Who can argue that London is an absolutely fascinating city? We are utterly in love with the UK capital and we never miss an opportunity to plan a trip there. During our first trip to London a few years back, we made sure we ticked most, if not all, of our bucket-list things to do there. So, on our second time in London, we decided to add somewhat quirkier, out of the ordinary experiences to our itinerary. This is why we joined a Highgate Cemetery tour and we’re very happy we did. It turns out that this was the best way to uncover many of the secrets of our beloved city’s dark past.

A little bit of history: London in the 19th century

In order to understand the significance of Highgate Cemetery, we need to place it within the context of the period in which it was constructed. The 19th century was utterly important to the city of London and Britain as a whole. It was then that London was both the largest city and the most important port in the world. During that period, London saw rapid changes as the city’s population grew from 1 million in 1801 to 6.2 million a century later. This period is also known as the Victorian Era. That said, the latter coincides with the time of Queen Victoria’s reign, which was from 1837 to 1901, rather than span the entire length of the 19th century.

Throughout the 19th century, London was gradually becoming a shining modern city. Railways, the underground and iconic monuments such as the Big Ben and the Tower Bridge were constructed. Victorian London was the ultimate super power of the time and the most important trading capital. Yet, while the city grew into a wealthy financial and political centre, 19th century London was also a city of poverty. Alongside the rich and powerful who flourished, millions who had come to the city to work lived in poverty in overcrowded and unsanitary slums.

This photo shows the main building at King's Cross station in London, England. A fine example of Victorian London architecture.
King’s Cross Station opened in 1852.

A look into Victorian London: 19th century architecture

The best way to understand life in Victorian London is by having a look at the architecture of the time. The splendour and power of 19th century London reflect on imposing constructions such as the King’s Cross Station and neighbouring St Pancras Station buildings or the beyond words beautiful Renaissance Hotel.

This photo shows the Renaissance Hotel in front of St Pancras station in London, England. A fine example of Victorian London architecture.
Known as the Midland Grand Hotel back in the 19th century, the Renaissance Hotel stands majestically in front of St Pancras Station.

However, there is also a very dark side of London in the 19th century. A few metres away from those majestic buildings, reality wasn’t as glittering. Millions of souls lived under unbearable conditions in the slums surrounding the shining train stations. Epidemics were common so it’s no wonder that hospitals specializing in certain diseases were erected.

This photo shows the Smallpox and vaccination hospital in Highgate, London England. A fine example of Victorian London architecture.
The Smallpox Hospital in Highgate, a fine example of Victorian London architecture.

Frequent epidemics meant a rapid increase in the number of deaths, too. Therefore, although it was customary to bury the dead in small parish churchyards, the latter soon became way too overcrowded and posed a threat to public health. The need to construct modern cemeteries in the outskirts of central London was prominent. Inspired by the gorgeous Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, seven large private cemeteries were established in London during the 19th century. Many years later, in 1981, the architectural historian Hugh Meller called these The Magnificent Seven Cemeteries. This has remained their unofficial name to this day.

This photo shows the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church in London, England, a site that has a lot of Victorian London stories to tell.
The churchyard of St Pancras Old Church, one of the oldest sites of worship for Christians in England.

Highgate Cemetery tour

Highgate Cemetery opened its doors in 1839. It was the third of the Magnificent Seven Cemeteries to be built in London as a solution to the overcrowding in parish graveyards. It soon became a very popular place for burials. Highgate Cemetery comprises two sections, the East and the West. There are about 170,000 people buried in its grounds. Nowadays, Highgate Cemetery is still used for burials but these areas are not open to the public. Apart from its fascinating history, Highgate Cemetery is very much worth a visit for the notable people buried in its grounds, the superb architecture of its monuments and its exceptional natural scenery.

How to get to Highgate Cemetery

The best way to get to Highgate Cemetery is by public transport and, specifically, by tube. The closest station is Archway. From there, it is a pleasant, yet uphill, stroll to the Cemetery, the last part of which is through the marvellous Waterlow Park. For further information on how to get to Highgate Cemetery, click here.

West Cemetery

A visit to the West Cemetery is possible by guided tour only. The latter lasts 70′ and costs £12/adult. Entrance to the East Cemetery is included in the price as well. Joining the guided tour on a weekday is by reservation only. On the contrary, booking is not possible at weekends when tours run every half hour on a first come first served basis.

The West Cemetery abounds in architectural wonders set among tall trees and wildflowers in the constant company of birds and small animals. Our knowledgeable and absolutely fun to be with guide, Peter, recounted stories of the famous (but also the less famous) people who are buried there while we marvelled at masterpieces such as the Egyptian Avenue, the Circle of Lebanon, the Terrace Catacombs and the Mausoleum of Julius Beer. As we strolled along the totally covered by thick foliage alleys and marvelled at wonderful sculptures, the unique ambience of an authentic Victorian cemetery got us under its spell.

This photo shows the circle of Lebanon, a row of Classical style tombs in Highgate Cemetery West in London, England. A Highgate Cemetery tour is a must for all Victorian London enthusiasts.
The Circle of Lebanon

East Cemetery

Contrary to what happens at Highgate Cemetery West, it is not mandatory for visitors to join a guided tour in order to roam around the East Cemetery. As mentioned above, the £12 ticket grants access to both the East and the West Cemeteries. However, if you only feel like visiting the East section alone, a ticket costs £4/adult. This includes a map of the grounds as well.

By far the most famous resident of the East Cemetery is philosopher Karl Marx, the renowned Father of Socialism. His tomb has become a place of worship for socialists from all over the world, while many of them have gone so far as to be buried near him in Highgate Cemetery East. Other famous people buried there include the novelist George Eliot and the Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren. The list, of course, is endless.

This photo shows the tomb of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery East in London, England. No Highgate Cemetery Tour is complete without a visit to the resting place of the father of socialism.
The tomb of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery East.

Why visit Highgate Cemetery

But why on earth would we want to visit a graveyard during our holidays?, you may ask yourselves. Well, it’s an absolutely enchanting place would be our simple and honest response. Our stroll around the grounds of this old cemetery taught us so much about London in the 19th century, the city’s most significant time period. We learnt a lot from our guide himself but, also, this tour motivated us to read more about this splendid but also dark period in the city’s history. Furthermore, Highgate Cemetery is home to gorgeous architecture set in the most serene natural surroundings. All in all, a Highgate Cemetery tour is a fantastic way to escape the hustle and bustle of the big city, while, at the same time, delve into the core of the events, instances and people that made London the great city we know and love today.

Planning a trip to the UK capital?
Check out our favourite self-guided London walk here!

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52 Comments

  1. Hey good job on this one! I always enjoy walking tour aside from its relaxed slow-paced rhythm it is also informative and rich in culture-understanding opportunities.

    • Maria Spyrou Reply

      Thank you Jonathan! We are very fond of walking tours ourselves 🙂

  2. The walking tour sounds like such a great tour! I love all the photos, thanks so much for all the information. I am saving this post to refer back to before I visit. Thanks again.

    • Maria Spyrou Reply

      Hey Nicole, thank you so much! It’s a great pleasure to know that we inspired you to take this tour 🙂

  3. I was in London a few days back and I absolutely loved it. I have missed a couple of things mentioned in your post but this gives me a reason to return to London.

    • Maria Spyrou Reply

      Hi Saniya, thanks! It’s OK to leave a few things out of your itinerary because this way you make sure there will be a next time 😉 We do it too!

  4. I always love to visit places with history. Buildings holding historical background always appeal to me. Would love to visit Victorian London sometime in person.

    • Maria Spyrou Reply

      Hi! Thanks for your comment. We also love learning history while travelling!

    • Maria Spyrou Reply

      Hey Nina! I couldn’t agree with you more!

  5. I live in London, and didn’t know any of these facts! The city is renowned for its incredible architecture, but I didn’t know the story about Victorian London. Highgate is somewhere I frequently visit, but I’ve never been to the cemetary!

    • Maria Spyrou Reply

      Hi Lisa! The thing is we all tend to overlook our hometowns. But they do deserve our attention. I constantly try to find hidden gems and lesser-known beauties in my hometown Athens 🙂

  6. I love the Victorian architecture of London, especially the many railway stations and related viaducts.

    • Maria Spyrou Reply

      Hey David, I agree. They are really beautiful!

  7. Love this! There are so many ways to explore London and I think you’ve gone a really fascinating direction with this. I’d love to do a tour like this the next time I’m in London 🙂

    • Maria Spyrou Reply

      Thank you Erica! It really was a special side of London that we enjoyed immensely. Don’t miss it!

  8. I love history and I love places with so much history in them. I am an absolute fan of London. And yes, so much to see. You can never finish it in one go. I loved the concept of a Victorian tour. Will try it next time I am there.

    • Maria Spyrou Reply

      Hey Soumya, thanks for your comment. Yes, London keeps calling us all back 😉 As for the Victorian tour, go for it! It’s really special!

  9. It’s been many years since I have been to London, but will certainly do this tour when I go again. I love tour companies that are dedicated to one particular time in history. What a great experienc.

    • Maria Spyrou Reply

      Hi Alison! Thank you for your comment. It really is a special experience you shouldn’t miss 🙂

  10. This post shows me that some of the most beautiful places in the world are places you’d never think to visit! Love this post and the photos are amazing!

    • Maria Spyrou Reply

      Hey Nkem! Thank you for your kind words! You are so right; beauty is everywhere. All we have to do is look a little harder 🙂

  11. London is my city but i havent lived there fore years. Love that you have included lesser visited but equally beautiful buildings like St Pancreas. Great blog on another side of my home city.

    • Maria Spyrou Reply

      Thank you so much Nadine. We are in love with your home city!

  12. Victorian London. London is so many things, that I didn’t think of seeing this part of it intentionally. Nice to see that you have collected all these on your blog.

    • Maria Spyrou Reply

      Thank you Alexander! Although we seldom have as much time as we would like in the destinations we visit, we always try to include off the beaten path activities alongside the main sightseeing 🙂

    • Maria Spyrou Reply

      Thank you so much! Imagine our suprise walking along an Egyptian avenue in London 😉

  13. Oh man, I’d be ALL about the Victorian London walking tour. While I’m not one of those “I was born in the wrong era!” people, I’m so fascinated with the good and the bad of Victorian times. Plus, visiting big old cemeteries is also pretty awesome 🙂 thanks for sharing this!

    • Maria Spyrou Reply

      Hey Meagan, thanks! I am sure you would absolutely love this tour!

  14. These photos are beautiful. We have visited London before and hope to head back again at a slower pace so that we can have more days to do this!

    • Maria Spyrou Reply

      Hey Suvarna, thank you! I wish you get to enjoy London and everything it has to offer soon!

  15. I love a guided tour and I love a walking tour so this one must be right up my alley. I agree that most big cities need multiple visits to even begin to say you have been there!

    • Maria Spyrou Reply

      Hey Alicia! We’ve been to London twice already and we can’t wait to go back for a chance to get to know it even better. We love guided tours, too. You get to learn a lot about a place in the most pleasant way possible.

  16. As a Londoner myself I love reading posts like this! We love exploring our own city and there are always new (or old!) things to see. You give a fascinating historic context as well. Brilliant article.

    • Maria Spyrou Reply

      Thank you Alex! Since you are a true Londoner, your words mean the world to us! 😀

  17. What a cool and unusual tour! I love anything Victorian, and I have a little bit of an interest in the macabre, so the tour through the cemetery is right up my alley! Thanks so much for sharing so that we can find such interesting things to add to our itineraries 🙂

    • Maria Spyrou Reply

      Hey Monique, thanks for your comment! I’m sure you would enjoy this tour immensely!

  18. What a great read. This is a different side to London that we’ve never seen before.

    • Maria Spyrou Reply

      Hi Rio, thank you for your comment. London has so many different faces that it feels as if you’re visiting many cities in one go.

    • Maria Spyrou Reply

      Hey Ee Sing, thank you so much! Katerina really did a great job capturing the feeling of Victorian London with her shots 🙂

  19. London is so much fun to check out, we have only been twice but there is so much to see! Beautiful photos and a beautifully written post. Thank you so much for sharing.

    • Maria Spyrou Reply

      Hi Kylee! Thank you so much for your kind words. We’ve also been to London twice but we can’t get enough of it!

  20. Love it! I think themed tours are great, especially when you already know a city 🙂 You get a different view and get to know the city somewhat more deeply! I did a Harry Potter tour in London which was also immense fun!

    • Maria Spyrou Reply

      Hey Dalibro! Thank you! Yes, we love themed tours too and we chose to take this Victorian London tour exactly because it was our second time in the city and we wanted to see and learn something beyond the main sightseeing we had done during our first visit. The Harry Potter tour sounds a lot of fun! We’ll check it out for next time 😉

  21. Unravelling Travelling Reply

    You’ve made London sound absolutely magical! I’ve lived here for a while now, and there’s so much I still haven’t explored! Amazing post, thanks for the inspiration 🙂

    • Maria Spyrou Reply

      Thank you so much for your lovely words! We absolutely love London and I guess that shows in my writing and in Katerina’s photos 🙂

    • Maria Spyrou Reply

      Hi Manon! It’s impossible to see and experience all of London’s beauties in one visit. That’s why we keep going back 🙂

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