Big Ben, or more accurately the Elizabeth Tower, is one of London’s most famous landmarks. Recognisable all over the world, it’s one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations.
Have you ever wondered though what it’s like to go inside? What would it be like to experience climbing to the top and standing next to the bells as they ring? I took one of the behind-the-scenes tours recently to find out!
How to book a Big Ben tour
Until quite recently, getting a tour inside Big Ben was only available to UK residents. It also took some effort to arrange. However, since the project to renovate Big Ben was completed in 2023, Big Ben is now open to the public.
Tickets for the Big Ben tour can be booked online directly from the UK Parliament website. These can be booked by anyone, and are available to non-UK residents as well. Because of this they sell out very quickly, so you do need to book some time in advance.
Tickets are released to the public on the second Wednesday of every month at 10:00am UK time. The slots are offered for tours scheduled for 3 months ahead, so if you booked in December, you’d get slots in March. There are up to 6 tours a day, with the earliest starting at 10 a.m. and the latest at 5 p.m. If you can see dates showing as available but you see a request for a voucher code, it means this date/time isn’t available to the public.
The link to book tickets is here.
The Big Ben tour
It’s recommended that you arrive at least 30 minutes before the start time of your tour.
When you arrive at the Houses of Parliament, you’re first allocated a visitor’s pass. Next is the airport-style security checks. Depending on how busy it is, it can take up to 30-45 minutes to go through security. The queue starts outside the building, so bear this in mind if it’s wet or cold. You can read more about what items are restricted here.
Once you pass through security, you are directed into the enormous Westminster Hall where you check in to the tour. Look out for the Big Ben Tour banner to make sure you’re in the right spot. Here you’ll also be asked to put your belongings into a locker. Photos aren’t allowed on the tour, so you’ll have to leave cameras and phones behind too.
Toilets are available at the start and end of the tour in Westminster Hall, but there aren’t any inside the tower itself. There’s also a gift shop there too.
The Big Ben tours are limited to a maximum of around 15 or 16 people, so although it’s not particularly spacious inside the tower, it doesn’t feel that crowded.
Once everyone is gathered and signed in, the guide leads your group across the courtyard outside towards the tower. You then walk through an innocuous looking wooden door next to a small road. This is the one and only entrance to the Elizabeth tower.
The tour begins in a small room just inside the entrance to the tower. Once everyone is seated, the guide gives some details about what you’ll be seeing on the tour.
Climbing the Elizabeth Tower
Once the introduction is done, the tour begins and you start climbing.
You’ll be climbing a lot of stairs, so it’s advisable to wear sensible shoes. There are 334 in total to the top of the tower. Don’t worry though – the climb is done in stages so you do get a chance to recover. Unlike the uneven stairs you find in some old towers, the stairs in the Elizabeth Tower are easy to climb. There’s also a solid handrail to assist if needed.
Once you reach the first stage, after climbing 114 of the 334 steps, you’re able to sit down and catch your breath. Here the guide tells you some facts about Big Ben.
Then it’s back to the stairs, and you head up a few more stories to the 4th stage. Here you get to sit down again and learn more facts about how Big Ben was designed and built.
Big Ben in action
The next stop is after 290 steps and is one of the highlights. This is the Mechanism room where you get to see the heart of Big Ben. It’s an impressive sight, looking at this complex system of cogs and steel ropes ticking away and moving almost imperceptibly. The tour is timed so that you’ll be in there when the bells ring at 45 minutes past the hour, and you get to see the mechanism in action. You may also get to see one of the old pennies used to keep the clock in time.
It’s quite an experience to see and feel the clock in action. As the bells ring, there’s a lot of mechanical clanking and whirring and you can feel the vibrations through the floor.
You’re almost at the top of the tower now, and after climbing another 40 or so stairs you enter the Belfry. This is a pretty special moment! You’re now within touching distance of the 5 bells, including the 13-ton bell known as Big Ben. At this point you need to put in your ear plugs (handed out earlier on the tour) as you are just moments away from the bells ringing on the hour.
It’s an incredible experience to see the hammers strike the bells, and feel and hear them ring. It’s very loud, and you can feel the vibrations through your whole body as the bells ring out across London.
Behind the dials
The tour then moves down a couple of stories and the next stop is a walk behind the four clock faces. This tour literally does take you behind the scenes.
After this, you begin the descent back down the stairs although there’s one final stop on the way down. At this stop on the second floor you’ll get to find out more about the restoration as well as giving your legs a chance to recover.
Is it worth doing a Big Ben tour?
Overall, it’s an amazing experience and if you’re lucky enough to be able to get tickets I’d definitely recommend it. The tour takes about 90 minutes and is timed so you’ll be right in the middle of things when the bells ring. As well as seeing behind the scenes of this iconic London landmark, you’ll also get to learn about the history of the tower and its recent restoration.
Tip – if you want to get the most bongs for your buck, try to book a morning tour. You’ll get to experience 10 or 11 bongs instead of 1 or 2 if you book early afternoon.
Houses of Parliament tour
Once you get back to Westminster Hall, you’re able to swap your security pass for another one that allows you to explore some of the Houses of Parliament. You can even watch a debate from the public viewing gallery if parliament is in session. If you have the time it’s well worth having a wander even if you aren’t booked on a Houses of Parliament tour.
All you need to know
Dates: Book 3 months in advance online
Times: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. depending on availability
Nearest Station: Westminster
Cost: £25 (adult), £10 (child aged 11 or over)
Tour Duration: 90 minutes