Considered by many to be the star attraction found within the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Maritime Greenwich site, the Old Royal Naval College features lovely grounds, striking buildings, and multiple interior rooms with reputations as real showstoppers. Visitors to this Christopher Wren-designed complex will not want to miss such highlights as the Painted Hall, Nelson Room, and Chapel.
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History of Old Royal Naval College
The land on which the Old Royal Naval College stands today was once the site of a royal palace known colloquially as Greenwich Palace, an estate bordering the Thames where Henry VIII, Mary I, and Elizabeth I were born. Throughout the tumultuous seventeenth century, the site fell into rough shape, so much so that it was actually demolished in 1694, at which point in time King William III and Queen Mary II commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to design a structure that would serve as a home for retired sailors. This facility, the so-called Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich, would remain in use until its closure in 1869.
From 1873 to 1998 the buildings would function as part of a training complex for the Royal Naval College. In the past half-century, the Old Royal Naval College has been reimagined as a destination for locals and visitors alike who want to learn more about this rich historical site. Wren’s architecture is still regarded as an archetypal example of the Baroque, and the site draws a million people from all over the world each year.
Old Royal Naval College Highlights
For many visitors, the primary highlight of their trip to Old Royal Naval College is sure to be the Painted Hall. The Painted Hall contains approximately 40,000 square feet of paintings elaborately laid out across nearly every surface of the space’s walls and ceilings, an arrangement that has led to it being affectionately dubbed by some as “Britain’s Sistine Chapel.” Visitors to the Painted Hall today will be able to see the masterpiece at its best, as the entire thing was painstakingly restored by a team of experts over a two-year period before reopening to the public in 2019.
Old Royal Naval College is renowned for the beauty and splendor of its architecture, with perhaps few spaces within the attraction garnering more acclaim than the Chapel of St. Peter & St. Paul. Of particular note within the Chapel are its altarpiece, which was painted by Benjamin West; its ceiling, a neoclassical design by John Papworth; and its Samuel Green Organ, installed in the space in 1798.
The price of your Old Royal Naval College admission ticket includes the cost of a guided tour, so visitors wishing to learn more about the ins and outs of the attraction should make time to take advantage of this perk. There are three guided tours regularly available at the Old Royal Naval College: “500 Years of History,” which focuses on the history and architecture of the site, which a special emphasis on its royal connections and Sir Christopher Wren-designed layout; “Film & TV Tour,” which discusses the many productions that have filmed on-site here; and “Painted Hall Talks,” which focus on that remarkable work of art.
More to See and Do at Old Royal Naval College
Other features of an Old Royal Naval College experience worth knowing about include the following items.
•British naval hero Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson was famously killed during the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805, at which time his body was returned to England, where it laid-in-state within a small room just off the Painted Hall prior to a state funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Today this space is called the Nelson Room, and visitors may enjoy a multimedia guide to learn more about the history of the Nelson Room and how England grieved for its fallen hero.
•Old Royal Naval College has garnered significant attention in recent years as a popular filming location for various movie and television productions. Fans of such shows and films as The Crown, Bridgerton, Thor: The Dark World, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, and Les Misérables will want to keep an eye out for where their personal favorite shot a memorable scene or two.
•There are two unique dining experiences available on the grounds of the Old Royal Naval College: Undercroft Café, located beneath the Painted Hall, serves an assortment of sandwiches, salads, cakes, and teas; and The Old Brewery, a charming pub with great food and craft beer that manages to remain family friendly. In the mood for something totally different? Picnicking is permitted on the grounds of the Old Royal Naval College.
•Skittle Alley is a Victorian-era bowling lane that dates to 1864 and is still in use today. There you can actually take a roll yourself daily between the hours of 12:00pm and 3:00pm.
•In addition to the three tours described above that run on a regular basis, Old Royal Naval College routinely organizes special seasonal tours and occasional guest lectures. For more information on what might be happening while you’re scheduled to visit, be sure and check out the “What’s On” page at the Old Royal Naval College’s official website.
Why Old Royal Naval College Should Be on Your Must-See List
To be blunt, the opportunity to view the Painted Hall in person is reason enough alone for any art lover to make visiting the Old Royal Naval College a priority. Add to that artistic treasure a wealth of architectural marvels, historic artifacts, and proximity to additional popular attractions like Cutty Sark, Queen’s House, and the National Maritime Museum, and you’ve got yourself a must-see destination.