I was struck by something when I traveled to Washington, D.C. last month. Going through the museums, I noticed that the (European) history of the United States only went back a few centuries. It made perfect sense given the Pilgrims arrived in 1620, but it threw London’s long past into relief for me. I’ve always been fascinated by London’s history, and being in DC made me appreciate its heritage even more. I’ve paid particular attention to it since coming home, and today I want to share my highlights of London architecture through the centuries.

London architecture through the centuries

London Architecture through the Centuries

When I first moved to London I couldn’t believe there were still traces of Ancient Roman civilization. The idea that the Romans were here at all pretty much blew my myopic Californian mind (we only became a state in 1850), but the fact that bits of their wall were still intact amazed me. The London Wall was built around 200 AD and augmented in medieval times, and it’s still visible between the skyscrapers of the City of London today.

London Wall

11th Century London Architecture

Not much survives from the period between the Romans’ departure and the building of the Tower of London, so I’ll skip ahead a few centuries and continue my highlights tour in the year 1000. The White Tower in the Tower of London complex dates back to the 11th century and is still one of the most stunning buildings on the city’s skyline. Every time I go inside I feel the layers of history revealing themselves in the walls, steps, and stories of prisoners like French king John the Good.

White Tower, London

12th Century London Architecture

Fast forward 100 years and London has a few more architectural treasures to showcase. My favorite is The Round Church in Temple. Consecrated in 1185 by the patriarch of Jerusalem, it was designed to recall the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the most sacred place in the world of the Crusaders. Today it’s better known for featuring in The Da Vinci Code, but I’m awed by its real history as much as its fictional one.

The Round Church, Temple, London

13th Century London Architecture

The next century reveals more impressive churches in London. Not only was the present Westminster Abbey started then, but also a smaller place of worship in Holborn called St Etheldreda’s Church. Built in the late 13th century, it’s one of only two London buildings that date from King Edward I’s reign. It was once the chapel of a large estate that housed the Bishops of Ely, but today it stands alone on a beautifully preserved historic street with passages that lead to hidden pubs.

St Etheldredas Church, London

14th Century London Architecture

After another hundred years, London brings us The Charterhouse in Smithfield. Built on the site of a burial ground for victims of the Black Death, it has served as a Carthusian monastery, private home, school, and almshouse since its founding. Elizabeth I met the Privy Council here before her 1558 coronation, and James I used the Great Chamber to create 130 new Barons. Every time I pass by, I get goosebumps thinking about how much history this building has witnessed.

The Charterhouse, London

15th Century London Architecture

With its ornate facade and sweeping courtyard, the 15th-century Guildhall is one of the most impressive buildings in the City. Built on top of a Roman amphitheater (there are the Romans again!), it’s a great example of the evolution of London architecture through the centuries (it’s currently on its fourth roof). Formerly used as a stage for state trials like that of Lady Jane Grey, it’s now the ceremonial and administrative center of the City of London and its Corporation.

Guildhall, London

16th Century London Architecture

Some of my favorite architecture in London comes from the Tudor period (who doesn’t love a half-timbered facade?). St Bartholomew’s Gatehouse in Smithfield dates back to 1595 and stands out from its more modern neighbors.

St Bartholomew's Gatehouse, Smithfield

Not only does it check the Elizabethan box, but also the lures-me-into-secret-spaces one. Through the arched entrance below it lie the 12th-century Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great and its churchyard.

St Bartholomew's Gatehouse, Smithfield

17th Century London Architecture

I know I’m American when my eyes light up at a sign that says a place was rebuilt in 1667. I can hardly think back that far, but the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub can. Destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666, it rose like a phoenix to offer future generations of pub-goers the chance to enjoy a pint in its warren of atmospheric rooms (and delight in its name).

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese Pub

18th Century London Architecture

There are a lot more buildings to choose from in the 18th century, but my favorite is St Paul’s Cathedral. Sir Christopher Wren knew a thing or two about building a landmark, and this icon remains one of the most recognizable works of London architecture through the centuries. My favorite view of it is from the narrow alleys that radiate off Paternoster Square, but it’s hard to find a vantage point from which it doesn’t shine.

St Paul's Cathedral

19th Century London Architecture

I couldn’t possibly choose a favorite work of London architecture from the 19th century. Big Ben, the Natural History Museum, St Pancras station, and Tower Bridge vie for my affections. For one century I’m going to cheat and say they’re all winners.

Tower Bridge

20th Century London Architecture

Strangely, the 20th century presents me with the opposite dilemma. I spent a long time thinking about the highlights, but aside from Tate Modern and the Hoover Building I didn’t feel very inspired. Then I remembered Michelin House. This Art-Nouveau-meets-Art-Deco gem in Chelsea is not only aesthetically beautiful with its stained glass and tiles, but also amusing with its giant Michelin Man dancing his tire-wrapped frame across the facade.

Michelin House, London

21st Century London Architecture

It amazes me how many new buildings have popped up in London in the last 17 years. From the Gherkin to the Shard, there’s no shortage of skyscrapers.

London Skyline

But my true love of the 21st century is the London Eye, which opened to the public in 2000. I never tire of seeing its delicate frame on the skyline, and even though I’m terrified of heights I can appreciate the views from its peak.

London Eye

And when I’m at the top, I feel an even greater sense of awe at London’s rich past. From the Houses of Parliament to the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, the views of this city—like the museums in DC—offer constant reminders of its history.

View from the London Eye

How about you? What are your favorite bits of London architecture through the centuries?

Pin it!
London architecture through the centuries

28 Comments on Lady’s 15 Places that Will Make You Fall in Love with London

  1. Great post! This ticks all my boxes for love of buildings and history. I spent most of my youth visiting family in Manchester and I can see parallels between there and London for its rich history and diverse architecture. Thank you for sharing x

  2. I love the Tower of London and the Tower Bridge even though they’re centuries apart:) also St Paul’s, Big Ben, London Eye too. My favourite skyscraper is the Gherkin. The Shard isn’t too bad either but I’m afraid that the new proposed skyscrapers will destroy that delicate balance of the old and the new in City of London area. I love also the architecture of the ordinary houses in different areas of London:)

  3. Hi Julie, thank you for another great post! I love every single one of these places in London, the history of this great City is so rich, I love how the “old” is organically combine with the “new” – and we have to give credit to the architect for this. I consider myself privileged being able to say I am a Londoner, it is a beautiful city 🙂
    My other favourite places are Pickering Place (the smallest square in London and home to Embassy of Texas Republic back in the day!), and Postman’s park is a very special place with some beautiful buildings all around it. And Lincoln’s Inn is pretty special too.

  4. I love this post! I’m tickled to say that I’ve seen all of these places except the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. I even dined once at Bibendum in the Michelin Building. What a great selection of London classics.

  5. I’ve lived in London for almost three years now and sometimes I just don’t appreciate the fantastic architecture that is dotted all over the city, your post is a lovely reminder thank you:)

  6. I love every little nook and cranny of London but must admit the history of the Tower wins out in my book every visit. So much history nestled next to a tube station with skyscrapers meters away! It’s like how the Colosseum is surrounded by 21th century cars racing through the Roman streets – such a juxtaposition! The Tower and Westminster are the only real “touristy” landmarks I insist on visiting every trip. Ooh and I my husband and I went on the hunt for old pubs a couple of years ago and Cheshire Cheese was on the list! That and Ye Old Mitre were such fun finds!

  7. This is such a beautiful post. I’ve always loved that walking through London feels like walking back in time. I didn’t know you could still see Roman stuff though, must go check this out!

  8. I’m from Ohio, so it’s pretty amazing to see buildings still standing or in use from 1803 (the year Ohio became a state) or before, let alone to even step foot inside one. That alone blew my mind just to see architecture that dates so far before that time!

  9. Was lucky enough to spend 3days in London & jammed packed as much as humanly possible. Stayed in Westminster. Saw & rode the London Eye, had fish & chips at a pub under this old bridge, the Tube “mind the gap” & double decker buses, Saint Paul’s, Westminster Abby, Tower of London with it’s amazing history including that Roman Wall & the tour given by real Beefeaters, Trafalgar Square, Big Ben, all the historical buildings left,
    & right & all the Museum’s & Parks. Fortnam & Mason’s and “high tea”. Next time around will be Buckingham Palace & Kensington Gardens & more Museum’s among other places. Thank you for your varied blog highlights.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.