Big Ben is one of London's most iconic sights. Many visitors don't realize that "Big Ben" isn't the name for the ornate clock or the tower but, in fact, the giant bell that rings inside the Elizabeth Tower at the Houses of Parliament. It's over 150 years ago and chimes each hour on the hour, with the sound reverberating through Central London. Big Ben is a memorable attraction for visitors of all ages from countries around the world. It should be included in any London travel itinerary (although it's hard to miss the massive tower and clock when in the British capital). Here's everything you need to know about visiting Big Ben.
The neo-Gothic clock tower, designed by Augustus Pugin and part of Charles Barry's plans for the new Houses of Parliament after a fire destroyed the original, was built in 1859, standing at 315 feet tall. It was originally dubbed the Clock Tower and re-named in 2012 during Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee's celebrations to become the Elizabeth Tower. The four-faced clock features five bells, the biggest of which is Big Ben. It's unclear where the name of the bell comes from, although historians speculate that it may be in tribute to Sir Benjamin Hall, who oversaw the bell's installation. In 1970, the clock tower was deemed a Grade I listed building, and in 1987 it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In 2017, extensive restoration began on the Elizabeth Tower, which is set to conclude in 2021. The renovations include repairing the tower's roof, adding an elevator into the tower, and updating the clock's lighting. While the bells have been silent during the refurbishment, typically Big Ben chimes every hour on the hour, and the four smaller bells chime on the 15-minute marks. Big Ben is an iconic part of London's New Year's Eve celebrations, with the bell chiming 12 times to bring in the new year. On Remembrance Day, Big Ben's chimes are broadcast nationally to mark the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month and mark the start of two minutes' silence. The bells have also been used historically to mark British monarchs' passing, including King Edward VII.
What to See
It's impossible to visit Central London and not see Big Ben and the Elizabeth Tower. It's visible from various points throughout the city and from viewing attractions like the London Eye and Sky Garden. Some of the best glimpses of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament can be found from Westminster Bridge, Parliament Square, and across the Thames on the Albert Embankment. It's fun to see during the day and at night when the building, clock, and tower are illuminated.
Big Ben is connected to the Houses of Parliament and located across from Westminster Abbey, both of which can be included in your visit to see the massive clock and its bells. Look for the famed statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, and don't miss the quiet Victoria Tower Gardens South around the corner for a respite from the crowds and a nice view of the river.
How to Visit
Currently, a visit to Big Ben only involves seeing the tower and clock from its exterior. Visits inside the tower have been paused during the four-year refurbishment, although they are set to resume once the works have finished (and you can still tour the Houses of Parliament in the meantime). The best way to see Big Ben is to walk across Westminster Bridge and around to Parliament Square to get a glimpse of all sides of the clock. There are great viewpoints in Parliament Square, including on the north side, where you'll find a few red phone booths that make for great photo opportunities with Big Ben in the background.
Parliament Square and Big Ben can be accessed on several London bus and tube lines. The Westminster Tube station is directly across the road from Big Ben, and visitors can access that station on the Jubilee, District, and Circle lines. Westminster Pier is adjacent to Big Ben, and there are several river tours and boat services that go past the Houses of Parliament and stop at the pier, which can be a unique way to see London's sights. Look for Thames River Boats or City Cruises. The beloved Big Bus Tours also stop in Parliament Square and offer hop-on-hop-off tours of the area.
What to Do Nearby
Because Big Ben is located smack in the middle of London, there's a lot to see and do nearby. Westminster Abbey, found across Parliament Square, is open to visitors and offers guided tours, and the Houses of Parliament allow people to book guided tours of the government building. The Churchill War Rooms, St. James Park, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, and The National Gallery are all a short walk from Big Ben, and nearby Covent Garden is filled with restaurants, shops, and cafes. Across Westminster Bridge, travelers can find the London Eye, the SEA LIFE Centre London Aquarium, and the Tate Modern. The Tate Britain, one of London's best museums, is a short walk south of Parliament Square along the Thames' north side.
Tips for Visiting
- Parliament Square can get extremely crowded with tourists during the summer and on holiday weekends, making it difficult to get a good photo. Try to arrive early in the morning on a weekday to avoid the crowds. Crossing the river to the Albert Embankment is also a great way to see Big Ben without throngs of people. Look for benches that overlook the river with amazing views of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.
- For an aerial view of Big Ben and the surrounding sights, head to one of London's viewing platforms, which can be found around the city. Sky Garden offers free tickets to its 37th-floor indoor garden, which has 360-views of London, and The Shard has viewing platforms on floors 68, 69, and 72 for paid ticket holders.
- Don't get sucked into one of the touristy restaurants near Parliament Square. Instead, look for iconic diner The Regency Cafe, Indian eatery The Cinnamon Club, or old school pub The Windsor Castle. There is a Starbucks a few blocks west of Parliament Square for those who need a familiar pick-me-up.
- Public toilets can be found in St. James' Park near Horseguards Parade. Some public toilets require an entry fee of 20 pence, which can now be paid with a contactless credit card.