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Countries are generally proud of their political systems and bodies of government. This is often reflected in the grand buildings used to house the focus of the governing body, or the varied agencies thereof. This pride is also reflected in the opening of the legislature, parliament or congress buildings to the public. Whilst buildings are often opened to encourage the electorate to participate in politics, some are also open to foreign visitors. The tradition, history and heritage associated with machinery and operation of Governments worldwide, are of interest to a number of travellers.
This topic introduces some of the significant seats of government and sites of political history which you can explore on your travels. This article does not cover participation in politics, of which travelling to conferences and conventions is part.
Legislatures are at least in theory and usually in practice the law-making bodies of nations. While the origins of law-making assemblies are lost to the mists of time and may well have included councils of wise elders from pre-literate times who left no records for posterity, we do know a good deal about some such bodies from antiquity, such as the Roman Senate. Tynwald, the parliament of the Isle of Man claims to be the longest continuously operating parliament, with a claimed start in 979, although there is little evidence of an exact first sitting date. Another claimant to the title of the world's oldest currently-operating legislature is the Alþingi of Iceland, which was first convened in 930 as both a legislative and judicial assembly, though its legislative role was stripped for several centuries, starting in the late 14th century, and it was not convened at all from 1800 to 1845.
Most current-day legislatures are at least in theory given separate powers and responsibilities from other branches of government, according to a principle called separation of powers, under which legislatures make laws, the executive branch executes them, and the courts (judiciary) rule on competing claims of guilt and innocence and disputes about what the laws do and do not allow. However, the degree of power a legislature has varies over time and place, and also due to different systems of government that may enlarge or constrict these powers.
The United Kingdom's Parliamentary system has had great influence around the world, due in part to the reach of its empire in bygone days. It has a bicameral legislature, meaning that there are two different lawmaking bodies. The House of Commons over time became one that represents all British citizens, whereas the House of Lords represents the nobility and clergy but no longer has much power today. Many other countries have bicameral legislatures, including republics such as the United States, where the upper house is not a house of lords but a Senate, in which each U.S. state has equal representation, regardless of population, whereas the lower house, the House of Representatives, in theory more closely represents the people.
The French Revolution meanwhile produced a rather powerful unicameral legislature which was at times seen as a reason for some of the more radical actions during the revolution. However, France has a bicameral legislature now.
The concept of a loyal opposition, the possibility to publicly and openly oppose government policy without being seen as an enemy of the state, is not respected everywhere, but where it does exist, you can hear sometimes vociferous legislative debates, depending on the political culture of the nation in question. For example, in the United States, legislators are forbidden from attacking colleagues by name on the floor of the House or Senate, and therefore make statements like "the gentleman/gentlewoman from Virginia is wrong". The U.K. often has very entertaining Question Time, during which the Prime Minister or other members of the Cabinet who run ministries in the executive branch but are also themselves MPs (Members of Parliament) must take quite a few pointed questions from opposition MPs, though they are always addressed to the "right honourable gentleman/lady". In the Israeli Knesset, it is quite common for MKs to impugn one another's personal character and loyalty to the country and use personal insults. In Taiwan, fistfights have broken out several times between legislators on the floor of the Legislative Yuan. Legislative debates are often facilitated by respect for the concept of parliamentary privilege, which prevents legislators from being sued or prosecuted for anything said on the floor of the legislature, but in undemocratic governments, the executive branch makes many decisions by itself, treating an "opposition", if any, or even a nominal "legislature" as merely an advisory body at best.
The national capital is where the national government is based. Many countries also have sub-national divisions with their own capital cities, where the local government is based. In federal countries, these sub-national entities usually have a legislature separate from the national legislature. Whether a long established historic city, or purpose built district such capitals contain many associated government buildings and sites of interest to travellers, and which may offer various tours thereof.
Current legislative buildings
- Cape Town, South Africa — Unlike other countries, South Africa has three separate capital cities, each housing a separate branch of government; Pretoria is the executive capital, Cape Town the legislative capital, and Bloemfontein the judicial capital. The Parliament of South Africa is bicameral, consisting of the upper National Council of Provinces, and the lower National Assembly. The Houses of Parliament built in a unique architectural style, incorporating both neoclassical and Cape Dutch architectural features.
- Beijing, China — China's legislature is known as the National People's Congress (NPC) (全国人民代表大会 Quánguó Rénmín Dàibiǎo Dàhuì), and meets annually in the Great Hall of the People (人民大会堂 Rénmín Dàhuìtáng). In addition, China has a political advisory body that meets in the same building known as the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) (中国人民政治协商会议 Zhōngguó Rénmín Zhèngzhì Xiéshāng Huìyì), which functions like the upper house of a bicameral legislature in some respects. With 2,980 delegates, the NPC is the largest legislative body in the world.
- Delhi, India — The Parliament of India is in the Sansad Bhawan (Parliament Building), a circular building designed to resemble the Dharma Chakra, an important symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. India's parliament is bicameral, consisting of the upper Rajya Sabha and the lower Lok Sabha. There is a Parliament Museum located in the Parliament of India Library Building.
- Tokyo, Japan — Japan's National Diet (国会 Kokkai) is a bicamarel legislature, consisting of an upper house known as the House of Councillors (参議院 Sangi-in), and a lower house known as the House of Representatives (衆議院 Shūgi-in). It is based in the National Diet Building (国会議事堂 Kokkai-gijidō), that was completed in 1936 in a hybrid style that combined European and traditional Japanese architectural elements.
- Singapore — The Parliament of Singapore is a unicameral legislature. It is based in the Parliament House, a stately, modern building completed in 1999 that harks back to the architectural styles of the nearby British colonial buildings. While tours are only available for large groups affiliated with schools or other organisations, the general public may watch debates from the public gallery on sitting days.
- Seoul, South Korea — South Korea's legislature is the unicameral National Assembly (국회 Gukhoe). It is based in the National Assembly Proceeding Hall (국회의사당 Gukhoe-uisadang), a modernist building completed in 1975, with the main debating chamber resembling the chamber of the United Nations General Assembly.
- Paris, France — The French Parliament (Parlement français) is a bicameral legislature, with a lower house known as the National Assembly (Assemblée nationale) that is based in the Palais Bourbon, and an upper house known as the Senate (Sénat) that is based in the Palais du Luxembourg.
- Strasbourg, France — The current seat of the European Parliament, even if much of the European Union's executive is based in Brussels, or Luxembourg.
- Berlin, Germany — Rather than having a bicameral legislature, Germany has two separate legislatures, though both work together in a way that resembles bicameral legislatures in other countries. The Bundestag, which serves as Germany's parliament and is directly elected by the people to represent them, is based in the Reichtag building (Reichstagsgebäude). The Bundesrat is appointed by the respective state governments to represent the states, and is based in the Prussian House of Lords (Preußisches Herrenhaus).
- Budapest, Hungary — Hungary's legislature is the unicameral National Assembly (Országgyűlés). The Hungarian Parliament Building (Országház) is regarded by many to be the most beautiful legislative building in the world.
- Reykjavík, Iceland — The Alþingi is Iceland unicameral legislature, and was first convened in an open field in Þingvellir National Park in A.D. 930. In modern times, it is based in the Alþingishúsið, a 19th-century classical building next to Austurvöllur, a public square in central Reykjavík.
- Rome, Italy — The Italian Parliament (Parlamento italiano) is bicameral, with an upper house known as the Senate (Senato) that meets in the Palazzo Madama, and a lower house known as the Chamber of Deputies (Camera dei deputati) that meets in the Palazzo Montecitorio.
- The Hague, Netherlands — Although Amsterdam is the official capital of the Netherlands, The Hague is the de facto seat of the Dutch government. The The Dutch legislature is known as the States General (Staten-Generaal), and consists of an upper Senate (Eerste Kamer) and a lower House of Representatives (Tweede Kamer). The States General has housed in a complex of buildings known as the Binnenhof since the 15th century, making them among the oldest legislative buildings still in use today.
- Oslo, Norway — Norway's legislature is the unicameral Storting (Stortinget). It is based in the Storting Building (Stortingsbygningen), which was built in an eclectic architectural style, with the plenary chamber being located in a semi-circular section in the front of the building.
- Lisbon, Portugal — Portugal's legislature is the unicameral Assembly of the Republic (Assembleia da República). It is housed in the Neoclassical São Bento Palace (Palácio de São Bento).
- Bucharest, Romania — The Parliament of Romania (Parlamentul României) is bicameral, consisting of the upper Senate (Senat) and the lower Chamber of Deputies (Camera Deputaților). It is housed in the Palace of the Parliament (Palatul Parlamentului), an imposing and ornate structure that is the largest legislative building in the world. Its construction was ordered by communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1978, and commenced in 1984, with four entire neighbourhoods demolished to make way for it. Though construction was intended to be completed in two years, the structure was only finished 1997 after the fall of communism, and the construction of many of its rooms are still nowhere close to completion. The basement was designed as a bomb shelter than can withstand a nuclear attack.
- Madrid, Spain — The Cortes Generales is the bicameral legislature of Spain. The upper house, the Senate (Senado) is based in the Palace of the Senate (Palacio del Senado), while the lower house, the Congress of Deputies, is based in the Palacio de las Cortes.
- Stockholm, Sweden — The legislature of Sweden is the unicameral Riksdag (riksdagen). It is housed in the Parliament House (Riksdagshuset), a neoclassical structure that incorporates some baroque revival elements.
- Bern, Switzerland — The Federal Assembly of Switzerland is based in the Federal Palace. It is bicameral, with the lower National Council popularly elected to represent the people, and seats allocated to the cantons based on their respective populations. The upper house, known as the Council of States, represents the cantons, with most cantons being assigned two seats regardless of their population. As members of the legislature are permitted to speak in either German, French or Italian, you will hear all three languages being spoken while it is in session, and all federal politicians are expected to be reasonably competent in all three languages. Switzerland is also a direct democracy, meaning that the people are given the power to call for referendums to pass or overturn laws, or even make constitutional amendments against the wishes of the legislature.
- Westminster, London, United Kingdom — The 'Mother of all Parliaments' is based in the Palace of Westminster. The lower house is known as the House of Commons, and is popularly elected to represent the common people. The upper house is known as the House of Lords, and is appointed by the monarch and the Church of England to represent the clergy and nobility. Parliamentary sessions may be watched by members of the public from the Strangers' Gallery in both houses. Members of the public may tour the Houses of Parliament on Saturdays, and on weekdays when they are not in session.
- Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own devolved legislatures in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast respectively. England does not have a similar body of its own, with the British Parliament serving as the legislature for both England and the wider United Kingdom.
- Some local government (city and county councils) headquarters are in impressive buildings and have regular or occasional tours.
- Ottawa, Canada — The parliament is a beautiful Gothic revival set of buildings, located on Parliament Hill and began in 1859. Canada's parliament is based on the British Westminster model, with a lower House of Commons that is popularly elected to represent the people, and an upper Senate that is appointed by the governor-general on the advice of the prime minister to represent the provinces. Free tours are available.
- Each province and territory also has its respective capital city, with a parliament building to house the provincial legislature.
- Capitol Hill, Washington D.C., United States — The United States Congress is based in the Capitol Building, for which there are free tours that must be booked in advance. The lower house is known as the House of Representatives, and officially represents the people. It is popularly elected with the number of seats allocated to each state based on its population, and a minimum of one seat per state; a more populous state will therefore generally have more seats than a less populous state. The upper house is known as the Senate, and officially represents the states. It is also popularly elected, but with each state being assigned two senators regardless of its population. Members of the public may watch both houses while they are in session from the visitors' gallery, though this must be arranged in advance through your representative or senator.
- Each state also has its own capital city, with a corresponding state capitol to house the state legislature, while the District of Columbia also has its own legislative body known as the Council of the District of Columbia that is housed in the John A. Wilson building on Pennsylvania Avenue.
- Canberra, Australia — The parliament is an impressive 4,700-room building opened in 1988. Australia's parliament follows a hybrid model mainly based on the British Westminster system, but with some influences drawn from the U.S. Congress. The lower house is the House of Representatives, and is popularly elected to represent the people, with seats allocated to each state based on its population. The upper house is the Senate, and is popularly elected to represent the states, with each state being allocated an equal number seats regardless of its population. Parliament is open daily, and visitors can wander around a large part of the building.
- Each state and territory also has its own capital city, with a parliament building to house the state parliament.
- Wellington, New Zealand — The parliament is housed in three buildings built in 1899, 1922 and 1977, the latter of which is an iconic building known as the "beehive". It is based on the British Westminster system, but has only one house; the House of Representatives. The upper house, known as the Legislative Council, was abolished in 1951. Parliamentary buildings may be visited on free guided tours. Afterwards eat in the Backbencher pub, with political themed dishes and regular visit from politicians.
- Buenos Aires, Argentina — Argentina's legislature is the Congress of the Argentine Nation (Congreso de la Nación Argentina). It consists of an upper Senate (Senado) and a lower Chamber of Deputies (Cámara de Diputados). It is based in the Palacio del Congreso, a beautiful and ornate neoclassical building that took about 50 years to complete.
- Brasilia, Brazil — The National Congress of Brazil (Congresso Nacional do Brasil) is bicameral, with an upper house known as the Federal Senate (Senado Federal) and a lower house known as the Chamber of Deputies (Câmara dos Deputados). Both houses are based in the Palácio Nereu Ramos, which was built in 1960 in the Brazilian modernist architectural style.
- Montevideo, Uruguay — Uruguay's legislature is the bicameral General Assembly (Asamblea General), comprising of the upper Senate (Cámara de Senadores) and the lower Chamber of Representatives (Cámara de Representantes). It is housed in the neoclassical Legislative Palace (Palacio Legislativo).
- Þingvellir National Park, Iceland — Original site of Iceland's legislature, the Alþingi, one of the claimants to being the oldest legislative body in the world, which in its original incarnation also served as a judicial body. There is no building on the site as meetings took place in an open field. The current version of the Alþingi meets at Parliament House, built 1880-81, in Reykjavik.
- Forum Romanum, Rome (or what's left of it)
- Athens Agora (or what's left of it)
- Paulskirche Frankfurt am Main (site of the 1848 revolutionary parliament)
- West Germany was governed from Bonn during partition (1949-1990) and the government only officially moved in 1998, with some institutions still having second seats in Bonn. It is perhaps unique in having well preserved government buildings in a wealthy and powerful nation that are not in use any more. The 1 Kanzlerbungalow. Kanzlerbungalow, the former residence of chancellors (including Brandt, Adenauer and Kohl). Can be visited on guided tours
- The perpetual imperial diet at Regensburg was in session almost continuously from 1663 to 1803 and while in no way representative or democratic was one of the longest lived pre-parliamentary bodies in Continental Europe. The old city hall in Regensburg still contains the room where most sessions were held
- Sometimes, visitors can watch a debate in progress from a public gallery (called the Strangers' Gallery is many Commonwealth countries). This may be restricted to those in the local electorate or may require advance booking.
- If you are visiting your own capital, you may get better access to facilities if you contact the office of your elected representative in advance.
- There are often airport-style security checks at the entrance to major government buildings. Random bag and other security checks once inside are also common.
- Government buildings may attract protesters. Usually these protests are peaceful, despite the passionate viewpoint on the many issues being protested, and have little impact on those visiting the buildings. However this is not always the case and foreigners should also be cautious of any interactions with protesters in countries where this may make them a subject of interest to the local police or other authorities.
- As a visitor, remember you are a guest, and respect for the opportunity offered is encouraged. Inappropriate behaviour is likely to reflect badly not just on you, but affect what access is granted to subsequent visitors. In some places, even a wrong word about certain political factions or issues might land you in trouble.
- Spend a little time studying the history and politics of the country you are visiting before going on a tour of government buildings. This will increase your understanding of the tour. Some of this information can be determined from the relevant country articles.
- Government buildings are places of serious work, so whilst you don't need to dress for a business meeting, you may want to wear something smarter than you would on the beach.
- Whether or not you agree with the security theater often present at such places, they are high-value targets of terrorism and political violence. Tours may also be changed or cancelled on short notice or no notice at all.
- For related security reasons, tours of some locations or facilities may also be of limited availability, such as only to residents or citizens of a relevant country.