Few landmarks epitomize central London as perfectly as Big Ben, the iconic clock tower that stands at the east end of the Houses of Parliament. Heralding the location of Great Britain's political nucleus in Westminster, Big Benâor the Elizabeth Tower, renamed in honor of the Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubileeâstands proud as a symbol of London and the striking centerpiece of the Thames waterfront. The Palace of Westminster, the home of the Houses of Parliament, is another historic monument, as behind the grand Gothic facade, politicians have dictated local laws since 1215, when King John's Magna Carta signified the birth of parliament in the United Kingdom.
The most exciting ways to see the great clock face are from a capsule on the nearby London Eye Ferris wheel or on a Thames River cruise, both of which offer magnificent views of the 315-foot (96-meter) clock tower and the Neo-Gothic Palace of Westminster while allowing you to avoid the crowds that gather at Big Ben's base. The landmarks can be experienced at their most atmospheric on a night tour of London, when Big Ben is dramatically illuminated.
Travelers wanting to learn about British politics, with its complex system of monarchs, lords, and elected members of parliament, can arrange an official tour of the Houses of Parliament or even watch a debate from the public galleries. Big Ben, however, is only accessible to UK residents, who must request permission from their local member of parliament to visit. For everyone else, the clock tower is best admired from afar on a city tour that includes stops at other London attractions, such as Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London.
Things to Know Before You Go
- Big Ben is visited on most half- and full-day tours of London, whether a walking, biking, or bus tour.
- Take 10 minutes to admire the statues of Parliament Square, all of which depict famous political figures.
- Guided tours of the Houses of Parliament run most Saturdays, and the public galleries are open when parliament is in sessionâtime your visit wisely to watch opposing political parties in fierce debate.
How to Get to Big Ben
Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament are located on the north bank of the Thames River, easily accessible from the Westminster underground tube station, which is serviced by the Jubilee, Circle, and District lines. Alternatively, hop off at Waterloo station to wander along the vibrant South Bank past the London Eye, then walk across Westminster Bridge to Big Ben.
When to Get There
Holiday travelers can join the crowds to watch London's legendary New Year's Eve fireworks, which take place right in front of Big Ben and ignite the sky in a riot of color. Ensure you book tickets for the firework display well in advance to avoid disappointment and guarantee an unforgettable evening.