One of the best views of London’s skyline can be found at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, a museum that is part of Royal Museums Greenwich along with the National Maritime Museum, Cutty Sark and the Queen’s House. But the Royal Observatory isn’t just about the views. Visitors can learn about the history of Greenwich Mean Time, as well as the study of the cosmos, in the historic complex.
Located in Greenwich Park, the Royal Observatory Greenwich is the home of Greenwich Mean Time, also known as GMT. The structure was created after King Charles II appointed a Royal Commission to investigate astronomy. One of the commission’s members, Sir Christopher Wren, suggested using Greenwich Castle, which sat in ruins, as the site for the new scientific observatory. Building first began in August of 1675 and it has expanded over the years. It’s been the site of the Prime Meridian since the 19th century, officially selected to mark global time in 1884 at the International Meridian Conference in Washington, D.C.
The Royal Observatory Greenwich officially opened to the public in 1960, first allowing visitors into Flamsteed House. It was re-opened in 2007 with new galleries, an education center and the Peter Harrison Planetarium.
How to Get There
Royal Observatory Greenwich is easily accessible from central London. Visitors can arrive by train, a light-rail known as the DLR or by boat. There are several stations nearby the Observatory, including the Cutty Sark DLR stop, Greenwich Pier and three rail stations, Greenwich, Blackheath and Maze Hill. When departing from central London, the best stops to leave from are Cannon Street, London Bridge or Bank stations, all of which connect to the Underground. Bus routes 53, 54, 202 and 380 also all stop near the Observatory. It’s important to note that from each rail station, visitors will need to walk uphill to uphill to get to the Royal Observatory Greenwich, although there is a wheelchair accessible route.
Consider the limited parking available around Greenwich if you drive, especially on the weekends. There are several parking lots around Greenwich Park, each of which allows parking for a maximum of four hours. There is also a public car park at the National Maritime Museum, which welcomes visitors to any of the Greenwich museums, including Royal Observatory Greenwich.
What to See and Do
There’s a lot to see in and around Royal Observatory Greenwich, so be sure to give yourself at least a few hours. Visitors can start by standing on the actual Prime Meridian line, which is included in the ticket price for the Observatory, and inspect the Great Equatorial Telescope, the U.K.’s largest historic telescope, which is over 100 years old. The main exhibition details the history of time telling as it relates to the Prime Meridian, as well as how the Observatory has been used to study space. Other notable items on display include Harrison’s clocks, the Shepherd Gate Clock and the Time Ball, and the Octagon Room is particularly memorable space in the Observatory.
Although it’s not included in the Observatory ticket, visitors can also experience one of the space-themed shows in the Peter Harrison Planetarium. These include “Moons Beyond Counting,” about the solar system’s many moons, and “Ted’s Space Adventure,” an educational program meant for those under age 7.
Special events and activities are frequent at the Royal Observatory. Bring the kids to a Young Astronomers Workshop, hand-on activities led by “Observatory Explainers,” or enroll in an Astronomy Course, which run throughout the year. Royal Museums Greenwich also hosts a series of film screenings called “Silver Screen Science Fiction,” where visitors can enjoy classics and newer films that center on science. Each is followed by a talk by one of the Observatory’s astronomers.
Eating and Drinking
The Astronomy Café & Terrace is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m, offering snacks and lunch dishes for visitors (although you don’t need a museum ticket to access the café). The outdoor terrace is covered in case of rain. Other nearby dining options are located in the National Maritime Museum, which is home to the two-floor Parkside Café & Terrace and the Great Map Café. Both offer a special children’s menu for younger visitors and are walking distance from the Royal Observatory. Another great option is the Cutty Sark Cafe, housed inside the Cutty Sark, which serves up a daily afternoon tea. The price of the tea includes admission to the historic ship. Alternatively, bring along your own food and drink for a picnic in Greenwich Park.
Tips for Visiting
Ticket options for the Royal Observatory can be confusing since there are multiple ways to get entry into the site. The best deal is a Day Explorer ticket, which includes access to the Observatory as well as the National Maritime Museum, Cutty Sark and the Meridian Line. There are separate costs for adult and child tickets, and each ticket includes an audio guide. Another option, if you think you’ll visit more than once a year, is a family membership, which includes planetarium shows and is equal to the cost of two adult one-day tickets.
Shows at the Peter Harrison Planetarium are booked separately, so do a little digging on which show you’ll want to experience during your visit. Early booking online is recommended, particularly on weekends and holidays.
Parents with kids will find baby-change facilities and toilets in the Royal Observatory on the lower ground floor and there are also cloakrooms on-site if you’ve come burdened with a lot of bags and coats. While the Royal Observatory doesn’t have exhibitions specific to kids, the National Maritime Museum has two dedicated children’s galleries and hosts “Play Tuesday” with programmed activities for young ones.
As with many of the London’s popular attractions, the Royal Observatory (and the other nearby museums) can get very crowded, particularly if you visit over a weekend. To avoid the crowds try to arrive right when it opens during a weekday. Most school groups visit in the afternoons, which also contribute to the crowds, so plan to get there early. Head first to the Prime Meridian Line, where the lines can be long, to snap a photo before going through the exhibitions.
Things to Do Nearby
Besides the other Greenwich museums and Greenwich Park, the area has plenty to do and see. Take in a concert at the massive O2 Arena, which hosts musical performances throughout the year, or stroll through Greenwich Market, which sells crafts and antiques seven days a week. The Emirates Air Line cable car carries visitors from Greenwich across the Thames to the Royal Docks and is a great way to get a view of London and St. Paul's Cathedral. Greenwich is also home to Eltham Palace, an art deco mansions that welcomes the public to tour the rooms and grounds.