Tours of Big Ben and Elizabeth Tower
This post is about how to visit Big Ben and Elizabeth Tower, including how you can take a free tour, where it is located, and other sights and activities that are nearby.
Big Ben in London is quite probably the most recognizable clock in the world. Its iconic four-faced chiming clock is the largest in the world and has been ticking since 1859.
Would it surprise you to know that Big Ben is not the real name of this clock tower? Its original name was simply ‘The Clock Tower’. Not exactly memorable, is it?
The clock tower was renamed to the Queen Elizabeth II Tower in honor of the Queen on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee in 2012. The decision was not without controversy as this video shows.
Here’s another shocker. Big Ben, the largest bell inside the Queen Elizabeth II Tower is officially named the “Great Bell”, but nobody calls it that!
We suggest you stick with Big Ben. You might get some strange looks if you asked someone, “How can I get to the Queen Elizabeth II Tower so I can hear the Great Bell?”
So we know where the ‘Big’ comes from just by looking at it! But who is Ben? There are two theories as to where the moniker came from.
Some say it refers to Benjamin Hall, a Member of Parliament who oversaw the installation of the Great Bell and was a rather rotund figure!
Another theory is that it is named after Benjamin Caunt, an English heavyweight boxing champion who was often known as Big Ben himself.
Though we will never know for sure, we do know that Big Ben is a sight to behold when in London.
Usually, there are free tours of Big Ben and Elizabeth Tower. However, tours have been suspended until 2021 to allow for much-needed restoration work.
The work began in August of 2017 and it is estimated that the work will take four years. Parts of the tower will be covered in scaffolding as the work progresses.
In an effort to make visitors less disappointed, there will always be at least one clock face of the Tower visible to the public.
This is not the first time that Big Ben has been hidden from the public. This video has some great historic clips of previous periods of restoration!
How to Request a Free Tour
Once the restoration work is complete and tours are again offered, guests must first request a tour from a member of Parliament or House of Lords.
Second, guests must meet all the criteria listed below:
- All visitors allowed on Elizabeth Tower/Big Ben tours must be UK residents. There are no exceptions to this.
- Visitors must be over 11 years old.
- Visitors must be able to climb all 334 steps unaided without assistance.
- Visitors with heart-related illness or who are in the later stages of pregnancy will not be allowed.
- Visitors must arrive with sensible footwear, or they will be declined their position on the tour.
Tours tend to be sold out for up to 6 months in advance so be prepared to wait a while! More information can be found on the official website.
TIP: To find more things to do in London that won’t cost you a thing, see our post on free things to do in London.
Big Ben is located in the City of Westminster in the heart of London. The nearest Underground Station is Westminster (Circle, District, and Jubilee lines).
You can also access Big Ben from Waterloo Station (Bakerloo, Northern, Waterloo, City, and Jubilee lines).
We recommend that you use this Google map for directions to Big Ben from anywhere in London.
If you are new to traveling on London’s public transport, see our post on using the London Underground.
Click on the image to enlarge
You could also visit with us, Free Tours by Foot. Our free, guided Royal London Tour ends at Big Ben.
We also offer this tour in a GPS-guided audio tour format which you could take any time you wish.
Big Ben is within walking distance of several major historical sights. From Big Ben, you can easily tour the Houses of Parliament.
Also nearby are:
- Buckingham Palace
- St. James’s Palace and the Changing of the Guard
- Westminster Abbey
- 10 Downing St.
- Churchill War Rooms
Right next to Big Ben is Westminster Pier where you can catch several different Thames boat rides and cruises.
The Queen Elizabeth II Tower stands in Westminster, connected to the Palace of Westminster – which is more commonly known as the Houses of Parliament.
After the old Palace of Westminster was lost in a terrible fire in 1834, a new building was designed to sit in its’ place, and hold the new Houses of Parliament.
The design of the new Palace was commissioned to architect Charles Barry. He wanted a clock tower as part of the new palace, but he did not design it himself.
Instead, he asked noted architect August Welby Northmore Pugin for his help in designing the tower and clock.
Pugin designed the tower in his signature gothic revival style. Before he died, Pugin is quoted as saying that his designing and building of the tower was the “hardest [he’d] ever worked in [his] life.”
Big Ben and the Other Bells
The Great Bell (Big Ben) was cast in April 1858 at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry (also responsible for The Liberty Bell in the United States).
It weighs 13.76 tons and was the largest bell in the British Isles until ‘Great Paul’ inside St. Paul’s Cathedral was cast in 1881.
Big Ben is the most famous bell in the tower, but there 4 other bells. he four smaller bells ring every 15 minutes, while Big Ben is only rung at the top of every hour.
A mechanical process triggered by the clock dials raises a hammer which is then dropped onto Ben to make the chimes.
For those wishing to set their clocks, note it is the FIRST chime of Big Ben that marks the exact time.
Times When the Bells Were Not Rung
Although Big Ben has been praised throughout its history for accurately keeping time, including during the Blitz in WWII, the chimes have been silenced on occasion.
- During WWI the clock was silenced for two years, and the clock dials were darkened, to prevent detection by German zeppelin craft.
- On New Year’s Eve 1962 the cold weather actually froze the hands of the clock, causing the pendulum mechanism to fault meaning the New Year was rung in 10 minutes late!
- In 1967 the clock experienced its first – and so far only – break down when the airspeed regulator broke. Over 9 months the chimes were silenced around 26 days for repairs.
- As a mark of respect, the chimes were silenced during the funeral of Winston Churchill. The same protocol was taken during the funeral of Baroness Margaret Thatcher in 2013.
Facts and Figures
- The entire Queen Elizabeth II Tower is 315ft (96m) tall.
- Each clock face stands exactly 180ft (54.9m) off the ground.
- Each dial is nearly 23ft (7m) in diameter.
- Each dial holds over 300 individual pieces of frosted glass.
- The minute hands are each just over 13ft (4.2m) long.
- Despite appearing straight, the Tower actually is tilting 9.1in (230mm) to the north-west.
- Out of 650 MPs, 331 voted to approve the name change of the Clock Tower to the Queen Elizabeth Tower – in reference to the fact that the tower on the other side of Parliament was renamed the Victoria Tower in the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.