Westminster Palace and Big Ben, the stars of London

Despite what many (too many?) people may think, London's most famous landmark is not Big Ben. Quite simply, because Big Ben isn't a monument, it's a bell. The famous tower of almost 100 metres that we all commonly, but wrongly, refer to as Big Ben is indeed a monument, except that its real name is the Clock Tower. Located at the north-west corner of the Palace of Westminster (also known as the House of Parliament), it is not the tallest of the Palace's towers, but it is undoubtedly the best known. A royal residence until the end of the medieval era, Westminster Palace has been the seat of the British Parliament since 1547 and is home to the House of Lords and the House of Commons. In other words, all the major decisions affecting the United Kingdom are taken here. We tell you all about Big Ben and Westminster Palace!

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But who is Big Ben?

Big Ben is a bell. We're not talking about a silly person, of course, but about the metal instrument itself. Installed in the Clock Tower, the great bell weighing over 13 tonnes has given its nickname to the whole of London. The real name of the bell is not Big Ben, but The Great Bell.

The Clock Tower, home to Big Ben

- © Sborisov / 123RF

Big Ben is a nickname whose origin is not clearly defined. According to some sources, it comes from the civil engineer and politician Benjamin Hall, who ordered the bell to be cast. This man, whose nickname was Ben, particularly tall, was commonly known as Big Ben. The second hypothesis comes from a boxing champion, Ben Caunt, who won a fight against the reigning champion, Nat Langham, in the same year that a name was being sought for the bell. Whatever the case, it is generally accepted that when people talk about Big Ben, they are referring to the tower, the clock and the bell.

L’horloge de Big Ben.

- © 123RF

And even though the Clock Tower was renamed the "Elizabeth Tower" in tribute to the Queen during her Diamond Jubilee, nothing will change the fact that the entire building symbolises London and is a beacon for Londoners. Since its installation in 1859, every Londoner has celebrated the New Year to the sound of Big Ben's distinctive chimes. This distinctive tone comes from the fact that the bell cracked just two months after its inauguration, making the famous Westminster Quarters - the tune of the chimes marking the hours - inimitable.

Practical info

Unfortunately, most tourists can only see Big Ben from the foot of the building, as only UK residents can visit it after obtaining permission.

What is Westminster Palace?

The Palace of Westminster is also known as the House of Parliament. Like all houses, it has bedrooms, but they're not for sleeping in! The first floor of Westminster Palace has been the seat of the British Parliament since 1547: it houses the House of Lords and the House of Commons. The other floors are mainly occupied by offices. This maze of five kilometres of corridors and a hundred or so staircases also has several bars and dining rooms.

Westminster Palace from the air.

- © Luciano Mortula / 123RF

The vast palace, with over 1,000 rooms, was originally a royal residence. Of the original building dating from 1097, only Westminster Hall, the Jewel Tower, the crypt of St Stephen's Chapel and the cloisters remain. The rest was destroyed by fire in 1834. After lengthy deliberations, architect Charles Barry's design was chosen to rebuild the Palace in a neo-Gothic style.

The House of Lords, in the southern part of the palace, is a large room whose benches and all the other furniture reserved for the Lords are entirely covered in red. At the end of the room, the royal throne only welcomes the sovereign during the opening ceremonies of Parliament, although he can attend any audience.

Westminster Palace's Victoria Tower from Victoria Tower Gardens.

- © Pajor Pawel / Shutterstock

The House of Commons is opposite, to the north of the palace. Here, green is the colour of the benches and furniture. This room is much more austere than its predecessor, where the sovereign has no right to be mentioned. Westminster Hall is one of the largest halls in Europe without a roof support: it is one of the most accomplished examples of medieval art. It has been the venue for coronation banquets, a reception hall for the King's Court and even a mourning room.

Practical info

Like Big Ben, you can't visit the Palace of Westminster - you have to be content with admiring it from the outside.

What about Westminster Abbey?

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Not far from there, Westminster Abbey is the finest example of Gothic architecture in England. It has hosted coronation ceremonies since 1066 with William the Conqueror, as well as weddings and funerals for sovereigns and their relatives. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Westminster Abbey is also home to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Practical info

Unlike Big Ben and Westminster Palace, Westminster Abbey is open to visitors!

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Practical information for the Westminster district

🚌 How do I get to the Palace of Westminster?

  • Waterloo station (5-minute walk): Bakerloo (brown), Jubilee (grey), Northern (black) and Waterloo & City (turquoise) lines.
  • Embankment station: Circle (yellow), Northern and District (green) lines
  • Charing Cross station: Northern and Waterloo lines
  • Westminster station: Jubilee, District and Circle lines

👉 Hop-on hop-off buses also stop nearby.

⏰ Westminster Abbey timetable

Westminster Abbey is open Monday to Friday from 9.30am to 3.30pm and Saturday from 9am to 3.30pm. It is closed on Sundays.

👛 Admission to Westminster Abbey

  • Full price: £25
  • Over 65s and students: £22
  • Under 18s: £11
  • Under 6s: free
  • Families (1 adult and 1 child): £25

To find out all the prices and book your ticket online, go directly to the official Westminster Abbey website.

A few tips for your visit

  • The London Eye offers breathtaking views of Big Ben and Westminster Palace.
  • A cruise on the Thames will also give you a unique view of Westminster Palace and Big Ben.
by Editorial Team
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