Naval and royal history, Tall Ships, the Meridian Line and fantastic views – Greenwich is full of things to do and see
Gliding up the Thames, as fireworks light up the night sky, the dramatic scene of the Tall Ships as they head past Greenwich’s striking Old Royal Naval College is spectacular.
The town’s nautical heritage – it’s also home to the National Maritime Museum – makes it an ideal location for the Sail Royal Greenwich festival, which returns to the London borough on 15-18 September.
The festival has been running since 2012, with visitors from far and wide flocking to join cruises on the traditionally rigged vessels.
Climb aboard to pass former tea clipper the Cutty Sark, cross the Prime Meridian at Greenwich with Canary Wharf’s skyscrapers in the background, then head downstream as you pass through the futuristic-looking Thames Barrier.
The cruises on these magnificent ships, such as the 50-metre long Mercedes brig, vary in time between two and four hours – some of which will also be travelling upstream from Greenwich to London Bridge.
If you head to the riverside in front of the Old Royal Naval College, the group of buildings that were originally constructed to serve as the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich and designed by Sir Christopher Wren, you can grab a prime spot to watch the vessels sail in to begin the festival.
Stars and planets
As the birthplace of Greenwich Meantime, the town is synonymous with timekeeping, so be sure to head to the Royal Observatory (adults, £9.50, concessions £7.50, children £5).
Stand on the famous Prime Meridian, which marks 0 degrees longitude, and place a foot either side of the dividing line between the eastern and western hemispheres.
Tour the recently refurbished Flamsteed House apartments, where 10 Astronomer Royals have lived with their families.
Visit the parlour, where you will hear a recording of letters from Astronomer Royal Sir George Biddell Airy’s wife Richarda read out, giving an insight into what life at the Observatory was like.
Climb the staircase up to the splendid Octagon Room, one of the few surviving interiors by Sir Christopher Wren; admire its wonderfully ornate ceiling and enjoy stunning views over the park from its elegant interior.
And while you’re at the Royal Observatory, be sure to visit the Peter Harrison Planetarium.
Sit back and relax in your reclining chair and watch as you are taken on an awe-inspiring tour of the universe, such as The Sky Tonight, which is presented live by a Royal Observatory Astronomer, and which takes visitors on a tour of what can be seen in the night sky on the day of their visit, such as stars, planets and moons (adults, £7.50, concessions, £6.50, children £7.50).
Maritime Greenwich – which comprises the town centre, the beautiful Royal Park and its many historic buildings – was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the concentration and quality of buildings of historic and architectural interest.
One of these historic buildings, the Queen’s House, was designed by Inigo Jones in 1616 for the wife of James I, Anne of Denmark.
It was the first Classical building in the country and is well worth a visit (free).
The house, which is the last remaining building of Greenwich Palace, has recently undergone an extensive refurbishment to celebrate the 400th anniversary of its commissioning, and is set to reopen its doors to the public this October.
Walk on the geometrically patterned black-and-white marble floor of the Great Hall, which was laid in 1635, and marvel at the sweeping Tulip Stairs with its beautifully ornate ironwork – and the first geometric self-supporting spiral stair in Britain – and then browse some of the 450 works of art, which date from the 16th century to the present day.
No visit to Greenwich would be complete without a look around the National Maritime Museum (free).
It houses 10 galleries and a vast collection that spans artworks, maps and charts, and memorabilia.
Look out for J M W Turner’s largest painting, The Battle Of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805, admire Prince Frederick’s barge, the decorative royal barge that is gilded in 24-carat gold, and afterwards enjoy the brightly coloured ship figureheads that adorn the walls.
Have a moment of reflection in the Baltic Exchange Memorial Glass gallery – the elaborate stained glass windows were commissioned by the Baltic Exchange, which was a regular meeting place for merchants and naval officers to plan trade missions, to commemorate the 60 members it lost in the First World War.
Later, visit the former tea clipper, the Cutty Sark, (adults, £18.50, children £8.50) which was reopened in 2012 by the Queen following extensive restoration work.
Climb the narrow steps up to the Main Deck, and imagine life on board the vessel as it sailed to China and back, as you explore the Captain’s cabin and the more basic crew accommodation.
Head down to the Tween Deck to learn about the ship’s history, before a rest and well-earned cuppa in the Even Keel Café.
Great for tranquil travellers
For a break from the crowds, wander up to Greenwich Park’s beautiful Flower Garden, laid out in the 1890s, and admire the eye-catching displays, set among cedar and tulip trees. Find out more at royalparks.org.uk/parks/greenwich-park
Great for spirited adventurers
Got a head for heights? Then book tickets to climb Greenwich’s 02 Arena (the former Millennium Dome) and enjoy views of London from its 52-metre height. Up at the O2, from £28pp.
Devonport House is situated in the heart of Greenwich, prices start at £130 per room (0871 222 4195).
Tickets for cruises start from £59.90 for adults), £54.90 for concessions, £39.90 for children.