Steeped in millennia of rich and often bloody history, Westminster Abbey is one of England's most iconic buildings. An abbey has stood here since the 7th century, although the current building dates mostly from the 1240s. About 3,300 people, from kings and queens to artists and writers, are buried or memorialized here. It has hosted 38 coronations—beginning in 1066 with William the Conqueror—and no fewer than 16 royal weddings, the latest being that of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011.
But be warned: there's only one way around the abbey, and as a million visitors flock through its doors each year, you'll need to be alert to catch the highlights. Enter by the north door then turn around and look up to see the painted-glass rose window, the largest of its kind. Step into the small Chapel of St. Michael, where a tomb effigy of Joseph Gascoigne Nightingale fights off a sheet-draped figure of death. Next enter the adjacent Tomb of St. John the Baptist past a lovely statue
of the Virgin Mary and child.
As you walk east toward the apse you'll see the Coronation Chair at the foot of the Henry VII Chapel, which has been briefly graced by nearly every regal posterior since Edward I had it made in 1301. Farther along, the exquisite confection of the Henry VII's Lady Chapel is topped by a magnificent fan-vaulted ceiling. The wooden seats (or "stalls") carry the heraldic banners of knights. The tomb of Henry VII lies behind the altar; his queen, Elizabeth of York, is also here, as are, it is believed, the bodies of the so-called Princes in the Tower, the 13-year-old King Edward V and nine-year-old Richard, Duke of York (murdered, it is commonly supposed, by the man who would become Richard III). Elizabeth I is buried above her sister "Bloody" Mary I in the tomb just to the north, while her arch enemy, Mary Queen of Scots, rests in the tomb to the south. In front of the High Altar, which was used for the funerals of Princess Diana and the Queen Mother, is a black-and-white marble pavement laid in 1268. The intricate Italian Cosmati work contains three Latin inscriptions, one of which states that the world will last for 19,683 years.
Continue through the South Ambulatory to the Chapel of St. Edward the Confessor, which contains the shrine to the pre-Norman king. Because of its great age, you must join the vergers' tours to be admitted to the chapel (£3; book at the admission desk), or attend Holy Communion within the shrine on Tuesdays at 8 am. To the left, you'll find Poets' Corner. Geoffrey Chaucer was the first poet to be buried here in 1400, and other statues and memorials include those to William Shakespeare, D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, and Oscar Wilde as well as nonpoets, Laurence Olivier and George Frederick Handel among them; look out for the 700-year-old frescoes. A door from the south transept and south choir aisle leads to the calm of the Great Cloisters, filled in part with the headstones of 26 monks who died during the Black Death. A café is nicely tucked into the cloisters.
The medieval Chapter House is adorned with 14th-century frescoes and a magnificent 13th-century tiled floor, one of the finest in the country. The King's Council met here between 1257 and 1547. Near the entrance is Britain's oldest door, dating from the 1050s. Take a left out of the Chapter House to visit the Abbey Museum, which houses a collection of macabre effigies made from the death masks and actual clothing of Charles II and Admiral Lord Nelson (complete with eye patch). Past the museum, the Little Cloister is a quiet haven, and just beyond, the College Garden is a pleasant diversion. Filled with medicinal herbs, it has been tended by monks for more than 900 years. On the west side of the abbey, the Dean's Yard is the best spot for a fine view of the massive flying buttresses above.
Continue back to the nave of the abbey. In the choir screen, north of the entrance to the choir, is a marble monument to Sir Isaac Newton. If you walk toward the West Entrance, you'll see a plaque to Franklin D. Roosevelt—one of the Abbey's very few tributes to a foreigner. The poppy-wreathed Grave of the Unknown Warrior commemorates soldiers who lost their lives in both world wars.
Exact hours for the various parts of the abbey are frustratingly long and complicated, and can change daily, so it's important to check before setting out, particularly if you're visiting early or late in the day, or during off-season. The full list of times is posted online daily (or you can call).
Arrive early if possible, but be prepared to wait in line to tour the abbey.