Big Ben Landmark guide
- Best for Keeping time
- Around the corner The Queen’s humble abode
- Don’t miss A peep inside Parliament
Star of many a film’s establishing shot, Big Ben is London’s best-loved landmark, affectionately nicknamed for the 13-tonne bell housed within the Elizabeth Tower. A monument to Victorian Britain, this icon of timekeeping towers over the parliamentary shenanigans of the Palace of Westminster. It tolled through the Blitz, chimes in the New Year and solemnly rings out on Remembrance Day. With a few festive exceptions, Big Ben is currently muted and closed for tours until 2021, but it’s still London’s star turn.
Built in 1859, Augustus Pugin and Sir Charles Barry’s Gothic Revival monument (née the Clock Tower) was renamed to honour Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. Only UK residents can visit to see the revolutionary mechanism within. A climb of 334 steps leads past the pendulum to the belfry, but a lift is imminent in 2021.
Christened ‘The Great Bell’, this is one of five that chime the famous ‘bongs’ preceded by a burst from Handel’s Messiah. Its nickname is allegedly a tribute to Sir Benjamin Hall who installed it, and to ensure its to-the-second accuracy, the clock is hand-wound three times a week. You can reliably set your watch (or smartphone) by the first bong.
The Great Clock
Big Ben’s four dials each measure seven metres and evoke church windows, with ornate mosaic faces composed of 312 opal-glass pieces. Each has an inscription in Latin, which translates to: ‘O Lord, save our Queen Victoria the First.’ Its hands have seen play (in Peter Pan) and peril (in The 39 Steps – a not dissimilar scene from the abseiling required to clean the clock).
- Big Ben has a (not entirely identical) twin in Yemen called Big Ben Aden
- The Great Bell first arrived in London on a carriage drawn by 16 white horses
- Big Ben has been destroyed in V for Vendetta, London Has Fallen, Mars Attacks, GI Joe: Retaliation and The Avengers – but endures for the delight of passersby.
Take a break
The LibraryWestminster Bridge Road, Lambeth SE1 7PB
The Library survived both a World War II bombing and the political sniping of Margaret Thatcher and Ken Livingstone. It’s now a calm, book-and-bust-lined spot for taking afternoon tea by the Thames, with Big Ben views.
Gordon's Wine Bar47 Villiers Street WC2N 6NE
Perhaps London’s oldest wine bar (circa 1890), this cellar cave is cosy and candlelit. A worldly wine list is matched by cracking cheese boards and punters spill out onto a buzzy (heated) terrace. Plus, there’s a private ‘cage’ for groups.
Strutton Ground MarketStrutton Ground, Westminster SW1P 2JT
This dinky market has a cobbled street full of stalls catering to hungry locals. It runs from 8am to 6pm on weekdays for cheap pan-global eats: tandoori wraps, tagines, burritos and spiced vats of rice. Kick off with a famed Flat Cap coffee.
Westminster Abbey20 Deans Yard, Westminster, SW1P 3PA
The coronation site since 1066 and the resting place of royals and the greatest of Britons, this abbey is a history book that’s still being written. See Poets’ Corner, the gilded Quire and central Sanctuary, then tour the new Diamond Jubilee galleries.
The London DungeonWestminster Bridge Road, Lambeth SE1 7PB
This fearfully fun show resurrects London’s tyrants and murderers to accompany you on white-knuckle rides and jump-scare walks. Meet Guy Fawkes, Jack the Ripper and Sweeney Todd and survive the plague, poisonings and the Great Fire of London…
Churchill War RoomsClive Steps, King Charles Street, SW1A 2AQ
Feel the frisson of history in the underground bunker from which troops were commanded during WWII. As well as strategic maps and vintage equipment in rooms left as they were in 1945, there's a museum dedicated to Churchill's life.
Big Ben is impossible to miss from Westminster station. Get there on the Jubilee, District and Circle Tube lines. Embankment, St James’s Park and Charing Cross stations are all a 10-minute walk away.
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Image credits: © GETTY; © GETTY; © Getty; © Getty; © Imagesource; © The Library; © Credit Gordon’s Wine Bar; © Alamy; © Jenny Marvin; © Churchill War Rooms; © Alamy; © Getty; © Getty