At 0° longitude, where the Eastern and Western Hemispheres meet, Greenwich has astronomy and seafaring in its soul.
This corner of southeast London also has a royal past, as Henry VIII resided here in the 16th century, while a line of monarchs spent time at the Queen’s House, still standing in front of Wren’s Old Royal Naval College.
In the spirit of navigation Charles II founded the Royal Observatory in 1675 and its location was chosen as the Prime Meridian in 1851. That invisible line is marked at night by a bright green laser that shoots across the Thames.
Greenwich Park is one of the eight Royal Parks of London and has one of the essential views of London.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Greenwich:
1. Royal Observatory
The home of Greenwich Meantime stands atop the hill in Greenwich Park.
The earliest part of the observatory, Flamsteed House, was designed by Christopher Wren and completed in 1676 to become the first state-funded scientific institution in Britain.
Just beyond the gate to the complex’s courtyard is the Meridian Line at exactly 0° longitude, and you can tiptoe the line between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres.
The museum reveals the history of the observatory and allows you to go under the dome to see the 28-inch Great Equatorial Telescope, the 7th largest instrument of its kind in the world.
The galleries present dozens of groundbreaking instruments like John Harrison’s marine timekeepers, and his H4 “sea watch”, which changed maritime navigation forever in the 1750s.
2. Greenwich Park
The first thing to mention about the 17th-century landscape park around the Royal Observatory is the fabulous vistas.
At the top of the hill, and just outside the telescope dome, this has been touted as one of the best views in England and takes in the Queen’s House, the Old Royal Naval College, the Thames, the modern towers of Canary Wharf, and monuments like the Shard and BT Tower further west.
The park was used by Henry VIII for hunting, and on the upper level there are deer enclosures in a portion known as “The Wilderness”. The equestrian events for London 2012 took place in Greenwich Park, and on the regal avenues and paths are ancient trees like sweet chestnuts planted back in the 1600s.
There are two cafes, and on the upper level is a cricket pitch, while just east of the Queen’s House is the Queen’s Orchard, growing historic fruit species.
3. National Maritime Museum
In an exuberant building formerly occupied by the Royal Hospital School, the National Maritime Museum opened in 1934 and is free to enter.
The museum charts the history of seafaring, but also has captivating exhibits specific to British naval history.
One is the coat worn by Vice Admiral Nelson when he was fatally wounded at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The left shoulder is pierced by the bullet that killed him.
Also here is J.M.W. Turner famous painting of the battle, the largest composition he produced, and Prince Frederick’s Barge, the gilded state barge launched in 1732 for Prince Frederick, father of King George II. Children will be kept on board thanks to the “Ahoy!” gallery, with hands-on stations that allow them to stoke a ship’s boiler or land a fish.
4. Old Royal Naval College
Conceived as Greenwich Hospital, a home for retired sailors, this striking Baroque monument, identified by its twin domes, was designed by Christopher Wren and completed in 1712. Wren’s two wings are footed with colonnades and divided along an axis that allows the Queen’s House to the north to have clear views to the Thames.
You may have seen these buildings many times before as it was used as a shooting location in Thor: The Dark World, The King’s Speech, Les Misérables (2012), Dark Knight Rises and Pirates of the Caribbean on Stranger Tides.
On the west wing, head into the Painted Hall, painted by James Thornhill between 1716 and 1726 and honouring George I as well as the couples, King William III and Queen Mary II and Queen Anne and Prince George of Denmark.
Standing opposite is the hospital’s chapel, given a Rococo design in the 1780s after the original decor was lost in a fire.
5. Greenwich Market
A market has traded in Greenwich since the 1300s and it moved to today’s location at the start of the 18th century.
The date at the entrance reads 1737, and the stalls have been sheltered by a cast iron and glass roof since 1902. Seven days a week you can pop by for a dizzyingly international food selection, from Brazilian churros, to brisket, teriyaki, Ethiopian cuisine and fresh oysters.
These are joined by stalls selling art, antiques, crafts, clothing, jewellery and handmade cosmetics.
The handsome buildings around the marketplace are from the turn of the 1830s and are threaded with alleys connecting to King William Walk, Nelson Road and Greenwich Church Street, and all flanked with quirky independent shops.
The market continues to be owned by Greenwich Hospital, and a share of profits go to a charity supporting Royal Navy personnel and their families.
6. Queen’s House
One of the resplendent buildings that you’ll see from the viewpoint in Greenwich Park, is the whitewashed Queen’s House (1636), backing onto the park to the north.
Architecturally, this former royal palace is exceptional as it was the first complete Classical building in the country.
Queen’s House was built for Anne of Denmark, Queen of James I, by Inigo Jones the most important architect of the Early Modern period, and was used by the Royal Family up to 1805 in the reign of George III. When you come, be sure to scale the Tulip Stairs, the first centrally unsupported helical staircase in England.
The palace is used by the Maritime Museum as a gallery for its marine art collection.
Some of the major works here are the Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, Canaletto’s depiction of the Greenwich Hospital and L. S. Lowry’s View of Deptford Power Station from Greenwich.
7. Cutty Sark
One of the last of the tea clippers, the Cutty Sark was assembled in 1869 by the Jock Willis Shipping Line using a wrought iron frame and teak timbers.
She was built for speed, and first took part in the tea races from China, earning premiums for returning swiftly with this prized cargo.
Later the Cutty Sark switched to the wool trade with Australia after the Suez Canal made it easier for steamships to reach the Far East.
For a decade at the end of the 1880s, the ship held the record for this journey, at the 77 days outbound and 73 returning.
Since the 1950s she has been in dry dock by the Thames.
A fire in 2007 required long-term repairs, and in 2012 the site reopened with a glass canopy over the dry dock and a new museum on board the ship, recording the tea and wool runs in the 19th century.
8. Walking Tour
We’ll cover all the top monuments in Greenwich on this list, but Greenwich’s townscape merits a tour on foot.
There are Georgian, Regency and early-Victorian townhouses on almost every street.
On the west side of the park, Croom Hill and the leafy streets branching off it, like Gloucester Circus are especially elegant.
St Alfege Church on Greenwich Church Street dominates the centre with its portico and was built in the 1710s according to a design by Nicholas Hawksmoor.
Close by there are dozens of restaurants of all nationalities and descriptions, one-off design shops selling and vintage clothes stores, and cultural amenities like the arty Picturehouse cinema.
Leave Greenwich Park from its main southern gate and you’ll find yourself on Blackheath, one of Greater London’s largest commons at 211 acres.
People in the UK will be familiar with this scene as the starting line of the London Marathon every April, when the crowd of runners filters out through Greenwich Park.
Blackheath is picturesque for the many Georgian and Regency townhouses fronting the common, and the spire of the Gothic Revival All Saints’ Church built in 1830. You can stroll across to the prosperous Blackheath Village, where there are restaurants, independent shops and pubs.
Come by on the closest Saturday to November 5 for one of the biggest free fireworks displays in London.
10. Thames Riverside
The 15-minute walk to the Cutty Sark pub on Ballast Quay is in range for casual visitors to Greenwich.
With its circular bays, this pub was named in honour of the Cutty Sark after the ship moved to Greenwich in 1951, but was previously known as the Union Tavern, and was built at the end of the 18th century.
On the way there you’ll see the imposing hulk of Greenwich Power Station from 1902 and the Trinity Hospital, an almshouse from 1613 and redesigned in a Gothic Revival style in 1812. Another lovable old pub is the Trafalgar Tavern, from 1837 and just to the east of the Naval College.
Just by the Cutty Sark (the ship) you can enter the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, built in 1902 and linking Greenwich with Tower Hamlets.
11. Peter Harrison Planetarium
Also managed by the National Maritime Museum, the Peter Harrison Planetarium has an apt location just along the avenue from Flamsteed House.
The planetarium projects a crystal-clear 5,000 by 4,000 pixel image onto its dome, and has an ever-changing programme of shows on stars, solar flares, nebulae and other celestial phenomena.
These displays are accompanied by real astronomers working at the planetarium, who are happy to field questions at the end.
In the holidays there are shows aimed at younger children like Space Safari, for under-7s, while grown-ups can come for evening movie screenings in this special setting at the “Silver Screen Science Fiction” programme.
The movie is followed by a brief talk from an astronomer about the science behind these productions.
12. Boat Trips
A whole armada of boats sets off from Greenwich Pier throughout the day and all year round.
You can go east to the pier next to the O2 arena on the Peninsula, but most of the tourist traffic heads west towards central London.
The classic trip is a commentated hop-on-hop-off cruise by a company like Citycruises, calling at the Tower of London, London Eye and Westminster.
If you don’t need the extra insight and just want to see London’s landmarks like the Naval College, Canary Wharf, St Paul’s, the Tate Modern, and countless others in a different way, TFL (Transport for London) operates a River Bus from morning to night.
This docks at 21 London piers from Putney in the west to Woolwich in the east, including Greenwich Pier.
13. The O2
The iconic Millennium Dome was the crowning glory of the UK’s millennium celebrations and hosted an exhibition that lasted a single year.
The building kicked off a mass of development on Greenwich Peninsula, a former industrial zone east of Greenwich proper.
This brought a stop on the Jubilee Line, North Greenwich, and a forest of high-rise apartment towers on the riverside.
The dome was rebranded as the O2 in 2005, becoming a multi-use sports, dining and entertainment venue.
Major recording artists on world tours, like Ed Sheeran, Adele, Drake and Katy Perry have all performed in the last couple of years.
There are also NBA games in winter, and the basketball events for the 2018 Olympics took place at the O2. “Up at the O2” allows you to strap on a harness and climb this landmark, while the Emirates Air Line cable-car links the O2 with the opposite bank of the Thames at Royal Victoria Dock.
14. Fan Museum
Fronting Greenwich Park at the bottom of Crooms Hill is a one-of-a-kind museum housed in two adjacent Georgian townhouses.
As the name will tell you, the Fan Museum is all about fans, the handheld variety.
There are more than 4,000 fans in the collection, the oldest going back to the 1000s, although only a selection is on show at any time.
Two of the museum’s treasures are fans painted by Paul Gauguin and Walter Sickert.
There’s also accompanying information about the history and design of fans, and regularly updated temporary exhibitions.
At the back is a tearoom in an orangery, delightfully adorned with murals, and the Japanese gardens outside have a fan-shaped parterre.
15. Ranger’s House
Backing onto Greenwich Park near the top of Crooms Hill is a grand red-brick Palladian mansion known as the Ranger’s House.
This was built at the start of the 1720s for Vice Admiral Francis Hosier, and it wasn’t until 1816 that the first Ranger of Greenwich Park took up residence.
The title is was purely ceremonial and carried no responsibilities.
The house is now managed by English Heritage and is a repository for the art collection of German-born diamond magnate Sir Julius Wernher, who passed away in 1912. Across 12 rooms are 700 objects, like Sèvres porcelain, Renaissance jewellery, carved ivory from Byzantine, Medieval and Renaissance times and a trove of art by Hans Memling, Francesco Francia, Filippino Lippi, Joshua Reynolds and John Hoppner.
Check the website for opening times, as these can be irregular.