12 Top Tourist Attractions in London's Historic Westminster District
The Westminster area of London comprises some of the world's most spectacular real estate. Stretching from the Houses of Parliament on the River Thames to St James' Park and Buckingham Palace, it's an area with attractions that can take days to explore. In addition to its royal palaces and seats of government, it's also an area rich in fantastic shopping, including famous names as such as Harrods, as well as numerous high-end boutiques and splendid old Victorian arcades.
See also: Where to Stay in Westminster
1 Walking Around Whitehall and Downing Street
Whitehall is synonymous with Britain's central government and civil service. Here you're in the very heart of the country's historic seats of power, including the Houses of Parliament, the Admiralty, the Horse Guards, and the old War Office. A highlight of a walking tour of Whitehall is the little cul-de-sac with the famous name of Downing Street (No 10 is the official home of Britain's Prime Minister).
2 Buckingham Palace
Buckingham Palace has been the London residence of the royal family since Queen Victoria's accession in 1837. Built in 1703 for the Duke of Buckingham, it was purchased by George III and later enlarged by George IV. When the sovereign is in residence, the royal standard flies over the palace day and night, and on special state occasions the Queen and members of the royal family appear on the central balcony.
Visitors can purchase tickets for tours of the State Rooms, the Queen's Gallery and the Royal Mews in summer (tickets from £34.50), while the wonderful Changing of the Guard ceremony can be seen most days at 11:30am (free).
3 Houses of Parliament
Officially known as the Palace of Westminster, the Houses of Parliament were built by Edward the Confessor and enlarged by William the Conqueror. Originally a royal residence before becoming the seat of government, it was nearly destroyed in 1605 after Guy Fawkes infamously tried to blow it up (to this day, the vaults are searched by Yeomen of the Guard, and Guy Fawkes Day - Nov 5, which is celebrated with fireworks and bonfires where effigies of the traitor are burned).
Built in neo-Gothic style to match nearby Westminster Abbey, the present Houses of Parliament were officially opened in 1852. When Parliament sits (mid October-July), visitors can take tours and attend debates in both the House of Lords and the House of Commons (only permanent UK residents can tour Big Ben). Afterwards, a stroll across lovely Westminster Bridge provides fine views of this famous skyline.
Location: Westminster, London
4 Westminster Abbey
A church dedicated to St Peter is said to have stood on the site of Westminster Abbey from the early 7th century. Westminster Abbey, officially the Collegiate Church of St Peter in Westminster, was founded by Edward the Confessor in 1065 as his place of interment. And from his burial (1066) until that of George II (1760), most sovereigns were buried here. Since William the Conqueror's crowning, every sovereign except Edward V and Edward VIII has been crowned here (it's also been the scene of many royal weddings). A masterpiece of Gothic architecture, Westminster Abbey has the highest Gothic nave in England (102 ft).
Address: 20 Deans Yard, London
5 Westminster Cathedral
Westminster Cathedral, seat of the Archbishop of Westminster, is the most important Roman Catholic cathedral in Britain, rivaled in size only by the Cathedral of Christ the King in Liverpool. Built in 1895, this lovely red brick building in Byzantine style on a basilican plan is crowned by four domes and the 284 ft high St Edward's Tower.
Address: Cathedral Clergy House, 42 Francis St, London
6 The Horse Guards Parade
Horse Guards Parade contains a number of fine old buildings, including the clock tower belonging to the old Palace of Whitehall and the Admiralty building. The Household Cavalry consists of two separate regiments: the Life Guards, with their scarlet tunics and white plumed helmets, and the Blues and Royals with blue tunics and red plumed helmets.
The new Guard rides from here daily and passes Buckingham Palace (the Changing of the Guard and the Sunday Parade are among London's top things to do for tourists). It's also the location of the famous Trooping the Colour, as well as the excellent Household Cavalry Museum.
Location: Horse Guards, Whitehall, London
7 The Old Whitehall Palace and the Banqueting House
The only part of the 13th century Whitehall Palace left standing, the Banqueting House is still used for government receptions and has seen a great deal of history occur within its grounds. It's where Henry VIII died (1547), Charles I was beheaded, and where Oliver Cromwell lived and died (1658). The Banqueting House itself was completed in 1622 and has many notable features, including the nine spectacular allegorical ceiling paintings by Rubens (1635), and a bust of Charles I marking the position of the arch through which he walked to the scaffold.
Hours: Daily, 10am-5pm
Admission: Adults, £5.50; Children (under 16), free; online discounts available
Location: Whitehall Palace, London
8 Churchill War Rooms and the Cenotaph
Winston Churchill's underground war rooms contain many mementos from this fascinating period of history, including the telephone he used for his many long conversations with President Roosevelt. The Cabinet Room, Map Room, Transatlantic Telephone Room - even Churchill's simple bedroom - are all excellently preserved.
Another war-related London London landmark is the Cenotaph, Britain's memorial to the dead of two world wars. Every year on Remembrance Day at 11am a memorial service in honor of those who died is held here in the presence of the Queen, Members of Parliament, and members of the armed forces.
Hours: Daily, 9:30am-6pm (last admission, 5pm)
Admission: Adults, £17.50; Children (under 16), free
Location: Clive Steps, King Charles St, London
9 Tate Britain
One of London's largest art collections, Tate Britain (originally the Tate Gallery) was opened by sugar magnate Sir Henry Tate in 1897 as the basis of a national collection of significant British art. Paintings are arranged in nine galleries with rotating exhibitions of art from the 16th century to the present day.
Also of interest are the Friday night Late at the Tate events (free), talks and films, and of course the Tate Modern located across the River Thames and connected by high-speed boat.
Hours: Daily, 10am-6pm
Location: Millbank, London
10 Brompton Oratory
Officially known as the London Oratory of St Philip Neri, the Brompton Oratory is a Roman Catholic church built in Italian Renaissance style in 1881. The interior is notable for the magnificence of the nave (the third largest in England, exceeded only by Westminster Cathedral and York Minster) and for its rich decoration. Particularly fine are the Carrara marble figures of the Apostles (originally in Siena Cathedral) between the pilasters; the monumental Baroque altar in the Lady Chapel, which comes from the Dominican church in Brescia; the altar in St Wilfrid's Chapel, with an altarpiece from St Servaas in Maastricht; and a number of mosaics. The Oratory is noted for organ recitals (the organ has almost 4,000 pipes) and for its fine choral performances.
Location: Brompton Rd, London
11 Harrods Department Store
Harrods attracts shoppers - and tourists - like a magnet. The store opened in posh Knightbridge in 1849 and has been a London landmark ever since, anchoring one of the most sought-after shopping areas on the planet. Of particular note is the spectacular Food Halls, looking much as they did in Victorian times and with a vast array of delicacies from around the world (purchase an exquisite Harrods picnic hamper for an unforgettable lunchtime feast in nearby Hyde Park).
Another fancy retail and business district focuses on New Bond, St James's and Mount Streets, with their many shops specializing in sweet treats, perfume, antiques and art.
Hours: Mon-Sat, 10am-8pm; Sun, 11:30am-6pm
Address: 87-135 Brompton Rd, London
12 St James' Palace and St James' Park
St James' is a very elegant quarter west of Trafalgar Square that incorporates Pall Mall, Waterloo Palace and St James's Square, as well as the 131 ft high monument to the Duke of York that towers over Waterloo Place.
St James's Palace, part of a group of buildings including Clarence House and Lancaster House, is a "working" palace that's home to royal pensioners. The palace has two chapels: in the Ambassadors' Court is the Chapel Royal built in 1532, and the Queen's Chapel in Marlborough Street.
Location: Marlborough Rd, London
Where to Stay in Westminster for Sightseeing
We recommend these convenient hotels near the top attractions in Westminster, like Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey:
- Taj 51 Buckingham Gate Suites and Residences: luxury heritage hotel, suites with fully equipped kitchens, stylish decor, Michelin-starred dining.
- The Chesterfield Mayfair: 4-star boutique hotel, individually decorated rooms, afternoon tea, turndown service.
- Staybridge Suites London - Vauxhall: affordable rates, crisp decor, fully equipped kitchens, hotel dog.
- Premier Inn London County Hall Hotel: budget South Bank hotel, modern decor, family rooms.