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If you don’t want to stay in the hustle and bustle of central London but still want a great place to spend a few days in the city then I really recommend staying in Greenwich. It’s one of my favourite places outside of the centre and as well as being pretty, safe and accessible there’s actually loads of things to do in Greenwich, London too!
Greenwich is a UNESCO World Heritage site for all of the maritime history that’s there, one of only 3 World Heritage sites in London. So that means boats, of course, but also the observatory which was literally the centre of the world, where time got measured from and so many scientific discoveries related to time, maps and astronomy were made.
So, without further ado, let’s take a look at what Greenwich attractions there are if you decide to take a trip out of London centre!
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List of things to do in Greenwich, London
Probably the biggest draw to people wanting to come to Greenwich is to see the Royal Observatory. This is home to the Prime Meridian line, historical scientific artefacts and even a planetarium.
The observatory was commissioned in the time of Charles II in a time of intense work in the world of science and also with exploration. The more the ‘world’ explored the more they needed to be accurate in order to not get lost at sea. Many of the nations who were exploration giants offered huge rewards to scientists to find a solution to the problem of mapping longitude. If they could get a solution it would mean so much more accuracy while sailing, less shipwrecks and overall more efficiency. Exploration and empire building was big business.
While visiting the observatory you cant:
- learn about the Royal Astronomers – men who were appointed to advise the King and Queen on astronomical matters. They also charted the night sky and helped with numerous scientific discoveries.
- See the Harrison clocks – clocks invented to solve the problem of longitude and which were successful!
- learn about Sir Christopher Wren – an astronomer but also a famous builder at the time. He designed what was to become Flamsteed House, where the Royal Astronomers would live.
- See the Prime Meridian – you can learn about the history of how Greenwich was chosen to be the Prime Meridian and how it became the centre of time.
- See the ball drop – a way in which the maritime captains could set their watches in the late 1800s. It drops at 1pm each day.
- Visit the Planetarium and watch a show.
The Observatory is open from 10am – 5pm each day. Tickets can be purchased as part of a bundle with the Cutty Sark attraction (see below). Planetarium shows cost extra.
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I’ve kept this one separate for the above attraction because although they are in the same area and it’s considered part of the Royal Observatory, you can actually visit just the Astronomy Centre for free. It’s essentially a museum and galleries about astronomy and space. If you’re on a budget then it’s definitely worth taking a look at! We went a number of years ago now with our kids and really enjoyed it.
It’s not a substitute by any means but since you’re up by the Observatory anyway, you’ll be able to see the meridian line through the entrance gates which I think can satisfy some without needing to do more.
You can also, for free, see the Great Equatorial Telescope which is one of the biggest telescopes in the world. The Observatory runs some skywatching events so do keep a look out for those if you’re interested in the night sky!
Both the Astronomy Centre and the telescope are open to visitors daily from 10am – 5.30pm.
If you want to have some quiet time then a walk in the beautiful Greenwich Park is a must. It’s a huge open space, often with a load of dog owners enjoying it, and it’s perfect for picnics.
You’ll wander through the park if you’re on your way up to the Observatory and you can get some wonderful views over Canary Wharf and the skyline of the business district there. Even on a bit of an overcast day on the last day of the year like we experienced above it was quite spectacular!
The history of the park goes way back and it was used as a hunting ground for Henry VIII when Greenwich Palace was next to it.
The Old Royal Naval College are some of the most striking buildings in Greenwich and lie on the banks of the Thames. The buildings weren’t always a naval college though, that was just from 1873. Prior to that and the reason it was built was for it to be a hospital for elderly and injured seamen.
It was built in 1694 and designed by Sir Christoper Wren (remember from above – he designed the Flamsteed House of the Royal Observatory) and it was to be for elderly and injured seamen who had served in the Royal Navy.
The history of the site doesn’t stop there and actually it’s built on the foundations of Greenwich Palace where Henry VIII was born!
The college is now open to visitors and there’s a wealth of art history, architecture and stories to be told inside. Don’t miss the amazing painted hall which they dub as the UK’s Sistine Chapel – if you’re at all interested in art history this is for you – a gorgeous and intricate baroque painting on the ceiling of one of the domed buildings.
As well as the college there is a Visitor’s centre, which is free, which can help to get a good handle on what is around Greenwich and some of the history and so I definitely recommend. You can also visit the grounds of the college for free.
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Queen’s House was originally built for King James’s wife, Anne of Denmark in the early 1600s. Unfortunately she didn’t get to see the whole thing finished as she died. Work actually had to stop until the site was next given to Charles I’s wife, Henrietta Maria in 1629. The building was unique at the time as the first classical building to be constructed in that style. It didn’t stay long as a place of court though as the English Civil war happened and it was removed of many of the original features.
Nowadays Queen’s House is the home to many piece of art. It’s a free to visit and highly recommended to those interested in art history or architecture.
National Maritime Museum
Next to Queen’s House is the National Maritime Museum. We really enjoyed our time here a few years ago now and it’s a great place to come to with kids. I will say that there is A LOT to see here though and definitely worth a couple of visits if you can manage it – it’s a free museum so at least it won’t break the budget!
With artefacts and exhibitions about every kind of exploration and seafaring this is a really interesting museum. You don’t need to be particularly interested in boats to enjoy it and learn lots though.
The Cutty Sark was the fastest sailing boat of its time and is known as an extreme clipper. She’s the only surviving example of one left in the world today. She was used to transport cargo to and from the Far East and as well as tea some of her cargo even included wool from as far as Australia.
She’s impressive to visit just from the outside but if you do take time to visit inside you’ll learn all about what made the ship one of the fastest at the time and what life was like for the sailors who sailed on her. I haven’t visited inside myself but I have a visit to the area coming up soon so I’m planning to visit and so hopefully I can report back!
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Greenwich Foot Tunnel
The Greenwich Foot Tunnel runs from just next to the Cutty Sark and takes you all the way under the Thames to the other side which is called the Isle of Dogs. It’s a great way to get to another part of London and you can get some fantastic views of Greenwich from the other side of the river. If it’s a nice day then I recommend taking a picnic as there’s a lovely small park by the banks where you can take in that view.
The foot tunnel was actually opened in 1902 and is a nice example of some Victorian architecture. It was damaged at the North end in WW2 and you can see when walking along which parts were replaced and fixed.
There are spiral staircases that lead down to the tunnel and lifts as well to help with accessibility. You cannot ride a bike down there – they must be carried. They are open 24 hours a day.
If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed with all the history on offer in Greenwich and need a little retail therapy then a trip to Greenwich Market should definitely be on your list. (Although, shhh – it’s also a historic market! It dates back to 1737!)
The market has numerous stalls from clothes to souvenirs to antiques and also has a number of street food options too. It’s open every day from 10am – 5.30pm and is situated in the centre of Greenwich town. For more information on what stalls and shops are there see their website here.
Greenwich is one of the main stops on many of the sightseeing cruise boats and also the River Bus (which is part of Transport for London and can be ridden with an Oyster card – see here for more info) so it makes sense to include a Thames Cruise on your itinerary if you want to go to Greenwich!
They are a really great alternative to the Hop on Hop off bus tours and I personally really love getting the boat if I can. Many of the tours only go as far as Greenwich but do take in almost all the sites that you’ll want to see. Some also go as far as the Thames barrier.
While the river bus can be a great way to get to central London do be aware, especially at busy times, that there can be a bit of a queue and you may have to wait. We almost missed our coach home one time due to not knowing how busy it can get – be aware if you have to be somewhere on time!
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