The Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament) with its distinctive clock tower is one of London’s most recognised attractions. It is an impressive building that has been at the centre of English politics since the 11th century.
The Houses of Parliament consists of several halls that include Westminster Hall, with a remarkably well-preserved wooden ceiling, and St Stephen’s Hall, which you pass through en route to the two debating chambers – the House of Lords and the House of Commons. The clock tower (Elizabeth Tower) is widely known as Big Ben, although this term technically refers only to the largest of the five bells that famously toll every hour (but not during the current four-year renovation period).
Visiting the Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament)
Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament) is located in the heart of Westminster on the banks of the River Thames, across from St Thomas Hospital. The closest tube station is Westminster (on the Circle, District and Jubilee lines), which is only a three-minute walk away.
It is conveniently located to other attractions in the Westminster area including Westminster Abbey, Jewel Tower, Churchill War Rooms, Banqueting House and Horse Guards Parade, which are all within a 10-minute walk. There is also a cluster of nearby attractions across Westminster Bridge including the Florence Nightingale Museum, the London Dungeon and the Coca-Cola London Eye.
All visitors to the Houses of Parliament need to pass through an airport-style security checkpoint. You obviously can’t take anything that you wouldn’t be allowed to take on an aeroplane such as weapons or sharp objects, but then you shouldn’t be carrying these things around London with you anyway.
There are several options for visiting the Palace of Westminster. You can either take one of the self-guided audio tours or a guided tour or you can visit the public galleries to watch debates, committee meetings and Prime Minister’s (or Ministerial) Question Time.
Self-guided audio tours are the closest thing to independently visiting the Houses of Parliament and are a slightly cheaper alternative to the more structured guided tours.
This option lets you visit the Commons Chamber and the Lords Chamber and the audio commentary gives you background information about the building’s history and the parliamentary process.
Audio tours cost £19.50, £17 for visitors aged 16–18, students with ID and seniors aged over 60. They operate on most weekdays when parliament is not in session and on Saturdays throughout the year.
Audio tours are available in English, French, German, Italian, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Welsh. There is also a family version of the English tour that offers a commentary more suitable for children aged 7–12. Screen-based versions of the audio tour are also available in British Sign Language (BSL) with English subtitles.
Visitors taking the audio tour normally spend 60–75 minutes visiting the Palace of Westminster.
Guided tours of parliament (officially known as the Line of Route tour) are the best way to see inside the Palace of Westminster. These tours are highly recommended and are conducted by knowledgeable guides and last for 90 minutes, almost half an hour longer than the self-guided audio tours.
Like the audio tours, the fully-guided tours take you to the Commons Chamber and the Lords Chamber and the guides give you background information about the building’s history and the parliamentary process. Another advantage of the guided tour is that the guides are very knowledgeable and are able to answer most questions that you may have.
Guided tours cost £26.50, £22 for visitors aged 16–18, students with ID and seniors aged over 60. They operate on most weekdays when parliament is not in session and on Saturdays throughout the year.
Tours are available in English on all tour days and most days also have some tours in French, German and Spanish. Tours in other languages are only available for private groups.
There are also family guided tours that are aimed at children aged 7–12. These tours are cheaper than the regular tour, but don’t run as frequently and should be booked in advance. They cost £19.50 for adults and are free for children un 15, but they still need a pre-booked ticket. Family guided tours are only available for families with children.
If you are a UK resident you can also organise tours through your local Member of Parliament. The big advantage of these tours is that they are absolutely free but demand is high and they often need to be pre-booked up to six months in advance and the tour has a slightly different route to the regular guided tour and these tours are shorter (75 minutes as opposed to 90 minutes).
There are also tactile tours for UK residents who are blind or visually impaired. These tours are free but they only run around once per month so they need to be booked in advance by calling 020 7219 2144 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. These tours last for two hours and there are tactile objects that you can explore an hour before the tours start.
For an additional £30 there is the option to have afternoon tea inside the riverside Pugin Room in the House of Commons.
Watching debates, committees and Question Time
When parliament is in session you may visit the Strangers Gallery of either the House of Commons or the House of Lords to witness parliamentary debate. The process of watching parliament in session will vary depending on what is on session when you are visiting; for instance, popular events such as Prime Minister’s Question Time will require advance booking while you can simply turn up for less popular events such as watching a committee meeting or general debate.
Prime Minister’s Question Time is the most popular event at parliament. This is held in the Commons Chambers at noon on Wednesdays when parliament is in session. In most instances, you will need a ticket to attend. Although tickets are free, they are only issued to UK residents. Visitors from overseas, and UK residents without a ticket may sometimes be able to attend if there is space in the gallery although this may involve queuing for 1–2 hours with no guarantee that you will get in. If you are a UK resident, you can book tickets through a Member of the House of Lords or through your local Member of Parliament.
Ministerial Question time is the next most popular event and these take place daily when parliament is in session. This generally takes an hour in the House of Commons and half an hour in the House of Lords. Like Prime Minister’s Question Time, Ministerial Question Time is a ticketed event with UK residents being able to pre-book through their local Member of Parliament and visitors without tickets, including visitors from overseas, having the option to wait in a queue with a fairly decent chance that Question Time will be over by the time that they are able to get in.
You can watch debates Monday to Thursday and sometimes on Fridays in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. You don’t need tickets to watch debates, but you will usually need to queue so it is best to arrive early.
The House of Commons and House of Lords have select committees that the public can watch. These committees generally meet privately for a short period before opening to the public, which means that you will miss out of the first part of the meeting. Tickets aren’t required to attend committees and you can simply turn on on the day, although you should arrive early and allow enough time to queue before the meeting.
Rather than simply turning up to watch a random debate or committee, it is best to first check the parliamentary calendar to find a debate or committee that you will find interesting.
You should enter via the Cromwell Green entrance if you are visiting to watch a debate, committee or Question Time. If you are visiting to attend Question Time, a debate or a committee meeting staff inside the Palace of Westminster are on hand to help you find the correct queue and they can also let you know how long you can expect to wait.