London makes it almost impossible for tourists to ignore British Royalty. After all, there are royal parks, royal parades, royal monuments, and, of course, royal palaces.
Some palaces, such as Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace, are official royal residences, although certain areas are open to visitors. Others are former royal residences—these include the Tower of London and Hampton Court Palace—that have been conserved and maintained to show Britain’s historic past.
Some of the fun of visiting these London sites is jumping back in history and imagining what life was like, both the glorious and the gory parts. Another pleasure is to enjoy the pomp and circumstance (think: the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace) that the British do so well.
Let’s take a quick look at some of the royal lodgings in and around London.
Ever since William the Conqueror crossed the Channel, won the Battle of Hastings, and built his fortress abode, the monarchy has called London home.
Tower of London
The 900-year-old Tower of London (greatly expanded since William’s time) is chock-full of British history and heritage. Now home to the British crown jewels, the Tower of London is a former royal residence, royal prison and royal execution site and well worth a visit. Learn why ravens have been kept here since Charles II in the 17th century, about Traitors Gate and Bloody Tower with more pictures and history of the Tower of London
Buckingham Palace is the Queen’s official London residence. King George III bought what was then Buckingham House in 1761. George and the next two monarchs mostly considered it a pied-à-terre, although one that they kept enlarging. Queen Victoria moved to Buckingham Palace in July 1837 and the monarchy has called it “home” since then.
The often-seen Victoria Memorial is located in the center of the Queen’s Garden facing the Palace’s east front. Built by Sir Thomas Brock in 1911 has a large statue of Queen Victoria facing The Mall, three painted bronze statues and Victory on the pinnacle. You no longer have to be a head of state or a visiting dignitary to gain entry to the Palace. Two parts of the Palace—the Queen’s Gallery and the Royal Mews—are open daily to paying visitors.
The British monarchy has one of the largest art collections in the world. The Queen’s Gallery displays some of the collection’s paintings, statues, porcelains, jewelry, fans, and other objects d’art. Some masterpieces are on permanent display while other parts of the collection are shown in rotating exhibitions.
The Royal Mews houses the Crown’s collection of coaches and carriages along with the horses that pull them. A special combination ticket lets you visit the Queen’s Gallery and the Royal Mews at a discounted price. During August and September, when the Royal Family traditionally stays at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, visitors may tour the Palace’s state rooms and gardens. Tickets for all Buckingham Palace activities may be purchased online.
Windsor Castle, another River Thames stronghold that dates back to William the Conqueror, is also an official royal residence, often favored as a weekend retreat. When the castle is open, visitors can see the state apartments (decorated with pieces from the Royal Collection), St. George’s Chapel, and Queen Mary’s dolls’ house. More pictures and history of Windsor Castle on citysightseeingtours.com
Windsor Castle’s opening schedule and ticket information is available online. Windsor is 21 miles west of London and accessible by train, bus or coach trip/day tour.
Hampton Court Palace
Hampton Court Palace is located in Richmond (south west London) on the River Thames. The land and manor house belonged to Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York, Roman Catholic Cardinal, and a chief minister to King Henry VIII. The King was not pleased when the Cardinal failed to persuade the Pope to give Henry a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Wolsey “gave” (relinquished might be a better word) the property to the King in 1528.
Today, Hampton Court is an eclectic mix of Tudor and English Baroque architecture. For example, with no historic preservation rules in place, King William and Queen Mary had Sir Christopher Wren pull down some of King Henry’s additions and put up a new wing. Architectural purists are advised to grit their teeth and enjoy the history and lovely grounds as commoners have been doing since 1838, when Queen Victoria opened Hampton Court to the public.
Visitors have a lot to see both inside and out. Manage your visit so that you can see Hampton Court’s Great Hall, the Chapel Royal, the Tudor kitchens, and the richly decorated chambers, leaving time to stroll through 60 acres of various gardens, enjoying the man-made lake, the great vine (planted in 1768 and still producing black grapes), and the royal tennis court. Your visit is not complete without getting lost in the hedge maze.
The Changing of the Guard
Just as Christopher Robin and Alice did in A.A. Milne‘s poem, lots of visitors go to Buckingham Palace to view the Changing of the Guard. With British precision and punctuality, the ceremony begins at 11:30 a.m. daily from April to July, and every other day from August through March. Music plays, officers bark orders, and the soldiers (40 when the Queen is in residence and 31 when she is not) march back and forth, and back and forth.
The waiting (some people arrive hours in advance to stake out a good place) and the crowds can make it a difficult morning for young children. Note that “very wet weather” will cancel the ceremony. Should you merely wish to photograph one of the Queen’s Guards up close, go to nearby St. James’s Palace (which is not open to the public) where a ramrod-straight and motionless sentry stands on duty.
Another picture-taking opportunity occurs daily when the Queen’s Life Guards travel on their horses from Hyde Park Barracks to Horse Guards’ Parade (Monday-Saturday at 11 a.m., Sunday at 10 a.m.).
Those who want to learn more about the five foot regiments and the two cavalry regiments that guard the British Monarch and the royal palaces are encouraged to visit the Guards Museum, located in Wellington Barracks (near Buckingham Palace).