The Palace of Westminster – where the two Houses of Parliament (House of Commons and House of Lords) for the United Kingdom meet – is one of the most iconic buildings in London’s skyline. You’ll notice many tourists taking advantage of clicking its one-of-a-kind architectural photo along the Thames River.
Experience the Houses of Parliament in London:
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If you’re traveling on business in the capital and have some time to explore on your own, the Houses of Parliament offer guided and self-guided tours (there’s even an option that includes an afternoon tea). And that’s an amazing experience.
But if you’re interested in organizing a unique MICE event, you can’t find a more authentic space than the halls and rooms of a historic building where domestic and world affairs are debated and voted.
So, whether your interest is a personal tour or a private event, here’s what you need to know.
Public Tours for the Houses of Parliament
If you want to attend a scheduled tour, it’s best to reserve your spot in advance, explains Ian Lacey, marketing and trade manager for the Houses of Parliament.
You have two options: self-guided and blue badge. Self-guided tours include an audio guide and an assigned time slot for each visitor. Blue badge tours are led by an accredited guide for groups up to of 25 visitors (I would recommend the blue badge tour as they are very interactive).
The most important thing to keep in mind is that tours are only scheduled when Parliament is out of session.
UK residents can book a complimentary tour in advance through their local MP (member of Parliament), which should be done months in advance. If you’re not a UK citizen, you also need to plan early because the tours fill up quickly. When I was an undergraduate student I spent a semester studying abroad. Many of my friends went to London during the program and wanted to visit the Houses. However, they weren’t successful because they only attempted to book the tour just weeks before arriving.
The Palace of Westminster has a long history that originated in 1016. The present-day building was constructed after the Great Fire of 1834. A full 90-minute tour takes you through the Palace of Westminster in this order:
- Westminster Hall. The oldest part of the Houses complex dates back to the 11th century and now serves as the entrance for all Parliament tours. The English kings used this space for feasts and coronations before the Great Fire. The ceilings are ornate and decorated with wood, and the hall has a medieval character. It’s the only room in the complex that isn’t in Victorian style.
- Norman Porch. The Queen enters through this space when she addresses Parliament. The Norman Porch and all other rooms were officially restored after the Great Fire of 1834 in the Victorian style.
- Royal Gallery. Members of Parliament will officially visit with the Queen here during state receptions. The House of Lords uses the Royal Gallery as meeting space or breakout areas, and this is where the color contrast becomes evident. This room and the House of Lords Chamber are decorated in red whereas the Commons rooms are green.
- House of Lords Chamber. This is the most ornately decorated space in the Houses with 23-carat gold leaf, different contrasting carved woods and unique seating arrangements.I always thought that the House of Commons and House of Lords were similar to the US Congress, but in reality the responsibilities are very different. The House of Lords is comprised of scientists, religious leaders and members of the arts who have an advisory/scrutinizing — as well as a ceremonial title.
- Peers Lobby. This chamber connects the House of Lords with the House of Commons. Lacey explained the story behind one of the most peculiar traditions of Parliament that dates back centuries: The Monarchy is not allowed in the Commons areas. So, if the Queen wants to address the chambers, she must send a messenger who must knock three times until the guard lets him in. This procedure originated after the English Civil War (1642-1651) when King Charles I attempted to exert too much authority on the Commons and split the country. You can still see the knock marks in the old wooden door.
- Central Lobby and Adjoining Anti-Chamber. These two rooms were bombed during World War II. When architects rebuilt the room, they were looking to scrap the scarred remains of the original facility. But Winston Churchill personally intervened and wanted the charred fire and bomb stains to remain as a reminder of the legacy of the Second World War.
- Common Chamber. Winston Churchill again got involved in the reconstruction of this room after the war. At first, it appears drab and simple in comparison to the elegant pomp and galore design of the Lords Chamber. But this was Churchill’s personal decision because MPs are supposed to represent the people and should have basic accommodation.
Private Events at the Houses of Parliament
As is the case for public tours, private events may only be scheduled when the Parliament is out of session.
The Houses of Parliament offers tours to private groups. Special events groups have the option of having shorter 45-minute tours that will visit both main chambers and anti-chambers.
In addition, event planners can use the breakout areas below the chambers and anti-chambers, which MPs use for lunch and dinner.
The Member, Churchill and Strangers are just a few of these historic areas open to special events. St. Stephens Palace is sometimes used to convene the House of Lords and offers a rustic atmosphere.
The Thames terrace boasts scenic river views and has capacity for 75 seated and 150 in a reception format.
Onsite services are available for catering as well as audiovisual equipment. Please be aware that availability is limited as tours and event space are only available when the Houses are not in session.
You can review venue capacities on the Parliament website.
Have you visited the House of Commons or House of Lords in London? Shared your experience with us.