Visiting Westminster Abbey is one of the absolutely essential things to do in London. Whether you’re spending as little as a day in London or as much as a month, you simply cannot miss it. Along with Big Ben, St Paul’s and Tower Bridge, this is one of the most famous London landmarks.
Many know it best as the venue for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011. Yet the history of Westminster Abbey goes back well over a thousand years. The place is crammed wall-to-wall with history.
No London trip is complete without a Westminster Abbey visit, and our guide will help you make the most of it. We’ll show you what to see in Westminster Abbey, from architectural highlights to the many great monuments inside. We’ll also share Westminster Abbey tips to make your visit as smooth as possible.
WHAT IS WESTMINSTER ABBEY, LONDON?
Westminster Abbey is the nearest thing England and Great Britain has to a national church. It has been the venue for coronations of kings and queens of England since 1066, when William the Conqueror assumed the Crown.
It is also the resting place for many British monarchs, with 17 kings and queens buried at Westminster Abbey. Subsequently, many Westminster Abbey burials have included British luminaries, from the fields of politics, literature and science. The nearest equivalents in Europe are the Pantheon in Paris, and the Panteao Nacional in the Alfama district of Lisbon.
Throw in a few royal weddings and funerals, and you have a church at the very heart of the nation. For sheer volume of history, no other church – or even building – in the UK comes close. Along with the Houses of Parliament and St Margaret’s Church next door, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Westminster Abbey should not be confused with Westminster Cathedral. The Abbey is an Anglican church, whereas Westminster Cathedral, 1 km along Victoria Street, is a much later building. It’s the Cathedral of the Roman Catholic Diocese of London.
WESTMINSTER ABBEY HISTORY
The first church to be built on the site near the River Thames was begun in 960 AD. By the time of King Edward the Confessor, this London abbey had assumed great importance. He was laid to rest in the church after dying in January 1066, and his shrine remains intact to this day.
Little else survives from the time of Edward the Confessor, other than a wooden door dating from around 1050 and the Pyx Chamber next to the Cloister. This was part of the monks’ dormitory, and most likely dates from around 1100.
Most of what we now see dates from the 13th century, King Henry III commissioned a Gothic church with pointed arches and a lofty vaulted ceiling. The main body of the church – the nave and choir date from this period.
As with many great medieval churches, other additions were made over time. These include the sublime Lady Chapel, built in the English Perpendicular style in the early 16th century. The twin towers at the west end of the church were added in the 18th century.
WESTMINSTER ABBEY OPENING TIMES
Westminster Abbey opening hours differ slightly throughout the year.
The church is open between 9.30 am and 3.30 pm Monday to Friday. There is additional late opening on Wednesdays between 4.30 pm and 6.00 pm, but several of the most interesting parts of the church aren’t open during these sessions.
Westminster Abbey visiting hours vary on Saturdays. During the spring and summer season – May to August – it’s open between 9.00 am and 3.00 pm. During winter it is only open between 9.00 am and 1.00 pm.
On Sundays, the Abbey is only open for services, with no time scheduled for tourist visits.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT WESTMINSTER ABBEY?
If you’re visiting during peak season, especially spring and summer, we strongly suggest you book ahead or arrive at 9.30 am when the Abbey opens. Otherwise you could be in for a long wait.
If you’re keen to avoid the London crowds altogether, then the best time to visit London is during winter. It’s the one time of year when you can enjoy your London sightseeing without having to queue for everything. The weather may be grey, but it’s the most romantic time to visit London. It’s also when places like Westminster Abbey can be savoured most.
WESTMINSTER ABBEY TICKETS
Tickets for Westminster Abbey can be bought online, or you can walk up and buy a ticket.
The advantage of booking Westminster Abbey online is that you are allocated a time slot. You may not always get in quite on time, but this is a far better bet than just turning up, especially in peak season. It can take an hour or more waiting for Westminster Abbey admission – not the best idea in hot or wet weather.
The Westminster Abbey entrance for visitors is in the north transept. It’s next to the much smaller St Margaret’s Church, on the Parliament Square side of the building.
The standard online Westminster Abbey entry fee is £21 for adults, while the walk-up cost is £23. Children under 5 accompanied by an adult are allowed in for free.
Children aged 6-16 can visit Westminster Abbey for £9 if tickets are booked online, or £10 if tickets are bought at the Abbey.
Concessionary tickets (over-60s and students) cost £18 online, or £20 at the Abbey.
WHERE IS WESTMINSTER ABBEY?
The Abbey is in the heart of historic Westminster, across Parliament Square from Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.
Wherever you choose to stay in London, Westminster is easy to reach. Westminster Tube station is a good option. It’s on the Circle, District and Jubilee lines, and is situated next to Westminster bridge, directly opposite the Big Ben clock tower. It’s a five-minute walk from there to Westminster Abbey.
Otherwise, several major bus routes have stops very close to Westminster Abbey. These include the 11, 24, 148 and 211. Some stop a few minutes away at Victoria Street, stop R.
WHAT DO YOU SEE IN WESTMINSTER ABBEY?
Visitors enter Westminster Abbey church via the north transept door. You turn right to explore the nave, where the congregation sits during services. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier can be found near the west window. The Coronation Chair is also housed here, in St George’s Chapel. You then reach the south transept, where you’ll find the Poets’ Corner.
After this, you enter the chancel, which contains the magnificent choir, high altar and the wealth of tombs in the ambulatory chapels around the edge of the building. You glimpse the Shrine of Edward the Confessor, which is off limits to most visitors, before reaching the astounding Lady Chapel. It’s one of the best examples of Perpendicular architecture, a uniquely British form of late Gothic style.
Within the body of the Church, there is also the Westminster Abbey museum, housed high up in the triforium level above the church. Officially known as the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries, it’s an astounding exhibition space, and a wonderful use of part of a church you would never normally see. It holds a collection of Abbey treasures, from ancient manuscripts to statues and sculptures, and the marriage licence of Prince William and Kate Middleton, now known as the Cambridges.
After visiting the main body of the Church, you can avoid the crowds in the beautiful Cloister. This also affords amazing views of the south side of the church. You can also visit the splendid Gothic Chapter House and the nearby Little Cloister, a tiny secret garden with a view to the Victoria Tower of the Houses of Parliament.
CAN YOU TOUR WESTMINSTER ABBEY?
You certainly can. The Westminster Abbey verger tour is conducted by a member of the Abbey staff, and the explanations go beyond that of the audio guide. This is the one way you can also get a better view of the Shrine of Edward the Confessor.
As well as taking a guided tour of Westminster Abbey, you can also book a combined tour. One possibility is the Westminster Abbey and Changing of the Guard tour, which also includes the famous daily ceremony outside Buckingham Palace.
WHO IS BURIED IN WESTMINSTER ABBEY?
Seventeen English monarchs are buried in Westminster Abbey. These include Henry III, Edward I, Henry V and Henry VII, the founder of the Tudor dynasty, and his grand-daughter Elizabeth I. Many other royals and members of the nobility are also interred there.
There are far too many Westminster Abbey tombs and memorials to list. However, it’s worth noting some of the great British figures who are buried in the Abbey. Geoffrey Chaucer, the medieval author of The Canterbury Tales, was buried there as he was a tenant resident in the Abbey Close. Later, more and more literary figures were buried in the same area in the south transept, and it became known as Poets’ Corner. These Include Dr Samuel Johnson, compiler of the first Dictionary in English, and the 19th century genius Charles Dickens.
Great British scientists buried in Westminster Abbey include Sir Isaac Newton (who discovered gravity), and Charles Darwin (who proposed the Theory of Evolution). Most recently, modern great Sir Stephen Hawking was also interred in Westminster Abbey.
WESTMINSTER ABBEY SERVICES
Another way of getting inside Westminster Abbey is to attend one of the daily services there.
It’s the one way to see Westminster Abbey free of charge, but don’t make the mistake of thinking this is a chance to do some sightseeing on the cheap. Think of it more as an experience, one that we wholeheartedly recommend.
A Westminster Abbey Evensong can be memorable, especially as the service is sung. You sit in the Quire stalls, close to the Abbey Choir. It’s an incredible setting, underneath the soaring Gothic arches and vaulted ceiling. Holy Communion services are often held in the Nave, but also around some of the side chapels and at Edward the Confessor’s Shrine.
David Angel is a British writer and photographer who has been travelling and photographing the world for over 25 years. His work is regularly featured in worldwide media including the BBC, the Guardian, the Times and the Sunday Times.