An Insider’s Guide to Westminster: Palaces, Parliament and a Postmaster

Today marks 750 years since the first parliament convened at Westminster. For centuries, the City of Westminster — covering an area of approximately 21 square kilometres (eight square miles), and including Strand Palace Hotel — has been the centre of Britain’s religious, royal and democratic institutions, many of which remain there today.

The palace that’s a parliament
The highest concentration of sights is in the area served by the underground stations of Westminster and St James’s Park. From here, you can take a tour of the so-called Palace of Westminster, which — despite its fairytale neo-Gothic architecture — is not actually a palace, but the correct name for the Houses of Parliament. You can also see the iconic clocktower, which takes its name from the ‘Big Ben’ bell inside.

The palace that burned down
Extending from the British Parliament is Whitehall, a road lined with ministries where much of the government work is done. Whitehall takes its name from another royal palace, which was largely destroyed by fire in the 17th century. The only surviving part of this palace is the Banqueting House. Built by Inigo Jones, this remaining section of the palace is where King Charles I was beheaded in 1649 and it is now open to the visiting public.

The palace where the Queen lives
On Whitehall, you’ll come nose-to-nose with the Household Cavalry at the entrance to Horse Guards and the Household Cavalry’s Museum. The mounted soldiers in their splendid red and gold uniforms with imposing plumed helmets form part of the Queen’s official bodyguard.

Continuing up Whitehall brings you to the junction with The Mall, a ceremonial avenue leading to Buckingham Palace, the London residence of the British monarchy. Look out for the Royal Standard flag flying above the palace; if this is here, you’ll know that the Queen is at home. Tours of the palace are available. If you’re interested in royal residences then you should also take a tour of nearby Clarence House, the residence of Prince Charles.

Where queens are crowned
From Buckingham Palace and Clarence House, it’s a pleasant walk through leafy St James’s Park to Westminster Abbey, one of the oldest buildings in Westminster. The coronations of English and British monarchs have taken place here since 1066 and there have been 16 royal weddings at the Abbey, most recently William and Kate, and before that, Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson. Westminster Abbey should not be confused with the Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral, a 19th-century building about half a mile away with striking neo-Byzantine mosaics.

London’s most famous postmaster
On your way back to Strand Palace Hotel, take in the Benjamin Franklin House museum, the only surviving residence of this Founding Father of the United States. The museum offers the chance to find out about Franklin’s relationship with England – as British postmaster for the Colonies and spokesman in England for many of its overseas terrioties – as well as his extraordinary range of scientific achievements.

Looking for hotels near Westminster? Strand Palace Hotel is an easy walk to most of the sights in Westminster and is very well served by the underground (Tube) and bus routes.

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