Salisbury Cathedral is world renowned for its beauty, its tallest spire and its unique Gothic architecture, as well as its location in the stunning Cathedral Close. People travel miles to see it, and it welcomes over 600,000 visitors a year, many including it in a trip to nearby Stonehenge.
If you're visiting Salisbury Cathedral and want to know what you shouldn't miss, here we have the definitive guide written by a local.
Click on the links to skip to the part you want:
1. Basic Facts >>
1. Basic facts about Salisbury Cathedral
Salisbury Cathedral has the tallest spire in the UK at 123 metres (404 feet).
It was built 800 years ago (in 1220) and is unique in that it was built in a short time span - 38 years - so it is all of the same style of architecture - Early English Gothic.
The foundations are only 70 cm deep and it is constructed on a barely drained watery swamp.
The Cloisters (covered walkway) are the largest in the UK.
The Cathedral Close is the largest in the UK at 80 acres.
It holds one of only 4 copies of the Magna Carta in the world - the one here is the best preserved copy of them all.
It contains the world's oldest working mechanical clock which dates from around 1386.
2. Top Must-See Attractions in Salisbury Cathedral
Most visitors visit the main body of the cathedral first, starting near the West Door and working their way down the nave to the altar and the transepts. The tower is only available to those who are doing a tower tour (see below for booking details.) When you leave the main body of the church, you exit into the Cloisters, where you will find the Chapter House and the Magna Carta. A walk round the Cloisters will then lead you to the restaurant, the gift shop and the exit. This list of Must-See Attractions is in the order you are likely to encounter them.
The Tower and Spire
The cathedral was originally a rather squat looking building until the magnificent spire was added in 1310 - 1330. The top-heavy weight of the stone on a building with such shallow foundations has meant that it has caused some damage to the structure of the cathedral over the years. The spire itself still has the medieval scaffolding used to repair it when it was first damaged in the 14th century. Christopher Wren wrote a report on how to stop the spire shifting in 1668, and the iron bands he advised were added in 1670. They are still there today and have prevented further structural damage.
You can go on a tower tour which takes you up into the roof, right to the base of the spire and out onto the parapet with far reaching views over the city - it is a fascinating look at the upper reaches of the cathedral and most definitely worth doing if you get the chance.
You can also see the original 14th century cross which was once at the top of the spire, encased in 18th century copper; it was replaced in 1950. It now sits in the north quire of the cathedral near the pulpit.
The world's oldest working mechanical clock
Believed to be the world's oldest working mechanical clock, although there are other contenders for that title, this faceless clock is thought to date from 1386. It was originally housed in the adjacent Bell Tower, which was severely damaged in the Civil War and eventually destroyed altogether.
The clock has no face and instead strikes once on the hour, although this mechanism is often clamped to prevent it from striking. It still has to be hand wound each day by cathedral staff.
Tombs and Memorials
There is a wide variety of traditional tombs and memorials, the oldest being that of Bishop Osmund, Bishop of the forerunner to the cathedral at Old Sarum. Other notables include William Longspee, son of Henry II and half brother to King John who signed the Magna Carta, Mary Herbert who is recognised as the first English female poet, World War I poet Edward Tennant and as well as Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath, who lived in the Close.
There are other lesser known, but no less fascinating individuals, buried and memorialised within the cathedral bounds. You can read more about them and their stories in this article on Tombs and Memorials to look out for in Salisbury Cathedral >>
The Infinity Font
The Infinity Font is a beautiful, modern font right in the centre of the nave.
Added in 2008 as the cathedral hadn't had a font for over 200 years, the font was designed and created by William Pye, renowned water sculptor. It is the only font to have its own water supply and power source, and the only one which is centre stage in a cathedral, rather than tucked away as so many other fonts are.
It is 10 feet across and in a cruciform shape. The water is so still that it looks like a mirror, leading to some incredible reflective photos from visitors.
Apparently one visitor was so convinced it was glass she put her handbag on it - with rather soggy consequences. The water leaves the font in streams at the sides, running into channels in the floor. Although it took a while for locals to warm to its presence in the cathedral, we now love it and wouldn't be without it.
The Prisoners of Conscience Window and Amnesty Candle
At the East end of the cathedral behind the altar is a large, blue stained glass window dedicated to Prisoners of Conscience, and a candle wrapped in barbed wire which is kept permanently alight in memory of those who are imprisoned for their beliefs.
Each morning at 7.30am, the members of the cathedral community meet there and pray for Amnesty International's Prisoner of Conscience for that month.
The Bumping Stone
The Bumping Stone is in the south choir aisle, part of a ledge where for centuries male choristers have been initiated into their role in the cathedral choir on the day they get their surplices.
Their heads are gently bumped seven times against the stone, and as you can see from the size of the dent, this practice has been going on for some time. Salisbury Cathedral was the first to have a girls choir in 1991 - their heads are gently bumped on a bible instead.
Father Willis Organ
The cathedral are very proud of their Father Willis organ, which is over 140 years old and an important piece of musical heritage, considered to be the best pipe organ in the country. It still sounds the same as it did in 1877 as although it has been restored, it has never been updated or modernised.
You will hear it if you attend any of the services, or if you are visiting while it is being tuned. They do warn you about the tuning in advance as it is not the easiest of sounds on the ear - find out the tuning dates in advance and read more about the organ here >>
The Chapter House
The Chapter House is where meetings were held by the clergy, and was in daily use until the Reformation, when it fell into some disrepair. It has since been restored. It is a polygonal room with high vaulted ceiling supported by a central column, stained glass windows and a frieze of stills from Genesis around the spandrels, some of which were destroyed during the 17th century. The floor is 19th century tiles emulating the original medieval inlaid tiles. Overall it is an impressive and dramatic space, and hosts changing exhibitions from the cathedral archives or about the Magna Carta.
The Chapter House isn't always open every time the cathedral is, so check here before you go if it will be open. It is usually open Monday - Saturday, 10am - 5pm.
The Magna Carta
The star attraction of the Chapter House, the Magna Carta is housed in a shrouded tent to protect it from the light. It is one of only four remaining copies, and is the best preserved of them all.
Written in 1215 and signed under pressure by King John in a field in Runnymede, it is the foundation of human rights in the Anglo-American legal systems, declaring the rights and liberties held by free men and that the King is not above the law.
Salisbury has a copy of the Magna Carta because present at Runnymede was Elias of Dereham, who was steward to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Once Magna Carta was sealed, he was entrusted with delivering ten of the thirteen copies made, one of which was given to the original cathedral at Old Sarum. He later oversaw construction of Salisbury Cathedral and transferred the Magna Carta across.
The cloisters in Salisbury are the largest in the country and were built just five years after the main body of the cathedral. The two cedar trees were planted about 150 years ago to commemorate Queen Victoria's ascension to the throne.
There is a rather odd Barbara Hepworth sculpture in the corner of the green, called Construction (Crucifixion), gifted to the cathedral by the artist in 1969.
Visitors can walk round the cloisters but not in the central area. There are memorials on the walls, including some poignant wooden crosses from the original graves of World War I soldiers, before their permanent headstones were put in place.
One side of the cloisters is filled with tables for visitors to the Refectory restaurant to be able to eat and drink while admiring the view.
Peregrine Falcons were regular visitors to the cathedral over the centuries, with records of them nesting in the tower from 1864 - 1953.
They disappeared for many years due to the use of dangerous pesticides and being hunted, but they returned to the tower in 2014 in a specially built nest box made by the Cathedral Works Team.
Since then they have hatched and fledged from the tower every year (except for 2018 when a territorial battle between two females prevented it) and they now have their own You Tube channel live stream, in breeding season, where you can watch them hatching.
Depending on the time of year you visit, you may well be able to see them swooping and wheeling in the skies above when are you are in the Cathedral Close.
The cathedral has regular and ever changing art exhibitions both within its walls and outside in the Close. Some of these are fantastic and well worth seeing if you get the chance. They range from static displays to light shows such as the incredible Sarum Lights in Feb 2020 which filled the cathedral with a wall of colours, lights and sounds.
You can find out what art events they have coming up here >>
3. Visiting Salisbury Cathedral
Getting to Salisbury Cathedral
Train: There are regular trains from cities such as London and Bath. Book your tickets 12 weeks in advance to get the largest discounts. Salisbury train station is a 5-10 minute easy walk to the cathedral, or you can get a taxi from the taxi rank outside the station - no pre-booking required.
Bus: There are regular buses into and around Salisbury with several bus stops just outside the Cathedral Close. Find your bus >>
Car: It is not advisable to park in the Cathedral Close. Instead your best bet is to park in the central car park at SP1 3SL and walk the 5 minutes to the cathedral. If you are coming from out of town, consider using one of the Park & Ride sites, as traffic in Salisbury can be busy and confusing at times.
Opening hours: Monday - Saturday, 9.30 - 5pm
You can book in advance or just show up - tickets are cheaper if you book in advance.
Adults: £8 advance, £9 on the day
Students (13-18 years): £5 advance, £6 on the day
Children under 13: Free
Residents in SP1, SP2 and Laverstock: Free (with proof of residence)
At the moment you can only book for a group to go on a tower tour, at £90 for 6 people. Once the pandemic is fully over, hopefully they will go back to allowing people to just book individual spaces on a tour. It is however a fantastic tour and well worth doing if you can. No under 7s and you need a reasonable level of fitness to get up all the steps.
4. Other places to visit within a 10 minute walk of Salisbury's Cathedral Close
(Click on the pictures for further details)
5. Where to eat when visiting Salisbury Cathedral
The cathedral has a good refectory in the Cloisters where you can get full meal, snack or just a drink. It is a modern addition to the building with a glass ceiling where you can look up at the spire.
Just a four minute walk away is the 16th century New Inn - a traditional British pub with excellent food and a large, verdant garden. It is well worth a visit.
6. Getting to Stonehenge from Salisbury Cathedral
By car: Leave Salisbury on the A360 heading north. It is a straight line out of town and takes about 20 minutes. Go straight over the roundabout with the A303 and turn right into the Stonehenge car park.
By bus: Walk from the Cathedral to Salisbury train station - it is a 5 minute walk. Outside the station there are regular buses with their own dedicated bus stop which will take you straight there. Find timetables and prices here >>
Don't want to pay to see Stonehenge?
Why not do a walk in the wider ancient landscape and walk from Woodhenge to Stonehenge, seeing both for free?
7. Where to stay when visiting Salisbury Cathedral
There is plenty of choice when it comes to finding somewhere to stay in Salisbury. If you are looking for something independently owned or a bit quirky, try our Independently owned accommodation in Salisbury page. Otherwise, have a look on Booking.com (below) who give you the advantage of free cancellation up to 24 hours before you stay on most of their properties.