The political heart of the city lies between parliament (the seat of government) and Buckingham Palace (the London residence of the Queen, the head of state). In between are government ministries, laid out along Whitehall and St James’s Park. Across from the Palace of Westminster, as the Houses of Parliament are more properly called, is Westminster Abbey, final resting place of the ‘great and good’. The area is not devoid of culture either; the grand National Gallery and Tate Britain are nearby.
The focal point for all this politicking and power is Parliament Square, flanked by Westminster Abbey and the Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament). The clock tower is often erroneously called Big Ben, which is properly the name of the large bell that hangs inside. The exterior of the 13th-century Gothic abbey has been greatly remodelled over the years and the inside is cluttered with the many tombs of monarchs, politicians, scientists, writers, artists and musicians.
The wide boulevard lined with imposing government buildings that runs north from Parliament Square turns into Whitehall beyond the Cenotaph war memorial. Between the Treasury and Foreign Office (the first two buildings on the left) is King Charles Street, location of the Cabinet War Rooms. The next road, gated and guarded, is Downing Street, home, at No. 10, to the Prime Minister and, at No. 11, to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Beyond Downing Street, and also off to the left, is Horse Guards’ Parade, site of the annual Trooping of the Colour.
At the top of Whitehall is Trafalgar Square, laid out on the site of of the old royal mews in 1820–45 by John Nash and Charles Barry. Its centrepiece is Nelson’s Column, a 175ft (53.6m) homage to the admiral.
Overlooking the square is the long facade of the National Gallery, while around the corner is the more discreet entrance to the great collection at the National Portrait Gallery. Just opposite is James Gibbs’ lovely church, St Martin-in-the-Fields.
Leading off the southwest corner of Trafalgar Square is The Mall, the road that leads down to the Queen’s London residence, Buckingham Palace. It is not the most architecturally distinguished palace in Europe but the royal cachet still draws the crowds, especially for the Changing of the Guard. To the north and east of the palace are Green Park and charming St James’s Park. Lining The Mall, at the north end of St James’s Park, is an elegant row of buildings that house the avante-garde ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts).
Running parallel to The Mall is its companion, Pall Mall (named after a ball game popular in the 17th century). It is home to a number of gentlemen’s clubs, of the classic leather armchair and afternoon snooze variety, including the Athenaeum, Reform and Royal Automobile clubs (all members only). At the western end of the road is St James’s Palace, for centuries the seat of the royal court (though it is now considered to sit wherever the Queen is residing). Between Pall Mall and Piccadilly is Jermyn Street, a bastion of tradition with several exclusive shops, especially ‘gentlemen’s outfitters’, and art galleries.
To the west of Westminster is Pimlico, a generally wealthy residential area. It is enlivened by the superb collections of British art, including several Turners, at Tate Britain. To the north of the Tate, just off Victoria Street in guesthouse-dominated Victoria, where the city’s main coach station is based, is the neo-Byzantine Westminster Cathedral, England’s major centre of Catholic worship.