Whitehall and Westminster have been the epicentres of England’s political and religious life for about a millennium. Let that sink in. Besides their obvious importance for the nation, these two areas are a tourist magnet for their amazing attractions. You must include them in your London itinerary.
What to do in London: Westminster
The first king to build a palace here was King Cnut (or Canute), king of England, Denmark and Norway (1016-1035). Cnut’s palace was right next to the church that would in time become Westminster Abbey.
We start our walk at the foot of Westminster Bridge. You must be patient and negotiate your way among street performers and the crowds they attract. Especially if you want to take the perfect photo of the Parliament building. as there’s always a lot of people coming and going.
When we reach the other end, we’ll see Boudica’s statue to our right. Boudica was an Iceni warrior queen who fought against the Roman invaders in Britain. Although she existed in real life, during Victorian times her image became legendary and was associated with that of the British Empire.
Immediately to our left we can see the Houses of Parliament.
The Houses of Parliament (palace of Westminster)
The Houses of Parliament, with the House of Lords and the House of Commons, is actually called Palace of Westminster. Big Ben is the name of the bell located in the clock tower called Elizabeth Tower. The tower is covered in tarpaulin as it’s under renovation, and will be like this until 2021.
The building dates from 1837. Although it isn’t as old as some other London buildings, it needs lots of very expensive maintenance, anything from new wiring to the stonework.
You can do a guided visit of the Houses of Parliament on Saturdays, provided Parliament isn’t in session for £26, or do an audio tour for £19. You can have afternoon tea for an extra £30 per adult.
The setting of lavish royal weddings and coronations, Westminster Abbey is one of those places you just can’t miss when in London.
The beginnings of the abbey go back to the 10th century, when St. Dunstan established a Benedictine monastery here. In the 11th century, King Edward the Confessor has a bigger church built. But it was King Henry III, in the 13th century, who had the magnificent French Gothic nave built that we see today. Actually, it’s been added to throughout the centuries, but that’s to be expected in a building of this importance.
30 kings and queens are buried at Westminster Abbey, from Edward the Confessor to Elizabeth I. The artwork from all centuries is wonderful, like the magnificent Lady Chapel’s fan vault ceiling. You’ll also see the Coronation Chair, the wooden throne used to crown monarchs for the last 700 years.
The first time I visited Westminster Abbey, back in 1994, the Stone of Scone was still under the Coronation Chair. That is the stone used to crown Scottish kings in the Middle Ages. Nowadays, it’s on display back at home in Edinburgh Castle’s Crown Room.
I could spend hours writing about all the treasures held inside and around Westminster Abbey. My only recommendation is don’t miss it! And be patient, there’s always a crowd.
You’d do well to buy the tickets in advance to avoid long waits. Online tickets are fast track, which is a great advantage during tourist season.
If you stand facing the Abbey, with the Houses of Parliament behind you, you’ll see the Jewel Tower to your left. The Jewel Tower is what remains from the old Palace of Westminster. The tower was built in 1365 to store king Edward III’s treasure. Later, it housed the Office of Weights and Measures (1869-1938). You’ll be able to see also the remains of a medieval dock and a moat. The admission ticket was £6 when I visited in 2019.
The Supreme Court
Surprising as it may seem, the Supreme Court exists as such since 2009. Before that, the Appellate Committee if the House of Lords had last word in legal matters.
The Supreme Court building is located in the western end of Parliament Square, where the Middlesex Guildhall used to be. I happened upon this building on a rainy day. I wasn’t carrying an umbrella, so I walked into an open door to shelter from the rain (not that I walk into random open doors, there was sign that said it was open!).
Admission is free and it is possible to sit in on a court case. I arrived as the last case was wrapping up, so I missed it. I saw the court rooms, the press room and an exhibition that tells the story of the Supreme Court.
What to see in London: Whitehall
As we walk back to the bridge along St. Margaret Street, we come across Parliament Square and go straight down Parliament Street.
Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum
Winston Churchill worked from this place during the Second World War, which is now a museum: the Cabinet War Rooms. It consists of a series of underground offices and private spaces used by the Cabinet, safe from the bombs dropped by the Germans during the Blitzkrieg. Among the see you can see are Churchill’s desk, maps, and the like. As usual, it’s best if you buy the tickets in advance. This museum is part of the Imperial War Museum.
On that same block, but on the corner of Parliament and Great George Streets, we’ll find the Treasury. It i also known as the Exchequer for the board used in the Middle Ages to work out taxes. The board looked like a chequerboard. The word exchequer derives from the French word for chess board, Échiquier.
Cenotaph, Downing Street, Horse Guards Parade
As we continue down Parliament Street, we come across the Cenotaph. It commemorates the soldiers killed in the wars. This is where the Queen lays a wreath every Armistice Day, November 11 at the eleventh hour.
A bit farther down is Downing Street, the official residence of the Prime Minister. Obviously it is not open to the public but you can take a peek through the gate.
We end our walk at the Horse Guards Parade. This is where Henry VIII used to hold his beloved tournaments. Nowadays, you can see the changing of the mounted guard twice daily. The Household Cavalry Museum is nearby.
The Ministry of Defence building is also not open to the public. However, take a minute to look at the statues and memorials that surround it, like that of Montgomery or the women who played an active role during WWII.
If you want, you can go down to the river and relax at the Whitehall Gardens on the Embankment. Otherwise, go straight down Whitehall, which takes you to Trafalgar Square. If you have the energy, you can now do my Trafalgar Square to Covent Garden guided walk.