The Royal Museums Greenwich is a sprawling estate consisting of four world famous attractions: the National Maritime Museum, Royal Observatory Greenwich, Queen's House art gallery, and Cutty Sark tea clipper. Located inside the 180 acres Greenwich Park alongside the River Thames, Royal Museums Greenwich and its surrounding areas was named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997 for its scientific, architectural, and artistic and creative influence.
Previously known as the Old Royal Observatory, the Royal Observatory Greenwich is an iconic landmark of British and European astronomy and navigation history. It is the home of the Prime Meridian, or more popularly, Greenwich Meridian Time (GMT), which is the standard for the entire world’s timekeeping. Although the Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), International Telecommunications Union and International Atomic Time have all become the official standard bearers of global time in recent years (courtesy of the tireless efforts of the French, who never got over the snub of the Paris meridian at the 1884 International Meridian Conference), GMT is still the primary reference mechanism for many countries around the world.
Royal Observatory Greenwich was founded on 22 June 1675 by King Charles II and became the first exclusively-built research centre in the United Kingdom. It was also the very first state funded research facility in the country. The observatory would go on to play a prominent role in efforts to map the stars, chart global navigation, and establish international time zones.
• Meridian Line: The Longitude Zero (0° 0' 0") is the starting spot of every east or west journey in the world. This is the line that divides the world into the Eastern and Western hemisphere. The line, located on an ordinary tiled street floor, appears unremarkable at first glance, but its historical significance will grow the longer you spend time learning about it.
• Peter Harrison Planetarium: Explore the only planetarium in England and see awe-inspiring shows about the stars and galaxies around us.
• Great Equatorial Telescope: Take a view from the 28-inch refracting telescope which gave scientists its first view of the universe more than 100 years ago.
Probably no other country in the world has a richer naval tradition and maritime history than the United Kingdom. It makes sense then that the country has the largest maritime museum in the world. Established on 27 April 1937 via the National Maritime Act of 1934, the National Maritime Museum has a collection of over two million items which include maps, manuscripts, maritime art, documents, ship plans and models and navigation instruments. The museum also controversially includes in its collection various war trophies, including German artefacts obtained during World War II.
The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
• Nelson's Trafalgar Coat: View the actual coat worn by the legendary Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson during the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805. Admiral Nelson, who was fatally shot by a French musketeer during the battle, led a fleet of 27 British warships to victory over a combined force of 33 French and Spanish warships.
Remember to visit the Turner's Battle of Trafalgar gallery as well to see a collection of expressive artworks of the battle by English artist Joseph Mallord William Turner. In addition, Admiral Nelson’s flagship, the HMS Victory, is also memorialised by a replica inside a bottle – yes, a ship in a bottle!
Battle of Trafalgar by J.M.W. Turner
• Caird Library and Archive: This is the largest repository of maritime reference library in the world. Before the advent of the internet, academics, students and even treasure hunters flew in from around the world to view the materials found here. Remember the Mutiny on the Bounty, the historical movie starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson? There is actually a copy of a medical almanac from the vessel here!
The Queen’s House, originally known as the House of Delight, was commissioned by King James to serve as a holiday home for his Queen, Anne of Denmark, as a symbol of apology after King James swore at her publicly when she accidentally killed his favourite hound, Jewel, during a royal deer hunting session.
Designed by famed English architect Inigo Jones, Queen’s House was arguably the first classically constructed building in Britain at the time of completion in 1635. Jones’ masterful design featured strong post-Renaissance Italian motifs that influenced the design of many other buildings over the next couple of generations. For those interested in 17th century architecture, art and royal history, Queen’s House has no other rival.
• World class art collection: Queen’s House, which is actually the building which houses the National Maritime Museum, features stunning work by William Hogarth, Henry Clemens Van de Velde and Thomas Gainsborough. Keep an eye out for Richard Wright’s spectacular gold leaf design of the building’s ceiling.
• Great Hall: Designed in a perfect cube with geometric black and white marble flooring and girdled by the gorgeous spiral Tulip Stairs.
Before the arrival of steamships (cargo and passenger vessels using steam propulsion engines), tea clippers were the favoured intercontinental trading vessels. They were light and exceptionally fast. The term tea clippers emerged after the fastest and sleekest clippers dominated the long distance Chinese tea import market. Cutty Sark was the grandest of them all. Using state of the art aerodynamic design, Cutty Sark was reputedly the fastest tea clipper around. Alas, steamships began to dominate the market within a few short years, and Cutty Sark and other tea clippers began to go out of style.
Cutty Sark, which is listed in the National History Ships, is believed to be only one of three remaining wooden-hulled tea clippers with iron frame construction. It has become an enduring symbol of the brave voyagers and merchant princes of the pre-Industrial Revolution era.
Royal Museums Greenwich is accessible by various forms of public and private transport, including the Thames Clippers’ river bus service. Ideally, visitors should allocate an entire day to fully absorb everything on offer at the campus. Amenities, ranging from restaurants to public restrooms, are available.
The four major attractions are open between 10.00 a.m. and 5.00 p.m. daily (except from 24 to 26 December). However, the Caird Library & Archive operates on a different schedule; please call in advance for bookings.
Admission is free for the Queen’s House and National Maritime Museum. For other locations, visitors are recommended to purchase the day explorer ticket starting from £15.65.