The UK and Ireland are brimming with architectural hotspots. From historic buildings that have housed prominent figures, through to modern-day skyscrapers surpassing new heights, our nation’s varied landscape is impressive.
Here, we’ll cover some of the UK and Ireland’s most iconic buildings – both well-known and obscure. So whether you’re passionate about architecture already, or are simply looking for some day trip inspiration, hopefully something will spark your interest.
1. Sage Gateshead, Newcastle
Sage Gateshead is an international music centre, renowned conference setting, and music venue. Situated on the south bank of the River Tyne in North East England, it was designed by Foster and Partners and opened in 2004.
The Sage has been described by some as a symbol of Newcastle’s regeneration. In different lights, the building can appear like a shiny chrysalis, a cloud of steel, or a grounded aircraft. Its interior of stacked-up balconies also reflects the setup of an ocean cruise liner.
While the venue is popular throughout the local area, opinion on the building itself is somewhat split. While many people regard it as a fine example of Norman Foster’s high-tech architecture design, others prefer to liken it to a large slug!
Sage Gateshead has hosted numerous concerts from famous artists like Mumford & Sons, Pet Shop Boys, and Westlife throughout the years. The building also remains open to the public throughout the day. Sage Gateshead can be admired from the outside, but if you’re interested in visiting it as a venue, then you might like to stay up to date with upcoming events for the year here.
2. Dunmore Pineapple, Scotland
If you’re looking for something a bit weird and wacky, then it’s definitely worth taking a trip to the Dunmore Pineapple. Ranked as the ‘most bizarre building’ in Scotland’, this 18th century summerhouse has a giant stone pineapple as its central architectural feature.
It was built as a two-story building summerhouse containing a hothouse around 1761 by John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmoore. Among other things, the hothouse was used for growing pineapples. Travellers would bring them back from the Indies and America, and they were considered to be high-prized and exotic.
Dunmore Pineapple reaches around 14 metres high and is carefully carved in stone to form an impressive dome on top of the long pavilion. Plus, amidst the impressive architecture, the stones are arranged in such a way that water cannot collect anywhere.
Set within beautiful grounds and woodland, the Dunmore Pineapple is a wildlife haven where you can enjoy a peaceful walk and marvel at this weird, yet wonderful, piece of architecture. Find out more regarding opening hours and entry prices on the National Trust for Scotland website.
3. Clyde Auditorium (SEC Armadillo), Glasgow
This unique looking auditorium located near the River Clyde in Glasgow is one of three famous venues on the Scottish Event Campus. Designed by architects Foster and Partners, construction of the 3,000-seat capacity venue began in September 1995 and was completed in August 2000.
The Clyde Auditorium has played host to various events including the Scottish Auditions of Britain’s Got Talent 2008 to 2010, and the weightlifting competitions of the 2014 Commonwealth Games, held in Glasgow.
Due to its unusual shape, by the time of its completion, the building had earned its nickname as the Armadillo. Many popular comparisons have also been made to the Sydney Opera House, though surprisingly, this was not Foster and Partners’ inspiration for the design. Instead, it was intended to appear as an interlocking series of ship’s hulls (the watertight part of a ship or boat).
If you’re interested in visiting the SEC Armadillo, then why not book to see an event or show there? You’ll find plenty of line ups on the Scottish Event Campus website. Alternatively, if you’re in Glasgow you can always admire the building from the outside.
4. The Royal Pavilion, Brighton
The Royal Pavilion is an exotic palace in the heart of Brighton. In 1787 it was constructed in three stages as a seaside pleasure palace for King George IV, following the plans of architect Henry Holland. In 1815, it was extended further by Architect John Nash, who proposed an Indian style design. The entire building, structure, and internal designs were finally completed in 1823.
King George was confident in his vision, extravagant in his ways, and also deeply fond of the chinoiserie decorative style. This was a Chinese-inspired design that became it’s most popular in the mid 18th century. As a result, what’s left today is a complex combination of domes, towers, and minarets (a type of tower typically built into or adjacent to mosques) inspired by regal architecture and the visual styles of China and India.
Over the years it stood as royal residence to George IV’s successors William IV and Queen Victoria. It also served as a civic building, First World War hospital, and is now a renowned icon of Brighton.
You can read more about visiting, including opening times, ticket prices, and travel on the Royal Pavilion website.
5. The Eden Project, Cornwall
Designed by Grimshaw Architects and built in 2001, the Eden Project transformed an old Cornish claypit into an environment for an entire rainforest and hundreds of other plants. At first sight, the design looks very much like two large sections of bubble wrap. But in fact, it’s a unique example of sustainable architecture inspired by nature.
It consists of two Biome buildings – the Rainforest Biome and the Mediterranean Biome. These are low-energy buildings constructed from tubular steel and hexagonal cladding panels made from a special type of plastic.
The Rainforest Biome is 55m high, 100m long, and 200m wide – and with the temperature maintained between 18 and 35C, it houses the world’s largest rainforest in captivity. The Mediterranean Biome is a little smaller at 35m high, 65m wide, and 135m long. It hosts various plants, like olives and grapevines, in warm temperatures.
The Eden Project won the ICE Merit Award in 2002 as a distinguished example of civil engineering, so it’s well worth a visit. You can find out more about what to expect on the Eden Project website.
6. The Wonderful Barn, Dublin
The Wonderful Barn is a corkscrew-shaped building on the edge of Castletown House Estate in Dublin. It was built in 1743, reaches over 70 feet high, and has 94 external stairs that wind around its surface.
The barn is thought to have been erected in response to the ‘Year of the Slaughter’ famine which came as a result of extremely cold and wet weather in 1740-41. Katherine Connolly of Castletown House, appalled by the suffering during these years, commissioned the barn to be built. She intended it to provide employment to impoverished people to act as a grain store should famine strike again.
There are a few possible explanations for its unusual structure. One theory suggests that the Wonderful Barn could have been used as a dovecote (a structure designed to house pigeons or doves), based on the Georgian custom of using doves as a delicacy when other game was not in season. It could have also been used as a gamekeeper’s tower, a folly (having no practical purpose), or a storehouse for threshed grain.
The Wonderful Barn is unique in Ireland aside from one other structure known as the Bottle Tower in Churchtown, Dublin. If you’d like to pay a visit, you’ll find more information on the Insider Guide to Ireland website.
7. The Royal Crescent, Bath
Bath’s breathtaking Georgian architecture originates from the 18th century reigns of George I, II, and III. The neoclassical Palladian buildings are perfectly complemented by the city’s Roman heritage, and spread of grand monuments. The city’s designs are a clear reflection of the ambitions of prominent historical figures such as Richard ‘Beau’ Nash (1674-1761) to make Bath one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.
One of the most famous examples of Bath’s impressive architecture is the Royal Crescent. This is a semicircle of perfectly symmetrical grand townhouses which overlook the Royal Victoria Park. It’s easy to sit in wonder as you stare at the Palladian architecture; named after the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) and based largely on symmetry and proportion.
The good thing about Bath is that the impressive architecture extends throughout the city, so you’ll be spoiled for sights if you decide to visit. The Palladian-style Pulteney Bridge over the River Avon for example, is one of just four bridges in the world to have shops across its full length on both sides. Plus, the city is also home to the famous Roman Baths which are full of history.
For more information about planning a trip to Bath, have a read of Bath’s Official Tourism website.
8. The Willow Tearooms, Glasgow
The Willow Tearooms are tearooms designed by world-famous architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Originally opening for business back in October 1903, the tearooms were the result of a connection between Mackintosh and entrepreneurial local business woman Catherine Cranston, who he met early in his career in 1896.
As the daughter of a Glasgow tea merchant and a strong believer in temperance (a movement seeking to place restrictions on alcohol consumption), Miss Cranston came up with the idea of a series of ‘art tearooms’. These were to be venues where people could meet to relax and enjoy non-alcoholic drinks throughout various different ‘rooms’ within the same building.
The Willow Tearooms quickly gained significant popularity and are the most famous of the many tearooms that opened in the late 19th and early 20th century throughout Glasgow. Between 2014 and 2018, the building was fully restored, largely in keeping with Mackintosh’s original designs.
Today, visitors are able to enjoy The Willow Tearooms as a site for a spot of breakfast, lunch, and afternoon tea. You can find out more about visiting The Willow Tearooms here.
9. The Shard, London
First opened in early 2013, the Shard is Western Europe’s tallest building; soaring 800 feet above London. Designed by Renzo Piano, for panoramic views across the city from impressive heights, the Shard is unrivalled.
With strict measures to protect the views of St Paul’s Cathedral, the Shard embodies the innovative architecture dominating the working city it overlooks. With its narrow, tapered design, not only does the Shard look impressive, but it also protects the integrity of old London.
There are plenty of things to do in and around the Shard. From taking in the views, to grabbing a drink or eating in the impressive restaurant, you’ll find out more about how to plan your visit on The View from the Shard website.
10. The Rows, Chester
The Chester Rows are continuous half-timbered medieval-style galleries which form a second row of shops (and other facilities) above those at street level. Appearing in each of the four main streets of Chester, The Rows are entirely unique to the city. Interestingly, no one is really sure why they were constructed in this way.
Dating back to the medieval period, it’s possible that the Rows may have been built on top of rubble remaining from Roman buildings. However, as most of the buildings in Chester have undergone significant architectural changes over the years, it’s tricky for experts to pinpoint when the Rows were originally built. That being said, there’s evidence to suggest that the Rows were around in the 13th century.
While very little medieval fabric remains, the Chester Rows are still magnificent – adding unique character to the city and remaining one of its most popular tourist attractions. These days, they’re mostly full of shops, as well as some offices, restaurants, cafes, and meeting rooms. As such, the Rows are a great way to combine a passion for architecture with a touch of shopping.
If you’re interested in visiting the Chester Rows, you’ll find more information on ticket prices and how to book on the Visit Chester & Cheshire website.
11. Conwy Castle, North Wales
Conwy Castle is considered to be one of the finest examples of late 13th and early 14th century military architecture in Europe. The fortification was built under the command of King Edward I between 1283 and 1289 during his conquest of Wales – and it was designed by James of Saint George, who was the king’s master-builder. Conwy Castle formed part of Edward’s Iron Ring of Castles (tactically positioned castles erected as defence structures during the King’s conquest of Wales).
The castle’s structure was centered on offering full defence and advantage during attacks. Like many others in the Iron Ring of castles, Conwy’s towers have parallel walls which are very tall and thick. This made them extremely hard to climb or penetrate during an attack. The walls also have many arrow loops, and feature dominating gate bridges and houses.
Set on a backdrop of rugged mountains of Snowdonia and above the harbour and streets of Conwy, the castle’s eight lofty towers are enough to take your breath away. Plus, also home to the most intact set of medieval royal apartments in Wales, it’s hard not to get lost in the history.
You can find out more about visiting Conwy Castle including ticket prices and how to book on the Visit Conwy Castle page.
12. Beetham Tower, Manchester
Beetham Tower (also known as the Hilton Tower) is a 47-story skyscraper in Manchester. It was designed by architect Ian Simpson who lived on the top floor penthouse – the highest residential space in Europe. Completed in 2006 and standing at a height of 554 feet, Beetham was widely referred to as the first proper skyscraper outside of London.
Its elongated structure makes it one of the thinnest skyscrapers in the world with an impressive height to width ratio of 10:1 on the East-West side. On the 23rd floor, the tower extends horizontally by 13 feet to increase floor space and add definition.
Up until 2018, Beetham Tower was the tallest building in Manchester and outside of London before it was surpassed by the South Tower at Deansgate Square. Architectural interpretation of the building varies; some people feel the tower’s dramatic appearance reflects Manchester’s character, and others see it as a symbol of the city’s reinvention as a post-industrial city.
Now a hotel, if you’re visiting Manchester, you could consider staying in Beetham Tower itself. For more information, why not check it out on Booking.com?
13. RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) North Architecture Centre, Liverpool
Designed by London-based architecture firm Broadway Malyan, RIBA North opened along the Liverpool Waterfront in June 2017. The physical structure is made up of two blocks set at right angles to face the River Mersey.
For those interested in learning more about architecture as a whole, RIBA North is the place for you. Not only is the exterior building highly impressive, but inside are exhibitions, talks, and tours where you can discover more about architecture. Plus, located on the docks, RIBA North is only a stone’s throw away from Liverpool’s other main attractions.
You’ll find more information about visiting RIBA North on the RIBA Architecture website.
14. Salisbury Cathedral
Salisbury Cathedral is regarded as one of the leading examples of Early English Gothic architecture. Its main body took 38 years to complete, between 1220 and 1258.
The cathedral is based on various Early English Gothic architectural techniques that became popular in the late 12th and 13th centuries. The pointed arches, lancet shape designs, prominent windows, and columns of dark gray Purbeck marble are some of its most notable features.
The cathedral’s squire, built in 1320, is the tallest church spire in the UK at 404 feet. It also houses the best preserved of four remaining original copies of the Magna Carta, and has the largest cathedral cloisters (enclosed gardens surrounded by covered walkways) and cathedral close (area immediately around the cathedral) in the UK – as well as the highest vault. Everything about Salisbury Cathedral really is bigger and better.
For more information on visiting the cathedral, including things to do in the area and ticket prices, have a look at the Salisbury Cathedral website.
The UK is full of architectural wonder that it’d be impossible to fit every noteworthy site into one single list. However, if you’re interested in architecture and keen to tick off some impressive sites – both old and new – the ideas above could be a good place to start.
From super thin skyscrapers and Sydney Opera House lookalikes, through to royal residences and fruit-shaped domes, it’s hard not to be impressed by the varied architectural styles of the UK.
What are your favourite architectural sites in the UK? Which styles of architecture inspire you? We’d love to hear from you. Join the conversation on the arts and culture section of the Rest Less community forum, or leave a comment below.