World War II is an event that has remained in the memory of Londoners and within the mainstream consciousness of the capital, even several generations after the conflict ended in 1945. Across the city, you can find museums and memorials dedicated to the war, and it’s difficult to visit London without coming across at least some reference to World War II.
One of the best museums to visit in London if you’re looking to learn more about the city’s role in the war is the Churchill War Rooms. This fascinating museum is a branch of the Imperial War Museum, and it’s found directly beneath Whitehall. The war rooms is where Winston Churchill and the rest of the British government made their decisions at the height of World War II, in underground bunkers protected from the Blitz and bombing of the German air force.
The Churchill War Rooms have been faithfully restored and preserved, much in the manner they would have appeared when Britain’s most iconic Prime Minister was giving orders below ground when the threat of invasion from Germany was very real. If you’re in any way interested in London or World War II history, then this is a museum that you just can’t miss!
- 1 A Brief History of the Churchill War Rooms
- 2 How to Get to the Churchill War Rooms
- 3 The Best Time to Visit the Churchill War Rooms
- 4 How Much Does it Cost to Visit the Churchill War Rooms?
- 5 What to See at the Churchill War Rooms
- 6 Cabinet War Rooms
- 7 Churchill Museum
- 8 Undercover: Life in Churchill’s Bunker
- 9 Insider Tips for Visiting the Churchill War Rooms
A Brief History of the Churchill War Rooms
The Churchill War Rooms is located directly beneath Whitehall, in central London. Whitehall is the historic home of the British Government – not the Parliament, which sits at Westminster – where you can find the likes of the Treasury and the Ministry of Defence.
For these reasons, in 1938, when hostilities with Nazi Germany were looking more and more likely as Hitler led Europe to the brink of war, the government ordered the construction of a set of war rooms, which could act as a safe haven for the most important members of both the government and the armed forces.
Known as the Cabinet War Rooms – because they would shelter the cabinet ministers – the underground bunkers were built to withstand bombing and were completed with communication channels and accommodation. Everything that was needed to run a war could be found here. Once Winston Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940, he would make decision after decision in the Cabinet War Rooms, effectively running an entire war from beneath London until the conflict ended in 1945.
The War Rooms played a pivotal role in the ultimate Allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, and this fact hasn’t been forgotten. Even so, for several decades the Cabinet War Rooms were off limits to the general public, despite the fact that they had been left almost in the same condition as when the war ended, stocked with old maps and what would be intriguing historical artefacts. By the 1970s, it was decided that to save this underground treasure trove of World War II history, the war rooms would need to be turned into a museum.
The Churchill War Rooms, run by the Imperial War Museum, were finally opened in 1984. Since then, the site has seen millions of visitors passing through its underground doors.
How to Get to the Churchill War Rooms
The Churchill War Rooms are located in central London. Being found in an important, busy part of the city, it’s incredibly easy to get here by public transport.
The entrance to the museum is on King Charles Street, in Westminster. The Houses of Parliament are just a short walk in one direction, while St James’s Park is just a short walk in the other direction.
The most convenient method of public transport to reach the museum is the London Underground. The nearest tube stations are Westminster and St James’s Park. Westminster is located on the Circle, District and Jubilee lines, while St James’s Park is located on the District and Circle Lines. Both are an easy stroll away from the entrance to the Churchill War Rooms.
There are plenty of bus stops nearby too, including Hop-on Hop-off bus stops. If you are pressed for time, then these Hop-on Hop-off tours of London can be a great way to see a lot of the city in a short timescale, while also learning about the history and culture of the capital at the same time.
The Best Time to Visit the Churchill War Rooms
The summer, particularly between June and August, is the busiest time to be in London, and all attractions in the city can be overflowing, with queues stretching well out the doors. If you can, you might want to consider visiting the Churchill War Rooms in the off-season, when the capital is quieter. As this is an indoor – well, underground – attraction, then the weather won’t exactly affect your experience of the museum.
If you can, avoid public holidays and weekends too, as the war rooms can be busy all through the year on these days. If you can’t avoid this, then get here early to beat the crowds, or you might find yourself queuing.
The Churchill War Rooms are open every day of the year, except for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Doors open at 9.30 am and close again at 6 pm, with the last entrance at 5 pm. In summer, between 1 July and 31 August, the doors are open later until 7 pm, with the last entrance permitted at 5.45 pm.
How Much Does it Cost to Visit the Churchill War Rooms?
Tickets can be purchased on the door or in advance online. It’s highly recommended to purchase tickets online if you can, as this gives you priority entrance to the museum. When it’s busy, that means that you can skip the worst of the queues on the door, but you do need to specify your date of entry and a specific time slot when you purchase tickets.
As of spring 2019, an adult, single entrance ticket purchased online costs £22 per person. A children’s ticket costs £11, while concessions for students and seniors are £17.60. There are also family tickets, which can work out to be great value.
If you plan on visiting more than once or on visiting other Imperial War Museums, then you can buy year-long membership that gives you unlimited access to the Churchill War Rooms and other sites run by the IWM.
What to See at the Churchill War Rooms
The Churchill War Rooms is split into two main, permanent displays. These are the Cabinet War Rooms and the Churchill Museum. There’s also a third, minor permanent exhibition, the Undercover: Life in Churchill’s Bunker display. All three touch on different aspects of World War II and life within the bunkers and war rooms during the conflict. All three are included in the ticket price.
Cabinet War Rooms
The Cabinet War Rooms are the most important aspect of the museum, as this is where Churchill, his ministers, staff and generals lived and worked during World War II. The Cabinet War Rooms are an extensive set of underground bunkers, which were built out of the existing basement beneath what was the Treasury, in Whitehall. It’s a maze of different corridors and rooms, each of which had a different function or purpose during the war.
The war rooms are dimly lit, very dull looking and very cramped and confined. This is exactly how they would have looked at the time, as the museum has tried to keep a high level of authenticity where possible. When you are walking through the underground corridors, you’ll be instantly transported back decades to World War II, as you’ll feel immersed in the sights and even smells that the people working here would have experienced.
The Cabinet War Rooms consist of many different areas, as they were designed to accommodate hundreds of people at any one time. You can visit the map rooms, where operators would have permanently staffed the different world maps that showed the strategic process of the war. It is here that Churchill and his generals would have studied the course of the war and watched it play out in the dimly lit room, and where they would have begun making decisions too, that would affect thousands of people, if not more, each time.
You can see where Churchill would have slept, where his wife and daughter would have stayed, and where the different ministers and generals had beds too for when they needed to stay in the bunkers. Much of the furniture is authentic, and it’s a really unique insight into what happened behind the scenes during World War II.
The second major component of the Churchill War Rooms that you have to see is the Churchill Museum. This is dedicated to Winston Churchill, arguably Britain’s most iconic Prime Minister.
This wonderful museum is filled with unique pieces of memorabilia and personal items that have been collated and put on display for the public to learn more about Churchill. The museum tells the story of his life, from childhood through to World War II and beyond, but of course, the primary focus is on his actions as Prime Minister.
There are rousing World War II speeches to hear, old photographs to see, and much, much more to learn about the great man himself.
Undercover: Life in Churchill’s Bunker
This unique exhibition takes visitors on a journey into the lives and stories of the ‘real’ people who lived and worked in the Cabinet War Rooms, alongside Winston Churchill.
Hundreds of people would have been living underground during World War II, and this display will give you an insight into their individual lives, from their day-to-day tasks as the war raged around the world, to their thoughts and emotions during pivotal moments in the war, and when pivotal decisions were made that they saw first-hand.
It’s a very personal and insightful exhibition, which adds to the museum a uniquely human aspect that is perhaps lost in the other sections of the Churchill War Rooms.
Insider Tips for Visiting the Churchill War Rooms
- Visit on a weekday to avoid the crowds, as on weekends and public holidays, the Churchill War Rooms can get very busy!
- Book your ticket in advance to get priority entrance and to beat the queues. Advance purchases are limited to time slots though, so you’ll still need to book in advance if you want a prime spot on the weekend.
- Included in your ticket price is an audio guide, which can be played back in several languages. If you want to learn more on your way through the museum, this is a great way to enjoy a self-guided tour.
- Check on the Imperial War Museum website for any temporary exhibitions that might be on now or in the future, as they usually commemorate big events – such as D-Day – with fascinating new displays that shine a new insight on World War II.
- The underground war rooms really are a dense and at times confusing network of rooms, corridors and different displays, so if you are travelling with family or in a group, try to stick together or you can easily end up getting lost in Churchill’s labyrinth!
- There’s a lot to see, but even more to read in the Churchill War Museums, so make sure that you save plenty of time for your visit. It’s recommended that you spend at least 90 minutes exploring the museum, but you might even need more if you are particularly interested in World War II history.
- The museum is in a fantastic central location, so after visiting the Churchill War Rooms you can make the most of your time in London by visiting nearby sights such as the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace and Hyde Park, which are just a few of the classic attractions within easy walking distance.
While you’re in London, check out Premium Tours’ excellent range of London tours, designed to give you an insight into the culture and history of this iconic city.