When you think of London, what immediately springs to mind? Chances are, it will be images of the Houses of Parliament, Trafalgar Square, Mayfair and St James’s Park. All these popular tourist attractions are located within Westminster.
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Westminster Abbey & the Houses of Parliament
As there’s such an abundance of interesting sights in the area, we’ll focus our suggestions on those located closest to the historic centre of Westminster. Let’s start our virtual tour at Westminster Abbey itself – this 700 year old building has seen its fair share of British history and welcomes over a million visitors every year.
Many famous people are buried within the abbey, including Charles Darwin, Sir Isaac Newton, Oliver Cromwell and Charles Dickens. It’s interesting to take a tour led by a verger, which includes the tomb of Saint Edward the Confessor, Poets’ Corner, the Royal Tombs, the Cloisters and the Nave.
The Abbey is situated on Parliament Square, the iconic green space designed by Sir Charles Barry in 1868. It contains the statues of 10 British and international statesmen, including Nelson Mandela and Sir Winston Churchill. Many political protests have taken place here, given the location directly in front of Parliament.
A visit to the Houses of Parliament is an unforgettable experience. There’s a wide range of tours to book including Blue Badge guided tours, the Royalty and splendour tour focusing on art and architecture or an afternoon tea and tour.
On a few select dates in June, there’s also the rare opportunity to dine inside the House of Commons in the historic Members’ Dining Room. I’ve had the privilege to lunch there once and still treasure the memory. Big Ben or Elizabeth Tower as it’s been renamed in honour of the Queen, holds the second largest four-faced chiming clock in the world.
Also on Parliament Square, a visit to The Supreme Court will give you an additional fascinating insight into the British legal system. It’s the court of last resort in the United Kingdom and housed in a beautiful neo-Gothic building that dates from 1913. It’s possible to pre-book a guided tour, where you’ll be shown the three courtrooms, Lawyers’ Suite and stunning Justices’ Library, not normally open to the public.
From here, head down Parliament Street and Whitehall to the Prime Minister’s residence, 10 Downing Street. Probably the most photographed door in the UK, you won’t be able to approach too close due to security, but you can certainly get a good peek from behind the railings. It’s over 300 years old and has played host to such famous politicians as Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone.
A little further up Whitehall on the opposite side of the street, you’ll find one of London’s hidden gems. Banqueting Hall is an opulent Grade II listed building, designed by Inigo Jones in the Renaissance style. Its ceiling is spectacular – the only surviving in-situ ceiling painting by Sir Peter Paul Rubens. Sadly for Charles I, the ceiling was one of the last things that he saw before being executed outside in 1649.
St. James’s Park
After your visit, cross back across Whitehall and through Horseguards Parade. Try to time your visit to coincide with the Changing of the Guard at 11 am.
There’s also a Dismounting Ceremony at 4 pm each day – it was started in 1894 when Queen Victoria found the whole guard gambling and drinking whilst on duty. She decided that as a punishment, they were to be inspected each day at 4 pm by an officer, for the next 100 years. Even though the 100 years finished in 1994, our current Queen decided to carry on the parade as a tradition – and how nice for visitors that she did!
If you have time, take a slight left to the Churchill War Rooms, which are well worth a visit. This secret bunker was the heart of Britain’s military strategy during the Second World War, led by Sir Winston Churchill. It’s right opposite one of London’s most picturesque green spaces, St James’s Park.
The oldest of the Royal Parks, it’s the scene of the annual Trooping of the Colour ceremony and a haven for birds with nesting sites on Duck Island and West Island.
Along the Mall, also considered to be part of St James’s Park, Clarence House stands proud. The London residence of The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall is not normally open to visitors but it’s open to the public from 1-31 August, so book fast if you want to see it!
A few minutes away, you’ll come to London’s most famous sights – Buckingham Palace, The Queen’s London residence. To celebrate The Queen’s 90th birthday, an exhibition of her style, Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style from The Queen’s Wardrobe, will open here in August 2016.
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