I love London, I really do. But it definitely wasn’t love at first sight. Even though I liked the city the first time I visited, I also found it noisy, dirty and too busy. However, just like a fine wine that needs to be sipped slowly, London has progressively become one of my favourite cities. How did I go from one to the other? By realising through many visits that there is a lot more to it than what meets the eye. That’s why I’ve decided to start a London’s neighbourhoods series – to help you discover all of the hidden corners of this wonderful endless city. I will be writing in-depth guides of each neighbourhood, including walking routes tried and tested by me. Let’s start with the very heart of the city: Westminster
Technically speaking, the city of Westminster is a huge London borough that encompasses everything west from the city of London (for London newbies: city as in where the skyscrapers are, not the whole of London) and east from Kensington. If you’ve been to London before you’ll know that’s a lot. That includes basically all of the major tourist sites, from Buckingham Palace, to Big Ben, to Hyde Park to Oxford Street. For the purpose of this post, I’m referring to Westminster neighbourhood as the area on the north bank of the river Thames, from and excluding Trafalgar Square, all the way to Tate Britain.
- Who is this neighbourhood for?: If you like impressive architecture, politics, history and popular London sites, Westminster is for you.
- Recommended time: The length of the walk is of approximately 1.5 miles (2.4 km) each way, which takes about 2 -3 hours. Timing is of course dependent on the different stops you choose to make, and be warned: there is a lot packed in this short distance! You can definitely make a whole day out of it, and that’s what I’d recommend doing.
There are three underground stations from which you can start exploring Westminster: Charing Cross, Westminster or Embankment. Personally, I’d recommend Embankment, mostly because the first thing you’ll find opposite the station is Whitehall gardens. This is one of those hidden beautiful green spaces that London seems to do so well, and this one in particular is top notch. Especially this time of the year, when the flowers are in full bloom.
Once you’ve enjoyed a nice stroll around the garden, exit the same way you came in and follow Whitehall Place. This is where the grandiosity and luxury of Westminster first strikes. All the opulent white buildings with very detailed facades. There are a couple of fancy hotels, guarded by fancy hotel porters with top hats included. It definitely feels like you’ve suddenly walked into the movie set of a 19th century period drama about a rich English family. Although, if it wasn’t for the constant appearance of British flags and classic London taxis, you might even forget you are actually in London.
Interesting fact: You will find the original headquarters of Scotland Yard along Whitehall Place (number 4), marked by a blue plaque. Have you ever wandered why the name, for a metropolitan police force? The back entrance to 4 Whitehall Place corresponds to Great Scotland Yard street. Despite having moved their headquarters, they stuck with the name!
For the Harry Potter fans: Great Scotland Yard Street runs parallel to Whitehall Place, and it is at the junction between this street and Scotland Place that Harry and Mr Weasley enter the Ministry of Magic in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
Once you come out onto Whitehall, the grandiosity of the former British Empire strikes again. You will find yourself looking down an avenue lined up with very ostentatious government buildings as well as war monuments. It’s a continuation of what you would have already seen on Whitehall Place, except wider, busier and with more tourists. As you continue walking towards Big Ben and Westminster Palace, here are a couple of things along Whitehall worth looking out for:
- Horse Guards: the Queen’s Lifeguard, mounted on horses, has been stationed outside of Horse Guards Parade since the monarchy was reinstated in 1660. There is a changing ceremony every morning as well as a dismounting ceremony in the afternoon. You can check the schedule here. I’ve watched neither, but I hear they are a lot less crowded than the change of the guard at Buckingham Palace!
- Cabinet and foreign offices: I think these two are my favorite buildings in the whole area. I was taken aback by the amount of thoughtful detail that has been sculpted on to them, including different sculptures for different continents as well as different subjects.
- Banqueting House: although there is nothing that makes it stand out from its neighbours, the Banqueting House is the most historically relevant building in the whole strip. It was the only survivor of the great fire of 1698 that destroyed most buildings in Whitehall. It’s also both where King Charles I was executed, and where the monarchy was reinstated with Charles II. You can visit the inside if you buy tickets (6.50£), which you can do here.
- 10 Downing Street: there is not much to see here given that there are big iron gates preventing entry, but this side street off Whitehall is where the British Prime Minister resides.
- Churchill War Rooms: the war rooms are technically not on Whitehall, but on the back of the Treasury building, facing Horseguards Road. A visit inside the bunker where Churchill made his strategic decisions during WWII doesn’t come cheap at 17.25£. I haven’t been inside so can’t tell you whether it’s worth it or not. However, even if you have no intention of going in, it’s worth taking the detour through King Charles Street. Even in the busiest of days, there are pockets of Westminster that will remain quiet and this is one of them. So if you are looking for some peaceful time alone to admire the architecture around you, this is your chance!
Big Ben and Westminster
If you have taken the detour to the Churchill War Rooms, you can continue on towards Big Ben through Great George Street. This is the popular street where people take their pictures of the classic English red phoneboxes with Big Ben in the background. There have been literally queues of tourists waiting to do this the last couple of times I’ve been there. Wouldn’t be surprised if they just seal if off and start charging for pictures one of these days! Although it’s not just this street. This square packs Big Ben, Westminster Palace and Westminster Abbey, all of which are very popular London attractions, so you can expect it to always be busy. Here is some more info on what you’ll find in this part of Westminster:
- Big Ben: although I’m using the term Big Ben as that’s what it is still commonly known as, the name only refers to the bell inside it. The proper name as of 2012 is Elizabeth Tower, in honour of the longest reigning British monarch. And I have some bad news for those planning a visit to the tower in the near future: it’s scheduled for a refurbishment that is predicted to last up to three years. This means that the tower is now closed for visits and that scaffolding will be going up any moment now. So if you want a picture without Big Ben covered in scaffolding you’d better hurry up! Or come back in four years…
- Palace of Westminster: the palace of Westminster has been the home of the British Parliament for the last 500 years. It’s definitely the most impressive Parliament building I’ve ever seen! And it’s a miracle it’s still standing, having taken a couple of hits during London’s fires as well as during WWII. In fact, despite the palace being built 1000 years ago, the present building only dates back to the end of the 19th century. It is possible to visit the inside, and you can find information and tickets to do so here. If you are a UK resident, you are entitled to free entry, but must get tickets through your local MP.
- Parliament Square: Parliament square is just s green space facing Big Ben and Westminster Palace. It’s popular as it is full of statues of famous political figures, including Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela among others. It’s not a bad spot to sit and do some people watching. That’s if you don’t mind the constant flux of tourists and the pestering pigeons!
- St Margaret’s church: this small church is often overshadowed by the much bigger Westminster Abbey, and it’s often bypassed by tourists. However, it is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site together with the Abbey and the Palace. It is also free entry, and well worth a visit if you enjoy visiting churches.
- Jewel tower: the Jewel tower can easily go unnoticed as it is of a much more modest appearance as the rest of the palace. However, together with Westminster Hall, it is one of the original parts of the palace that did not get destroyed by fire. To be honest, there’s not much to see here. You can however go inside for 5£ and learn a bit more about the history of Westminster Palace and English heritage.
Millbank and Tate Britain
Once you’ve covered everything around Parliament Square, or in my case, once you’ve taken a million photos of the palace from every possible angle, it’s time to continue on to the Victoria Tower Gardens. Truth be told these gardens suck. London has some magnificent garden, and the standard is very high. These gardens are simply sad looking in comparison to the rest. However, there are two things that make a stroll through them worth it. First, there is a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst at the entrance, thoughtfully placed at the doors of Parliament. Emmeline lead the fight to earn women the right to vote, so I feel she should be worth a couple of seconds of your time. Second, the gardens run along the river Thames and make for a nice stroll along the water.
When leaving the gardens, you definitely notice you’ve left the opulent and grandiose side of Westminster behind. This part of London looks rather like any other city. However, it’s worth going through it to reach Tate Britain.
The Tate Britain museum is only 5 – 10 minute walk from the Victoria Tower Gardens. I’m not going to cover it in detail as that’s a whole blog post of its own. However, in brief, this museum covers mostly British painting from 1,500 up to present. And don’t let the exterior fool you – it may not look as big as some of the other popular London museums, but it somehow manages to pack in a lot in a small space. If you are like me, and aren’t that keen on looking at paintings, be warned that I went in for a quick 10 minute stroll and ended up staying for over an hour! And I could definitely have stayed for much longer. It’s also free entry, so if for nothing else, it’s worth popping in for a quick glance at the impressive museum entrance. London just doesn’t seem capable of doing normal museum entrance halls…
Interesting fact: The Tate Britain building wasn’t always a museum. It stands on the site of Millbank Penitentiary, the biggest prison in London at the time.
Movie location: Just opposite to the Tate Britain museum you can find the headquarters of the MI6 or the British Secret Intelligence Service. You’ve probably seen it in the James Bond movies, especially in Spectre.
Westminster abbey and Dean’s Yard
The Tate Britain marks the end of the neighbourhood of Westminster and the start of Pimlico. Therefore it’s time to start heading back towards Big Ben and Westminster Palace again. You can either go back the same way you came, or you can take the backstreet to the Tate Britain. Personally, I’d go with the latter. If you follow John Islip Street all the way to St John’s Smith Square you’ll be walking through a rather dull area. This part of London was filled with crime and poverty a couple of centuries ago, so it’s come a long way! There are a couple of eating places (more on where to eat below), which aren’t easy to find in this neighbourhood, but not much else.
At St John’s Smith stands a beautiful baroque church with a significant amount of bad luck: burnt down 14 years after it was built, struck by lightning 50 years later and then destroyed by a WWII bomb. Puts things into perspective, doesn’t it? Unfortunately it is closed to the public, except for when there are concerts on.
Past St John’s Smith and before you reach Dean’s Yard come three beautiful georgian streets: Lord North Street, Cowley Street and Barton Street. These streets have been inhabited by many popular politicians including Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and also Lawrence of Arabia. Also, if you pay attention, you’ll be able to spot faded signs painted on Lord North Street pointing people towards bomb shelters from WWII.
Finally, the last stop on this walking tour of Westminster: Dean’s Yard and Westminster Abbey. Dean’s Yard is a small peaceful green space at the back of the abbey. You can access it through a small gate at Great College Street. It’s funny how even though it is just across the road from Parliament Square, it is much nicer and quieter. Another one of those hidden peaceful pockets! Once you come out of Dean’s Yard you’ll be facing the main entrance to the impressive Westminster Abbey. Apart from the ridiculous impressive architecture, it feels more like a museum than a place of worship, given the sheer amount of history its witnessed. Some of the most recent events include Prince William’s wedding and Diana’s funeral. I haven’t gotten a chance to go in yet, but given my experience in other English cathedrals, I have no doubt it is worth it!
Local tip: Entry to the abbey costs about 20£, however you can go in for free if you are attending a service. There are many to choose from, and you can check the schedule here. Even if you are not religious, and have no interest in attending mass, you can try the organ recital or the choral evensong.
Where to eat: Sherlock Holmes pub
Eating options are scarce in the neighbourhood of Westminster. You will find the biggest range of options in the stretch around the Tate Britain. There’s actually a nice pub in the corner of Ponsoby Place, the Morpeth Arms. However, my favorite I think is the Sherlock Holmes Pub on Northumberland Street. This is at the very start of the walk, near Embankment, so it’s a good choice if you are able to hold off and have dinner once you finish walking. I’ve only eating there once so I feel like it’s not fair to judge the food. With that in mind, I had a burger that wasn’t that great. A friend had some macaroni and cheese she said were delicious. But forget about the food – the real draw lies in the theme. The pub is like a Sherlock Holmes museum! The theming is excellent, and it is definitely a must-visit for the Sherlock fans.
Last but not least! We have had many visitors that we have shown around London over the last year. Do you know what the most consistent problem we find, which guidebooks never cover? Finding toilets. That’s right. There’s nothing worse than walking around in a new city or neighbourhood, desperately needing a toilet and not having a clue where to find one. That’s why I’ll make sure to always include where to find toilets in each one of my London neighbourhood guides. In the case of Westminster, you will find toilets at:
- Westminster underground station. Coming from Parliament street, facing Parliament Square, the entrance to Westminster underground on the right has toilets. It’ll cost you 50p.
- Victoria gardens. At the furthest end of the garden from Parliament, right behind the children’s park, you will also find toilets. It’ll cost you 20p.
- Tate Britain. You will also find toilets at the lower floor inside the Tate Britain museum. These ones are free, as is the museum entry.
That’s all I have to tell you about Westminster for now. What do you think? Would you enjoy discovering this London neighbourhood? Did I miss anything? Let me know!