The Houses of Parliament is one of the most iconic sights along London’s extensive skyline. This UNESCO World Heritage Site rises alongside the River Thames in the heart of the capital.
Also known as the Palace of Westminster, this is the seat of British democracy. And it’s a building that has seen tumultuous events decided within its grand chambers.
The Houses of Parliament is where democracy can be seen in action. The public are allowed to watch debates between Members of Parliament and even watch the Prime Minister speaking.
You can tour through the historic corridors of the Houses of Parliament, and learn first-hand the many unique stories that are waiting within the palace walls. It’s one of the best things to do in London. To inspire your trip, here’s everything you need to know about the Houses of Parliament.
Where Is the Houses of Parliament?
The Houses of Parliament is located in Central London. Given its prime location, it’s an easy place to find and to visit.
In fact, you’ll see the huge clock face of Big Ben long before you arrive, as the tall tower stands proudly above the capital, keeping time.
While you can walk through Central London to reach the palace – just head towards Westminster Bridge and look for Big Ben – you can also arrive by public transport. This is much more advisable than attempting to drive, as not only would you need to pay congestion charges, but parking is almost non-existent in Central London. Where it does exist, it’s expensive.
The nearest underground station is the conveniently named Westminster Station. It’s located on the Jubilee, Circle and District Lines, making it easy to connect on the Tube from almost any other destination in London.
There are also plenty of nearby bus stops and, of course, the classic hop-on, hop-off bus tours also call in close to the Houses of Parliament. These tours can be a convenient way to get around the capital, particularly if it’s your first time, as you’ll have transport between all of London’s most famous attractions and you’ll be provided with plenty of information along the way.
Guided Tours of the Houses of Parliament
It’s possible to join guided tours of the Houses of Parliament. However, they don’t run all year round. When Parliament is sitting – for most of the year while MPs debate laws and motions –there are only tours on Saturdays, so just one day a week.
During summer though, MPs take a long summer recess, during which time Parliament is essentially not sitting, unless there’s an emergency or crisis.
During this summer recess, tours are run from Monday through Saturday. If you are visiting in summer, usually between August and September, this is the best time to join a guided tour of the Houses of Parliament. There are never any tours on Sundays or public holidays, while the dates of summer recess vary each year so be sure to check in advance when planning your trip to London.
Guided tours can be booked in advance, which is a great way to secure your spot throughout the year. Tours last 90 minutes and tickets can be bought online or on the door, although you get discounts for advance bookings. Tours leave at regular 15-minute intervals on the days that they run. Most tours are in English, but there are limited tours in other languages such as French, German, Italian and Spanish during the summer recess.
You can also purchase an audio guide for a self-guided tour of the Houses of Parliament, which is available in multiple languages.
If you are a British citizen, then you can visit the Houses of Parliament free of charge. However, you can’t just turn up at the door; you need to write a letter in advance to your local Member of Parliament, whose office will then make the arrangements.
Adult Guided Tour Ticket: £26.50
Adult Audio Guide Tour: £19.50
Discounts are available for students, OAPs, children and for families. Ticket prices valid as of autumn 2019.
The Public Galleries
If you are visiting London outside of tour times or if you simply don’t want to pay for a guided tour, it’s also possible to visit the public galleries of the Houses of Parliament free of charge.
The public galleries are the seating areas found behind the main seating areas for the Members of Parliament or the Lords, in the House of Commons and House of Lords respectively.
These are public areas that anyone is allowed to visit, in order to watch the debates and motions in action. It’s an important part of the transparent British democracy system, as technically anyone can view what’s going on inside the Houses of Parliament.
Unfortunately though, in practice, space and seating is limited, so you either need to time your visit well or queue for a long time to get in.
Parliament can run all through the day and well into the night on some occasions. The public galleries can be visited at any time when Parliament is seated.
To enter the public galleries, you must queue up at St Stephens entrance; entrance is on a first-come, first-served basis. Your chance of getting in depends entirely on how busy it is, which can depend on what is being debated in Parliament and who is speaking.
For instance, the most popular time will always be when the Prime Minister is speaking, particularly at Prime Minister’s Question Time, which is held every Wednesday at 12 pm. It’s unlikely you’ll get a seat at this time, but if you turn up for other motions, it’s very possible. You can check what is being debated and who is speaking through the Parliament information services and on the Parliament website.
Security at the Houses of Parliament
This is the seat of government and democracy in the United Kingdom, so you can expect security to be tight when you are visiting.
There are stringent security measures in place. Each visitor has to be checked and their baggage scanned. You cannot take any dangerous items into Westminster Palace. When you’re visiting, just imagine you are about to fly, because security here is very airport-like. It’s best to leave large luggage and bags behind, or you’ll end up slowing down the entrance process.
You’ll also need to bring some form of identification with you. Ordinarily, visitors are also given an ID badge, which must be worn during their tour of the Houses of Parliament.
A Brief History of the Houses of Parliament
The Houses of Parliament were originally built to serve as a palace by the English kings, hence the name the Palace of Westminster, just over the road from Westminster Abbey.
The first palace to be built here was constructed on the orders of Edward the Confessor and would serve as a royal residence from the 11th century through the 16th century. After 500 years of regal use, the palace was caught in a blaze and burnt to the ground. Parts of the palace survived, and the English Parliament used the remaining sections as their meeting area, where they’ve now met since the 13th century.
In fact, the first English Parliament was convened here in 1265, as representatives from across the country were invited to London, to what was then the King’s Palace, to debate laws and to give more power to the people – or, at least to take power away from the monarch. That makes Westminster Palace one of the oldest democratic bodies in the world, and it’s on this site that the Parliament has convened ever since.
Fire again ravaged the palace in the Victorian era, and the complex was completely rebuilt. The current building took almost three decades to complete, finally being opened in the 1870s. In World War II the Commons was the scene of Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s rousing war speeches, but it was also targeted and hit by German bombers during the Blitz, causing much damage.
The Houses of Parliament survived once again though, and today they are still the meeting place of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
While royalty no longer lives at Westminster Palace, intriguingly it’s still owned by the Crown and is in effect gifted for the use of government. With such a long and convoluted history, this is just one of the many quirks and traditions that surround the Houses of Parliament.
What to See in the Houses of Parliament
The Houses of Parliament is an enormous complex, and not everywhere is open to the public, even on a guided tour. While you can see the galleries without taking a tour, you need to join one to see the best sights listed below.
Big Ben – officially known as Elizabeth Tower – is the tall clock tower that has become one of the most enduring and recognisable symbols of London.
Big Ben is technically the name of the clock itself. It was constructed in 1859 and has been telling Londoners the time ever since.
It was possible to take tours of the tower and to see the inner mechanics of the clock, but in recent years Big Ben has been undergoing renovation, although it’s set to reopen again soon.
The Commons Chamber
The Commons Chamber is perhaps the most important place in British politics. This is where the Ministers and Members of Parliament meet in order to hold debates and to discuss the future of the country.
The House of Commons is known as the Lower House, and it takes its name from the fact that it’s here that democracy is enacted by the common people and not the Lords.
The Commons Chamber is an elegant room with benches on either side rising upwards and facing across the hall from each other. On one side sit the government, while the opposition sits opposite.
The central area is where the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition stand to give speeches, while at the far end you can find the Speaker’s Chair, where the Speaker of the House of Commons to keep order between the different factions in the Chamber.
The Lords Chamber
The Lords Chamber is otherwise known as the Upper House. Whereas the House of Commons is for elected Members of Parliament, to sit in the House of Lords you must be elevated to peerage, which is by appointment only or acquired through hereditary means. Most Lords remain Lords for life after appointment.
The Lords cannot stop laws being enacted but they are there to provide an independent check on regulations, as they have the power to delay Acts of Parliament.
The Lords Chambers is far more lavish than the Commons, and there are many strange traditions in place. While visiting you’ll see the Woolsack, where the Speaker of the House of Lords sits. This tradition goes back to the 14th century when wool was an integral part of the English economy.
The Robing Room
The Robing Room is a unique chamber in the palace that’s used by the reigning monarch before they give their speech opening Parliament.
It’s an elegant, stately room that’s been graced by several kings and queens throughout history.
The Royal Gallery
The Royal Gallery is another lavish room found in the palace, which serves as a location for ceremonies, dinners and events.
It’s the largest room in the Palace of Westminster and it’s decorated with portraits of historic royals.
The Palace of Westminster hosts regular events and exhibitions throughout the year.
There are often talks within the palace, which you can find details about and sign up for online. These talks generally focus either on the history or architecture of Westminster Palace itself or on the history of British politics. If you want to learn more about the Houses of Parliament from excellent speakers, these talks are wonderful events to attend.
To find out more about Premium Tours’ excellent selection of London tours, including trips to the Palace of Westminster, contact us today or browse our website.