I’m a big fan of a tour, although it has to be the right one. I don’t do audio tours generally – because what if I want to go faster or slower or ask questions. Plus you don’t hear about as much as you would with a live tour guide. I have to say though, that I’ve not been on many. Usually I’ll just look to go round a tourist attraction on my own and see what I fancy. If I’ve got N with me, I’d definitely not do a formal guided tour until he’s older and wouldn’t get bored.
My recent 40th birthday weekend to London was jam packed with sight-seeing, exhibitions, food and chat. One of the early suggestions for something to do was a tour around the Houses of Parliament. It would never have occurred to me to go there, but my best friend thought it would be interesting so we booked on it.
Westminster area is pretty spectacular – from churches, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and obviously the Houses of Parliament themselves – everywhere you look you see beautiful historical buildings. We even had a quick nosy at the Jewel Tower which I’ve heard good things about, but we thought the pricing was a bit steep for such a tiny place so didn’t go in.
We’d booked on the 3pm tour – tours run on Saturdays at various intervals, and you do need to book. When we picked up our tickets beforehand, other people who’d just turned up were being told that there was only 1 audio tour space left later on in the day. We opted for the full guided tour which was around £25. As well as the standard tour, there are also family tours and a few language tours available to book on.
Our group was 27 people which was more than I expected, and included 5 Italian children – probably aged between 7-13. Thankfully the children were very well behaved, and were the ones asking most of the questions. But the tour guide was very good as ensuring everyone kept together, and it wasn’t hard to hear her speak above the sounds from other people using the audio guides and walking around as we went round.
After going through the airport style scanners, you arrive into the main Westminster Hall. It’s a spectacular space and reminded me a bit of how Grand Central Station in New York hits you as you walk in. The hall is used for major speeches from heads of state, and is where The Queen Mother and Winston Churchill laid in state after their deaths. There are plaques on the floor explaining who stood there and what they delivered, so It’s interesting to read those as well as find out about the history of the building and purpose of the hall.
We then started our tour, which worked backwards, following the route that the Queen takes when she opens state parliament.
It’s certainly a busy attraction – only opening Saturdays obviously condenses the visitors – but the tour flowed well, and the tour guide really knew her information. We saw so much in the furniture, decorations, art and sculptures, various rooms and corridors, and the House of Commons and House of Lords (no sitting down in either of those), plus the corridor where the ayes go to vote. Both the House of Commons and Lords seem smaller than when you see them on tv, and it was interesting to hear about the MPs who like to sit in certain places, and how they can reserve their seat.
The building is amazingly ornate, and it makes you wonder how rich the country was to have been able to afford to build such a building. My favourite bit was the ‘post office’ and seeing all the message cubby holes with their stickering system for the political parties.
Our tour ended up again seeing the New Dawn light and glass design at the top of the stairs in Westminster Hall. This was designed to celebrate the vote for women, is in the suffragette colours. The position and colour of the lights change in accordance with the height of the River Thames which is cool.
Apart from opinions on elections and policies, I’m not that interested in politics, but for anyone who is, the Houses of Parliament tour is a must. I think for both my friend and I, it was one of the highlights of our weekend. It seemed expensive at £25 for just over an hour’s tour when booking, but our tour overran 30 minutes and we certainly got our money’s worth.
While researching other tours for the weekend we were there, I discovered a really amazing selection of unusual tours of London.
Unusual Tours of London ideas
- Street Art tour – Shoreditch. A great opportunity for a photo walk, I’d love to try this tour.
- Chocolate tour – in different areas of the city.
- London by Night tour – a bus tour which leaves from outside the Ritz, a great opportunity to see London in lights. This is on the railways 2 for 1 offers, but you can’t book in advance if using the vouchers which made it a little risky for us to do.
- East End pub tour – combines street art and pubs
- Unseen tours – led by homeless or former homeless people, you see the unseen parts of London and hear anecdotes of street life.
- Highgate West Cemetery tour – see the famous burial ground and architectural memorials
Have you ever done a tour of London or other cities? Which unusual ones would you recommend?
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