London has two great centres of attention: The City, which deals with money – and Westminster, home to politics.
You’ll find most of the government departments down Whitehall: the Treasury, Privy Council, Ministry of Defence and Foreign Office.
The Palace of Westminster sits east of Parliament Square, and Downing Street is a ten minute walk up Whitehall. Other sights include Banqueting House, the Churchill War Rooms and the Cenotaph. Go a little farther south down Millbank, and you’ll come to the Labour Party headquarters.
Downing Street is blocked off by a large iron gate these days, but you might be lucky enough to see a fleet of blacked-out limos heading south to the Commons.
Banqueting House is the only surviving part of Whitehall Palace, which once served as the King’s main residence until the accession of James II.
The Cenotaph was built to mark the dead of World War I, but has grown to encompass every Commonwealth battle since 1918. A steady stream of veterans march past the block on Remembrance Day.
Big Ben was designed by Charles Barry in 1856. It took thirteen years to complete and stands at an impressive 316 feet.
The Houses of Parliament – or the Palace of Westminster – has occupied the same spot since 1016, when King Canute built a royal residence. It was gutted by fire in 1834, and Charles Barry designed the gothic-style replacement.
The oldest surviving part of the building is Westminster Hall – where England’s leading lights are laid in State. It also served as the country’s highest court until the mid 19th-century. The most famous case involved a certain Guy Fawkes, who was tried for treason in the Gunpowder Plot.
Westminster Abbey is the setting for coronations, State funerals, and the burial place of many celebrated British figures.
Edward the Confessor was the first to be interred here, and William the Conqueror was crowned in 1066 – meaning the building spans a thousand years of English history! The famous Coronation Chair from 1292 may look modest, but it has been used at every coronation for 700 years.
A popular part of the Abbey is Poet’s Corner – where the nation’s poets and playwrights are laid to rest. You can see graves and memorials to Chaucer, Milton, Tennyson, William Wordsworth, William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens (who was apparently buried here against his wishes – on the orders of Queen Victoria).
Westminster Cathedral is the most important Roman Catholic church in England, designed by John Bentley in 1896. He eschewed the Gothic style popular with Victorians, and went for a Byzantine exterior. (The fact that London’s Gothic masterpiece, Westminster Abbey, is just a stone’s throw from the pulpit probably had a lot to do with his decision.)
A popular pastime for tourists is a climb up the campanile, with fine views of Buckingham Palace and Parliament.