The moment your breath is taken away. It could be when you’re standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon or walking through the Sikh and Petra’s “Treasury” in southern Jordan appears before your eyes. I’ve been lucky enough to experience both of those sites, but there’s on that simply leaves me – each time – speechless.
The first time I walked into St. Paul’s Cathedral in London was in April 2012. We only had a few hours left in the city before hopping a train back to the Cotswolds. I was the only one who had a burning desire to visit, so I was on my own. From the moment I walked in, I was floored by the vast scale and the grandeur of the space. The rich, ornate decorations that make up the cathedral, makes you feel as though you’ve been transported to another place – one that doesn’t exist within the confines of everyday life. I stood looking around for 10 minutes, but I had a mission – climbing the dome.
First, some fun facts about the dome taken directly from the cathedral’s website:
- It stands 111 meters (or just over 364 feet) above the City of London.
- It’s the second largest cathedral dome in the world.
- It has a weight of 65,000 tons.
To climb to the top of the dome can be a challenge for anyone, no matter how healthy or active you are. To reach the Golden Gallery and enjoy the expansive views of London – some of the best, in my opinion – you have to make your way through the three sections that make up the dome, which involves climbing 528 steps. No, that number’s not a joke. But don’t fret because it’s totally possible to do!
One side note is that photography isn’t allowed anywhere inside the cathedral, including while you’re climbing. Unfortunately, I have no photographs from the inside, but do feature views from the outside later in this post.
Your first flight of stairs is made up of 257 steps and takes you from the floor of the cathedral to the Whispering Gallery. In addition to the great views of the floor below, this level also offers an activity that’s sure to please anyone – no matter how old or young you may be. The secret of the Whispering Gallery is that you can actually hear someone whispering a message to you from the other side of the room. Don’t believe me? When you visit, have one person walk to the other side of the dome while you stay on the opposite side. Lean your ear close to the wall and listen as they whisper their message to you. With all the people visiting, it can be difficult to hear, but it really does work. Along with this fun experiment, the gallery also offers seats that you’ll be glad you utilized once your restart your journey up.
After leaving the Whispering Gallery, you’ll climb an another 119 steps to the Stone Gallery. This is where you get your first taste of being above the streets and in the air of London. There’s a lot of space to walk around and benches positioned for those who need a rest. But this isn’t the end of the journey. The best is yet to come!
From this point, there’s only 152 steps left to climb before you reach the Golden Gallery. This part of the climb is actually my favorite because it’s when you really get see the inner guts of the space between the outer and inner dome. You also get to climb some fun spiral stairs, which I’ve always had a soft spot for. Things also begin to get tight and space is at a bit of a premium – not a place for those who suffer from claustrophobia. But take heart because it’s all worth it when you step out onto the Golden Gallery with the whole of London at your feet.
From this vantage point, you can see many of the major sites that surround you: Tower Bridge, the Globe Theatre, the Tower of London, the Monument to the Great Fire of London, and the list just keeps going. In addition to the views of the city, look up and (kind of) see the highest point of the cathedral: the Ball and Lantern. The actual Ball and Lantern aren’t visible from this vantage point, but you can see where they stand. I also like to take some time to read the graffiti that people have left. Now, I’m not saying that I agree with people doing that – this place is beautiful and doesn’t deserve graffiti to be scrawled on it. However, some of it is really old and that’s what I enjoy seeing. Before you begin your journey down, make sure to peek through the oculus to the floor of the cathedral below. It really gives a great perspective.
Now all you have to do is retrace your steps and walk back down to ground level.
When I had gotten back to the floor during that first visit, I was still amazed at what I’d seen. I sat in one of the chairs to collect my thoughts and take in some final views before I made my way to the train station. At that moment, the cathedral’s great organ began to play as the musician practiced for upcoming services. Tears came to my eyes and at that moment I felt like I had been transported to heaven.
For that reason, and gorgeous views that await anyone who takes on the challenge of climbing the dome, those steps will always be my stairway to heaven.
For information about visiting St. Paul’s, please visit their website at www.stpauls.co.uk/visits.