The UNESCO World Heritage Site program catalogues, names, and conserves sites of outstanding cultural or natural importance to the common heritage of humanity. There are 936 sites currently listed: 725 cultural, 183 natural, and 28 mixed properties.
London is one of the few cities in the world which can lay claim to having four separate UNESCO World Heritage sites. These sites represent the most significant cultural proprieties in the greater London Area.
Westminster Palace, Westminster Abbey and Saint Margaret’s Church
Together these historic buildings showcase the growth of the English monarchy and have been the setting for many of the events that have shaped the British nation.
Westminster Palace was originally the site of a royal palace and primary London residence of the English monarchs from the eleventh century until 1512 when a fire destroyed much of the palace complex. The Parliament of the United Kingdom began meeting here in the thirteenth century and continues doing so today. Its clock tower, known as “Big Ben”, helps make it one of the most popular tourist attractions in London. Many famous historical events have occured in Westminster Palace including the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and the subsecuent execution of Guy Fawkes. In 1812, Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was assassinated, still the only British Prime Minister to have met that fate.
With a rich history of royal coronations, burials and weddings Westminster Abbey is one of the most identifiable churches in the world. Most recently, people worldwide watched the wedding of the Duke and Dutchess of Cambridge held there in April of 2011. It is also a great study in the phases of English Gothic art as it has been renovated and added to over the past nine centuries.
They Abbey was home to Benedictine Monks until the 1500’s when they were finally removed by Elizabeth I. Several buildings from this period have survived, including the Chapter House, the great dormitory (now the Abbey Library and the Great Hall of Westminister School), the monk’s gardens and the cloisters. Their influence can also be seen in the existance of Saint Margaret’s Church. Distracted by the locals attempting to attend their services, they established Saint Margaret’s as a seperate place of worship for the Abbey’s neighbors. Several notables are buried at Saint Margaret’s, including Sir Walter Raleigh who was efficently tried, executed and buried in Westminster.
Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
The Kew Gardens have the distinction of being the world’s largest collection of living plants. Established in 1759, the Kew Gardens have served an important role in the understanding of the plant kingdom. Containing representatives of more than one in eight of all flowering plant species, specimins of plants are cultivated and distributed to other gardens or back into the wild. Their Millennium Seed Bank contains seeds from 3,500 plant species for reintroduction to their natural habitats or for scientific study. Botanists worldwide study over 6 million dried plant specimens in the reference of their Herbarium.
Kew Gardens’ glasshouses allow visitors to experience different environments. The Temperate House was opened in 1863 and is the garden’s largest. Because of it’s large size it contains the garden’s largest specimens including the world’s tallest indoor plant. In stark contrast, the Bonsai House displays their miniature trees. Other glasshouses include Davies Alpine House, the Evolution House, the historic Palm House and Rose Garden, the Princess of Wales Conservatory, the Secluded Garden and the Waterlily House.
One of the most unique experiences that the Kew Gardens offers is their Xstrata Treetop Walkway. Almost 60 feet in the air, this walkway allows visitors a bird’s eye view of the tree canopy of a forest glade. During your scenic journey you may be able to feel the structure swaying slightly in the breeze.
The Tower of London
The Tower of London lies on the bank of the River Thames and was first built by William the Conqueror in 1078 as a palace and royal residence. The Tower of London has played an important role in British history. The most famous structure is the White Tower is a keep, or the strongest structure in a castle. Fortified several different times with increased building techniques, the use of the Tower of London changed many times. While most castles were used to imprison people for short lengths of time, the Tower of London gained a reputation for torture and imprisonment. It has held important prisoners (like the future Elizabeth I), common soldiers and prisoners of War as late as the Second World War. The Tower of London also is home to the priceless Crown Jewels. The largest cut diamond in the world can be seen here in the Sovereign’s Sceptre.
The Tower of London has long been said to be haunted by spirits. Most famously, the ghost of Anne Boleyn is said to walk around the White Tower holding her head under her arm.
Home of the Royal Greenwich Observatory and the National Maritime Museum, Maritime Greenwich is a popular tourist destination. One of the most popular things to do for tourists is to stand astride the Prime Meridian, technically standing in both the eastern and western hemispheres at the same time. You can also witness the ball drop at the top of the Greenwich Observatory at 1pm every day, a tradition which has occurred every day since 1833.
One of the most important structures is the Greenwich Observatory. It is now a museum which contains John Harrison’s original time keeping devices used to establish the Prime Meridian and is the basis of Greenwich Mean Time. The Observatory also contains a planiterum containing Britian’s first digital planiterium projector. Also in Maritime Greenwich is the National Maritime Museum which houses many important historical and nautical artifacts.
Gary Arndt is an American travel blogger who has been traveling around the world non-stop since March 2007. He has visited over 100 countries and territories and over 150 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. You can follow his adventures on his travel blog or on Twitter or Facebook.