As the political centre of the UK, Westminster has long been a tourist attraction in London. Stately buildings, religious headquarters, historic landmarks and numerous fine pubs and restaurants all border the River Thames. But there’s a lot that’s not known here.
This is probably the most famous area of the UK. Westminster Palace is in the news every day, with intrigue, triumphs, disappointments and scandals that any soap opera actor would be proud of. This is because the law, the future, and the governance of Britain are all up for debate in the Palace of Westminster. Both national mourning and celebrations will focus on Westminster Cathedral. The Prime Minister lives here. The Queen lives across the street from Buckingham Palace. And centuries of history are wrapped up and presented everywhere, making it one of the best areas in London to explore on foot.
In fact, there are two Westminster towns in London: one is the government district, on the banks of the River Thames between Hungerford Bridge and Vauxhall Bridge, and the other is London’s Westminster, which is much larger and includes the former Westminster, the northernmost of which is Regents Park. This guide looks at the first of these areas, which is a good wedge in central London, sandwiched between the River Thames and Vauxhall Bridge Road and the shopping centre, where the two areas meet near Victoria Station.
The Houses of Parliament are officially known as the Palace of Westminster. Since the early 11th century, there has been some sort of royal designation of the building on the river, although the grounds have changed frequently through fire and extension. At one time, the reigning monarch lived here, then in the early 15th century, the council moved here, and for the previous two centuries, the council met regularly here. Today’s iteration is a neo-Gothic aesthetic building built in the Victorian era. The building is famous in part because of its Elizabethan Tower, which houses Big Ben. At the time of this writing, Big Ben is undergoing an elaborate restoration, but it should be in the spotlight again in 2021.
This is the perfect place to start exploring Westminster, and there are many admirable sights to see. You are likely to see some form of protest in Parliament Square Garden, and depending on the cause, one of the many statues or statues of prominent political figures such as Winston Churchill or Millicent Garrett Fawcett will serve as a gathering point. The Churchill War Room (Clive Steps) was used as a secret office during World War II, while the Supreme Court (Little George St) is home to some of the more famous buildings in the neighbourhood with its fine reliefs.
But it’s Westminster Abbey (20 Deans Yard) that’s the highlight, predating all the other buildings around it. Underneath its courtyard and within its walls lie important chapters of British, English and even world history. Rudyard Kipling, Charles Darwin, Sir Isaac Newton, Stephen Hawking, Charles Dickens and Laurence Olivier, among many other famous figures, have been buried here, along with most of Britain and its former monarchs. All but two of Britain’s monarchs have been crowned here since 1066, and many high-profile weddings and funerals have taken place here.
Westminster Abbey was first recorded in 960. Part of the present building came into use in 1042 and was used mainly as a monastery until the Reformation, when it briefly became a cathedral until Elizabeth I decided to make it a royal monastery (i.e. a religious building under the command of a monarch rather than a diocese). After all, the Tudors didn’t like the idea of God being above them.
What is a little confusing is that there is actually a Westminster Cathedral (42 Francis Street), although it is not the Church of England, but Catholic. It’s located on the west side of the Victoria neighborhood, just a ten-minute walk away, and the new Byzantine-style red-and-white brick buildings are striking and seem to be a modern revolt against the Roman Catholic Church. This is a relatively new building, dating from 1895, and the interior is still unfinished.
The city of Victoria is different from the stately air of Westminster, which stands on the river. Sleek glass towers and modern shopping centres are interspersed with occasional protected landmarks, such as the Victoria Palace Theatre (79 Victoria Street). At the time of this writing, Hamilton has been filling every seat in this theater for several years. The Victoria Apollo Theatre (17 Wilton Road) is another of the top theatres in the neighborhood.
From there along Vauxhall Bridge Road back to the Thames, Chelsea College of Arts and Tate Britain’s Millbank give Westminster’s south corner a sense of British art past and future. Tate Britain presents a fascinating exhibition ‘A Journey Through British Art’, documenting the creative development of this country from 1545 to the present. The exhibition features works by William Blake, John Constable, Anna Lea Merritt, Sir John Everett Milles, and an excellent collection by J.M.W. Turner.
Further north along Millbank, a path along the Thames leads to Victoria Tower Gardens, a large area of grass and trees with views of Victoria Tower, part of the Palace of Westminster and usually much quieter than elsewhere. St James’s Park to the north is another popular place for walks and picnics.
Westminster is the heart of the UK and is so important to the governance of the country that there are buses and the London Underground with four stations nearby. Westminster Station, St James Park Station, Victoria Station and Pimlico Station. Trains from Victoria Station reach the South East of England, and buses from Victoria Coach Station reach all destinations in the UK, as well as many parts of Europe. A number of London buses connect the area to the rest of the city. Since it’s a compact area, it’s easy to get to on foot.
This hotel in Westminster is centrally located and has a high status, so cheap beds are rare. Instead, most hotels try to outdo others in terms of comfort, and this Sanctuary Hotel (33 Tothill St) does just that. The rooms at the hotel feature comfortable beds and desks with typical British-style telephones. Located at the top of Fuller’s Kitchen pub, where free breakfast is served, the Sanctuary House Hotel is about a 2-minute drive from Westminster Abbey and St James’s Park.
The Wellington Hotel by Blue Orchid (71 Vincent Sq) is located in a quiet corner of Westminster and occupies an impressive old building with tall chimneys and a private garden. The rooms at the hotel are among the most spacious in the area, arranged in earthy tones and using flowers and warm lighting to add color. The Wellington Hotel also has better facilities than its competitors, with its own bar, restaurant and fitness center.
The best budget option in Westminster is the Hub by Premier Inn (21 Tothill St), which offers compact rooms, and we mean compact. Standard rooms have under-bed storage so you can stack your luggage outside. The nice thing is that the room is not rushed. You can control the room’s light and temperature via a touchscreen at the head of the bed, and there’s plenty of room for a 40-inch smart TV and a shower stall connected to the bathroom. It’s also the best-positioned hotel on this list, and the most recommended.
The Morpeth Arms (58 Millbank) was used as a holding cell for prisoners about to be shipped to Australia, never to return. The pub itself overlooks the MI6 building across the Thames and is a great place to go after a stroll through the Tate Britain Museum. There are a variety of cask ales, as well as craft beers, spirits and wines. They also offer decent pub feasts and thoughtful options for vegetarians.
St Stephen’s Tavern (10 Bridge St) is a cheerful, traditional pub with a great view of Westminster Palace. In fact, since opening in 1875, this classic London tavern has become a fixture for many politicians in suits, including Winston Churchill, it is said. There are four cask ales, as well as lagers, bottled ciders and spirits, and coffee and tea, and it seems a little early when you’re having coffee here. The kitchen serves classic barbecue (burgers, fish and chips, steak and beer pies, etc.).
Albert Pub (5 Howick Place) is surrounded by high-rise buildings that almost rival this four-story building. But this 1862-built pub doesn’t let its name go unnoticed, instead it stands out even more with its old Victorian fa?ade and beautiful flower boxes. The fact that the building, which survived the Blitz in World War II, is rated a Grade II listed building ensures that it will be protected for many years to come. The pub is run by Greene King, so beers like Old Speckled Hen can be found here, among many others.
The Victorian Speaker (46 Great Peter Street) is located in the heart of the Westminster Government District and is named after the Speaker of the House of Representatives. As the highest authority in the House of Commons, the Speaker’s job is to maintain order in the House of Commons, a difficult task, and as such, the Speaker’s job is often akin to walking a tightrope with grit and a non-partisan attitude. So, too, in this case, is the bar of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, where they insist on maintaining decency and decorum, banning music, television and fruit machines, and serving a range of drinks to create a lively atmosphere in which people interact with each other.
The walls of The Red Lion (48 Parliament Street) are hung with portraits and cartoons of former British leaders, such as Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. The lovely pub’s shaggy leather seats, understated lighting and wood-paneled upholstery give it a cozy vibe. The main bar area is particularly impressive with its chandeliers and carved wooden columns. Outside, seating is limited and comfort food fills the menu, which has a dedicated pie section. The restaurant also offers some vegetarian options, and if just one kind of pie isn’t enough, there’s even a pie tasting board.
At the time of writing, there are 67 Michelin-starred restaurants in London, none of which are within the Westminster government area. However, Roux (11 Great George St) in Parliament Square is the work of Michel Roux, Jr. who has two Michelin stars among other restaurants. Starred or not, lavish cuisine with luxurious, period-style interiors and warm, unpretentious tones are the perfect combination here. The chef’s tasting menu features sea and land ingredients, and there’s a private study that can seat ten people for a more intimate meal.
The Cinnamon Club (Old Westminster Library, Great Smith St) has received rave reviews for its modern Indian cuisine. The restaurant’s main menu is more of a fusion of Indian cuisine, with charcoal-grilled monkfish and Kerala curry paste, or grilled Romani swamp lamb with sesame tamarind sauce. ‘Sunday Jazz’ and ‘Vegetarian’ are just a few of their other outstanding menus.Part of the charm of The Cinnamon Club is that it’s in a pre-Victorian library with books still hanging on the walls on both floors.
For clarity, the first Naughty Pig restaurant is in Brixton, and The Other Naughty Piglet (The Other Palace, 12 Palace St) serves seasonal dishes and matching biological wines amidst the Victorian buzz. If you want to dine in front of the theatre, this is an especially good choice, with both the Victoria Palace and the Apollo Victoria Theatre nearby. The restaurant’s culinary focus is on charcoal-grilled small plates. The restaurant’s wines come mainly from small producers. The pleasant, welcoming atmosphere and excellent service is also a highlight here.
If you want to combine the essence of British art with British cuisine at The Rex Whistler (Tate Britain), then you can do it without leaving your home. It’s lunch-only daily, and the exquisite, airy space is covered in pure white tablecloths and surrounded by a huge mural, “The Quest for Rare Meat,” by Rex Whistler himself. As you’d expect from an upscale restaurant in an art gallery, the dishes here are works of art, including seasonal fare like Lake Duhart salmon, grouse pie and smoked geranium chicken breast, all seasonal exhibits.