Home of the British Government, the building is actually called the Palace of Westminster, but is more commonly known as the Houses of Parliament, due to the two parts of government that live here.These are the elected House of Commons and the House of Lords, made up of hereditary and life peers. The Commons introduces new legislation but the Lords acts as a kind of quality control department and debates the issues again, before they are made law.
The British Sovereign today plays a mainly ceremonial role in the running of the country. This includes the ceremony of the state opening of Parliament.
The oldest part of the Palace of Westminster is Westminster Hall, dating back to the year 1097. When Daniel Defoe visited Westminster Hall during his tour of 1724, he said it resembled a barn.Geoffrey Chaucer (English poet 1340-1400) worked in the Palace as Clerk of Works, a very prestigious position given to him by Richard II.
A fire in 1834 destroyed all but Westminster Hall and the Jewel Tower across the road, so the rest of the present building is surprisingly new, having been built in the period 1840-1860 to a mock-Gothic design. Strangely, the hall tends to be ignored, except for on state occasions.
Visitors to the public gallery do pass through the end of the hall on their way in through the airport style security checks.
A century ago in Dickens' day, the hall was a more focal point. When Parliament is sitting a light is turned on above the Clock Tower that houses Big Ben, and a flag is flown from Victoria Tower (the tall tower at the opposite end from Big Ben's Clock Tower).
On the corner near Parliament Square a beacon flashes and a bell rings when a Member of Parliament wants a taxicab. Visitors are welcome in both the Lords' and Commons' public galleries when the houses are sitting. Join the queue outside St Stephen's entrance (in the middle of the building). The queue for the commons can be quite large during the afternoon but the house sits until around 10pm and during the evening there is often no need to queue.
Arrangements must be made in advance to tour around the rest of the Palace. You'll need to speak to your local MP if you live in the UK, otherwise arrangements can be made through your embassy.
The original plans for the Houses of Parliament can be seen at Sir John Sloane's Museum.
At the road junction next to the Houses of Parliament is Parliament Square. This small area of grass is an oasis in a sea of traffic, statues honouring a number of past British Prime Ministers can be found here. There is also one of Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), the 16th President of the USA. Opposite 'The House' is a green and grassy area where news crews conduct interviews with politicians. This is known variously as 'Abingdon Green', 'College Green' and 'St Stephen's Green'. The official line though, from the Head of Public Information at the Palace of Westminster, is that it's just called 'The Green'. Similarly, the Clock Tower that houses Big Ben, the giant 13.5ton bell that strikes the hour, is simply called 'The Clock Tower'!
Address: House of Commons, Westminster, London, SW1A 0AA