Anyone visiting London is almost certain to end up in Westminster. Apart from the Houses of Parliament, it’s also home to three parks, the Abbey where Kings and Queens are crowned, several Palaces and a lot more!
by Fiona Maclean;
Fiona Maclean is a London based freelance writer and marketing consultant. She’s lived in London for most of her adult life though she travels extensively.;
What to see and do in Westminster?
1. Hang out with Politicians
The Houses of Parliament, sometimes also called the Palace of Westminster, is a historic site which has been the seat of the House of Lords and the House of Commons for over 500 years.
Before then, it was a Royal Palace, from the 11th century through to 1512, when fire destroyed the buildings. In fact, most of the replacement was destroyed yet again by fire in 1834 and what you see today is the work of Charles Barry, in Gothic Revival style.
While there are guided tours throughout the year for all visitors, UK residents are entitled to ‘Democratic access tours’ free of charge sponsored by their local MP or member of the House of Lords. And, there’s a public gallery where you can watch debates in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords free of charge (though you may need to queue).
— Fiona Maclean
2. Make time for Ben
While we all tend to call the world-famous clock in the tower attached to the Houses of Parliament Big Ben, it’s actually only the name of the bell inside the tower, which is thought to have been named after the Chief Commissioner of Works, Sir Benjamin Hall.
It was cast in 1858 after the first bell put in place cracked during test ringing. The tower itself is correctly called the ‘Elizabeth Tower’, though it was only given that name in 2012 in celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee year.
Currently undergoing major conservation work, Big Ben is currently silent and Elizabeth Tower tours are suspended, though the famous bell did manage to ring in the New Year in 2018 and hopefully will continue to do so until the work is completed in 2021.
3. Hear angels singing at the Abbey
Westminster Abbey, originally built by Benedictine monks, has been the Coronation Church for Kings and Queens of England since 1066.
Today’s Abby is a stunning building, commissioned by Henry III in 1245 which contains many historical treasures together with the shrine of Edward the Confessor.
Choral Evensong offers a chance to hear the world-famous choir singing – and free entry to the Abbey.
— Fiona Maclean
4. Step back in time at the Jewel Tower
Part of the original Palace of Westminster, The Jewel Tower dates to around 1365.
You can see still the ornate ceiling carvings from the 14th century and there’s also a model of the Palace of Westminster, together with an exhibition about the history of Parliament and of the tower itself.
5. Visit the Central London Church that wasn’t always in London
St Margaret’s was built by the Benedictine Monks of Westminster Abbey as a place where local people could come to worship without disturbing the day to day work of the Abbey.
The current building dates back to around the 1520s, when the original church was almost completely rebuilt.
It once had a unique state, outside of the diocese of London and exempt from the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1189 through to 1840 when it was placed back in the diocese of London.
6. We Will Remember Them
The Grade I Listed monument which stands in Whitehall was designed by Edwin Lutyns and built between 1919 and 1920 as the United Kingdom’s official national war memorial.
In addition to the original details of the First World War, those of the Second World War were added to the sides of the memorial and there was a second unveiling by King George VI on Sunday 10 November.
There’s an annual Service of Remembrance at the site on Remembrance Sunday, the closest Sunday to Armistice Day, 11 November, each year.
7. Look up for a Feast for the Eyes
The only remaining building from the Palace of Whitehall, Banqueting House was designed by Inigo Jones. The Palace of Whitehall itself was created by Henry VIII as a public ‘statement’ to reinforce his newly created status as the Supreme Head of the Church of England.
In fact, the Banqueting House was a later addition by James I. Most of the Palace was destroyed by fire in 1698, but the Banqueting House, a Grade I listed monument, survived.
Inside, you can get a feel for the grandeur of the original Palace looking up at the Rubens ceiling, commissioned by James’s successor, Charles I. Ironically, outside is the site where Charles was executed, for marrying a Catholic princess.
8. Meet the Queen’s Horses
Originally Henry VIII’s tournament ground, the buildings of Horse Guards Parade were designed by William Kent and completed in 1755.
A great place for group selfies even if you miss the changing of the Life Guard at 10am or the Guard Inspection at 4pm.
9. Say hi to the Government Mouser
Downing Street provides houses for both the Prime Minister at Number 10 and the Chancellor of the Exchequer at number 11. Originally three houses designed by Christopher Wren, the first politician to take up residence at Number 10 was the German Count Bothmer in 1720, as advisor to George I and George II.
Sir Robert Walpole, often called the first Prime Minister, lived there subsequently and it has been the official residence of the Prime Minister since 1902. Recently, through the last three governments, although the official designated residences remain, the Prime Minister has lived at Number 11 while the Chancellor has been installed at number 10.
Both Number has an official cat – Larry is currently the appointed mouser and can sometimes be seen outside waiting for a kindly police officer to let him back in.
— Fiona Maclean
10. Ancient learning at Westminster School
Westminster School is one of the oldest schools in England, with origins linked to Westminster Abbey dating back before the 12th century. Such was the School’s reputation that Henry VIII ensured the School was protected after the dissolution of the monasteries in 1540.
Elizabeth I is celebrated as the School’s foundress and confirmed royal patronage in 1560. To this day it is still a successful and well-regarded independent school and access for the public is limited to guided tours which need to be booked in advance.
11. A Phoenix of a Church
St John’s is an 18th Century church which is sometimes nicknamed ‘Queen Anne’s Footstool’ – the tale is that the Queen, when consulted, kicked over her footstool and said ‘like that’ – resulting in four ornate towers which do look a little like furniture legs.
In reality, the towers were added to stabilise the building against subsidence.
A major concert venue today, the church was firebombed during the Second World War and was in ruins for 20 years before being restored and reopened in 1969.
12. Play at Princesses at the Palace
The London residence of the Queen, Buckingham Palace was originally a large townhouse built for the Duke of Buckingham in 1703. Enlarged in the 19th Century, it was Queen Victoria who made Buckingham Palace into the London residence of the British monarch, on her accession to the throne in 1837.
Although it is still used for many official events and receptions, the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace have been opened to visitors in the Summer from 1993, a relatively recent development which is intended to help raise funds for the management and restoration of the Royal properties.
13. Stroll down the Mall
If you ever thought The Mall looks just like a gigantic red carpet, you’d be right – it is painted red deliberately to give the impression of a red carpet leading to Buckingham Palace.
Originally a field used for playing a game called Pall Mall (a precursor of croquet), the Mall is now best known for the royal processions to the Palace.
The Mall is closed to traffic at the weekend and on Public Holidays and makes a great place for a selfie. Walk away from Buckingham Palace and turn around when you are 50 yards or so down the Mall, you’ll be rewarded by a shot that takes in most of the Palace
— Fiona Maclean
14. Feed the Ducks in the Park
To the East of Buckingham Palace and South of The Mall, St James’s Park is one of the prettiest in London, with fountains and a lake. There are two islands, West Island, and Duck Island.
The Park is full of exotic and indigenous waterfowl including a group of Pelicans who have been in residence since 1664 when they were gifted to Charles II by the Russian ambassador.
You’ll find a stunning view across the lake to Horseguards Parade in one direction and to Buckingham Palace in the other interrupted by the Blue Bridge, so named and painted to avoid spoiling the view.
The park at one time had a collection of animals – camels, crocodiles and elephants and Birdcage Walk is so named because it was home to King James I’s collection of rare birds.
15. Take Tea with Pleasure
To the North of the Mall, Green Park was originally enclosed by Charles II in 1668 and stocked with deer.
It developed into a pleasure garden at the beginning of the 18th century and housed a reservoir called the Queen’s Basin which was designed to supply water to Buckingham House and St James’s Palace.
None of that remains today, but you will find plenty of green space and a charming café with a rooftop terrace where you can enjoy tea, an ice-cream or a glass of Pimms in the summer.
16. Enjoy the Avant-Garde at the ICA
A warren of exhibition and performance space in Nash House, Carlton House Terrace, the Institute of Contemporary Arts is best known for a radical approach to The Arts.
Founded in 1947 it was inspired by the facilities afforded to artists in New York at the Museum of Modern Art. There are galleries, a theatre, two cinemas, a bookshop and a bar, just a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace.
17. Set the Scene at the National Liberal Club
The National Liberal Club has a special place in British History. Established in 1882 by William Gladstone, it was designed by Alfred Waterhouse and is the second-largest clubhouse ever built.
It’s still a private member’s club but if you get a chance to peek inside, the building houses the largest unsupported marble staircase in Europe, built as a replacement for the original which was destroyed by a bombing raid in 1941.
The building appears in many films, including Casino Royale, the Elephant Man and Spooks. Royal Horseguards Hotel next door was originally part of the National Liberal Club but was taken over by the Ministry of Defence and was used by both MI5 and MI6 during and immediately after the Second World War.
18. Change and contrast at the Blewcoat
Built in 1709 as a school for the poor, the Blewcoat was one of a network of schools at the time called ‘bluecoat schools’ because of the distinctive blue uniform worn by the pupils.
The school in Caxton Street remained in use until 1926 but is now home to a designer bridal and occasion wear shop. There is still a small statue of one of the pupils in painted blue coat just below the roof to the front of building.
19. Chill out at the café in Victoria Embankment Gardens
Part of a chain of open spaces along Victoria Embankment, the Park was opened in 1865. There are grassy spaces to sit, floral displays, a bandstand and a café.
The Watergate built in 1626 for the Duke of Buckingham is still in place, but the Thames has moved and the gate is now over 100 metres from the river.
20. Discover the best of British Art at Tate Britain
Tate Britain contains the nation’s largest collection of British art from the 16th to the 21st century. It’s open almost every day of the year from 10am to 6pm.
Viewing the main collections is free of charge, though special exhibitions are not. If for no other reason you should visit to see the Turner Bequest, a collection of works by J M W Turner which are displayed in their own space, the Clore Gallery.
There are around 300 oil paintings and around 20,000 watercolours and drawing by Turner in this collection (not all on display!).
21. Check out the Stations of the Cross at Westminster Cathedral
There’s something quite unexpected about the grandiose building which is Westminster Cathedral. A little along Victoria Street from the Station, the Neo-Byzantine structure dominates.
And the Catholic Cathedral has an intriguing heritage – the site was a pleasure garden, a bull baiting ring and more recently a prison until the Catholic Church acquired the land and built the Cathedral in 1895.
Famous for the fourteen stations of the cross by sculptor Eric Gill created during the First World War, it’s definitely worth looking inside.
22. Imagine yourself staying at the Admiralty Arch
The opposite end of the Mall to Buckingham Palace, the Admiralty Arch was commissioned in memory of Queen Victoria.
A Grade I listed building it was originally the residence of the First Sea Lord and used by the Admiralty.
In 2012, a lease on the building was sold and it is currently being redeveloped as a luxury hotel due to open in 2022. The building does have amazing views
23. Explore the War Rooms
A maze of rooms below the Government Office building this is where the War Cabinet met during World War II.
There are living quarters for politicians and military leaders and a Cabinet room.
You’ll find Churchill’s desk, communications equipment and military maps all set out as they would have been during the war.
Part of the Imperial War Museum group it’s worth considering buying annual membership at £35 which is cheaper than a single standard admission for the War Rooms and HMS Belfast.
— Fiona Maclean
24. Try being a Horseguard at Household Cavalry Museum
Want to know a little bit more about those famous Horseguards? You can visit the Household Cavalry museum and discover the history of Her Majesty The Queen’s mounted bodyguards.
Best of all you can peek into the mid-18th Century stables and even try on the helmets and uniforms of the officers. Open daily.
25. Take a selfie with a Guard at St James’s Palace
The oldest surviving Royal Palace in London, St James’s was built between 1531 and 1536 by Henry VIII on the site of an old lepers’ hospital. It remained the main royal residence in London throughout the Tudor and Stuart period.
Today it is still a working palace, and the Royal Court is still formally based there. It’s also the official London residence of many of the Royal Family including Princess Anne.
Nearby Queen’s Chapel built by Inigo Jones is open to the public at select times.
The Palace itself with its stunning Tudor façade is a great place to get a selfie with a Royal Guard.
— Fiona Maclean
26. Enjoy the Grandeur of Spencer house
Regarded as one of the finest mansions in London, Grade I Listed Spencer House was commissioned in 1756 by John, first Earl of Spencer. It’s now owned by Princess Diana’s brother, Charles, the 9th Earl of Spencer though it is leased to Rothschild.
You can visit the eight state rooms on Sundays throughout the year with a guide and at certain times of the year the gardens are also included in the tours.
27. A Commonwealth centre at Marlborough House
Quite different in style, Marlborough House is a Grade I listed mansion in St James’s and is headquarters of the Commonwealth of Nations. Originally built for Sarah Churchill Duchess of Marlborough, the Architects were Sir Christopher Wren and his son.
The Duchess wanted a design that was ‘strong, plain and convenient and good’. At various points in history there have been moves to demolish Marlborough House and build something more in keeping with the rest of the area, but it remains to this day.
It’s closed to the public for most of the year, opening only for Open House Weekend in September.
28. Take lunch with nobility at St James’s Square
Perhaps London’s grandest square, St James’s Square was built after the restoration of Charles II (in 1660) on land belonging to Henry Jermyn.
In the 1720s it was surrounded by houses occupied by seven dukes and seven earls.
It’s open to the public every day from 10am to 4.30 pm and is a fine place to stop for a sandwich!
29. How to be a Gent in Jermyn Street
This street, lined with men’s tailors, shirt makers, food and wine merchants, restaurants, hotels and galleries dates back to 1664.
Charles II authorised Henry Jermyn, Earl of St Albans to develop the area.
It’s known for British craftsmanship and a place to visit if you are looking for hand-made leather goods.