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