At the behest of King Charles II in 1675, the Royal Observatory was built to further studies in astronomy and navigation. Or as King Charles himself put it “The most exact care and diligence to rectifying the tables of the Motions of the Heavens, and the Places of the fixed stars, so as to find the most desired Longitude at Sea, for perfecting the art of Navigation.” Phew! That’s a mouthful eh?
Well Lee and I didn’t exactly know that was the reason it was built when we set off to visit it on a sunny August morning, we just thought it sounded interesting with all its history, science, and great views of London. And it was!
The Royal Observatory is actually only one part of the greater Maritime Greenwich area. In addition to the Observatory, the park includes the Queen’s House, Old Royal Naval College, the National Maritime Museum, and Greenwich Park. And…it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site!
Added to the UNESCO list in 1997 because it is a “unique assemblage of buildings that together with the Royal Park bear witness to a period of unparalleled artistic, scientific, and naval endeavor in the 17th and 18th centuries.” The Royal Observatory really does have lots to see when you visit.
We started in the Flamsteed House, the oldest building in the complex and the first purpose-built scientific research facility in the country. It was built between 1675-76 by Sir Christopher Wren, with the assistance of Robert Hooke, and was the home of the first Astronomer Royal- John Flamsteed. He lived and worked in the building making over 20,000 observations plotting the moon’s orbit and position of the stars. Unfortunately, due to atmospheric pollution, those observations can no longer be made here (those duties have been moved to Herstmonceaux, Sussex).
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Flamsteed House is furnished with clocks, telescopes, navigational instruments, and an exhibit on John Harrison’s four timepieces from the 18th century which forever changed maritime navigation. My favourite room in the house is the Octagon Room with tall windows and open space which was used to observe the skies through telescopes.
On top of the house is the famous red Time Ball that drops each day at 1:00 GMT time for ships in the Thames (or anyone really) to set their clocks by.
By far the busiest part of the Royal Observatory is the courtyard where a brass line in the ground marks the Prime Meridian. Visitors queue up to have a moment to straddle the line and get their photo taken with one foot in each the Eastern and Western hemisphere. But let us let you in on a little secret – inside the Meridian Building by that courtyard is the “Transit Circle” telescope with its cross-hairs in the eyepiece precisely defining 0° for the world. And right above that is a sign to designate the Prime Meridian so you can also go in there to get a photo standing on 0° 0′ 0″ with no wait at all. If you go at dusk you might also catch a glimpse of the green laser beam that is projected from the observatory to mark the Prime Meridian that stretches out for miles. Now how neat is that?
After visiting the various buildings and courtyard there is one more thing you have to do – find a spot at the top of the hill to admire the amazing view of London.
- The astronomer’s apartment at the Flamsteed House, the Octagon Room, and the Time and Longitude Gallery with Harrison’s Timepieces.
- The Meridian Courtyard (if you don’t mind the wait) or the Meridian Building to stand in two hemispheres at the same time.
- The Great Equatorial Telescope in the onion dome- one of the largest telescopes in the world.
- Setting your watch to the drop of the big red Time Ball.
- Peter Harrison’s Planetarium for views of the night sky or other special shows.
- Special exhibitions, Sci-Fi movies, and of course the view!
Plan Your Visit
- Tickets for the Historic Royal Observatory and Meridian Line start at £9.50 for adults or £5.00 for children but there are lots of options for combo tickets, family tickets, or add-on items (like shows). It is best to visit this link to find the best option for you and your companions.
- Opening hours are 1000-1700 daily, with last admission at 1630. They are closed on December 24 and 25.
- Getting there is half the fun! In addition to Docklands Light Railway and double decker bus, you can also start your Maritime adventure and arrive by boat with the Thames Clipper or a sight-seeing cruise.
Make it a Day
In the Area
- Visit the only clipper ship left in the world- the Cutty Sark. Launched in 1869 it traveled the equivalent of to the moon and back in its 52-year career carrying cargo such as tea, wool, and furniture.
- Explore the world’s largest maritime museum- the National Maritime Museum. It’s very kiddo-friendly with thousands of artifacts, artwork, maps, chart, and all things nautical.
- Enjoy art and architecture at the Queen’s House– especially the famous Tulip staircase. It’s also thought to be haunted if you’d like to do a little ghost hunting.
- Catch a tour at the Old Royal Naval College a neoclassical building from 1696. Primarily used by a university you can still visit the Painted Hall and the Chapel, both of which were renovated a few years ago and have wonderful paintings to see. Some have described the Painted Hall as “the Sistine Chapel of the UK“.
Other UNESCO World Heritage Sites in London
- Visit the final resting places of kings, queens, writers and scientists at Westminster Abbey and then enjoy the neo-Gothic architecture of the Palace of Westminster while learning all about the parliamentary system of government.
- Wander through countless species of trees and flowers in the Arboretum, view 800 paintings from 19th century artists in the Marianne North Gallery, tour the Royal Kew Palace, and visit a Japanese Garden at the Royal Botanic Kew Gardens.
- The Tower of London is a must-see on one of your first trips to London. Arguably the most famous castle in the world, it is a symbol not just of London but also of a 1000 years of English history. Join the first Yeoman Warder’s Tour after you arrive and prepare to be entertained as you learn about the bloody history in the Tower. Then check out the Crown Jewels (and over-the-top dishes like the Grand Punch Bowl) and the White Tower that is multiple floors of exhibits and artifacts, including a block and ax used for famous beheadings.
This post is part of my London Love series.
For more information on common (and some not so common) sights in London, as well as itineraries to help you plan your time, please visit my growing collection of posts in London Love.
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