We might not know much about politics, but we do know where to stay in London and what to do in and around the Houses of Parliament and the Westminster area, including the pub where you can hang out with the likes of Mr Brown, Cameron or Clegg!
What to see
1. Big Ben & the Houses of Parliament
Well you couldn’t really start anywhere else could you? The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben are two of London’s most iconic landmarks and attract millions of visitors every year.
It’s the home of the House of Commons and also the home of the Palace of Westminster which was once the residence of the medieval Kings of England. Sadly almost the entire Palace of Westminster was destroyed by fire in 1834, however the Original Crypt of St. Stephen’s Chapel and the cloisters of the Jewel Tower survived the inferno and can still be viewed today.
Tours of the Houses of Parliament are possible during the summer recess when the politicians go away on holiday. The tours allow a unique opportunity to have a nose around the most important buildings in British politics.
The tours are pricey at £15 a head for adults (students: £9) however, it is well worth the money if you’re in to politics or history.
If seeing the politicians at work is more your thing then you can also view Prime Minister’s Questions or debates during a parliamentary session from the public gallery.
Check out the parliament website for more details on opening times and how to book your tour of the Houses of Parliament.
Top tip: If you’re on a really tight budget, save money by taking the House of Commons online tour of the House of Commons and get your picture taken of you outside the Houses of Commons instead.
2. Jewel Tower
The Jewel Tower is one of those hidden gems often overlooked by site-happy tourists desperate to cram as many sites as possible in to a day.
This is a shame, as it’s also one of the more interesting as the only surviving part of the Medieval Palace of Westminster.
The building was built with the purpose of housing the Kings Wardrobe– a collection of jewels and decorative items that were considered of value by Edward III- not a bad closet, eh?
Nowadays the Tower is the site of the ‘Parliament Past and Present’ exhibition which shows how government has evolved over the years to take up its current form.
It may no longer house as much as a fake tiara, but the building still bears evidence of its more glamorous past including a beautiful marble table that dates back to the 13th Century and its high vaulting adorned with grotesque heads and bosses.
The Jewel Tower can be found on Abingdon Street, opposite the Southern side of the Houses of Parliament and costs just £3 to enter.
Top Tip: Visit the discountbritain.net to print a voucher that will get you a 20% discount on admission fees.
3. Whitehall and Downing Street
Two more must see sites on any trip to London. Whitehall is the administrative and residential center of government. It’s from these enormous, high-vaulted rooms of Whitehall that the PM and his team formulate all ideas that eventually become policies and laws of the land.
The most famous building within Whitehall is, of course, 10 Downing Street which is the official residence of the Prime Minister and his family. Once upon a time you were able to go behind the black door of number 10, however nowadays visitors have to content themselves with a photo of the famous doorway and a possible sighting of the PM (not uncommon though very much a case of being in the right place at the right time).
Top tip: If you find yourself surrounded by paparazzi and cameras when you visit, stick around as there’s a very, very good chance that you might just catch a glimpse of the PM (whoever that turns out to be!). Normally this is to come out with a statement for the press defending his, or one of his colleagues, latest gaffes.
4. Banqueting House
Located in Whitehall near Horse Guards Parade, Banqueting House is best combined with your trip to Downing Street to try and catch a glimpse of the PM.
The house is the only complete building that remains from the original palace of Whitehall that Henry VIII famously stole off Cardinal Wolsey (along with Hampton Court) and made a Royal residence until the ascension of James I.
The building was built specifically with state occasions and showing off in front of foreign visitors and dignitaries in mind. The result is a building of considerable beauty and stunning opulence- think grand high panel ceilings, beautiful paintings and massively over the top décor- and you’ll get some idea of what to expect.
At less than £5 for entry, Banqueting House is a more affordable option than either of the Houses of Parliament or Westminster Abbey, and no less impressive in terms of history or interest- it was here that thousands of spectators gathered to watch the beheading of Charles I.
Prices include a multi-language audio guide.
Top Tip: Check out the Banqueting House website for information on what’s going on at Banqueting House which often features various displays, concerts and activities.
5. Westminster Abbey
The site of every coronation since 1066, Westminster Abbey is an absolute must for all history buffs and fans of the Royal Family. Of course, it’s where Prince William and Kate Middleton got married in 2011 too.
Here you’ll find the final resting places and monuments dedicated to some of Britain’s most important historical figures including the body of Edward the Confessor, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Samuel Johnson.
Aside from housing a who’s who of Britain over the last seven hundred years, it’s also a beautiful building in its own right, featuring the highest nave in Britain, a 13th century tiled floor and a beautiful organ.
Like the Houses of Parliament, it’s not cheap- £15 for adults- however, it does include an audio guided tour and free admission to the museum.
Admission to the cloisters, St. Margaret’s Church and College Garden tour is free and are definitely worth the visit alone even if you can’t afford entry to the Abbey itself.
Top tip: Don’t do the Verger Guided Tour. It’s an extra three pounds and you get most of the information you want from the audio guide. Anything you don’t pick up on you can always read up on afterwards. Besides, if you listen hard enough you’ll be able to listen in on someone else’s tour anyway!
N.B. Visiting hours vary and there is no tourist visiting on Sundays.
Where to play
1. St. James’s Park
After all that site-seeing and time spent inside stuffy museums the chances are you’ll want a bit of fresh air (British weather permitting!). Fortunately, you won’t have to drag yourself far to do that as St. James’s Park is on your doorstep.
St. James’s Park is considered by many as one of London’s most beautiful parks and is a bird sanctuary that has its own geese, black swans and pelicans.
Here you’ll be able to sit back with a coffee and feed the ducks on its lake or wonder through the well manicured gardens and trees that give views out over the rooftops at Whitehall. A band also entertains the crowds through the summer months.
After, lazing away a few hours in the luscious green surrounds of the Park you can make the short walk up to Buckingham Palace and pop in on the Queen!
2. The Red Lion
No more than 50 meters from the entrance to Westminster Underground Station, the Red Lion is a 600 year-old pub well worth dropping in on for a refreshing beer after your parliament fix.
It serves a variety of traditional British beers like Spitfire, London Pride and Theakston Old Peculiar which will keep the beer drinkers amongst you happy as well as a number of New world wines at reasonable prices.
The pub has a traditional British feel and in-keeping with its location overlooking the House of Commons is wall-to-wall pictures of famous political figures. Word has it that it’s also a favorite watering hole of many of today’s politicians.
Alternatively, make the pleasant walk back along the Embankment towards Waterloo to the altogether different surroundings of Gordon’s Wine Bar– London’s oldest wine bar!
Wines start at £14 a bottle but are top quality and a great place to go for either a date or a drink in the heart of town.
Check out Gordons wine list for a full list of wines and drink prices.
Where to stay
While all the sites of Westminster are in a fairly condensed area, many of the attractions cost a bit of money. The last thing you want to be doing is spending additional funds on transport costs to the area.
The Walrus Waterloo is actually a little further out on the other side of the river but the gentle 20 minute walk across the Thames and approach to Westminster is well worth it!
Check out our London video guide for more cheap things to do…