Houses of Parliament

Top choice historic building in The West End

Image by Will Jones Lonely Planet

A visit here is a journey to the heart of UK democracy. The Houses of Parliament are officially called the Palace of Westminster, and its oldest part is 11th-century Westminster Hall, one of only a few sections that survived a catastrophic 1834 fire. The rest is mostly a neo-Gothic confection built over 36 years from 1840. The palace's most famous feature is its clock tower, Elizabeth Tower (but better known as Big Ben), covered in scaffolding until restoration works are finished in 2021.

Parliament is split into two houses. The green-hued House of Commons is the lower house, where the 650 elected Members of Parliament sit. Traditionally the home of hereditary blue bloods, the scarlet-decorated House of Lords, with around 800 members, now has peers appointed through various means. Both houses debate and vote on legislation, which is then presented to the Queen for her Royal Assent (in practice, this is a formality; the last time Royal Assent was denied was in 1707). At the annual State Opening of Parliament in May or June, the Queen takes her throne in the House of Lords, having arrived in the gold-trimmed Irish State Coach from Buckingham Palace (her crown travels alone with equerries in Queen Alexandra's State Coach).

Visitors are welcome on Saturdays year-round and on most weekdays during parliamentary recesses (which includes Easter, summer and Christmas). Choose either a self-guided audio tour in one of nine languages lasting about 75 minutes or a much more comprehensive 1½-hour guided tour of both chambers, Westminster Hall and other historic buildings (in English only). Tack on afternoon tea (an additional £29) in a river-side room in the House of Commons. It's best to book online far in advance (check the changing schedules), and it also shaves a few pounds off the price. Otherwise, buy tickets from the office in front of Portcullis House on Victoria Embankment. UK residents can approach their MPs to arrange a free tour.

Residents and visitors can watch debates, Prime Minister's Question Time and Ministerial Question Time from the public galleries for free. Check the schedule online and book in advance when possible; queues can be long. Public access to the Houses of Parliament is via the Cromwell Green entrance on the southwestern side of the building. Expect airport-style security; bags larger than carry-on size are not allowed in.

The House of Commons Members' Dining Room is sometimes open to the public for set meals of seasonal British cuisine (lunch/dinner £45/55). Check the website for dates; bookings open three months in advance. Smart casual dress is required.