You probably knew you can take paid tours round the Houses of Parliament. But did you know there are also plenty of ways to get into the Palace of Westminster for absolutely free? Here's how.
Watch a debate in the Commons or Lords
Both the House of Commons and House of Lords have public viewing galleries. Our visit was a Wednesday — which, for the Commons, means it's Prime Minister's Questions. This is obviously very popular, but you can request a free ticket via your MP. If you like, you can still queue up, but it'll be easier to get in at other times.
We turned up at the Cromwell Green entrance, off St Margaret Street, about 2pm expecting to queue for the Lords. Instead we were told there was plenty of space in the Commons, handed a laminated green card and sent off to see security.
A note about security: There's 'airport style' security in place to get into the Houses of Parliament. This means your belongings get scanned, you'll need to take off your belt and remove keys from pockets, walk through a scanner and LOL if you think you're bringing that Starbucks latte in with you. Thankfully it doesn't usually take as long as an actual airport.
Once inside, your first port of call is Westminster Hall. This is the oldest part of the Palace complex, finished in 1099. Look at the original timber roof, a marvel of medieval engineering. Shuttlecocks from Henry VIII's time have been found in the rafters. For some reason it always smells a bit like damp dog in there.
Going up the steps at the far end of Westminster Hall and turning left will bring you into St Stephen's Hall. It's on the site of the old Chapel of St Stephen's, which was destroyed along with most of the rest of the building in the 1834 fire. It was used by the House of Commons after the main chamber was bombed in the second world war. These days it's lined with paintings and statues of famous parlimentarians and kings and queens.
Though the other side of St Stephen's Hall is the Central Lobby, which you'll have seen on the news because it's where political journalists shoot their live 'talking to Huw Edwards' bits. It's also full of statues, and the gilded ceiling has to be seen to be believed. If you can see it past the massive chandelier, that is.
It's from the lobby that you peel off to visit either the Commons (to the left) or the Lords (to the right).
The House of Commons
There are a lot of stairs to climb to get up to the Commons public gallery (there's a lift if you need it). Write your name on a little chit, hand it to the staff member (you'll know him or her by the white bow tie, waistcoat and gold insignia at the waist, because nothing says 'Britain' better than ostentatious outfits), and hand in your bag. You can take your phone in to tweet, but put it on silent and you can't take pictures.
The gallery is high up over the chamber, facing the Speaker's chair. There's bulletproof glass reaching up to the roof but it doesn't block the view of the despatch box. You can't really see anything beyond the despatch box — the rest of the seats disappear under the gallery — but there are TV screens which give a nice front-facing shot of whoever's speaking. We forgot to count the seats available (sorry) but we'd guestimate space for maybe 200.
Pro tip: in both chambers you don't need to stay for an entire debate. Walk in halfway through, walk out again five minutes later — the choice is yours.
The House of Lords
The Lords is way, way more elaborate than the Commons. To the point where it's almost ridiculous. There's a fricking throne, for crying out loud (which you'll have seen the Queen using during the State Opening of Parliament). The ceiling is gilded to within an inch of its life, and there's stained glass and statues.
The Lords starts at 3pm and can go on until 10pm (so ideal for popping in after work); if you get there early you'll be waiting on red banquettes off the Central Lobby. You'll be called in groups of four or five; fill in another chit, hand in your bag again (no phones this time) and head into the Strangers' Gallery. There isn't as much seating as in the Commons but there's no glass and you're sat right in among the stonework.
For popular debates, official advice is to arrive an hour early to queue. Which is what we did (see above) — absolutely no need on this occasion.
Pro tip: for both chambers, don't turn up when Parliament is in recess — for obvious reasons.
Watch a Westminster Hall debate or select committee
If you can't be doing with queueing for the main chambers, try going to see another kind of debate. Westminster Hall debates are where MPs can discuss issues in more detail than the Commons might allow. Here are the days and times for the debates and here's where you can find out exactly what's being talked about in which session. We watched 90 minutes about human rights and arms sales to Saudi Arabia; fascinating stuff.
The debates take place in the Grand Committee Room off Westminster Hall. There are seats for around 30 members of the public; chatting to the security guard outside the room we learned that it's rare for them to turn people away — though this is probably because security keeps an eye on numbers coming in. Around 15 people watched the debate we were in. There's no need to hand in any belongings, but put your phone on silent.
You can also watch a select committee. You'll probably have seen these on TV too: they're the ones where senior police officers, captains of industry and Rupert Murdoch get quizzed by MPs. Many take place over the road in Portcullis House, but some still happen in the Palace of Westminster, in rooms off the Central Lobby.
The thing about watching these sessions is that once you're in the building, you're free to wander through all the other public areas — St Stephen's Hall, the Central Lobby, and also pop into the Commons and Lords public galleries if you like. Find out what's happening, when and where.
Pro tip: again, don't turn up when Parliament is in recess because there's nothing on.
Go on a free tour
This is all very well, but if you want to stand in the chambers and see off-limits areas like the Robing Room, as well as learn about the history and secrets of the building, you need to join a tour. You could pay to join one, or if you're a UK resident you can contact your local MP's office. They have limited numbers of tickets for constituents to join the official tours, but for free.
Pro tip: there aren't many of these tickets around and they are very, very popular. Our advice is to be as flexible as you can.
Actually, just walk in
Here's the thing: this is our Parliament. The Palace of Westminster is the home of our democracy. If you're a UK resident, there is absolutely no reason why you can't show up at Cromwell Green with some ID, say you're here to see your MP and walk straight in.
You can try to see your MP if you like: there's a reception desk in the Central Lobby and they will try and contact your MP if you ask. (The likelihood of them being available on spec is slim; if you really want to talk to them, try a constituency surgery session.)
The Houses of Parliament look quite intimidating: big barriers, police on the gates. But we're quite welcome to come in (it might help if you have a reason if asked; but there's nobody keeping tabs to make sure you go into the Lords if that's what you said). Try it: it's an astonishing building, and absolutely free.