Westminster is a city in its own right, the twin to the ancient City of London further east and historically they jointly formed the focus of what is today regarded as London. The Palace of Westminster came to be the principal royal residence after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, and later housed the developing Parliament and law courts of England. The neighbouring Westminster Abbey became the traditional venue of the coronation of England regents. Westminster has therefore been the seat of royal, and later parliamentary, government and power for 900 years.
As a result, many of its attractions are of an historical and cultural variety. Even so Westminster very much retains a bustling, modern feel as the centre of British government and is often used as shorthand for Parliament and the political community (including the elected Government) of the United Kingdom generally.
For the traveller and for the scope of this article, it is important to understand though that the district of Westminster is bounded to the north by Trafalgar Square and Mayfair, to the east by Covent Garden and to the west by Knightsbridge and Chelsea.
St. James's is the region of Westminster that encompasses Buckingham Palace, the Palace of Westminster and the eponymously named park. This is a very affluent area of the city and has a great deal to offer visitors. Belgravia to the west of Buckingham Palace is probably the grandest residential area in the whole of the United Kingdom. Victoria and Pimlico in the south-west are the least grand regions of the district but still have much to offer including The Tate Britain, some wonderful Regency architecture and a number of good value accommodation options.
St James's was once part of the same royal park as Green Park and St. James's Park. In the 1660s, Charles II gave the right to develop the area to Henry Jermyn, 1st Earl of St Albans, who proceeded to develop it as a predominantly aristocratic residential area with a grid of streets centred on St James's Square.
Until the Second World War, St James's remained one of the most exclusive residential enclaves in London. Famous residences in St James's include St James's Palace, Clarence House, Marlborough House, Lancaster House, Spencer House, Schomberg House and Bridgewater House. It is now a predominantly commercial area with some of the highest rents in London and, consequently, the world. Corporate offices in St James's include the global headquarters of BP. The auction house Christie's is based in King Street, and the surrounding streets contain a great many upmarket art and antique dealers.
St James's is also the home of many of the best known gentlemen's clubs in London, and is sometimes, though not as often as formerly, referred to as "Clubland". The "clubs" found here are organisations of English high society. A variety of groups congregate here, such as royals, military officers, motoring enthusiasts, and other groups. In 1990, the Carlton Club, traditional meeting place for members of the Conservative Party, was struck by an IRA bomb. See List of London's gentlemen's clubs. In a similar vein, the area is also home to fine wine merchants including Berry Brothers and Rudd, at number 3 St James's Street. Adjoining St James's Street is Jermyn Street, famous for its many tailors. St James's is also famous for being home to some of the most famous cigar retailers in London. At 35 St James's Street is Davidoff of London, 19 St James's Street is home to J.J. Fox and 50 Jermyn St has Dunhill; this makes the area a Cuban cigar haven.
The area has a good number of art galleries, covering a spectrum of tastes. The White Cube gallery, which represents Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, had originally opened in Duke Street, St James's, then moved to Hoxton Square. In September 2006, it opened a second gallery in St James's at 25–26 Mason's Yard, off Duke Street, on a plot previously occupied by an electricity sub-station. The gallery is the first free-standing building to be built in the St James's area for more than 30 years.
Banqueting House, Whitehall SW1A 2ER (tube: Westminster), ☎ +44 870 751 5178. M-Sa 10AM-5PM, closed Su, Bank Holidays and 24 December-1 Jan (inclusive); The Banqueting House is liable to close at short notice for government functions, telephone to check before you travel. Designed and built in 1619-1622 by the Neo-Classical architect Inigo Jones, The Banqueting House is now all that remains of Whitehall Palace, the sovereign's principal residence from 1530-1698 when most of it was destroyed by fire. Renowned for its architecture and paintings (by Rubens, amongst others), the building is also famous for being the scene of Charles I's execution in 1649 at the end of the English Civil War. £4.00, students (with ID) and seniors (60+) £3.00, children 5-16 £2.60, under 5 free.
Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum, Clive Steps, King Charles Street SW1A 2AQ (tube: Westminster). 9:30AM-6PM daily (last admission 5PM), closed 24-26 Dec. A branch of the Imperial War Museum, the Cabinet War Rooms preserves the underground corridors and rooms from which Churchill and the cabinet directed the war against Hitler and the Nazis, maintained almost exactly as they were left in 1945. Newly-opened in 2004, the attached Churchill Museum is the world's first permanent museum dedicated to the life and wartime achievements of Sir Winston Churchill, recently voted the Greatest Briton. £10, children under 16 free, seniors £8, students £8, unwaged £5, group concessions available.
Cleopatra's Needle, Victoria Embankment, along the Thames (tube: Embankment). Cleopatra's Needle originated in the ancient Egyptian city of Heliopolis, in the Temple of Atum, but the Romans moved it to Alexandria in 12 BC. In 1819, viceroy Mehemet Ali presented Cleopatra's Needle to the British, commemorating military victories in Egypt, but it remained in Alexandria until 1877 when transportation was arranged to bring it to London. On the voyage, the ship capsized in a storm, killing six crewmembers. Cleopatra's Needle was thought to be lost, but Spanish trawlers found it afloat a few days later, and after some repairs, it arrived in London on 21 Jan 1878. The obelisk is flanked by two faux-sphinxes, which show the effects of bombings of London during World War II. Today, Cleopatra's Needle shows some wear from exposure to London's damp weather.
Downing Street, (tube: Westminster). Site of the London residences for the Prime Minister (No. 10) and the Chancellor (No. 11).
Henry VII's Ladys Chapel. Described as the wonder of the entire world, this chapel at the eastern end of Westminster Abbey is a breathtakingly beautiful masterpiece of medieval architecture.
St. Margaret's Church, Parliament Sq (tube: Westminster. Next to Westminster Abbey within Parliament Sq). M-F 9:30AM-3:45PM, Sa 9:30AM-1:45PM, Su 2PM-5PM. St. Margaret's is the church of the British Parliament, more specifically, the parish church of the House of Commons.
Westminster Abbey, (tube: Westminster), ☎ +44 20 7654 4900 (firstname.lastname@example.org, fax: +44 20 7654 4894). Abbey admission: M-Tu and Th-F 9:30AM-3:45PM, W 9:30AM-7PM, Sa 9:30AM-1:45PM (extended in summer to 3:45PM), Su open for worship only, the Abbey closes 1 hr after last admission; Chapter House admission: 10:30AM-4PM daily; Westminster Abbey Museum: 10:30AM-4PM daily; Pyx Chamber: 10:30AM-4PM daily; Cloisters: 8AM-6PM daily. Note that the Abbey itself charges tourists for entry, but not for worshippers. Attend a church service for free and enjoy some of the finest choral music in London from the choir. Evensong at 4PM or 5PM, depending on time of year, is an especially good bet. The Abbey is the traditional scene for the Coronation of British monarchs and the burial place of many past kings and queens. £12, concessions £6 (seniors 60+, children 11-16, students with full-time student card), family ticket £18 (two adults and two children under 18), children under 11 free (maximum of two children per paying adult).
Whitehall, (tube: Westminster, Charing Cross). This street runs between Parliament Square and Trafalgar Square, and is the site of several British government buildings. Horseguards Parade, and the heavily guarded entrance to Downing Street (see below) are on the west side. Banqueting House is on the east side. In the centre of the street sits the Cenotaph, a war memorial erected following the World War I, which is the centre of the annual Remembrance Day ceremony on 11 November.
The Jewel Tower (Opposite the Houses of Parliament). This small tower across the road from the Houses of Parliament is the only part of the original Palace of Westminster still standing. While it is overshadowed in splendour by the surrounding buildings, it's well worth a visit, and has good displays about the early history of Westminster.