St Paul’s Cathedral

The history of St Paul's Cathedral is so much a part of the English character and heritage, and such a symbol of the city of London, that extraordinary efforts were taken to save it during the Blitz bombings of World War II. It was bombed three times in the autumn of 1940 and spring of 1941, and one of those bombs would have completely destroyed it had it not been removed and defused. An incendiary bomb lodged in the great dome in December of 1940, and a contingent of civilian firefighters heroically remained in the cathedral to fight the resultant fire at great cost. A historic photograph of that day shows the cathedral wreathed in smoke, and is a symbol of the resilience of the people of London during the Blitz.

Many of the beautiful stained glass windows at St Paul's Cathedral were destroyed during these bombing incidents. Today, this beautiful dome can be seen from many angles in the city, and it is one of the largest and most beautiful in the world, ranking with the domes of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, Italy, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, and the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina, Saudi Arabia. The artwork of St Paul's Cathedral includes lovely frescoes on the interior of the dome by Sir James Thornhill, whose works also grace the walls of the National Gallery and Buckingham Palace.

The history of St Paul's Cathedral began when a Roman temple to the goddess Diana was built on the site. Subsequently, a Christian cathedral dedicated to St. Paul was built in 604 AD, and the current structure, the masterpiece of architect Christopher Wren (built from 1675 to 1710) is the fourth to occupy the site. Its predecessor was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. St Paul's Cathedral has always been an epicenter of important city and national events, including funerals of important statesmen (Winston Churchill, among others), royal weddings (including that of Prince Charles and Lady Diana), and the Queen's (both Victoria and Elizabeth II) birthday celebrations. If you're deciding when to go, you may want to check out the cathedral's calendar as ongoing events and celebrations include performances by the English National Ballet Company, orchestral performances, organ concerts by famous visiting organists from around the world, and much more.

Some of the finest artwork of St Paul's Cathedral are statues and busts of important British men and women, including the statues that adorn the tombs and crypts within the church. In addition to Churchill, buried here are John Donne, Lord Kitchener, the Duke of Wellington, Admiral Lord Nelson (whose statue also highlights famous Trafalgar Square), and Florence Nightingale. Other artwork of St Paul's Cathedral includes architectural highlights such as elaborate wrought iron and woodwork, and its magnificent organ. Stone and marble work are also important, and one of the most beautiful features is the splendid geometric spiral staircase that from below resembles a giant nautilus shell. While many of the original stained glass windows of St Paul's Cathedral were destroyed in World War II bombings, others remain—especially those in the ornate Quire, the Apse, and the OBE (Order of the British Empire) Chapel.

Other things to do at St Paul's Cathedral are joining one of the cathedral's "super tours," guided tours that last about 90 minutes and are led by docents with intimate knowledge of the history of St Paul's Cathedral and its importance to the city and country. There are also self-guided audio tours available, and even sign language tours. There is a nominal admission fee for non-worshippers. If you're arriving on foot, one of the best views in the city is from the famous Millennium Bridge that spans the Thames River. There are convenient underground stations within a five-minute's walk, and there is free bicycle parking.

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