Houses of Parliament

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Houses of Parliament

The Palace of Westminster, as the complex is called, was first established on this site by Edward the Confessor in the 11th century. William II started building a new palace in 1087, and this became the seat of English power. Fire destroyed most of the palace in 1834, and the current complex dates largely from the mid-19th century. The best view is from the opposite (south) bank of the Thames, across Lambeth Bridge. It is most dramatic at night when lighted green and gold.

The Visitors' Galleries of the House of Commons provide a view of democracy in action when the benches are filled by opposing MPs (members of Parliament). Debates are formal but raucous, especially during the Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs), when any MP can put a question to the nation's leader. Tickets to PMQs are free but highly sought after, so the only way for non-U.K. citizens to gain access is by lining up on the day and hoping for returns or no-shows. The action starts at 1 pm every Wednesday when Parliament is sitting, and the whole shebang is broadcast live on television. For non-PMQ debates, Embassies and High Commissions have a quota of tickets available to their citizens, which can help you avoid long lines. The easiest time to get into the Commons is during an evening session—Parliament is still sitting if the top of the Clock Tower is illuminated. There are also Visitors Galleries for the House of Lords. The Clock Tower—renamed Elizabeth Tower in 2012, in honor of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee—was completed in 1858, and contains the 13-ton bell known as Big Ben. At the southwest end of the main Parliament building is the 323-foot-high Victoria Tower.

Public tours of Parliament cost £25 and must be booked in advance online or by phone. They are available daily for most of the year, but sell out six months in advance. Other tours, including afternoon tea on the Pavillion Terrace, overlooking the Thames, are also available for £59.

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