the grounds of the Tower of London. The Chapel – whose name means St Peter in Chains – is located in the corner of the Tower Green, close to where many prisoners of the Tower were executed. It’s best-known as the burial site of many of these, including two of Henry VIII’s wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, the poor unfortunate Lady Jane Grey, who was queen of England for nine days in 1553, and Sir Thomas More, former Chancellor to Henry VIII, who we will encounter later in our tour of London churches. The Chapel Royal can be visited on Tower of London guided tours.
St Andrew Undershaft
Some churches in London England have rather unusual names, and this is something you don’t tend to find elsewhere in England. The likes of St Andrew by the Wardrobe, St Giles Cripplegate, St James Garlickhythe and St Andrew Undershaft have roused curiosity in many a visitor to London, myself included.
St Andrew Undershaft is a late Perpendicular (early 16th century) Gothic church which, like its neighbour St Helen’s Bishopsgate survived the Great Fire and Blitz intact, only to suffer later damage as a result of an IRA bombing. It got its name from a tall maypole which used to stand outside the church. – the maypole was the ‘shaft’, hence the church was ‘under shaft’. Almost 500 years later, history repeated itself in a roundabout way when Lord Foster’s 30 St Mary Axe – better known as the Gherkin – was built a few doors along from the church. Once again, St Andrew stands under shaft. It’s one of the best London churches to photograph, and yet one of the least known.
All Hallows by the Tower
All Hallows Church London sits across the square from the Tower of London. It’s one of the oldest Christian churches in London, dating back possibly to the 7th century AD. It famously survived the Great Fire of London because surrounding buildings were burned to create a firebreak. Diarist Samuel Pepys (see St Olave Hart Street below) climbed the spire of All Hallows to see the devastation caused by the Fire. The airy interior dates from the late Gothic period (16th century), and was restored after total destruction during the Blitz. The museum in the crypt of the church is well worth a visit, where you can see a Roman pavement and a number of Saxon artefacts. William Penn, founder of the American state of Pennsylvania, was baptised in the church in 1644.
St Katherine Cree
St Katherine Cree is a neighbour of St Andrew Undershaft, less than 100 metres away off Leadenhall Street in the heart of the City of London. It avoided the Great Fire and the worst of the Blitz. It’s the only surviving Jacobean (built during or shortly after the 1603-25 reign of King James I) church in London, built by an unknown architect. Its plain exterior contrasts with the lovely bright interior, the highlight of which is the beautiful rose window above the high altar, which was reputedly modelled on a much larger one in Old St Paul’s Cathedral. St Helen’s Bishopsgate (below) is also very close by.
St Helen’s, Bishopsgate
St Helen’s Church in Bishopsgate is another survivor of the Great Fire, and indeed the Blitz. However, an IRA bomb blew its roof off. It originally belonged to a nunnery which was dissolved in 1538. If you’re interested in photographing London, seek this one out as it stands in the shadow of the famous London Gherkin skyscraper, making for a great contrast between old and new London.
St Bride’s Fleet Street
If this church were a computer program, it would be called St Bride’s 8.0. It’s the eighth building on the site just to the south of Fleet Street. It’s another beautiful Wren church in white stone. It has two claimsto fame, one a little more tenuous than the other. The popular story is that a local man had a tiered cakebaked for his wedding, inspired by the tiered tower of St Bride’s. This tale has never been substantiated, and could quite easily be an early urban myth. St Bride’s is also the main church for journalists in London. Fleet Street was where the UK newspaper and magazine press were based until the 1980s, and the connection has been maintained ever since.
St Olave Hart Street
St Olave is a rarity, a medieval Gothic church in London. It was one of a small number to survive the Great Fire of London. It suffered far greater damage during the London Blitz of World War II, and the 15th century body of the church was restored by the mid-1950s. It’s a small church with a wealth of history. St Olave’s was the church of the famous diarist Samuel Pepys (pronounced ‘Peeps’) who lived around the corner on Seething Lane. He and his wife Elizabeth are buried in the nave of the church. The pantomime character Mother Goose is also commemorated by a memorial there. Outside, a row of grinning skulls on the entrance to the churchyard made quite an impression on the author Charles Dickens, who later called the church St Ghastly Grim in The Uncommercial Traveller.
St Mary le Bow
St Mary le Bow was historically one of the most important City of London churches, and was one of the first to be rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire. It’s another beautiful Baroque church with an elegant tower which houses the famous Bow Bells. According to London tradition, a true Cockney can only be born within earshot of these bells, which are a 200-metre walk around the corner from St Paul’s Cathedral on Cheapside. The interior is one of my favourites in London, bright and spacious with a superb blue and white barrel roof. There’s also a memorial to Arthur Philip, the first Governor of the British colony of Australia.
Temple Church London
The Inns of Court either side of busy Fleet Street are a far cry from the bustle of central London. In a large courtyard off a narrow street is their best-known sight, the Temple Church, which was founded by the military Knights Templar as their London headquarters in the late 12th century. As with other Knights Templar churches it was originally round, but a rectangular chancel (the area containing the choir and altar)was later added. The church attracted a lot of interest after a scene from The Da Vinci Code movie was shot there. The most intriguing part is the series of marble effigies in the Round Church – though nobody is quite sure who they are meant to represent. Entry costs 5 GBP.
St Bartholomew the Great
St Bartholomew the Great is the oldest church in London still standing. Its foundation – in 1123 – was much later than several other churches, but the fabric of the church itself is the oldest. It’s a magnificent Romanesque (also known as Norman, with round arches as opposed to the pointed arches of Gothic architecture) building, with the choir and apse particularly beautiful. St Bartholomew’s Hospital next door was originally the church’s hospital, where the sick would come in search of treatment and cures. You may well have seen the church already as it has featured in numerous movies and TV programmes, including Shakespeare in Love and Four Weddings and a Funeral. It’s in the north of the City of London, close to the old Smithfield Market. It’s also one of very few London parish churches to charge an admission fee (5 GBP).
St Lawrence Jewry
St Lawrence Jewry is a splendid Baroque church by Sir Christopher Wren, built on the site of an earlier church destroyed in the Great Fire. It’s across the square from London Guildhall, and is the official church of the Lord Mayor of London and the City of London Corporation. The Jewry in its name refers to the London Jewish ghetto, which was centred around the street named Old Jewry, which can be found less than 100 metres east along Gresham Street from the church – it’s on the right.
St Giles Cripplegate
St Giles is the patron saint of lepers, the crippled and the handicapped, hence this unusual dedication. It’s another London medieval church, mostly built in the late Gothic Perpendicular style, and survived the Great Fire of London but not the Blitz. The whole of the surrounding area was destroyed, and on this ground, close to a section of the London Wall, the Barbican Estate was built. This concrete Brutalist beauty is worth a journey in itself, as is the outstanding Barbican Arts Centre. The fine late medieval church, in which the poet John Milton (of Paradise Lost fame) is buried, isn’t always open, so check the church website to find out when you can visit.
Westminster Abbey is often mistaken as one of the cathedrals of London. It’s an easy mistake to make, but it’s an Abbey which has served as the Coronation Church for Kings and Queens of England for almost a thousand years. Westminster Abbey is one of the big-ticket top three or four things to do in London, and it’s something we suggest you make time for, even if you only have a 1-day London itinerary.
Visiting Westminster Abbey can be a time-consuming affair, particularly if you haven’t reserved your Westminster Abbey tickets online. We suggest you do this to avoid having to queue outside the Abbey, often for more than an hour. Many prefer to book a Westminster Abbey tour so that they don’t miss out on any of the sights inside. The list of who is buried at Westminster Abbey is staggeringly long, and includes many English monarchs. You could easily spend several hours in there – whatever you do, don’t miss the exquisite Lady Chapel, one of the best examples of the unique English Perpendicular Gothic style.
The second London cathedral is the one Roman Catholic church on our list. Westminster Cathedral is quite a surprise as you walk along Victoria Street towards Westminster. The red and white striped church looks like something out of Ravenna or Constantinople rather than London. It’s a superb neo-Byzantine church inside and out. It was built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by John Francis Bentley, and is the mother church for Roman Catholics in England and Wales.
St James’s, Piccadilly
St james Piccadilly is one of my personal favourite London churches. It’s a fine red-brick church by Sir Christopher Wren, built in what in the mid-17th century were the outskirts of London. Piccadilly is now one of the most famous streets of London, and the Royal Academy of Arts, Fortnum & Mason department store and the Ritz Hotel are now all neighbours. The interior is a fine, spacious example of early English Baroque. The churchyard plays host to the regular Piccadilly Market, with food stalls on Mondays and Tuesdays and arts and crafts stalls Wednesdays to Saturdays. One thing that will always stay with me is a lady there encouraging me to let my then-baby son crawl around the church, something he (and I) took great delight in.
St Clement Danes
St Clement Danes church is one of the best-known churches in Westminster, London. It’s a fine white Baroque building with a prominent spire on a traffic island in the Strand, close to the Royal Courts of Justice. It’s famous for the nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and lemons ring the bells of St Clement’s’, and it’s not the only church in our list to get a mention in. this. It was rebuilt in the late 17th century by Sir Christopher Wren. However it was gutted during the Blitz in the early 1940s, and rebuilt again in the 1950s. It was decided to make it the Central Church of the Royal Air Force (RAF), and it now holds many RAF memorials in its bright, airy interior. Some visitors get this church and St Mary le Strand, confused. The latter is on a smaller traffic island, closer to Trafalgar Square and opposite King’s College London.
St Martin in the Fields
St Martin in the Fields church is a handsome white neoclassical church on the corner of Trafalgar Square, across the street from the National Gallery. Its central position makes it one of the most famous churches of London. The bright interior is one of the best London classical music venues, with lunchtime and evening concerts throughout the year. The crypt (entrance via stairs or elevator to the left of the front of the church) has a great café serving meals, drinks and snacks. If you’ve never set foot inside this graceful landmark of London, try to spare a few minutes next time you’re passing.
St Paul’s Covent Garden
St Paul’s Church Covent Garden was the first new church in London to be built since the Reformation almost a century before. It was designed and built by Inigo Jones, the architect also responsible for other famous London buildings at Banqueting House, Whitehall and Queens House, Greenwich. It was built between 1631 and 1633 along with the new Covent Garden Piazza, the first formal square in England. The east end of the church faces the square, and its front resembles a temple with a portico.
St Paul’s is very close to several London West End theatres, including Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and several on The Strand and around Covent Garden. It developed string links with the theatre community, and indeed the Royal Opera House, which was completed across the other side of the Piazza in 1723. St Paul’s has long been known as the Actors Church in London, and has memorials to the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Noël Coward, Vivien Leigh and Boris Karloff.
St Margaret‘s Westminster
I wonder how many of those souls queuing for hours to enter Westminster Abbey have ever broken away to venture inside this fascinating Westminster church. St Margaret’s Church Westminster is located in the churchyard of the Abbey,and is often called the ‘parish church of the House of Commons’. It is often frequented by politicians and parliamentarians, and the connection dates back to the 17th century when Puritan MPs started to worship there as they disapproved of the style of worship in Westminster Abbey.
The present building dates back to the late 15th and early 16th centuries, and is built in the distinctive English Perpendicular style. It’s well worth visiting for its 16th century stained glass, especially the east window. It’s also the church where Samuel Pepys and his wife were married, and it’s the burial place of printing pioneer William Caxton and explorer Sir Walter Raleigh are among notable people buried there.
All Souls, Langham Place
All Souls Church Langham Place is one of the most famous London. Churches because of its location next door to BBC Broadcasting House, at the northern end of Regent Street in the district of Marylebone. You often see this London landmark in BBC broadcasts, and its easily recognisable because of its distinctive Neoclassical circular columned front and spire. It was designed by John Nash, architect to the Prince Regent (later King George IV), who was also responsible for remodelling Buckingham Palace and the layout of St James’s Park.
St Pancras Old Church
St Pancras Old Church isn’t that old nowadays, having largely been rebuilt as recently as the 19th century, but it probably dates back to Saxon times, most likely the 7th century AD, making it one of the oldest churches in London. It’s a fairly small, humble but atmospheric church, around ten minutes’ walk from King’s Cross and St Pancras railway stations. The churchyard and surrounding St Pancras Gardens are also noteworthy – the churchyard contains the tomb of architect Sir John Soane, which was the inspiration for the famous British red telephone box design. The gardens were one of several places where the Beatles were taken on a day-long shoot with photographer Don McCullin in 1968, which became known as the Beatles’ Mad Day Out.
Christ Church Spitalfields
Christ Church Spitalfields is one of the best-known churches in east London. It’s one of six Nicholas Hawksmoor churches in London, built just outside the City of London in the 1720s when the area was dominated by French Huguenot refugees. Hawksmoor worked alongside Christopher Wren for many years, and continued the development of English Baroque. Christ Church Spitalfields was the first of his churches in London, and its tall white steeple is a popular London East End landmark. Well worth a visit if you’re visiting Brick Lane, a 5-minute walk away.
Southwark Cathedral – formerly the parish church of St Mary Overie – may not be one of the most famous cathedrals in England, but it’s one of the most beautiful churches in London, and one of its most intriguing. This magnificent church near London Bridge was mostly built between 1220 and 1420, so it was one of the first Gothic churches in London. It was restored in the 19th century, and again after World War II when it was hit by a German bomb. Visiting the Cathedral is one of the best things to do in Southbank London – Borough
Market is next door in one direction, and the replica of the Golden Hinde ship sailed around the world in the 16th century by Sir Francis Drake is around the corner in the other.