If you have done some research for things to do in Greenwich, London, you probably already heard about the Old Royal Naval College and its star attraction – the Painted Hall. In this article, you can read more about this historical landmark and why we think that the Painted Hall is a must in every London itinerary. It will take your breath away!
However, there is much more to the Old Royal Naval College than the Painted Hall. Below you can find a detailed guide to all the things to see at the Old Royal Naval College and practical information for your visit. Find out!
Old Royal Naval College – some history
The magnificent architecture and beautiful grounds of the Old Royal Naval College cannot be missed during your visit to Greenwich. The College stands on the site of Greenwich Palace – the favorite Royal residence of King Henry VIII.
In 1694 King William III – honoring the wishes of his wife, Queen Mary II – issued a Royal Warrant to Sir Christopher Wren to turn the site into a Royal Hospital for Seamen. The building was intended to rival the Chelsea Hospital, which was built for the army. It certainly lived up to expectations and is considered a British landmark and one of the finest buildings in the world.
The Old Royal Naval College is split into four quadrants, which really sets it apart from an architectural point of view. It was built this way in order to give Queen Mary an unobstructed view of the River Thames from Queen’s House.
The splendid domed towers on top of King William and Queen Mary blocks are similar to the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, but they are significantly smaller. Each tower has a clock face. However, if you look closely, you’ll see that only one of them tells the time. The other marks the points of the compass and is linked to a weather vane on the roof. Originally, this was meant to help the ships sailing along the Thames, so they could tell at a glance in which direction the wind was blowing.
In 1869, the hospital closed. Until 1996, part of the complex was used as a naval training college. Today, both the University of Greenwich and Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance hold classes there, whilst the rest of the building and grounds are open to the public.
Interesting facts. If you feel as if you’ve seen any parts of the Naval College before, then you’ll be interested to hear it’s been used to shoot several films, including Four Weddings and a Funeral, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and the Madness of King George!
At the bottom of this article, you can find practical information for your visit. But first, what to see and do at the Old Royal Naval College. Find out!
The Painted Hall
Rome has the Sistine Chapel, and London has the Painted Hall, a jaw-dropping 4000 square meters space filled with stunning baroque art. I am not even sure which one is more impressive – the Sistine Chapel or the Painted Hall. There is one big difference though – you can visit the Painted Hall at your own pace and take your time to admire this masterpiece. So visit it before the rest of the world finds out and before it becomes just as busy as the Sistine Chapel…
I have to say that the Painted Hall has become one of my top places to see in London!
The Hall was originally designed as a dining room for seamen, inside the Old Royal Naval College that originally served as a hospital. In 1707, the British artist James Thornhill was commissioned to decorate the hall. It took him nineteen years to complete this masterpiece. Legend has it that his posture was permanently affected by spending so much time on his back, with one arm raised.
The stunning artwork celebrates a time of dominance across Europe by the newly formed United Kingdom of Great Britain. The paintings depict themes of naval successes, cultural achievement, political change and more – all set against magnificent backdrops.
When finished, the Painted Hall was considered far too grand to be used as a dining room, so it was opened for viewing by the fee-paying public and used for special functions. It was here that Admiral Lord Nelson lay in state in 1806, and a plaque shows you the exact spot where the coffin was situated. Then from 1937 until 1997, the Painted Hall became a dining room once again, for trainee officers of the Royal Navy.
In October 2016, the Painted Hall was closed for restoration – a project that took over two years and cost more than £8 million. It has now been reopened and you can see the paintings in all their glory, with vivid, stunning colors. The Painted Hall is worth a trip to London just by itself!
TIP: To really make the most of the experience, try lying flat on your back on the specially provided, intricately carved oak ‘day beds’. Apparently, this is how Lord Nelson enjoyed viewing the art, too! Below is a picture of the view you’ll get…
Visiting the Painted Hall – practical information
A ticket to the Painted Hall includes a multi-media guide and a printed guide, both of which help you get the most from your visit. I think it’s really a must as it allows you to really explore the Painted Hall and better understand the artwork and the history behind it. Attention to detail is incredible!
Alternatively, you can join one of the 30 to 45 minute guided tours. They are also included in the ticket price and run several times a day. The knowledgeable guides really help bring the fascinating history and paintings to life!
If you’re visiting as a family group, inquire about the new, family-friendly trails with sensory backpacks. Kids will love the two ‘treasure chests’ in the Painted Hall, which contain thirteen ‘handling objects’ connected to the ceiling. These include items they can dress up in, such as a crown, a cloak and even a replica of King William’s Red Cap of Liberty!
There is now a lift in the undercroft taking you up to the Painted Hall, so it is wheelchair accessible for the first time.
The Painted Hall is open daily, from 10 am to 5 pm. You can book your tickets online, which might save you some time. I visited in April and just bought our tickets upon arrival; there was no wait at all. But if you are traveling in summer or during school breaks, you may want to get your tickets upfront and visit early in the morning, before the tour groups arrive. Don’t throw the ticket away after your visit – it allows you re-entry for up to one year.
TIP: If the cost of the ticket (around £12 at the moment of writing) seems a little high, then try visiting on a ‘Pay as you Wish Wednesday’. You can pay what you think your visit was worth. If you support the National Lottery and take a Lottery ticket or scratchcard with you, the entry on Wednesdays is completely free of charge.
Chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul
This beautiful neo-classical chapel is also located inside the Old Royal Naval College, directly opposite the Painted Hall. Originally completed in 1752, it was destroyed by fire in 1779, and then rebuilt by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart.
The ornate ceiling, marble floor and abundance of decorative features make it well worth a short visit. Don’t miss the magnificent organ made by Samuel Green, the leading organ builder of his day.
One of the best ways to experience it is to simply take a seat and absorb the peace and serenity of your surroundings. You don’t need more than a few minutes to visit, so make sure to check it out after visiting the Painted Hall.
Practical information: The Chapel is free to enter. It still serves as an active place of worship and is open from Monday to Saturday, from 10 am to 5 pm. On Sundays, it is open for public worship from 11 am, then to visitors from 12.30 pm.
King William & Queen Mary Undercroft
Beneath the Painted Hall is the King William Undercroft. Originally, it served as the dining area for the retired sailors, once the Hall above was deemed to be too grand for them to use!
The Undercroft was renovated together with the Painted Hall. It is now home to the Painted Hall Cafe, a retail shop, and an interpretation gallery.
As you enjoy the high quality and seasonal fare from the cafe, take a moment to appreciate the ‘baroque meets modern’ style of the Undercroft’s design, with its hint of Tudor archaeology and original pillar foundations. Interestingly, excavations during the restoration process discovered two rooms from King Henry VIII’s Greenwich Palace. One is believed to be a service room and the other one, with unusual niches, is believed to be ‘bee holes’, where the Royal beehives were kept during winter!
The Queen Mary Undercroft can be found beneath the Chapel in the opposite tower. It is usually closed to the public and used for private functions like weddings, but but you can see it from the entrance.
Practical information: The Painted Hall Cafe in the Undercroft is open daily from 10 am to 4.30 pm, for visitors to the Painted Hall and to the general public.
If you plan on visiting both the Chapel and the Painted Hall, I recommend that you walk from one to the other via the Ripley Tunnel. This underground passage is also known as the Chalk Walk.
This subterranean tunnel was added to Sir Christopher Wren’s original building by Thomas Ripley, in order to link the Queen Mary and King William blocks of the hospital. The idea was to make it easier for staff and the seamen to circulate between the buildings.
The tunnel – lined with the coats of arms of naval officers (including Admiral Lord Nelson) – is free to visit and open every day from 10 am to 5 pm.
Victorian Skittle Alley
Possibly one of the coolest things to do in the Royal Naval College is to visit the Victorian Skittle Alley. It’s located at the end of the Ripley Tunnel, beneath the Chapel. This historic bowling alley takes you back in time to the 1800s.
The bowling alley was originally built at the request of the retired sailors living in the (then) infirmary. They had little else to entertain themselves, so a skittle alley was a blessing. The skittles and balls are made of wood, taken from ships laid-up in Deptford. You can even play a game if you like!
The Victorian Skittle Alley is a must if you are visiting the Old Royal Naval College with kids. Children will have fun playing bowling the old-fashioned way! Although, the balls are incredibly heavy and lack finger holes, so you may have to help the youngest members of the family. One thing to keep in mind as well – you’ll have to put the skittles back up and roll the balls back yourselves.
Practical information: The Victorian Skittle Alley is free to visit, but may be closed at certain times.
Additional information for visiting the Old Royal Naval College
Count at least an hour – an hour and a half for your visit to the Old Royal Naval College. This will give you the time to explore the Painted Hall and quickly see the other attractions mentioned above. If you also want to walk around the beautiful tranquil grounds and see the buildings from the outside, you will need a bit more time.
To really appreciate the beauty of the entire complex, I recommend you take the foot tunnel to the other side of the Thames. The view from there is really nice. If you’re lucky enough to be visiting late on a sunny afternoon, I think you’ll find the glow of the sun on the river facade quite breathtaking!
TIP: Don’t miss the famous Tulip Staircase at the Queen’s House. It’s located just a few minutes walk from the Old Royal Naval College, doesn’t require much time to visit, and is free of charge. It’s well worth it!
Practical Information: The Old Royal Naval College is just a short walk from the Cutty Sark and the harbor where boats from Central London dock. It is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm, whilst the grounds are open from 8 am to 11 pm. Apart from the Painted Hall, all the other places mentioned in this article are free to enter.
Accessibility: The building is wheelchair accessible and there are elevators and ramps. There are also wheelchair accessible baby changing rooms.
Where to eat: You can enjoy a delicious meal at the on-site Old Brewery, which has a cafe, bar, and restaurant serving locally sourced, high-quality British food.
So, this is our guide to visiting the Old Royal Naval College and the Painted Hall. As I already said before, go and see this incredible place now, before the rest of the world finds out!
TIP: Since Greenwich is located quite far from central London, it’s not cheap to get there. London hop-on-hop-off bus tickets of 48 hours and more include a river cruise pass to Greenwich and back. So if you are buying one of those anyway, it might be worth taking a 48 hr or 72 hr ticket, because the price difference between the 24hr and longer duration isn’t that big.
***Read also our tips for the best things to do in Greenwich***
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