In olden days, England’s rich overlords got together at the king’s house, Westminster Palace, to figure out how to manage their peasants. Over time, the king was forced out of the proceedings and most of the Palace burned down. What remains is constructed to express the might of Empire riches and the lofty aesthetics of Gothic-revival architecture. Luckily, the nation allows you to tour a dozen stately halls and even to wander through its vaunted House of Lords and House of Commons when they’re not in session. There are now two ways to see it: Choose a 100-min. guided group tour, which presents the usual issues of audibility and pace, or take it easy with the new 2-hr. audio guide (and eavesdrop on groups whenever you want).
The historical highlight is massive Westminster Hall, one of the world’s most precious spaces and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, built in 1097 by William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror. Richard II commissioned its cherished oak hammer-beam ceiling before he was deposed in the 1390s. Charles I, William Wallace, Sir Thomas More, and Guy Fawkes were all condemned in it, monarchs lie in state in it—and your role in it is to pick up your audio tour. The rest of the Palace is roughly divided into three areas: those for the House of Lords (whose members inherit seats upholstered in rose with an unbelievable gilt sitting area where Queen Victoria would preside on designated occasions); the House of Commons (by far the more powerful, elected by the people, but plainer, with seats of blue-green under a hanging forest of microphones); and some flabbergasting lobbies, sitting rooms, and the Robing Room (golds, browns, burgundies), which the Sovereign flits through when she shows up once a year to kick off sessions. You walk right onto the floor of both Houses. Many delicious details are elucidated, from the knock-marks on the Commons door made by the Crown’s emissary, the Black Rod, to the line in the carpet members may not cross when in the throes of vigorous debates. Booking ahead is advisable; otherwise, try your luck for openings at the ticket office next to the Jewel Tower, across the street.
Overseas visitors are permitted to observe some debates, but the wait can be as long as 2 hr. (line up outside the Cromwell Green visitor entrance). Check ahead, since security concerns may cause the government to review public access. The website also posts times of lower-level “Westminster Hall debates” in a committee room, where anyone can come on a first-come, first-served basis. Question Time is only allowed for U.K. residents by previous arrangement with their MP or a Member of the House of Lords.
The Palace runs an afternoon tea service overlooking the river (not the most posh, but a cool place). Sorry, but Elizabeth Tower (1859) beside the Houses—it contains the 13 1/2-ton bell known as Big Ben plus four smaller bells—is usually only open to U.K. residents, and not at all until about 2021, when its current restoration will be completed. If the green Ayrton Light atop it burns, Parliament is sitting after dark. But see it soon: This aged building will close for several years after 2025 for a much-needed restoration.