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The foundation of London as we know it today dates back to Roman times, giving the city a good 2 millennia of depth and history. Little remains of its early history, but there are still glimpses of the city’s past through museums, castle ruins, and many relics. If you take a moment to immerse yourself in London’s long history, it could really enhance your next trip to the greatest city in the world.
For starters, exploring London’s oldest buildings could offer hidden and deeper insights into the city that are usually hidden from the untrained eye. Secondly, London’s colorful past will ensure that you really get a glimpse of what London represents and stands for as the capital of the United Kingdom.
While cities like Venice and Rome tout their ancient histories as popular tourist attractions, London has plenty of other tricks up its sleeve, so you might miss the quieter but equally enriching offerings. With institutions like the Museum of London providing a more analytical and organized look at the city’s history, some visitors may prefer to really “live” the past. The best way to do this is to explore the old buildings or their remains to get a real feel for the long-lived British capital. From the ruins of ancient structures to renovated old buildings, here are some of the best ancient buildings to explore while in London.
The London Mithraeum was discovered under Walbrook Street in 1954. This Roman temple dates back to the third century and is dedicated to the obscure Roman deity Mithras. Now a museum, the remains of the underground temple are located under the Walbrook branch of Bloomberg. Tickets can be purchased online and on-site, and the temple itself provides a vivid glimpse into the development of ancient London.
Westminster Abbey* dates back to 960 and is now located next to the Houses of Parliament and the former Westminster Palace. The abbey was originally dedicated to St. Peter, a fisherman who had an alleged vision of the saint on the nearby banks of the Thames. In 1056, however, Edward the Confessor used the abbey as a burial ground. Today, visitors can explore the abbey’s many tombs and monuments, including those of Geoffry Chaucer, Queen Elizabeth I, and Stephen Hawking.
St Paul’s Cathedral
St Pauls Cathedral* – Based on Ludgate Hill, the highest point in the City of London was built in 1697 by Sir Christopher Wren. Dedicated to St. Paul the Apostle, the cathedral was built on the site of the old St. Paul’s after the destruction of the Great Fire of London. This earlier cathedral dates from 1087, but was not completed until the mid-13th century. With a long history of pre-Norman cathedrals and pagan sites on the property, this iconic London church offers a real glimpse into the history of the Anglican Church.
Although not a building per se, the London Wall is one of the best examples of the Roman influence on London. The London Wall dates back to the 2nd or 3rd century and was built during the Roman founding of Londinium, a fortress dating back to 120 AD. You can also still see the wall in other places, including one near the Barbican, the London Museum, and Tower Hill.
Pancras Old Church
Although rebuilt in the 19th century, Roman tiles were discovered at the site of this Anglican church in Hampstead. St Pancras may have been built between the 4th and 7th centuries and is one of the earliest indicators of Christian worship.
Pyx Chapel is located in Westminster Abbey* and is the oldest surviving part of Westminster Abbey. It dates back to 1056, when Edward the Confessor began building the abbey. During your visit to the Abbey, take a look inside the Pyx Chapel to see the tiles that remain from the original structure.
The White Tower
The oldest part of the Tower of London* was built in the late 11th century. While much of the fortress has been built upon over the centuries, the original White Tower fortress has walls 90 feet high and served the royal family in an almost non-scalable hiding place.
St Bartholomew’s Gatehouse
The Smithfield-based St Bartholomews Gatehouse dates to the 16th century itself (still old!), but the masonry underneath has 13th-century roots and is close to St Bartholomews Priory. Much of this centuries-old construction was covered over during the Georgian era, but World War 1 bombing exposed the stonework again.
Originally built in 1411 as a meeting place for city guilds, the hall was damaged by the Great Fire of London and rebuilt in 1670. With a Roman amphitheater in the basement, this site holds much history about London’s development, while the adjacent building is the Guildhall Art Gallery, home to some of the city’s finest artwork.
The Old Curiosity Shop
Used as a location in Dickens’ “The Old Curiosity Shop,” this 16th-century store was originally located a few streets away, but it retains its literary connection to the past through the antique books it sells, as well as its beautiful traditional Tudor exterior.
The Olde Wine shades
Another survivor of the Great Fire of London, this bar was a regular haunt of Charles Dickens himself. These days, this vintage wine bar is a quaint and intimate pub setting and is especially unique because it has a smuggler’s tunnel directly below.
Old Royal Naval College
Located in Greenwich Royal Park, the Old Royal Naval College* was an army hospital for sailors and, before that, the home of the Duke of Gloucester in the 15th century. After changing hands from Margaret of Anjou and then being rebuilt by Henry VIII, what was then the Palace of Placentia was converted from