Houses of Parliament (London)

https://www.parliament.uk/visiting/

Standing on the floor of the House of Commons at Westminster is one of the most memorable experiences you can get while visiting London. It’s amazing walking in the footsteps of medieval kings and queens and storied prime ministers throughout the years.


History

The Palace of Westminster, now referred to as the Houses of Parliament, was the royal residence of the kings and queens of England from the 11th century through the 16th century when King Henry VIII moved his residence to the nearby Whitehall Palace. Much of the medieval palace was destroyed by fire in the 19th century but there is still one part of the 11th century palace remaining, Westminster Hall. 

The British parliamentary government has been meeting at Westminster since the first official parliament of England met there in 1295. It withstood the Guy Fawkes Gunpowder Plot in 1605 and was extensively renovated over the centuries to accommodate the increasing number of legislators. Fire nearly destroyed the entire complex in 1834, and the buildings also were heavily damaged in the Blitz during World War II. 

The buildings are iconic in the London skyline, including the most famous tower, Elizabeth, and its great bell, Big Ben. It has been the site of many movies and television shows throughout the years, including my family’s favorite – Sherlock Holmes jumping out of its windows to the River Thames below!


Visit

While visiting any capital city, it’s important to visit the seat of government when possible. Your kids will never forget walking in the footsteps of great men and women from history. This tour of the Houses of Parliament is the best one I’ve experienced! 

Be sure to buy your tickets for the tour in advance. We did the self-guided tour which comes with a video and audio guide (be sure to do the family version with kids!). You can move at your own pace in the one-way tour. Guided tours (recommended for teenagers) are available as well. Ticketed tours are available on Saturdays and most weekdays when Parliament is not in session. If Parliament is in session, you can still see some of the historic rooms and possibly even sit in on the gallery to hear a debate!

Entrance to the Houses of Parliament is located along St. Margaret’s Street behind Westminster Abbey. There is extensive security to go through so be sure to get there before your ticketed time. On your way in, you’ll pass the impressive Oliver Cromwell statue!

After entering, you’ll get your mobile guide in the cavernous Westminster Hall, which is the most historic site in the entire complex.

The hall, built in 1097, was used as the seat of judicial power for centuries, including the impeachment trial of King Charles I, and also was the site of coronation banquets and lying-in-state of dignitaries such as Churchill and the Queen Mother. Bronze plaques on the floor indicate the location of these events in the hall. 

It’s hard to capture how grand this room actually is. Your kids will be impressed!

From Westminster Hall, you’ll continue on the tour to St. Stephen’s Hall. This room sits on the site of the former royal chapel at St. Stephen’s, which served as the original House of Commons before it was destroyed by the fire of 1834. It contains many statues and murals of English history (much of it was under renovation during our tour). Note that no pictures are allowed past St. Stephen’s Hall.

From here you’ll move into the central lobby, the grand hub of Westminster. The octagonal room is ornate and busy as it’s the heart of the building. Be sure to have your kids note the mosaics over the four doors representing England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. If you see a Member of Parliament (MP) being interviewed on TV, most likely it’s taking place in this room! Your mobile guide will tell you an interesting story about the grilles over the windows in this room – linked to the women’s suffrage movement!

Continue on the one-way path to the House of Lords, passing through the Peers’ Corridor with its paintings on the walls depicting English history, including the Pilgrims on the Mayflower. You can then walk onto the floor of the House of Lords Chamber where you’ll feel like you’re in a movie! I can’t believe tourists are allowed to walk on the actual floor of these important rooms! No pictures are allowed in this grand room but you can take your time as you gaze on its red benches, gilded ceiling and throne, and woolsack. 

You’ll continue the tour back through the central lobby to the House of Commons, stopping in the Members Lobby first. It was my favorite room in the building with the statues of important Prime Ministers such as Churchill and Thatcher. Gaze above the entrance door to see damage from WWII bombs still darkening the stone. And peek at the message slots for the MPs!

Continue through the anterooms to the Commons Chamber, one of the most recognizable rooms in the world! Standing in the very spot where Churchill made his most historic speeches was the highlight of my trip! The distinctive green benches are worth the price of admission! The reigning king or queen is not allowed in the chamber (last one to enter was Charles I!). 

The tour will continue through additional rooms such as the queen’s robing room and the royal gallery, which contain beautiful paintings and portraits and historic artifacts. 

The tour will take you back through the central lobby to Westminster Hall where it will end. Take one last look around and turn in your mobile guides here. 

If you can’t make the tour in person, don’t miss the excellent virtual tour here!

Be sure to take in the bustling Parliament Square across the street where you can get some great pictures of Westminster and the statues dotting the square’s boundaries. This is the site of political demonstrations and TV interviews of MPs so it will be recognizable. We loved walking around the square and looking at the various statues.

Don’t miss Abraham Lincoln’s statue across the street!

This is a great place to people watch as the business of government continues as it has here for over 1,000 years. It’s just an amazing place to be!

Walk past Parliament to view the River Thames as it streams by. The views of the building and Big Ben are breathtaking!

The Houses of Parliament are a history and government enthusiast’s dream. It’s a not-to-be-missed tour while in London!


Helpful Hints:

  • Cost: £22.50/adults; £19.50/ages 16-18; £9.50/child 5-15; note there are special family package rates
  • Recommended: ages 10 and up
  • Tour time: 1.5 – 2 hours 
  • Gift shop located onsite, across the street (no ticket required), and online
  • Transportation: Parliament is near the Westminster Tube stop and is within a short walk from sites in Westminster, Whitehall, Buckingham Palace, and Trafalgar Square.
  • Dining options: There is a cafe at the end of your Parliament tour. On a nice day, grab a picnic from the Tesco Express and eat in Parliament Square. The nearby St. Stephen’s Tavern is a close, easy option. 
  • Nearby hotels: See my London guide for ideas of lodging in London. Hotels in Westminster or County Hall are closest.
  • Nearby attractions include: Westminster Abbey, Churchill War Rooms, Whitehall Street and 10 Downing Street, Horse Guards Parade and Household Cavalry Museum, the Banqueting House, and the London Eye 

Books to Read:

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