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About 8 miles downstream—which means seaward, to the east—from central London lies a destination you'd think had been conceived to provide the perfect day out. The small borough of Greenwich is only small in size: it actually looms large in the imagination for it is not only home to the Old Royal Observatory, which measures time for our entire planet, and the Greenwich Meridian, which divides the world into two (you can stand astride it with one foot in either hemisphere) but this town also bears witness to Britain's incredible maritime history, thanks to the National Maritime Museum and the Cutty Sark. Add in Christopher Wren's Royal Naval College and Inigo Jones's Queen's House—two of the grandest buildings in English architectural history—and the pretty streets of Greenwich Village itself, and you have one of London's most splendid excursions.
Bear in mind that the journey to Greenwich is an event in itself, especially if you approach by Old Father Thames, arriving at the best possible vista of the Royal Naval College, with the Queen's House behind. On the way, the boat glides past famous sights on the London skyline (there's a guaranteed spine chill on passing the Tower) and ever-changing docklands, and there's always a cockney navigator enhancing the views with his salty commentary. Of course, you can also arrive using the modern Docklands Light Railway (DLR). Either by train or by boat, Greenwich will wind up thrilling nearly everyone, from seafaring types to landlubbers, who will enjoy strolling the green acres of parkland that surround the venerable buildings, the quaint 19th-century houses, and the weekend crafts and antiques markets.
A visit to Greenwich feels like a trip to a rather elegant seaside town—albeit one with more than its fair share of historic sites. The grandiose Old Royal Naval Hospital, designed by Christopher Wren, was originally a home for veteran sailors. Today it's a popular visitor attraction, with a more glamorous second life as one of the most widely used movie locations in Britain.
Greenwich was originally home to one of England's finest Tudor palaces, and the birthplace of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and Mary I. Inigo Jones built what is considered the first "classical" building in England in 1616—the Queen's House, which now houses a collection of fine art. Right next door, the excellent National Maritime Museum details the history of the glorious seafaring past of Britain, this island kingdom. Its prize exhibits include the coat worn by Admiral Lord Nelson (1758-1805) in his final battle—bullet hole and all.
Greenwich Park, London's oldest royal park, is still home to fallow red deer, just as it has been since they were first introduced here for hunting by Henry VIII. The Ranger's House now houses a private art collection, next door to a beautifully manicured rose garden. Above it all is the Royal Observatory, where you can be in two hemispheres at once by standing along the Greenwich Meridian Line, before seeing a high-tech planetarium show.
In town, opposite the Greenwich Theatre, the Fan Museum is home to 4,000 fans dating as far back as the 11th century. The Clock Tower Antiques Market and the lively Greenwich Market keep bargain-hunters busy on weekends.
Toward north Greenwich, the hopelessly ambitious Millennium Dome has been successfully reborn as the O2 and now hosts major concerts and stand-up comedy gigs. In the opposite direction, downstream in Woolwich, lies the modern engineering marvel of the Thames Flood Barrier.
Greenwich at a Glance
Elsewhere in London
- Bloomsbury and Holborn
- The City
- East End
- Kensington, Chelsea, and Knightsbridge
- Notting Hill and Bayswater
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