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A Guide to the Main Royal Palaces in and Around London

London is a city awash with royal history, and the British Royal family continually capture the imagination of the world. If you’re looking to delve deeper into the inner workings of this unique historical legacy, then a tour of the royal palaces in and around London is the best place to start.

Of course, there are the city’s most famous royal establishments, from iconic Buckingham Palace to the old walls of the Tower of London. But there are many more palaces in London and in the surrounding area that have long and intriguing associations with the Royal family. From the leafy gardens of Hampton Court Palace to the historic defences of Windsor Castle, there’s a lot waiting to be discovered in London’s many palaces.

To help you decide which ones you should visit, here’s our guide to the main royal palaces in and around London.

Buckingham Palace

No guide to London’s palaces would be complete without Buckingham Palace being placed firmly at the top. This is the palace the entire world associates with the British Royal family, because this is the Queen’s official residence in London. The palace dates its origins back to 1703 when it was built for the Duke of Buckingham, but over the years, it was remodelled, redesigned and extended, and became the primary residence of the Royal family, when in 1837 Queen Victoria moved in.

Buckingham Palace, as well as being the Queen’s household, is where many royal events are held including ceremonies and banquets, while every day, visitors congregate outside the gates to watch the elaborate Changing of the Guard ceremony. The guard is changed 11 am Monday to Saturday, while on Sundays the ceremony takes place at 10 am. Get there early for a good spot.

Although the palace itself is off bounds to visitors for most of the year, every summer the doors are opened to the public for short tours through a selection of the stately rooms, but of course, with limited tours and much interest, these sell out extremely quickly. If you aren’t lucky enough to get inside Buckingham Palace, then the view from the outside is still marvellous, while the setting next to glorious St James’s Park and the walk along the Mall is equally wonderful.

buckingham palace
‘Buckingham Palace’ by Jimmy Harris – https://flic.kr/p/4RVae3

Clarence House

Clarence House is a private royal residence, and today is home to the Prince of Wales, the successor to the throne, and the Duchess of Cornwall. Previously, it was the home of the Queen Mother, and of many other notable royal figures since its construction in 1825. Clarence House is found in Westminster and is, in fact, an extension of St James’s Palace, even sharing the same outside grounds.

Unlike St James’s Palace, however, Clarence House can be visited, if only within a short time window each year. During summer, the doors of the house are opened to the public, usually in August. The short tours take visitors through several of the rooms used by the Royal family and even give them a glimpse of the palace grounds. Spaces are extremely limited, and spots are likely to go extraordinarily quickly once the dates are announced and tickets are put on sale each year, so act fast to be able to enjoy a tour of a usually very private royal residence.

The Tower of London

The Tower of London is one of the city’s most recognisable sights, and one of London’s most historic locations. The castle and its extensive grounds, walls and turrets are now all part of an attraction that easily takes an entire day to truly appreciate. The Tower of London was built on the banks of the River Thames by William the Conqueror, during the Norman conquests of 1066. He built it as a way to solidify his rule over London, and over the ensuing years of his reign, he laid the foundations for the White Tower, the most prominent tower to be found today within the fortifications.

The Tower was used as a royal residence by several monarchs through English history. In the brutal medieval era, many dark events occurred with its walls that have given the Tower of London the reputation for blood and torture it has today. It was used as a prison for undesirable nobility and important criminals – including Guy Fawkes – and several infamous figures met their fate here. The Tower of London has served variously as a Royal Mint, a garrison, a zoo and even today, the tower continues to hold the valuable Crown Jewels. Visitors can explore the grounds, the museums, the history and be enthralled by the sight of the distinctive Beefeaters, the lavishly dressed, ceremonial guards of the tower who patrol in their bright uniforms with their tall pikes in hand.

Tower of London
‘Tower of London from Thames’ by August – https://flic.kr/p/mjMHp

Kensington Palace

Kensington Palace dates its origins back to the early 17th century when it was constructed by an English nobleman, before passing into the hands of the monarchy in 1689. Since then, it has been used as a residence by many notable members of the Royal family and today, the current Duke and Duchess of Cambridge live in a house within the Kensington Palace grounds.

The main palace can be toured by visitors, who are allowed to walk through the many lavish, stately rooms all through the week. There are many temporary exhibitions held throughout the year at Kensington Palace, usually of course, with a royal theme that delves into the history of prominent members of the family through history. The main, permanent exhibition is dedicated solely to the iconic figure of Princess Diana and, in particular, her fashion sense. The exhibition is open daily and is called ‘Diana: Her Fashion Story’, and through displays of her clothing and dresses, it traces how her style changed from her early years through to her unfortunate death in 1997. It’s an intriguing insight into the life of one of the most well-known figures in recent royal history.

Hampton Court Palace

Hampton Court Palace was one of the infamous King Henry VIII’s many royal palaces, and today it’s one of the best preserved that still stands from the Tudor days. Found in the borough of Richmond-upon-Thames, a location that was once very much the English countryside but is now surrounded by London’s huge expanse, a visit to Hampton Court Palace makes for an excellent day out.

The palace is no longer a royal residence; the last monarch to live here was King George II in the 18th century. It has a host of different architectural styles, and remnants from the different eras it has seen and the different designs it has undergone along with a wealth of artefacts are on display, from Tudor through to Georgian times. While the rooms and corridors are fantastic to wander around, don’t miss the extensive gardens surrounding the palace. The green, leafy grounds are the site of the famous Hampton Court Maze, which was planted as far back as the 17th century. Many events are held here too, including the Hampton Court Flower Show and spooky ghost tours that allow visitors to delve into the darker history of the palace at night.

Hampton Court Palace
‘Outside Hampton Court Palace’ by Edwin Lee – https://flic.kr/p/oAqyB

Windsor Castle

Windsor Castle is found on the outskirts of the city itself, in the town of Windsor in the county of Berkshire, but is easily reached from London. The castle is an imposing place to visit, and a place that conjures up images of a medieval era long since past, with its towering walls and impressive turrets. Windsor Castle has long been a royal residence and its origins date back to the early years of the Norman conquests when it was built as a simple wooden fort to defend London. Since then it has of course expanded into the huge structure that can be visited today and is still used by Queen Elizabeth II herself, who enjoys spending long weekends away from the city.

The castle is found on the banks of the River Thames, and there are many separate towers and wings to the layout, making it a huge place to enjoy for the day. Not everywhere can be visited of course, as this is still a palace used by royalty, but tourists can enjoy leisurely strolls through the perfectly pruned grounds, admire many of the delicately designed staterooms and even visit St George’s Chapel, where Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were married.

St James’s Palace

Located in the heart of Westminster, St James’s Palace is one of the lasting constructions of Henry VIII. Built in 1536, it was intended to be a small home, a getaway almost from his larger palaces. Although hardly small, the palace is still somehow hidden away from the streets of bustling Westminster and is still officially the highest-ranking royal residence in the country, despite the fact the Queen lives elsewhere, because this is the official headquarters of the Royal Court.

Consequently, the palace is home to many other members of the Royal family, including the Princess Royal, the Queen’s eldest daughter. Because of its current importance and because so many members of royalty reside here, like Buckingham Palace, St James’s Palace is off limits to visitors. The grand Tudor architecture can be seen from outside the gates, however, and is an excellent sight to see. From the gates too, visitors are welcome to observe the traditional Changing of the Guard ceremony. Of course, it’s very similar to the same ceremony that’s held at Buckingham Palace, but at St James’s Palace, it’s a much more intimate affair to observe.

St James's Palace
‘St James’s Palace’ by Paul Robertson – https://flic.kr/p/6nMpiD

Kew Palace

Kew Palace is found within the beautiful grounds of Kew Gardens, to the west of London in Richmond. Although this was once a sprawling royal complex, dating back to the early 17th century, over the centuries its status diminished and today just a fraction of its original buildings have survived. It’s no longer a functioning royal residence, as the last royal to live here was as far back as 1844.

The Dutch House is the main, surviving attraction within the grounds, a grand multi-storied house that has many a royal story to tell. Next to the Dutch House, are the royal kitchens, which have been well looked after, despite the fact that the last time anyone cooked for royalty here was in the 19th century. You can explore the kitchens, as they would have been used over two hundred years ago, a fascinating insight into the daily life of the old royalty who once lived here.

Within the grounds too, can be found Queen Charlotte’s Cottage, a quaint and charming little house that is hidden away in Kew. This little hideaway was meant as a rest stop during long walks in the grounds, and today it can be toured and enjoyed as it would have looked in the late 18th century.

Bushy House

Found in the area of Teddington, around the Richmond area of Greater London, Bushy House is the charming former home of King William IV, who ruled until 1837. The house dates back in some form to the early 17th century when it was built as a house for the chief ranger of Bushy Park – which was a prestigious title to be given – a huge royal park that was formally kept for the sole preserve of the monarchy.

The house was gradually improved and rebuilt over the years and remained the residence of the Bushy Park Ranger. Many royals have held this title though and lived in the house, including the future William IV, who was, in fact, staying here when he received news that his father had died and that he was now the king. After his death, the house changed hands and was even given to exiled French royalty for a time.

Aside from visiting Bushy House, the huge grounds of Bushy Park make for a wonderfully picturesque place to spend the day exploring, with many interesting and historic lodges to visit, as well as the chance to spot deer roaming across the paddocks.

Bushy House
‘Bushy House, Bushy Park’ by Peter C – https://flic.kr/p/7XzRXV

Here at Premium Tours, one of our most popular tours is of the two official residences of the Queen; Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace. If you’re interested in visiting London, do have a look at all of our London tours which can make your visit extra special.

buckingham palace crown

7 Facts About Buckingham Palace That Will Probably Surprise You

Buckingham Palace, administrative headquarters and the official home of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, is one of the most magnificent and iconic symbols of Great Britain.

From its humble beginnings as a mulberry garden and townhouse, it has been remodelled and extended over the centuries to become the most famous working palace in modern times.

But there’s more to this famous British landmark than meets the eye.

Here are 7 facts about Britain’s best-loved palace that will probably surprise you.

1. A Self-Contained Town

The palace is not just home to royalty. There are 800 live-in staff including 2 clock keepers whose job it is to wind up the 350 clocks by hand, a flag sergeant responsible for flying the different flags, and a fender smith to clean and repair the metal fireplace fenders.

The palace has its own post office, ATM, police station, doctor’s surgery, swimming pool, cinema and staff canteen. It even has its own postcode: SW1A 1AA.

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2. Secret Tunnels

It’s believed the palace is built on a labyrinth of secret passageways leading to nearby streets. In fact, the Queen Mother wrote of an episode in her diary, when she and her husband George VI were exploring the tunnels. They met a man named Geordie who lived down there. She describes him as ‘most courteous’.

3. A Persistent Intruder

When Queen Victoria lived in the palace, a teenage boy named Edward Jones was caught sneaking in three times.

He stole food and some pieces of the Queen’s underwear and even claimed to have sat on the throne. He was arrested and sent to Brazil, before escaping and returning to England. He was subsequently transported to Australia where he became a town crier until his death in 1893.

4. Dirty and Freezing

When Queen Victoria first moved to the palace, the windows stuck and ventilation was poor. The chimneys smoked so much the fires were constantly dampened down, so the palace was freezing cold, smelly and dirty.

After his marriage to Victoria, Prince Albert took over the management of the lax and lazy staff, and oversaw the necessary repairs to the design faults.

buckingham palace

5. A Makeshift Operating Theatre

Before his coronation in 1902, Edward VII suffered a near-fatal case of peritonitis. A room overlooking the gardens was transformed into an emergency surgery.

6. Bombed in the Blitz

In a show of solidarity, King George, Queen Elizabeth and their 2 young daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, refused to leave the palace during WWII. The building and grounds suffered nine direct hits during the Blitz of 1940.

Although damage was minimal, the palace chapel was completely destroyed during one attack. It was rebuilt in 1962 to house the Royal Collection Exhibition.

7. Royal Births and Deaths

Of her 9 children, Queen Victoria gave birth to 8 of them at the palace, including Edward VII who also died there.

William IV was also born at the palace, as were 3 of Queen Elizabeth’s children: Charles, Andrew and Edward.

You can find information about all of our London tours here or if you’d like to discuss your visit to London please do get in touch today. Click here for details on getting to Buckingham Palace. 

buckingham palace

The Ultimate Guide to Buckingham Palace

No trip to London is complete without seeing Buckingham Palace: administrative headquarters of the British monarchy, and the official home of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.

From its humble beginnings as a townhouse, Buckingham Palace has been remodelled and extended over the centuries to become an iconic symbol of Great Britain. It’s the most famous present-day working palace in the world.

Who isn’t curious to see inside and get a small glimpse of what’s beyond the famous balcony?

Well, today it’s possible. For the last 24 years, Her Majesty has been allowing public access to her State Rooms between July and October, when she is at her summer residence, Balmoral. The initiative began in 1993 as a way of raising funds to pay for repairs to Windsor Castle after it was ravaged by fire the year before.

There are 19 magnificent State Rooms to discover, all lavishly decorated and adorned with sumptuous furnishings and fine works of art; just as you’d imagine a royal palace to be.

You can combine your State Rooms visit with a guided tour of the beautiful garden and lake if you wish.

If you’re planning to visit Buckingham Palace, this guide will tell you everything you need to know about this historic and iconic royal residence.

buckingham palace

History

Buckingham House

The site where the garden is today began life as a mulberry plantation during the reign of James I. The king wanted to grow mulberries to rear silkworms. However, the wrong type of mulberry trees was planted, so the project failed and was eventually abandoned.

Although it’s not certain when it was built, there’s been a house on the site since the days of Charles I, who granted it to Lord Aston in 1628.

In later years, the Duke of Buckingham took over the tenancy. However, he found the house small and dated, so in 1703 the original building was demolished and a larger townhouse built in its place. It was re-named Buckingham House, in honour of the Duke.

The Queen’s House

The house became a royal residence in 1761 when George III bought it as a private home for his wife, Queen Charlotte. During this time, it was commonly known as the ‘Queen’s House’.

Over the next 5 years, the house underwent drastic remodelling and renovation, including elaborate ceilings painted by Giovanni Battista Cipriani. It was considered the most modern, sophisticated and fashionable residence of its time.

From Townhouse to Palace

George IV extended the house even further. Emotionally attached to his childhood home, he wanted to create a palace fit for a king. Architect John Nash undertook the work and created a U-shape structure.

The project was completed with a triumphal arch in the centre of the forecourt to be used for ceremonial processions. But the renovation costs were considerable, around £500,000! Nash was sacked and replaced by architect, Edward Blore who added the Ambassador’s Entrance on the south side.

Victoria and Albert

The palace became the ‘official’ residence of the British monarchy when Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837. She was the first reigning monarch to live there, along with her beloved husband, Prince Albert.

However, the couple (who ended up having 9 children) complained that the palace was too small to entertain guests and accommodate their ever-growing family.

Edward Blore was recalled to create a new wing on the East side to form a quadrangle, using the funds from the sale of the Brighton Pavilion. The triumphal ‘Marble Arch’ was also moved to allow for the extensions.

marble arch

The most famous inclusion was the construction of the iconic, central ‘balcony’ at Prince Albert’s suggestion. It was from here that Victoria watched her troops leave for the Crimean War, and greeted them on their return.

The refurbished palace was the perfect setting for the lively, cosmopolitan court. Victoria and Albert held lavish costume balls, banquets, concerts, ceremonies and investitures in the State Rooms you can see today.

After the untimely death of her beloved Albert, Victoria plunged into deep mourning. Possibly unable to face the pain of so many blissful memories, she spent less and less time at the palace, preferring to spend most of her days at Windsor Castle instead. When Victoria died in 1901, the palace was beginning to look tired and neglected.

It was revived by Edward VII and his consort, Queen Alexandra. The Ballroom and the Grand Entrance were lavishly decorated in golds and creams to reflect the couple’s extravagant tastes, and the palace, once again, became the centre of court life.

In 1913 during the reign of George V, the soft Caen stone on the east facade was replaced with durable Portland stone, which was more suitable for the wet weather and dirty London air.

During World War II, the palace was bombed 9 times. Although damage was minimal, the palace chapel was completely destroyed after a bombing attack during the 1940 blitz.

To mark the end of the war, on VE day, the Royal Family and the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, greeted the massive crowds in the Mall, from the central balcony. It became the focal point of celebrations and a lasting image of that joyful day.

In 1962, the chapel was rebuilt as the Queen’s Gallery: an exhibition gallery open to the public, which houses over 450 works of art from the Royal Collection.

The Gallery was completely refurbished and expanded in 2002 to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee.

A 21st Century Palace

This year a large-scale project is planned to refit the palace with modern, safety-compliant electric wiring, energy-efficient LED lighting, updated combination boilers and, possibly, solar panels.

Party at the Palace

The most spectacular event ever held at the palace has to be ‘Party at the Palace’ on 3 June 2002, to celebrate the Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee. Who can forget the iconic moment when Brian May opened the event, performing a guitar solo of ‘God Save The Queen’ from the roof of Buckingham Palace?

The ‘Greatest Concert in Britain’ featuring legendary British performers, ended with the largest firework display in London’s history, while images of the Union Flag were projected onto the palace.

Victoria and Albert would have been most amused!

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Interesting Facts

  • Buckingham Palace has 775 rooms, 52 royal and guest bedrooms, 188 staff bedrooms, 92 offices and 78 bathrooms.
  • There are 800 live-in staff, 2 of which are horological conservators, employed to wind up the 350 clocks by hand.
  • The palace has a post office, ATM, police station, doctor’s surgery, cinema and pool. It even has its own postcode.
  • There are 760 windows in the palace, and they are cleaned every 6 weeks.
  • Before Victoria’s marriage, the palace was a fairly unpleasant environment to live in. The windows wouldn’t open, the chimneys smoked and ventilation was bad. Before Albert took hold of the reigns and re-organised the housekeeping, it’s said the staff were lazy and lax, and the palace was dirty and smelly.
  • It takes 5 days to lay the table for a state banquet. Once done, the Queen herself inspects the work.

Tour Highlights

State Rooms

  • The Throne Room: Used for investitures, it’s adorned with red and gold, and dominated by a long walk up to the 2 magnificent thrones. William and Kate had wedding photos taken here.
  • The Music Room: Traditionally used for royal christenings.
  • The Ballroom: The largest room in the palace, it was the first to have electricity installed in 1883. Here you’ll find a U-shaped table laid for a state banquet.
  • The magnificent Grand Staircase: Designed by John Nash.
  • The White Drawing Room: This is considered to be the most beautiful room in the palace. It’s where the Royal Family congregates before official ceremonies.
  • Look out for the Royal portraits through the ages and fine works of art including paintings by Van Dyck, Rubens, Rembrandt and Canaletto.

Royal Gifts Exhibition

The 2017 exhibition held at the Queen’s Gallery is a fascinating display of official gifts from the last 65 years that have been presented to Her Majesty from world leaders, including Eisenhower, Reagan and Nelson Mandela.

Garden Tour

rose garden

The 39 acres of ‘walled oasis in the middle of London’ has over 350 types of wildflowers, 200 trees and a 3-acre central lake. It’s the venue for Her Majesty’s summer garden parties.

During the tour you’ll also get to see:

  • The summer house
  • The rose garden
  • The palace tennis court where George VI played Wimbledon champion, Fred Perry, in 1933
  • The Waterloo Vase, an 18ft high vase carved from Carrara marble and weighing 20 tonnes, which was originally intended for Emperor Napoleon. After his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, the vase was presented to the Prince Regent, later George IV, as a thank you from the Duke of Tuscany.

Pre-booked garden tours are available in April, May and June, and are limited to 25 visitors.

Royal Mews

Open from 1 February to 30 November, the Royal Mews is the finest working stables in existence and where the Queen’s carriage horses are trained and cared for.

Highlights include:

  • The Cleveland Bays and White Windsor Greys that pull the royal carriages during ceremonial processions. Each horse’s name is personally approved by the Queen and is written on their stable door.
  • The Gold State Coach, which has taken every monarch to their coronation since 1821. The opulent coach weighs 4 tonnes and needs 8 horses to pull it.
  • The Glass Coach famously used to transport Lady Diana Spencer to St. Paul’s Cathedral on her wedding day to Charles, Prince of Wales.
  • The fascinating display of livery worn by the Queen’s coachmen, whose look remains much the same as it was in Victorian times.

Changing of the Guard

While you’re at the palace, be sure you don’t miss the ‘changing of the guard’.

These elite soldiers have been protecting the monarch since 1660. The event begins with the Queen’s guards riding horseback from Hyde Park Barracks, past the palace, to change guards at Horse Guard’s Parade.

The procession starts at 11.30 am and lasts 40 minutes. It occurs daily, from April to July, and on alternate days during the rest of the year. It’s extremely popular with tourists, so get there at least 30 minutes before to get a good viewpoint.

buckingham palace guard

Insider Tips

  • If you don’t wish to include the Garden Highlights Tour, you can still see parts of the garden when you exit the palace at the end of the State Rooms Tour. Make sure you wear comfortable shoes though. The visitor route along the garden wall to the exit is a good half- mile walk.
  • On entry to the palace, you have to undergo security screening. Large backpacks and pushchairs must be left at security and picked up before you leave.
  • No photographs or videos are permitted inside the palace, but you can take photographs outside.
  • Toilet and baby-changing facilities are located in the garden at the end of the tour. The State Room Tour takes around 2 to2 ½ hours, so make sure you go beforehand!
  • No eating or drinking is permitted in the State Rooms; however, there’s a very pleasant Garden Cafe with beautiful views overlooking the lawns and lake.
  • The State Room Tour includes a free audio guide, narrated by HRH Prince Charles himself.

Opening Times

22 July 2017 – 31 August 2017      09.30 – 19.30 (last admittance 17.15)

1 September 2017 – 1 October 2017      09.30 – 18.30 (last admittance 16.15)

Ticket Prices

Correct as of May 2017.

State Rooms

Adult: £23.00

Over 60/Student: £21.00

Under 17/Disabled: £13.00

Under 5: Free

Family (2 adults & 3 children under 17): £59.00

Royal Day Out (State Rooms, Queen’s Gallery, Royal Mews)

Adult: £39.50

Over 60/Student: £36.20

Under 17/Disabled: £22.00

Under 5: Free

Family: £100.00

State Rooms, Garden Highlights Tour

Adult: £32.50

Over 60/Student: £30.50

Under 17/Disabled: £19.50

Under 5: Free

Family: £84.50

Getting There

Underground:

Green Park

Hyde Park Corner

St. James’s Park

Victoria

Bus:

Numbers 11, 211, C1 and C10 stop at Buckingham Palace Road

Train/Coach

Victoria

Here at Premium Tours, we offer you the opportunity to visit two royal residences in a single day with our Windsor Castle & Buckingham Place tour. To find out more see our website, or book online for this limited availability tour.