World's Most Beautiful Clock Towers
Telling time is hardly the role of clock towers anymore. But they can still draw a crowd. Take the face of Chicago’s Wrigley Building. While there are no official numbers on how many visits its clock tower gets, the Windy City did see 42 million visitors in 2012, many of whom probably spent time downtown taking in the city’s architectural highlights, including this 1920s icon.
A well-placed clock can remind you where you are and, in some cases, even push you along to where you’re going. The train station clock in Limoges, France, used to run two minutes early to encourage passengers to keep moving along swiftly to catch their trains. In Saudi Arabia, the newest clock tower in the world reminds people when to pray.
All of this information conveyed by a clock—time, location, scheduling—is why clock towers were placed at the site of important historical events or built as part of city walls or part of transit systems such as train stations. Over time, several of the world’s clock towers have become more than timepieces: they’re landmarks synonymous with their locations.
The most famous, of course, is London’s Big Ben, now officially called the Elizabeth Tower. Karen Clarkson, vice president, North America, at VisitBritain, describes it as “one of the most iconic and recognizable features of the Palace of Westminster,” and anyone who’s ever seen it would have to agree. “Its political significance, dazzling architecture, and rich history ensure it’s one of the must-see sights in London, and it’s easy to see why it sits atop the lists of the most photographed sights in the world,” Clarkson said.
Often, a clock tower sits the heart of the city and served as town centers when they were first built. Such was the case with Leicester’s Haymarket Memorial Clock Tower in the U.K. as well as the Zytglogge Tower in Bern, Switzerland. It’s likely most of the 413,920 visitors to Bern in 2012 saw the clock at some point.
Regardless of whether you seek them out or not, these beautiful clock towers are emblems of their cities and help out-of-town visitors get their bearings far from home.
Haymarket Memorial Clock Tower, Leicester, U.K.
Built in the days of horse-drawn carriages, this tower became the center of one of the first roundabouts in the U.K. as carriages gave way to tram travel. Five roads meet at the tower, and it was an important site of commerce, with hay, straw, and produce being sold here. Statues of the four local benefactors adorn the corners of the tower.
Sultan Abdul Samad Building Clock Tower, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Completed in 1897 by the British colonial administration, this building complex and clock tower anchors the city’s Merdeka Square. Its Moorish style can be attributed to the mosques that architect A.C. Norman saw while in India. It was here, on August 31, 1957, that the Union Jack flag was replaced by the Malaysian flag—and many national events have taken place since.
Big Ben, London
“Big Ben” was originally a nickname used for the gargantuan bell inside this clock tower. These days, the moniker refers to the bell, the clock face, and the 315-foot tower too—though the beloved icon was officially renamed the Elizabeth Tower in 2012, as part of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee celebration. Built from the inside out, the stone and granite tower got its finishing touch with the clock tower’s installation in 1859. The cast-iron minute hands proved too heavy, so they were replaced with today’s lighted copper hands.
Rajabai Clock Tower, Mumbai, India
At the downtown campus of the University of Mumbai, this 19th-century tower was designed by English architect Sir George Gilbert Scott and paid for by Premchand Roychand, founder of the Bombay Stock Exchange, who insisted it be named for his blind mother, Rajabai. She was a devout follower of the Jain religion, which decrees that dinner be eaten before sundown, and the knell of the bell tower enabled her to mark time. Gilbert never visited Mumbai, sending the designs—modeled after Big Ben—from his London office.
Wrigley Building Clock Tower, Chicago
The Wrigley chewing gum company—makers of Doublemint, Spearmint, and Juicy Fruit—had its headquarters here until 2012. The clock tower features terra-cotta tiles in six shades of white, starting with off-white at the bottom and becoming more blue-white with each rising foot, a strategy intended to make the tower look brighter as you gaze upwards. Built in the 1920s, the clock tower was inspired by La Giralda (built as a minaret and later incorporated into Spain’s Seville Cathedral) and it’s illuminated nightly.
Abraj al-Bait, Mecca, Saudi Arabia
The world’s newest clock tower, completed in 2012, tops a 76-floor building that contains a Fairmont hotel as well as a vast entertainment and shopping complex. At 1,972 feet, the tower is the second tallest building in the world (short of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa). Its scale is further conveyed by the fact that each of four clock faces is 151 feet in diameter and it takes two million LED lights to light it up each night. Every day the clock announces the Muslim call to prayer, while an observation deck at the base of the clock allows travelers to take in dramatic views of the holy city.
Zytglogge Tower, Bern, Switzerland
This 179-foot-tall medieval tower functioned first as a guard tower of Bern’s western fortifications, then a prison, and later a clock tower. In the 15th century, an astronomical clock was added to predict the position of planets and determine the day of the week. The clock has evolved in style over the centuries; the last renovation in the early 1980s has left it most resembling its 1770 Baroque appearance.
Limoges Train Station Clock, France
The Limoges station is unique in that it actually sits over the rails, rather than next to them. Both the dome and the top of the clock tower display the signature green verdigris color associated with many French buildings. The clock features Roman numerals, except for the 4, which is written as IIII and not IV—an aesthetic choice to maintain the clock’s spacing between the numbers 4 and 8 (VIII). Funnily enough, there was a time when the clock ran two minutes ahead of time, in order to keep passengers moving along swiftly.
Clock Tower, Hong Kong
Keeping with the theme of clock towers at railway stations, this red brick and granite tower, measuring 144 feet tall, was erected in 1915 as part of the former Kowloon–Canton Railway Terminus. In the 1970s, a new terminal opened at Hung Hom, so the original station was demolish except for this tower, which represented a new life for Chinese immigrants then and continues to retain its symbolic status for Hong Kong’s 7 million people. These days, you can arrive by Star Ferry and pass the clock tower on your way to tea at the historic Peninsula Hotel nearby.
Ferry Building Clock Tower, San Francisco
This 245-foot-tall clock tower and Beaux-Arts building was a primary point of arrival and departure from 1898 until the construction of the Golden Gate and Bay bridges in the late 1930s. Inside, a 660-foot-long skylit atrium that once provided access to ferries now houses shops and restaurants, including Blue Bottle Coffee and Asian restaurant Slanted Door. It’s especially crowded on Saturday mornings when a farmers’ market takes over the space in front and in the rear of the building, overlooking the bay.
The Saviour Tower, Moscow
Visitors make a grand entrance to Red Square thanks to this imposing 10-story tower (a.k.a. Spasskaya Frolovskaya), designed in 1491 by Italian architect Pietro Antonio Solari and used for ceremonial processions. The clock was first installed in 1625 and updated in 1851, with the eventual addition of a five-pointed star. Illuminated both day and night, the star rotates like a weathervane. kreml.ru
Izmir Clock Tower, Turkey
This 82-foot-tall tower in Izmir, Turkey’s third most populous city, made an appearance on the Turkish 500 lira banknote from 1983 to 1989. It was among several landmarks erected in the early 1900s to honor 25 years of rule by Sultan Abdulhamid II; Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany gifted him this particular clock face as a gesture of good will and alliance. You’ll find similar Moorish-style clock towers in Serbia, Bosnia and Montenegro, which were all once upon a time provinces of the Ottoman Empire.
Old Town Hall Tower, Prague
Clockmaker Hanuš, who perfected the clock on this town hall façade in 1490, was supposedly blinded so that he wouldn’t make a more beautiful version elsewhere. As the perfect revenge, Hanuš stopped the clock from functioning, and it was a hundred years before someone would figure out how to repair it. The clock is known for its 12 marching apostles; a skeleton on the right, depicting Death, starts the show by pulling on a string and looking at his other hand, in which he holds an hourglass. Then, two windows open, allowing the apostles to make their moves. A magnificent late-Gothic door in the adjacent house serves as the main entrance to the Old Town Hall.
Torre del Reloj, Cartagena, Colombia
This four-sided clock tower’s gate grants you access to the most charming part of Cartagena: a walled section of 18th-century mansions, leafy squares, and street cafes. The tower and clock itself were added in 1888; in front, a statue of city founder Pedro de Heredia keeps watch.