Photo of Parliament in London at Sunset
Photo of Parliament in London at Sunset

Visiting Ben Big is usually part of every London tourist’s itinerary. While Londoner’s know that Big Ben is the name of the largest bell in the clock tower, not actually the tower itself.

The name of Big Ben is disputed, with most believing it’s named after Benjamin Hall MP, Chief Commissioner of the Works, gave a speech on the naming of the bell and a member of the crowd said, ‘Why don’t we just name it Big Ben’ after the 6’4” Hall, although no written record exists of this. His name was reportedly printed on the bell, but the bell cracked and was replaced with a second one without his name. The other theory is it was named after Benjamin Caunt, a popular heavyweight boxer at the time.

Unfortunately, you can only tour the bell tower if you are a resident of the UK, and even then the free reservations are tough to get.

But the rest of the Palace of Westminster, or commonly known as Parliament, can – and should – be visited.

Most of the original palace, which was used as the royal residence, was destroyed by a fire in 1512. Parliament has been meeting there since the 13th century. Another fire would strike in 1834 and destroy nearly the whole complex. But it was rebuilt by Charles Barry in the iconic Gothic style of today.

Tours for overseas visitors can be arranged on Saturdays from July 29-September 3 and September 19-October 1 for a cost of £15.00 for an adult. However, one of the lesser known secrets of London is how easy it is to attend a session of Parliament, which lets you see not only most places you would on the paid tour, but the government in action.

When the House of Lords of Commons are in session, you can request a viewing pass at the Palace of Westminster. In most cases, there is little or no wait for a pass. After passing through airport-level security and waiting for room to clear up in the tiny viewing gallery (usually no longer than a half hour except for the Tuesday Prime Minister Questions, which is a hard ticket) you are led upstairs into the galleries where you can look down on the floor of one of the houses in session.

It should be forewarned that the actual debates are usually slightly less than riveting, but the experience is highly memorable. Once inside you can stay as long as you’d like. Sessions often run as late as 10 p.m. and later at night is usually less crowded and a great activity after a long day of sightseeing.

On the way into the viewing galleries you have to pass through the massive medieval Westminster Hall, a rare remaining portion of the original Palace of Westminster. The hall is a marvel of medieval architecture, built in 1097. The remarkable wood beam roof dates from 1393. The hall used to be used for trials, including those of King Charles I, William Wallace, Sir Thomas More, and Guy Fawkes. It was also home to coronation banquets since the 12th century until King George IV in 1821. Most recently it has served as laying-in-states for people like Winston Churchill and members of the royal family. The most recent was the Queen Mother in 2002.

Once you decide to come to London, we have plenty of convenient and cozy apartments in Westminster. Consider one of these London vacation rentals for your stay:

Within walking distance of the Palace of Westminster and Buckingham Palace is this one bedroom furnished rental, Westminster, London (LN-863). The apartment is in a classic London block of mansion housing and is set off the street for a quiet place to feel like home while living in London. However, it has modern amenities like an elevator and complimentary cable TV.

This one bedroom vacation rental in Westminster, London (LN-174) is located between the Thames and the Houses of Parliament, giving you access to not only the history of Parliament but access to many activities on the water. The apartment has a queen bed, a doorman and elevator. Before walking to Big Ben, you can make a breakfast and sit at the large dinning table.

For a different spin on the Parliament experience, you can stay across the Thames at this three bedroom vacation rental in Lambeth, London (LN-877) for a picturesque view of the Palace of Westminster. This modern spacious apartment has maid service, a concierge, and an in unit washer and dryer. Plus it’s not far from the excellent and overlooked Imperial War Museum.

Tell us your favorite part of Parliament in the comments below.