Westminster, London Travel Guide
Westminster, St. James, and Pimlico Summary
- Tons of historic tourist attractions
- Home to royal landmarks like Horse Guards Parade, The Mall, and Buckingham Palace
- UNESCO World Heritage-listed Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
- Centuries-old Westminster Abbey -- one of the world’s great churches
- Leafy St. James’s Park has great viewpoints across London
- 10 Downing Street, where the Prime Minister lives and works
- Tons of culture, including Tate Britain art museum
- Traditional English pubs
- Vast area to navigate on foot
- Lots of special events can mean road closures and crowding
- Lack of budget and mid-range hotels
- Areas around major sights are incredibly touristy
What It's Like
Full of royal and political history, Westminster is home to some of London’s most historic landmarks and popular tourist attractions. It draws huge crowds, of course, but the wide avenues, grand squares, and pretty parklands make everything feel a bit less congested than other parts of town (we're looking at you, Oxford Street).
Westminster is the seat of the U.K. government, centered on the north bank of the River Thames around Whitehall -- the main thoroughfare running from Trafalgar Square to Parliament Square. This is where you’ll find the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Palace of Westminster (the Houses of Parliament), famous for its striking Gothic architecture and northern clock tower’s Great Bell -- nicknamed Big Ben. Visit at noon to hear the chimes in their full glory, or after dark to see the clock face beautifully illuminated. Overseas visitors should note that the clock tower isn’t open for tours, but it is possible to see inside the Houses of Parliament. It’s also worth stepping inside the spectacular centuries-old Westminster Abbey -- the setting for 16 royal weddings and every Coronation since 1066, with a burial list that reads like a who’s-who of British history.
Heading north along Whitehall, iconic sights include the Cenotaph -- Britain’s official national war memorial -- and 10 Downing Street -- the office of the British Prime Minister since 1735. Next door to Downing Street is Horse Guards, the official entrance to Buckingham Palace and St. James’s Park, guarded by two mounted cavalry troopers of The Queen's Life Guard. Visitors can see the Changing of the Life Guard here at the ceremonial parade ground every day. From Horse Guards, it’s a 15-minute stroll to Buckingham Palace down The Mall, a wide tree-lined road that's showcased in royal events and as the finishing point of the annual London Marathon. The Queen’s official London residence has tourists pressed up against its gilded railings and cast-iron gates at all times of day, snapping away at the grand Neoclassical facade and trying to catch the attention of the unwavering guards that protect the gates.
Running alongside The Mall, leafy St. James’s Park is the oldest of London’s eight Royal Parks. As well as wandering tourists, you’ll find lunching Londoners taking a breather, and engaged or newlywed couples making the most of the scenic backdrops on Blue Bridge. From here, the views stretch across the lake to Buckingham Palace in one direction, or Big Ben and the London Eye in the other. There are also a few traditional English pubs in this area, which make ideal refueling posts for mid-sightseeing refreshments.
Away from the royal and political haunts, Pimlico -- to the south of Westminster and far less grand -- has some great examples of Regency architecture and is home to the popular Tate Britain art museum.
Where to Stay
Accommodation in Westminster tends to fall into two categories. The first includes small bed-and-breakfasts and retro boutique hotels occupying the Regency terraces around Pimlico. In the other category are majestic luxury hotels around Buckingham Gate and St. James’s Park. The Conrad London St. James is centrally located, across the street from St. James's Park Tube station. Staying in the eastern side of the neighborhood also puts you closer to Southbank destinations like the London Eye, not to mention the big-ticket sights like Big Ben. It tends to be a bit quieter the farther south in the neighborhood you go, particularly in parts of Pimlico.