London Drum

Houses of Parliament – Palace of Westminster

Where? Houses of Parliament, Parliament Square, Westminster · Web: parliament.uk Opening times? The public can usually attend debates from Mon-Fri, and take tours on Sat and Mon-Sun during Aug/Sep Visiting hours may change Time required? A typical visit is 1½-2 hours Parking: Nearby car parks Buses: 11, 24, 148, 211 Bus fares Trains: The closest station is Westminster Circle District Jubilee Train fares

Craig’s review… I love this place. I even love the politicians inside it (well, most of them). If you come to London and don’t try a tour of Parliament then you’re basically mad. It will have been a totally wasted trip. It’s like going to Rome and not seeing the Pope. Or going to Amsterdam and not getting stoned. Trust me, a tour of this place will make your holiday. This is the place you’ll be talking about when you go back to work.

A lot of people think that Parliament is out of bounds but there are actually four different ways of sneaking a peek inside. The first way is to stand as an MP and get 50,000 people to vote for you at the next General Election, but, granted, that is probably too much hassle if you’re only here on holiday. The second way is to write a letter to your local MP and ask him for an invite. He or she is then duty bound to stick your name down for a free guided tour (it’s called a Member’s Tour, because it’s sponsored by a Member of Parliament). But, once again, that’s not much use if you live abroad because you won’t have a local MP. The third way is to turn up during the summer when they open it up from Monday to Saturday. And the fourth way, and definitely the easiest way, is to just go along on any old Saturday, because the Saturday tours operate all-year round.

Visiting on a guided tour

There are two different tours to choose from: a self-guided audio tour, which is basically just you and some headphones (only available on Saturdays), and a guided tour, where you get led around by an expert (Mon-Sat during the summer).

You’ll find the visitor entrance halfway along the front face of the building, roughly opposite the back-end of Westminster Abbey.

Once you’ve made it past the gun cops at the gate armed with sub-machine guns, grenades and rocket launchers (I exaggerate only slightly) you have to negotiate another layer of security inside. As you’d expect, they don’t mess around at the Houses of Parliament. They take your photo, buzz you with a handheld metal detector, x-ray your bones, peer into your handbag, make you take your belt off… if they could make you take all your teeth out and shake them then I think they would. The frisk that I received today was probably the most thorough that I’ve ever experienced in my entire life – it felt like he was counting my ribs with his fingertips.

The historic Westminster Hall

After that you head inside the 1,000-year old Westminster Hall, which is without a doubt the best waiting room in London. If you choose the self-guided audio tour then you’ll pick up a map and some headphones at this point and then you’re totally on your own – you can walk around Parliament unaccompanied. Obviously you can only stick to a pre-defined route so it’s not a complete free-for-all (if you jump over the ropes then the police will probably pump a hundred bullets into you). But it does make you feel quite important wandering around the corridors whilst everyone else is being shepherded through by a tour guide.

If you choose the guided tour then this is where you’ll meet your guide. My guy today turned out to be a bloke called Colin who not only looked like a Colin, but also had the encyclopaedic knowledge of a Colin. He decided to give us a little test whilst he was counting up the heads and asked us who our local MP was. Luckily I knew who mine was (because he’s totally useless) – but you could see some of the people squirming in their seats whilst they tried to dredge the name out of the depths of their head. After that little bit of fun he took us on a five-minute trek through the heart of the palace, past all of the rooms and down all of the halls without saying a single word. You literally pass through the whole lot without learning a thing. This can be a little disconcerting if you’ve never been on the tour before, but don’t worry, because he’s just taking you to the very far end of the building where the tour begins.

He huddles everyone up in a quiet corner of the Norman Porch and for the next hour he walks you from room to room pointing out all the best paintings and statues, describing all of the important historical events, etc., but it’s the decor that will impress you the most. If you’ve never been to Parliament before then you’re in for a treat. The rooms in this building rival the best ones at Buckingham Palace, and that’s not an exaggeration.

Robing Room and Royal Gallery

After the Norman Porch comes the Robing Room with its murals of King Arthur, Lancelot and Camelot. Then you head into the Royal Gallery with its two huge murals of Nelson’s death scene and Wellington’s victory at the Battle of Waterloo. After that comes the Prince’s Chamber with its battle scenes of the Spanish Armada.

Inside the House of Lords

You won’t believe the amount of gold when you finally get inside the House of Lords. You walk right down the centre of the room and stop five feet from the monarch’s throne. Just remember not to sit down on the red leather benches because one of our ladies decided to take the weight off her feet and got a real roasting from the tour guide. Apparently she hadn’t “earned the right” to sit there, and her crimson cheeks went the same shade as the seat. In fact, that’s something that I should warn you about on the tour: it’s very heavy on your feet. The whole thing lasts for 75 minutes and you can only sit down twice (for about two minutes each). So if you’ve got dodgy knees like me then be prepared for some aching legs at the end.

After the House of Lords you leave the Royal half of the palace and head towards the Commons, and this is where the decor starts to change. The Royal half of the palace is all reds, golds and chestnut browns, whereas the Commons is light brown and green.

Peers’ Lobby and the House of Commons

First up is Peers’ Lobby and the Peers’ Corridor, and then you enter that room you always see on the Ten O’Clock News (where the journalists doorstop the politicians). The last room before the House of Commons is full of busts of famous PMs. Lloyd George, Churchill, Thatcher and Attlee get the plum spots, whilst the less famous faces get lumbered with the dusty ones.

I’ve probably traipsed through this building five or six times now but I still get a little thrill whenever I walk into the House of Commons – there can’t be a single Brit who isn’t secretly thinking wow when they enter this chamber for the very first time. You see this room on the news every night and now you’re standing five feet from where the Prime Minister sits – how can you not get a thrill from that?

After you exit the Commons you head through St. Stephen’s Hall and back into Westminster Hall where the tour began.

Colin’s monologue was very thorough throughout but I think you probably need a decent knowledge of British history to get the most out of it because the names, dates and events are fired at you thick and fast. You’ll have no trouble recognising famous names like Guy Fawkes and Oliver Cromwell, but he scatters in bits about Simon de Montfort and the Glorious Revolution and everything in-between. You get 1,000 years of British history condensed into 75 minutes.

Guided tour, or self-guided audio tour?

So here’s the big question: which one is better, the guided tour or self-guided audio tour? You’ll see exactly the same rooms whichever one you choose, but if you’re a tourist then I’d probably go for the guided tour because it’s a lot simpler having a guide point out all the highlights. But if you’re a local with a bit more time on your hands then I’d go for the self-guided audio tour instead, because it’s quite nice being able to walk around the building at your own pace.

The only difference I noticed between the two is that you get quite a lot of extra detail on the audio-guide that isn’t included on the guided tour. There’s a section about the State trials in Westminster Hall and some interesting information about the 1834 fire, for example, but not everybody is going to enjoy a five-minute monologue about court cases in the 17th-century. But at least it gives you a reason to sit down and look around the rooms for a while, which is something you don’t have time for on a guided tour. That’s what the audio tour gives you: time. Time to admire everything.

Worth a visit? Value for money? Good for kids? Easy to get to?

I also recommend… If you enjoy this then try Big Ben (you can walk it in less than 2 mins); Downing Street (you can walk it in 6 mins) and Parliament Square (you can walk it in less than 3 mins)

London Squire bookThe owns londondrum.com and has spent the last decade reviewing the capital’s landmarks, attractions and hotels. His guidebook is available from Amazon

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Your comments and questions

Shelly Do we have to book for a tour?

Craig You do need a ticket, but it is possible to just turn up and buy them on the day if you want. But it can be a very busy tour and there's no guarantee there will be any slots available on that day. Or you might be given the first available time slot which can be a few hours away. So I'd always recommend that you book your time slot online in advance

Mary Hi Craig! Have been reading a couple of your reviews and I really enjoyed your honest down to earth witty comments. Keep going. Regards Mary

Craig Thanks for that Mary, I'm glad you like them (it's nice to know at least one person takes the time to read them!). Craig

Maureen My husband walks with sticks and is a little slow. Would the tour be suitable for him? Maureen

Craig Hi Maureen, I have dodgy knees myself and I was feeling it by the end. You only get to sit down for approximately two minutes on the entire tour (which lasts for about an hour and a half). The rest is all walking and standing on the spot whilst you're listening to the guide. The longest walk is at the start, when you walk the entire length of the building from Westminster Hall to the Norman porch, after that it is just little walks from room to room. If he's okay being on his feet for at least 30 minutes at a time then it's definitely worth doing

Alex Qerreti Who is allowed in the Houses of Parliament?

Craig Hi Alex. Everyone is allowed inside. You don't have to be a UK citizen. If you want a guided tour then you'll have to buy a ticket first, but if you just want to watch the MPs debating inside the House of Commons then you don't even need to do that -- see here londondrum.com/​events/​?p=16946

Libby Is there an entry fee?

Craig Hi Libby. It depends what you want to do. If you want to go on one of their Saturday guided tours, or a tour during the Summer Opening, then you have to pay for those - londondrum.com/​events/​?p=22807 - but if you just want to go and sit inside the public gallery at the House of Commons or House of Lords then that's free - londondrum.com/​events/​?p=16946

David Hi, can you take photos inside?

Craig H David. You're always allowed to take photos inside Westminster Hall, and the last time I was on a guided tour we were also allowed to take them inside St Stephen's Hall, but you're not supposed to take them anywhere else. Taking photos inside the House of Commons and House of Lords is a big no-no. If you get caught you'll probably be asked to leave

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