Being one of the oldest cities in the UK, London is home to numerous historical landmarks. Today we uncover the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in London, England. From former royal palaces to botanic gardens, discover the most outstanding London landmarks here.
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What are UNESCO sites?
UNESCO stands for: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. This world-renowned organisation seeks out to protect cultural and natural sites of ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ across the globe.
Having a World Heritage status is obviously a big deal and adds prestige to the area. However, once you’re on there, it doesn’t mean you’re home safe. Because there’s always the slight chance your World Heritage Site title will be revoked. Some sites are even on the endangered list due to civil conflicts or other major catastrophes.
Number of World Heritage Sites
At the time of writing (May 2020), the total number of World Heritage Sites is 1,121. 869 of these are Cultural Heritage Sites, 213 are Natural Heritage Sites and 39 are a mix of both.
British World Heritage Sites
You can find 32 World Heritage Sites in the United Kingdom and four of them are located in London. Can you guess what they are? (No, Buckingham Palace isn’t on the list.) Find the answers below!
UNESCO World Heritage Sites in London, England
1. Tower of London
Is it ironic that one of the four English heritage sites in London was actually built by a Frenchman? Following his victory of the legendary Battle of Hastings in 1066, William the Conqueror had his Norman fortress built on the Thames.
Strategically located at the eastern corner of the ancient Roman Wall, the White Tower was indeed a well-protected fort. However, over history we have gotten to know it best as the royal palace Tower of London.
Although William, as I often call him, sadly died before his masterpiece was finished, the Tower of London is synonymous with London history and English royalty. Over its 1000+ years of existence, the royal palace in the heart of historic London, has expanded significantly, with each succeeding monarch adding another layer of bricks and history.
Today the Tower of London is mostly remembered as a notorious historic prison and known as the home of the magnificent Crown Jewels. Welcoming millions of visitors a year, the Tower of London is the most visited paid tourist attraction in London.
You can read more about the Tower of London and things to do near it in my article: 10 Things to Do Near Tower Bridge, London.
Book your tickets for Tower of London here and skip the lines!
Choose between the regular Tower of London tickets or VIP Early-Access tickets allowing you to attend the special official opening ceremony!
2. Maritime Greenwich
Maritime Greenwich World Heritage site is home to a whole collection of grand buildings of significant importance. Located along Greenwich Park in east London, they symbolise Britain’s maritime past and scientific accomplishments.
However, you might recognise them as the backdrop to several Hollywood blockbuster films such as Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World.
What is Maritime Greenwich famous for?
I intend to write a more detailed article about all the things you can see and do at Maritime Greenwich so let me just give you the key information here for now.
- Maritime Greenwich was originally the site of a 15th-century royal palace which was demolished in 1660. (See photo above.)
- It was then replaced by the Greenwich Hospital – designed by respected British architect Christopher Wren – which served as the home for retired sailors of the Royal Navy from 1692 till 1869.
- Subsequently, the building was used as the Royal Naval College which the Royal Navy used as a training facility between 1873 and 1998.
- Today, the Old Royal Naval College is open to the public and free to explore. Its main attraction is the glorious Painted Hall, located in the Main Hall. This was originally the grand dining room for the naval pensioners. Imagine eating your bangers and mash in such stunning surroundings!
- The Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site encompasses not one but eight different Points of Interest: 1) St Alfege church, 2) Greenwich Market, 3) Cutty Sark, 4) Old Royal Naval College, 5) National Maritime Museum, 6) The Queen’s House, Royal Observatory, 7) a protected panoramic view of St Paul’s Cathedral and 8) the Ranger’s House.
- Indicating Greenwich Mean Time, the UK time zone GMT originates from here. It is measured from the Royal Observatory Greenwich which sits atop the hill of Greenwich Park.
- Located just outside of the Royal Observatory Greenwich, you’ll also find the world’s Prime Meridian at Maritime Greenwich. All other north-south meridian lines are measured against this imaginary line at 0° longitude.
- If you’re also intrigued by vintage world maps and 16th/17th-century naval explorations like I am, then the National Maritime Museum is a real must-visit. Reflecting the area’s long naval past, the museum is a real treasure trove for anything related to maritime expeditions.
Great insider tip!
Combine your visit to Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site with the self-guided art trail The Line.
3. Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey
Most people probably don’t even know that the second palace in this list is officially still a royal palace. Also known as the Houses of Parliament today, the origins of the Palace of Westminster go back to Anglo-Saxon times already.
There have been various ancient buildings, mostly places of worship, in this area since Roman times already. But the first palace on this site was built in the 11th century by Edward the Confessor. This penultimate Anglo-Saxon king was distantly related to William the Conqueror, who’d build the other iconic London palace mentioned above.
The Palace of Westminster was mostly built out of practical reasons. This way Edward could oversee the building work of his pet project, Westminster Abbey. These two neighbouring London landmarks now share a mention in the prestigious list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in London.
Since 1066, all English coronations and almost all royal weddings have taken place at Westminster Abbey. You can also see the graves of notable British citizens here, such as Isaac Newton and Charles Dickens.
Unfortunately, King Edward didn’t get to enjoy his new home and abbey for a long time. He died a year after the completion of Westminster Abbey, and was buried there in 1066. (Kickstarting the events that would lead up to the Battle of Hastings mentioned above.)
Almost two hundreds years later, King Henry III would tear down most of the Anglo-Saxon Westminster Abbey to make it bigger, better, grander, rebuilding it in a Gothic style in 1245. Nowadays it’s one of the most significant Gothic buildings in England.
Today’s usage as the Houses of Parliament
In following centuries, monarchs would keep using Westminster Palace as their main residential palace. It wasn’t till 1512, when Henry VIII moved to nearby Whitehall Palace following a fire, that parliament took residence here.
In an attempt to kill King James I, Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot tried to blow up Parliament in 1605. Their failed attempt is commemorated each year on the 5th of November with bonfires and elaborate firework displays throughout the country.
Visitors to London will be disappointed to see the Palace of Westminster mostly covered in scaffolding. Currently, they obscure the greater part of its most iconic feature: the Queen Elizabeth Tower that houses the world-famous clock that we all know by its nickname Big Ben. (Its official name is the Great Bell, which is indeed not so exciting.)
Renovations of the tower and clock are scheduled to finish by 2021. If you were hoping to take a photo of this iconic London landmark, you might need to postpone your London travels.
Did you know you can visit the Houses of Parliament? Book your exclusive behind-the-scenes guided tour here!
4. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Unlike the other entries in this list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in London, this final popular attraction didn’t use to be a palace. It was however located near former royal residences and the layout of the gardens have been influenced by these important residents in the past.
Kew Gardens was in fact created by Princess Augusta in 1759 who extended the already present exotic garden with a nine acre botanic garden. It would soon become the new home of seeds and plant specimens brought back to London from naval explorations to faraway destinations.
Grown into a 330-acre estate boasting over 50,000 living plants, Kew Gardens is now recognised as the world’s largest plant collection. While its highlights include the impressive greenhouse that imitates different environments, Japanese gardens and much more, Kew Gardens are also of scientific importance. They don’t only help conserve specimens, but also conduct valuable research into plants, herbs and fungi.
Welcoming around two million visitors a year, Kew Gardens is one of the top tourist attractions in England. Most of these visitors come between late November and early January when Kew Gardens are transformed in a magical wonderland, making it one of the top things to do in London at Christmas time.
Buy your Kew Gardens tickets here and skip the lines!
Have you visited one or more of these English heritage sites in London? If not, which one would you like to visit most? Let me know in a comment below!
Thanks, Zarina xx
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Photo credit feature image: Nomadic Julien on Unsplash