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Complete Guide to Big Ben in London

Picture London and you’ll probably picture the famous clocktower known as Big Ben. In this brief but thorough guide, we’ll explain everything you never knew you didn’t know about Big Ben. Then we’ll share some practical information for visiting Big Ben during your trip to London.

Before I go too far in this post, I want to clarify that Big Ben technically refers to only the large bell inside the clocktower.  By extension, many people use the nickname Big Ben for the entire tower. In this post, I too will use the term Big Ben to refer to the whole clocktower.

Let’s get started!

What is Big Ben?

Big Ben is the nickname given to an iconic gothic clocktower in Central London. The clocktower is one of the three main towers at the Palace of Westminster.

The chiming clocktower has four clock faces and houses five bells. The largest bell (known as Big Ben) chimes every hour, while the smaller bells chime every 15 minutes. It is currently the third tallest clocktower in the UK.

The clock itself is renowned for being one of the most accurate clocks in the world, especially notable at the time it was built. In fact, an entirely new mechanism was invented and built for the clock inside Big Ben. This new technology quickly became the gold standard for future clocktowers around the world.

Big Ben is one of the most iconic film locations in UK and is often seen in establishing scenes of films and tv shows set in London.

View of Big Ben from Street

So what is Elizabeth Tower?

The official name of Big Ben is actually Elizabeth Tower. The clocktower itself was previously named “Clock Tower” or “St. Stephen’s tower.” It was renamed Elizabeth Tower in 2012 for the Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth II. It was a fitting honor given that the largest tower is already called Victoria Tower after Queen Victoria.

Why is it called Big Ben?

The nickname Big Ben originally referred to just the largest bell, the Great Bell, which is housed inside clocktower. The bell weighs over 13 tons and was the largest bell in the UK when it was built.

That explains the “Big” but the “Ben” part is open to interpretation. The two most likely Bens for which the bell earned its nickname are Sir Benjamin Hall (an engineer who oversaw the installation of the clocktower) or Benjamin Caunt (a famous boxer at the time).

No one can say for sure how it got its nickname, but the words Big Ben are now known worldwide and associated with this specific, iconic clocktower in London.

View of Big Ben from Parliament Square Garden

When was Big Ben built?

The construction of Big Ben was completed in 1859. The clock first chimed on May 31, 1859.

What is Big Ben used for?

Big Ben was designed for both looks and function. The tower was immaculately designed as an important symbol of the country and democracy itself. But it was also built at time when not everyone was carrying an iPhone, so it served a practical purpose of telling the time as well.

In addition to just displaying the time, Big Ben also indicates when Parliament is in session. In 1873, a light (originally a lantern) was added and it shines when the House of Commons is in session after dark. It could be seen by the Queen in Buckingham palace so she could know when they were at work.

The clock face itself used to also only be lit when Parliament was sitting, but has been illuminated all night since 1876.

Toddler pointing to big ben

What is inside Big Ben?

The inside of Big Ben is primarily utilitarian and just used for clock and chime functions. There is a spiral staircase leading up to the belfry, where the bells and the clock’s mechanical workings can be accessed.

There is one room inside of Big Ben called the Prison Room. It was last used for a prisoner in 1880, and is now used by the Petitions Committee.

How tall is Big Ben?

The clocktower known as Big Ben is 316 feet high. There are 334 steps from the ground to the belfry. It is #22 on the list of tallest clocktowers in the world and the third tallest in the UK.

How long did it take to build Big Ben?

It took about 16 years to build Big Ben. Construction on the clocktower began in 1843 and was not completed until 1859. If you account for the years of planning and design, it was almost 25 years in the making.

Iconic red phone booth near big ben

How much did it cost to build Big Ben?

Construction of the original Big Ben clocktower was surprisingly cheap, costing only about £22,000 in 1859. If you adjust that for inflation, that is roughly the equivalent of £259,600 today. That’s nothing considering the recent renovation cost a cool £69 million, double the city’s original estimate.

Is Big Ben a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

Yes. Big Ben is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was added in 1987.

Is there a Little Ben?

Sure is! There is a miniature version of Big Ben near Victoria Station called Little Ben. It’s not worth going out of our way for, but if you find yourself near Victoria Station, you should definitely pop over and take a peek.

Visiting Big Ben in London

Ready to see Big Ben for yourself? Here are a few things to know to plan a perfect visit to Big Ben.

Where is Big Ben in London?

Big Ben is located in the Westminster area of Central London. The clocktower is part of the Palace of Westminster, which is the meeting place for both houses of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. It’s right across the Thames from the famous London Eye and just east of Westminster Abbey and St. James’s Park.

The official address of Big Ben is London SW1A 0AA, United Kingdom.

How to get to Big Ben

Big Ben is located in Central London near many of the city’s most famous tourist attractions. For that reason, it’s incredibly easy to get to on public transportation.

Big Ben is closest to Westminster station which serves the Circle, District and Jubilee lines of the London Underground train. It’s also walkable from Waterloo and Embankment stations. Several bus lines also converge and stop near Big Ben.

Lastly, the Westminster Pier is nearby and serves the river bus, which stops at several piers along the Thames.

Can you go inside Big Ben?

If you are not a UK resident, you can not go inside Big Ben. There are no tours of Big Ben, no matter how much you’re willing to pay, available to anyone who is not a UK resident.

If you are a UK resident, free tours are usually available but require some work and some waiting. You must first request a tour from a member of Parliament or the House of Lords, and then book your tour for a specific date and time. Tours are usually booked at least six months in advance.

That said, as of this update in April 2023, tours are not currently running at all. Tours were halted in 2017 for the renovation project and have not yet resumed.

How much does it cost to go inside Big Ben?

Tours of Big Ben are technically free, but only available to UK residents. Tours have not yet resumed after construction.

Can you see Big Ben from the street?

The good news is that you don’t need to go inside Big Ben or even inside the Palace of Westminster to have a great view of Big Ben. You can see the exterior of Big Ben for free from the ground. There are great views of Big Ben from the streets, sidewalks and parks around the clocktower.

Best views of Big Ben

  • Westminster Bridge
  • Parliament Square Garden
  • London Eye
  • Red telephone booths on George Street
  • Queen’s Walk between Westminster Bridge and the London Eye

Big Ben as seen from the London Eye

Best time to visit Big Ben

Big Ben is beautiful anytime of day. However, the clocktower is best viewed just before dusk during golden hour. At that time, you can see tower light up but will have enough daylight to see the gold sparkle.

Is Big Ben still under construction?

No. The renovation project on Big Ben that began in August 2017 was completed in April 2022. All of the scaffolding surrounding the exterior of the clocktower has since been removed. She’s a beauty.

How long to spend at Big Ben?

You only need to budget about 15 minutes to see Big Ben. The tower is beautiful, but you don’t need that much time to appreciate it. We suggest gazing at Big Ben after a spin around the London Eye as you walk to St. James’s Park.

Things to do near Big Ben

  • Visit Westminster Abbey
  • Get a cask ale at St Stephen’s Tavern
  • See the guards in front of Buckingham Palace
  • Watch the birds on the Serpentine at Hyde Park
  • Stroll through St. James’s Park
  • Take a spin on the London Eye
  • Walk down the Queen’s Walk on the south bank of the Thames from Westminster Bridge to Waterloo Bridge
  • Board the River Bus from Westminster Pier and ride to Greenwich

Closing Thoughts

Big Ben is something you have to see once while you’re in London. Fortunately, based on its convenient and prominent location in London, it is kind of hard to miss even if you tried.

It’s definitely worth a stop if you’re visiting London with kids. It was surprisingly my toddler’s favorite thing in London and they made us go back three times.

Have you been to Big Ben? What’s your favorite thing to do before or after a viewing of Big Ben? Let me know if the comments.