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, although the current building’s construction dates back to the 19th century, and it was designed by the architect Charles Barry, who also designed Highclere Castle, the Manchester Art Gallery as well as the Reform Club, the Travellers Club and Trafalgar Square in London and also designed additions to Bowood House and Harewood House. The Houses of Parliament are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and represent a prime example of Victorian Gothic revival architecture.
What to see at the Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament)
The neo-Gothic architecture of the building features intricate stone carvings, pointed arches, and stunning stained glass windows.
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.
Elizabeth Tower is the building’s most well-known landmark. This clock tower is often referred to as Big Ben, although this term technically refers only to the largest of the five bells.
Dating back to the 11th century, Westminster Hall is one of the oldest parts of the Houses of Parliament. This large hall is steeped in history and has witnessed numerous historic events, including trials of prominent figures such as Sir Thomas More and Charles I. Its remarkable hammer-beam roof is an architectural masterpiece, and visitors can appreciate its immense scale when they stand within.
The House of Commons is one of the two houses of the UK Parliament, and it is where Members of Parliament (MPs) gather to debate and pass legislation. Visitors can observe the debates from public galleries when Parliament is in session. The green benches, the Speaker’s chair, and the despatch boxes are all emblematic elements of the House of Commons.
The House of Lords is the other house of Parliament and plays a role in reviewing and revising legislation proposed by the House of Commons. The decorum and traditions observed in the House of Lords are steeped in history, and visitors can watch debates and discussions from public galleries as well. The red benches and the ornate chamber create an atmosphere of tradition and solemnity.
The Central Lobby is the heart of the Houses of Parliament, connecting the House of Commons and the House of Lords. This grand circular space is adorned with statues of prominent historical figures and is often bustling with activity. It’s a place where Members of Parliament, peers, and the public converge, making it a hub of political discourse and interaction.
St Stephen’s Hall is a breathtaking space that serves as a museum within the Houses of Parliament. It showcases an impressive collection of statues, paintings, and historical artefacts related to British parliamentary history.
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 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 multimedia tours are the closest thing to independently visiting the Houses of Parliament are a slightly cheaper alternative to the more structured guided tours. These are essentially audio tours with additional features.
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.
Multimedia tours cost £25, £18 for young people aged 16–24 and £8 for children aged 5–15 (although the first child accompanied by an adult is free). They operate on most weekdays when parliament is not in session and on Saturdays throughout the year.
Multimedia 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 multimedia tour can take their own pace but should generally allow around 90 minutes for their visit.
Guided tours of parliament 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.
Like the multimedia 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 £32, £26 for young people aged 16–24 and £16 for children aged 5–15. They operate on most weekdays when parliament is not in session and on Saturdays throughout the year. Guided tours are available in English only.
There is also a guided tour of the State Apartments of Speaker’s House. This 75-minute guided tour lets you see parts of the Palace of Westminster where the Speaker lives and works including the Grand Staircase, the Crimson Drawing Room, the State Dining Room, and the State Bedroom. These tours cost £20 and £12 for young people aged 16–24.
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, however 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 tours of Elizabeth Tower that let you get up close to Big Ben, although spaces are limited and demand is strong which means that you need to book these well in advance to score a spot on these tours. Elizabeth Tower tours cost £25 or £10 for children aged 11–17. You can read more about visiting Elizabeth Tower here.
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 in 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 on 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.