Church

St. Paul's Cathedral

St Paul’s Cathedral is easily one of the most well-known and also most recognizable sights in the historic city of London and for almost three hundred years it dominated the city’s skyline as the city’s tallest structure.

With a history dating back more than fourteen centuries, the cathedral has played a significant role in British history and has become an important symbol with regard to the national identity of the English people.

St. Paul’s is not only home to the seat of the Bishop of London and is the mother church of the diocese of London but (similar to Westminster Abbey) often finds itself as the host of some of England’s most important events.

Some of which have in recent years included royal weddings and the funerals of important figures like Sir Winston Churchill and former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Even though St. Paul’s time as being the tallest building in the city is clearly over, it is said that the majority of the visitors who visit the popular observation deck of the nearby Shard skyscraper spend most of their time taking photos of the beautiful cathedral which is located just across the Thames.

Today the cathedral serves not only as a fully functional church that holds daily services but also as one of London’s most popular tourist attractions with more than two million people visiting each year.

History

St. Paul’s Cathedral has a history that dates back to AD 604 but don’t let that history fool you, the cathedral that we can see today is no where near that old. Historical records indicate that a church was built somewhere on the site over fourteen hundred years ago, but there is actually little evidence to prove such claims.

The cathedral known as “Old St. Paul’s” was constructed on site by the Normans between 1087 and 1240 and was a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles constructed using both stone and wood.

London however has had a bit of bad luck when it comes to fire and the city has been ravaged on more than a few occasions, the most well-known of which is probably the Great Fire of 1666.

The devastating fire destroyed 13,200 houses, 88 parish churches and forced the displacement of around 70-80,000 of the city’s inhabitants. Most notably the original St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was then one of London’s largest and most important buildings was also destroyed.

While Londoners went about rebuilding their lives, the office of famed British architect Sir Christopher Wren was selected and given the honour of overseeing the design and construction of over fifty churches to replace those that were destroyed, including that of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

The name Sir Christopher Wren may not be a household name for a lot of people outside of England, but the man was a legendary genius who was not only England’s most highly acclaimed architects but was also an anatomist, astronomer, geometry and mathematician-physicist.

While its often overlooked, Wren had a tremendous influence on intellectual affairs in 17th and 18th century Britain as President of the Royal Society making tremendous contributions to scientific thought and discovery.

Today he is most well-known for having a hand in the design and construction of some of London’s most well-known buildings with his work on St. Paul’s Cathedral being considered the masterpiece of his architectural genius.

In 1668 the Archbishop of Canterbury, with support from the Bishops of London and Oxford charged Wren with the responsibility of designing a new cathedral to replace the old St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Wren was given the instructions that the new cathedral should be “handsome and noble to all ends of it and to the reputation of the city and the nation” meaning that whatever he came up with had to be so grand in design that nothing else could compare.

Construction on the cathedral started in the summer of 1675 and was opened to the public twenty-two years later in 1697.

The finished version of Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral would be the tallest building in London, the second largest church in Britain and had a dome that was considered the finest in the whole world.

The building, which was financed by a tax on coal cost £1,095,556, which is equivalent to around $200 million US dollars today.

During the Second World War the cathedral was damaged during the German Blitz of London but was saved from outright destruction due to the efforts of civil defence brigades to protect it.

Churchill believed that the destruction of the cathedral would do irreparable damage to the morale of the nation, so he ensured that every effort was made to protect it from harm.

Still, one of the most iconic images of the Blitz depicts the dome of the cathedral shrouded in smoke with the buildings in the foreground engulfed in flames.

The image was thought to describe the resolve of the British people which was “proud”, “glorious” and “indomitable” and helped to push the British and the allies to ultimate victory over the Germans.

Sir Christopher Wren passed away in 1723, a few years after the completion of the cathedral.

It was only fitting that his tomb be constructed in the crypts of his architectural masterpiece. Today people can not only visit the church but pay their respects to one of English history’s greatest figures.

The inscription on his tomb reads: “Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice” or “Reader, if you seek his memorial, look around you” which is a fitting tribute to the man and his accomplishments.

Design

When Christopher Wren was charged with the design and construction of a new St. Paul’s Cathedral, his office was already busy designing and constructing fifty other parish churches.

Designing a new version of St. Paul’s however was a project unlike any of the others - Wren’s task was to create a cathedral more grand than the original as well as a building that would serve as a landmark.

He also had to satisfy the stringent requirements of the Church of England, rich benefactors and try to stay true to and respect the mediaeval traditions of English church building.

Wren came up with five different designs for the cathedral which were inspired by the design of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and a combination of English medieval architecture with contemporary Renaissance trends - most notably the Baroque style.

The design that was approved combined neoclassical, gothic and baroque elements which symbolized the ideals of the English restoration with the construction techniques of the time.

Wren was given artistic licence to make minor changes during construction which he used to make modifications based on elements of some of the other designs he had submitted.

The finished cathedral actually ended up being considerably different than originally planned.

As for the specifics of the architectural design, I’m admittedly not an expert, so for a more in-depth description of the design of the interior and exterior of the cathedral, I recommend checking out the links below.

St. Paul’s Cathedral (Wiki)

Designing St. Paul’s Cathedral (Google Arts & Culture)

What I will go into a bit of detail about with regards to design is that of the dome - Which is said to be one of the finest in the world.

I’ve been lucky enough to visit the dome’s at both St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and St. Paul’s in London and can easily say that St. Paul’s is the clear winner in terms of beauty.

When you stand under the dome looking up, the beauty of Wren’s design will captivate anyone who sees it. If you then climb to the base of the dome on the roof and gaze at the floor below, you’ll be even more amazed.

Oh, and I suppose the beautiful views of the London cityscape from the top of the dome aren’t too shabby as well!

The dome is composed of three different shells - The outer dome, a concealed brick cone (for structural support) and an inner dome. The main internal space of the cathedral is located under the central dome which is supported from floor-level by pendentives that rise up in the form of eight arches that surround the dome.

The genius of Wren’s design supports the dome from ground level while leaving the area under it completely open with no visible supports. The dome, which is said to weigh over 850 tons was also designed in a way that its weight is supported and lightened through the three shells.

You’re not supposed to take photos in the cathedral, but it would be a shame to go to such a beautiful place and not sneak a few. I took a few from floor level, a few from the first platform and of course more from the outside viewing platform.

Visiting the dome makes the price of admission fee well worth the trip and is probably going to be the highlight of your day if you visit.

Getting There / Visiting

Like Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral is one of London’s most popular tourist attractions.

A visit to St. Paul’s however is a bit more relaxing as guests are able to enjoy the spectacular interior and exterior of the building with a little more freedom.

In addition to checking out the historic building, guests are also able to climb to the different levels of the dome which on the inside gives amazing views of the cathedral’s interior and its architecture while the higher exterior level allows for spectacular panoramic views of the city.

To gain entry to the cathedral you will have to purchase a ticket which you can either buy online or when you arrive.

If you want to save a bit of time and money I recommend purchasing your tickets online so that you don’t end up waiting in a long line. If you decide to purchase your ticket when you arrive the general admission costs £18 for adults (tickets are cheaper for students, children and seniors).

Link: St. Paul’s Cathedral - Tickets

The cathedral is open for sightseeing from Monday to Saturday from 8:30am - 4:30pm and it should be noted that most people spend more than two hours on their visit, so make sure to arrive a bit early in the day.

You should also be aware that before you gain entry to the cathedral that you’ll have to pass through an airport style security check where guards will be checking bags.

If you want to ensure that you pass through quickly, try not to carry too much with you. They won’t let you in with anything larger than a backpack and there aren’t any lockers available to store your things.

It’s also important to note that photography and the usage of tripods within the cathedral is prohibited, so you probably won’t want to bother bringing too much gear with you if you’re a photographer.

Make sure to bring a camera though because the views from the top of the dome are amazing!

 

St. Paul's Churchyard, London EC4M 8AD, United Kingdom

There are a number of public transport options that will get you to the cathedral:

If you are using the London Underground, it is only a two minute walk from St. Paul’s Station but you can also easily walk there in under five minutes rom Mansion House, Blackfriars or Bank stations.

If you are taking the bus you can get to the cathedral via routes 4, 8, 11, 15, 17, 23, 25, 26, 56, 100, 172, 242 and 521.

If you are travelling by train City Thameslink, Cannon Street and Liverpool Street stations are a short walk away.

In retrospect, my visit to England was a learning experience in the legend that is Wren - I visited several of the buildings that he designed as well as his former home and the trip culminated in a visit to St. Paul’s Cathedral, his masterpiece and his final resting place.

None of this was actually intended, but my trip was made even better because of it.

I enjoyed visiting Westminster Abbey, but can honestly say that if I were to choose between the two for a second visit, without a second thought I’d be visiting St. Paul’s Cathedral again.

If you are visiting London, this is a destination that you’re not going to want to miss.


Archbasilica of St. John Lateran

Rome is a city like no other - You could spend months, even years there and not even scratch the surface of everything the city has to offer.

Very few travellers however can afford to spend that much time in a city while on vacation. So if you've only got a week or two in the city, you're going to have to plan your trip wisely, right?

When planning my Roma vacation I spent quite a bit of time mapping out where I was going, when I was going and buying all the appropriate tickets.

While planning the itinerary, I made sure to add a few extra stops as 'possibilities' in case we ended up having extra time or if the weather wasn’t cooperating. 

On our last day in the city, I planned for a half-day excursion to the Roman neighbourhood of Trastevere which is just across the Tiber river and away from the main touristy areas of the city.

Trastevere is known for its nightlife, fine dining and bustling atmosphere while also being a bit more laid back and less hectic than other parts of Rome.

Admittedly, one of the main reasons I wanted to visit the area was to visit the restaurant “Roma Sparita” which was gained world-wide attention thanks to Anthony Bourdain’s praise for their unique take on Rome’s favourite pasta “Cacio e Pepe”.

Unfortunately I wasn’t really paying attention to the time, nor the restaurant’s hours of operation and we missed out on lunch service while exploring the area.

Instead we visited a random Trattoria in the area and had yet another amazing meal.

I think every meal I had in Rome was amazing though.

My original plan was to stick around Trastevere all afternoon and then head over to take some night photos of the historic Ponte Sisto bridge before heading back to our hotel.

My girlfriend however had a better idea - Looking at the list of possible places to visit, she thought that time would be better spent checking out the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran. 

Oddly enough, the Archbasillica, which happens to be one of the most important cathedrals in the world as well as also the oldest public church in Rome only happens to be a minor tourist attraction compared to other destinations in the city. 

Which I'm sure you'll agree after reading this blog is a shame. 

History

Dating back to the 4th Century, the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran is the oldest church in Rome and is also the highest ranking of the four papal basilicas. Home of the “cathedra” (throne) of the Roman Bishop, the church acts as the primary cathedral of the Catholic religion and you might be surprised to learn that it outranks St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

Situated four kilometres away from the Vatican, the archbasilica’s status can be a bit confusing for non-Catholics - It is currently property of the Holy See and enjoys 'extra-territorial' status from Italy but also serves as the “Cathedral of Rome.

To put it a bit more simply: Due to a mixture of history and politics, the church is not currently home to the pope but is still owned by the Holy See but also shared with the people of Rome.

Today it is considered the “mother church” of the Roman Catholic religion and even though the Pope rarely visits, it is still the most important of the four major catholic basilicas and oddly enough its administration falls to whomever is currently the President of the French Republic.

Confused yet?

I guess to sum things up easily we can just agree that when politics and religion get involved with each other, things can be a bit messy.

The land where the archbasilica was constructed was once owned by a powerful family known as the "Laterani's" who were well-known for their service to the Roman Empire with members of the family serving under several different emperors.

Unfortunately for the family, Plautius Lateranus, was accused by Emperor Nero (who was a bit insane) for conspiracy against the empire and all of their property, which included the Lateran Palace was confiscated by the state.

Around the year 312, Emperor Constantine commissioned the construction of a basilica on a plot of land next to the Lateran palace and donated all of it to the Bishop of Rome with the intention of the palace becoming the home of the church and the clergy where they would live for more than a thousand years! 

Over that period of time the basilica has survived several fires and earthquakes and has had to be repaired and renovated on several occasions. Despite a thousand years of fixing leaks and scraping fire damage off the walls, the basilica today remains almost the same as it did when it was originally constructed. 

Two fires in the 1300s in particular though caused an extreme amount of damage to the basilica and the palace next door - The fires forced the popes, who at the time had already taken up residence in Avignon, France to make plans to move to the Vatican.

If you are unaware of the events which forced the Popes out of Rome for most of the 14th Century, you might want to read about the “Avignon Papacy”, the “Western Schism” and the “Anti-Popes”.

When the pope returned from France in 1377, Rome was a ghost town and most of the churches were in ruins. Pope Martin V and his successors started a process of restoration at the basilica which transformed the interior and remodelled the church into what we see today.

Seeing as how the leadership of the church was now living in the Vatican, they found alternate uses for the Latern Palace over the years which included a hospice for orphans, a museum for religious art and later as as storage space for overflow from the Vatican Museum Galleries. During the Second World War, the Lateran became a safe haven for Jewish refugees.

Today the archbasilica continues to play an important ceremonial role within the Roman Catholic Church and also serves as both the Cathedral of Rome and a tourist destination making it a busy place all day and night.

Visitors would do well to take notice of the giant bronze doors of the basilica which were previously used at Curia Julia (The Roman Senate) in the Roman Forum.

You’ll also want to take notice of the statues, mosaics and frescoes which decorate the walls all over the church.

You might also be interested in checking out the 'Altar of the Holy Sacrament' which contains a cedar table that is thought to have been the table used during the Last Supper.

In truth, there’s a lot to see when you visit this basilica - Make sure you have ample amount of time to enjoy your visit

Getting There

 

As I mentioned above, the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran isn’t as popular as some of Rome’s other tourist hot spots. I'm guessing the reason is because of its distance from the city centre.

In truth, its only a 10-20 minute walk from Roma Termini Station, but for some tourists, that might be a bit too much. Personally, I found Rome much more enjoyable as a walking city, so I walked over from Trastevere and then walked back to my hotel.  

If you aren't interested in walking and want to get there quicker, the best way to do that is to take the Rome Metro to ‘San Giovanni’ Metro station. The basilica is more or less across the street. 

There is also a Hop On/Hop Off bus that will take you there, but it’s important to note that not all of the buses go that way, so you’re going to have to check at the bus stop to make sure which bus goes there.

Entrance to the basilica is free of charge and is open to tourists everyday before six.

It is also worth mentioning that before being admitted to the basilica you’re going to have to pass through a security check point. You may not want to bring too much with you when you visit in order to save time!

Like a lot of tourists who visit Rome, I listed St. John Lateran as a “possibility” in case I had some extra time. In retrospect, I think that the it should have been much higher on my list of places to visit. It is a beautiful church that is full of history and is coincidentally the only church on my trip where I actually saw church-related things happening.

If you’ve already finished visiting the Colosseum, the Vatican and Trevi Fountain, I recommend a stop at this beautiful basilica. The history and architecture on display at the Catholic Church’s most important basilica is something I think all tourists should enjoy.