The foundation of this splendid cathedral dates from A.D. 597, but the earliest part of the present building is the great Romanesque crypt built around A.D. 1100. The monastic quire erected on top of this at the same time was destroyed by fire in 1174, only 4 years after the murder of Thomas à Becket on a dark December evening in the northwest transept, which is still one of the most famous places of pilgrimage in Europe. The destroyed quire was immediately replaced by a magnificent early Gothic one, the first major expression of that architectural style in England.
Frankly, the exterior of the cathedral is more impressive than the interior, which is surprising since this is the mother church of Anglican Christianity and the seat of the archbishop of Canterbury. The landmark 72m (235-ft.) Bell Harry Tower, completed in 1505, is the most distinctive feature of the building. You enter through the ornate Christ Church Gate from the early 16th century.
Inside, you wander into a stage setting that evokes T. S. Eliot's play Murder in the Cathedral. Our favorite architectural fantasies are the fan-vaulted colonnades of the Great Cloister on the northern flank of the building. From the cloister you can enter the Chapter House, with its magnificent web of intricate tracery from the 1300s. This architectural ensemble supports the roof and a wall of stained glass, depicting scenes from Becket's tragic life.
Perpendicular arches support intricate fan vaulting from the 1400s at the crossing of the nave and transepts, creating architectural drama under the Bell Harry Tower. Look for the slender shafts of columns that rise without interruption into the high vault.
The lofty aisles were meant to provoke awe in the Canterbury pilgrim. Abundant light floods in from windows designed to create an air of tranquillity, although that is shattered by the thousands of visitors who descend every day.
The cathedral is noteworthy for its medieval tombs of royal personages, such as King Henry IV and Edward the Black Prince. Prince Edward of England was the eldest son of Edward III and the father of Richard II. Prince Edward was one of England's ablest military commanders during the Hundred Years' War. His nickname was probably derived from the color of his armor, but nobody knows for sure. To the later Middle Ages belong the great 14th-century nave and the Bell Harry Tower. The cathedral stands on spacious precincts amid the remains of the buildings of the monastery -- cloisters, chapter house, and Norman water tower -- which have survived intact from Henry VIII's Dissolution.
Becket's shrine was destroyed by the Tudor king, but the site of that tomb is in Trinity Chapel, near the high altar. The saint is said to have worked miracles, and the cathedral has some rare stained glass depicting those feats.
But the most miraculous event is that the windows escaped Henry VIII's agents of destruction as well as Hitler's bombs. The windows were removed as a precaution at the beginning of the war. During the war, a large area of Canterbury was flattened, but the main body of the church was unharmed. However, the cathedral library was damaged during a German air raid in 1942. The replacement windows of the cathedral were blown in, which proved the wisdom of having the medieval glass safely stored away.
Insider's tip: We prefer to visit the cathedral at Evensong, when you can hear beautiful cathedral music played. Performances are Monday to Friday at 5:30pm and Saturday and Sunday at 3:15pm. Admission is free for Evensong, but you must tell the warder at the gate that you'd like to attend a performance; otherwise you'll be charged an entrance fee. You can also rent an audio tour -- one of the best of any cathedral in England -- costing £3.50 for adults or £2.50 for students and seniors. The informative tour on audio lasts 40 minutes.