Last year, one of the items on my bucket list was to visit the Houses of Parliament. I was incredibly lucky to be able to book tickets to it in February 2020.
All tickets are booked through the UK Parliament website. You will notice they also offer tours of Elizabeth Tower (aka Big Ben) too. Due to ongoing renovations, tours are always subject to change.
There were two options for tickets, a guided tour or self-guided tour. Knowing myself, I always opt for a guided tour when available. I tend to focus better. If you opt for the self-guided tour, you do have access to an audio guide in a number of different languages. Guided Tours are offered in English, Spanish, Italian, French, and German and lasts 90 minutes.
Tickets are 26.50 GBP for adults, 22 GBP for Young Adults (16-18 years of age), 11.50 GBP for Children (5-15), and under 5 is free. Seniors are referred to as Concessions (60 and above) at 22 GBP.
There are also add ons you can include with your tickets including afternoon tea and a guide book. I added the guide book, but it is also available at the gift shop before you leave Parliament. Afternoon tea books quickly so if it is something you are interested in, book ASAP. I want to mention that the photos on the site look nice, but there are many high tea services. If you want to splurge, the Ritz or Savoy or Fortnum and Mason are the places to be.
Tours are always held on days Parliament is not in session. My tour was scheduled for 11 in the morning. I was required to queue up thirty minutes before the tour in order to go through security. There is a strict protocols in place before you are even allowed to enter the area. You will be issued a temporary security pass you must wear in front of your person at all times. After they scan the QR code on your ticket, you follow the pathway to the hallway to check in with your guide.
You will find yourself in Westminster Hall. This is the only area of the building where photography is permitted. You will be walking the entire tour so I also want to mention you should wear comfy shoes. There are no places to sit along the tour except for one or two meeting rooms. Use the restroom if needed before your tour.
The tour begins with an overview of the history of medieval sections of the building of Westminster Hall. It is the oldest area of the building and dates to 1066. The ceiling is entirely made of wood and has hosted events for Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. It is one of the only buildings in Europe this old that is still in use. You pass under a beautiful stained glass window that commemorates the 150 anniversary of the women’s suffrage movement in the U.K. I believe it was called New Dawn.
Walking through St. Stephen’s hall, there are many statues of past Prime Ministers. It was once a Royal Chapel and served as the House of Commons until 1548. Next you will enter the Central Lobby where the post office and television interviews are conducted. The hallway is much smaller than I had pictured and marks the division between the House of Commons and House of Lords. I particularly enjoyed hearing about how two suffragettes had once chained themselves to one set of the windows in the “Ladies Gallery” of the room. The window was originally built to keep members of the House of Commons from staring at women all day!
My group headed for the Peers Lobby and House of Lords first. I’ll admit to being awed by the sheer amount of gold littering the chamber. There are upper viewing areas for people to watch from when Parliament is in session. I was astounded we were actually able to walk in the room and around the area where the actual MPs sit. In the U.S. you are never that close to where the members of Congress sit! You will learn that many of the hereditary Peers are no longer eligible to serve in the House of Lords. The Queen may name people to the House of Lords for various causes, but there are so many people who can sit in the house that they must take turns. Much of their duties these days are ceremonial.
Returning through the same route, we next entered the Members’ chamber. The chamber is larger than that of the House of Lords and has green benches. We were reminded not to sit on them, but I was quite curious as to how comfortable they are. The room is very low tech and devoid of much ornamentation. The benches are ordered in a particular way where the Liberals, Labors, and Conservatives sit. There is a ceremonial mace that is present when Parliament is in session that grants the MPs the ability to pass laws. Our guide mentioned it was about five feet long and heavy! If you want to see Parliament in session, there is another Public viewing gallery here where our guide mentioned you can stop by and ask for free tickets. I think you can stay for up to 90 minutes and its free.
We walked through several rooms that are typically unaccusable to the public where meetings are held. You will walk through the Norman Porch and Robing Rooms where the Queen goes when she is set to open Parliament. There is also the largest room where there are paintings of famous British military battles including General Nelson and Wellington.
When you return to the Westminster Hall, you have the option of entering the gift shop and cafe area. As mentioned earlier, there is a high tea if booked in advance, but I don’t think its worth your money. I picked up my guidebook before exiting and was happy with the memento of my visit to Parliament. You will have to return your security badge on the way out.
I would highly recommend the guided tour over the audio tour if possible. I really feel as if I got more out of the tour by hearing stories from a person who could add to the recordings. You have the added benefit of being able to ask questions or ask for anecdotes and see one or two bonus rooms.
There is also a free virtual tour being offered at the moment here.