So we’ll never be royal, but visiting Buckingham Palace has got to be the next best thing. As one of the world’s best-known tourist attractions, it’s a must-see if you’re in London for a city break. But a trip to the Queen’s pad is much improved if you plan when you’re going in advance. The palace and its park are spectacular, but you won’t even get a peek inside without booking a tour, and these normally only take place in August and September when the Royal Family aren’t at home. And don’t just turn up hoping to catch the Changing of the Guards either, as that only happens once every other day for more than half the year. In fact, fail to plan your trip with military precision and you could find yourself poking your nose through the iron gates alongside thousands of Union Jack-waving tourists.
As you might expect, Queen Elizabeth II’s official London residence is not exactly a new-build. In fact, the site has a royal history stretching back 500 years to King James I’s reign, when the monarch tried (unsuccessfully) to set up a mulberry plantation for rearing silkworms in what’s now the Buckingham Palace Gardens. Buckingham House saw its first royal inhabitants in 1761 when King George III acquired the whole site. But it only became the spectacular palace we know today after a radical transformation by George IV. He hired architect John Nash to get it looking like a proper residence fit for a King. Or Queen, even - seeing as Victoria was the first sovereign to rule from here in 1837.
Now the palace is the headquarters of the monarchy - and one of the few remaining working royal palaces in the world today. With more than 800 members of staff, it’s a busy place, and has its own post office, cinema, swimming pool, doctor's surgery and jeweller's workshop. The palace even employs two people whose full-time jobs are to wind all 350 of the palace’s clocks and watches.
To get your Royal visit off to the best possible start, why not book into a Premier Inn near Buckingham Palace? It’s great if you’re there for a special event, like Trooping the Colour or the State Opening of Parliament, as it means you’ll be able to have a leisurely breakfast followed by a short stroll to nab the best viewing spot on the Mall.
If you’re visiting the Palace on a tour, there are no toilets until you get to the very end (and they normally have massive queues) so make sure you go to the bathroom before you go in.
Going to the Palace for a tour? Here’s all the essential information you need.
There are airport security-style checks in place before you get into the Palace, so don’t take a big bag or you’ll be there for a while. Wear shoes you can walk in, too, as the visitor route includes a half-mile walk through the garden. Pushchairs can’t be taken into the Palace, either, so wear a baby-carrier if possible.
After your tour, a reviving visit to the Palace’s Garden Cafe is a must. Sit down for afternoon tea, sandwiches and cake, safe in the knowledge that most of the food is sourced from the Queen’s Estate. Situated on the West Terrace, it overlooks the beautiful rolling lawn and lake. The Garden Café closes at 17:45.
The Garden Shop offers a wide range of exclusive royal goodies. Like most London gift shops it’s not cheap, but there’s loads of thoughtful gifts to buy, from homeware and china to toys and clothing. It’s easy to spend a small fortune but, if you really go to town, there’s a home-delivery service available to anywhere in the UK.
The Palace tour is fully accessible, although for step-free access you’ll need to use a different entrance which can only be booked in advance. There are wheelchairs available for hire, disabled toilet facilities at both the beginning and end of the tour and golf buggies to ensure that no one misses out on the half-mile garden walk.
Here’s all the information you need to make your day trip to Buckingham Palace the jewel in the crown of your London city break.
Changing of the Guards
Immaculate guards marching in time to stirring music and drums make the Changing of the Guard one of London's most popular attractions. This ceremony dates back to 1689 and represents a formal handover of monarch-guarding responsibilities. It takes place at 11.30am at Buckingham Palace, every day between April and July, and on alternate days between August and March. The Old Guard line up in front of the palace and are relieved by the New Guard who march in from nearby Wellington Barracks, accompanied by a band or Corps of Drums. Make sure you arrive by 10.30am to get a good spot. To beat the crowds, you could watch from Wellington Barracks - the New Guard leave there at 11am.
Want a peek inside the Palace itself? You’ll need to book a tour. Only available in August and September when the Royal Family are away, to see everything on a combined ticket (called a Royal Day Out) costs about £40 for a full-paying adult. But it’s well worth it. On your two-and-a-half hour self-guided visit you’ll take in The Queen's Gallery (which shows a different exhibition of paintings from the Royal Collection each year), then visit the Royal Mews (the Palace’s working stables and home to the beautiful Diamond Jubilee State Coach). Highlight of the day has to be the 19 magnificent State Rooms, normally used for entertaining and packed with royal treasures. You’ll end your tour with a walk in the garden, where you’ll glimpse the famous lake.
Trooping the Colour
If you’re in London in the summer, you may be lucky enough to catch the Trooping of the Colour. Every year in June, more than 1,400 officers and 400 musicians from the Massed Bands of the Household Division take part in the ceremony to mark the Sovereign's official birthday. You can buy seated tickets to the main event in Horse Guard’s Parade, but you could just turn up and watch the parade for free. Head to the Mall, but try to get as close to Buckingham Palace as you can. Events begin when the Queen leaves the Palace at 10am. There’s also two full dress rehearsals - the first (called The Major General's Review) takes place about two weeks before the actual Birthday Parade, while the second (The Colonel’s Review) is usually one week before the main event.
State Opening of Parliament
If pomp and ceremony is your thing, the State Opening of Parliament is not to be missed. Dating back to the 14th Century, the ceremony takes place on the first day of a new parliamentary session or just after a general election - and it’s spectacular. The Queen leaves Buckingham Palace in a horse-drawn carriage and heads through the streets of London to the Houses of Parliament. The parade, led by a 100-strong Guard of Honour from the Foot Guards, is accompanied by military bands. Thousands of people come to watch, so if you want a good viewing spot, you’ll need to get there early. Turn up before 10am and head for the Mall for a great view of the carriage procession as it leaves Buckingham Palace. And pick the right-hand side of the road, as the Queen always sits on the right hand side of the coach.
If tea and cake at the Palace isn’t your thing, there are plenty of places nearby, whether you want a meal for a special occasion, or just a pint in an old-fashioned boozer.
If it’s a special occasion (perhaps you’re at the Palace to pick up your OBE!) you can’t beat a meal in the one Michelin-starred Goring Dining Room. Nestled in the salubrious surroundings of the five-star Goring Hotel you’ll be treated to a feast of all things British - from Romney Marsh lamb to fish from the Cornish coast. The dining room’s beautiful, full of twinkling lights provided by Swarovski crystal chandeliers. And although not cheap, The Goring’s not eye-wateringly expensive - they do a two-course pre-theatre menu from about £25.
If wandering around a palace steeped in history has whetted your appetite for all things traditional, what you need now is a pint at a pub that hasn’t changed much since Victorian days. The Albert is about a ten-minute walk from the Palace on Victoria Street, but well worth the legwork. Grade II-listed, it has a striking facade and a very ornate interior, all of which managed to escape the Blitz, which destroyed many surrounding buildings. Although it serves a wide range of drinks, it’s the beer that brings people here - from real ale to craft.
If a horse-drawn carriage or chauffeur-driven Bentley is out of the question, public transport is your next best option. Or you could just save yourself the hassle by booking into a Premier Inn near Buckingham Palace instead. There are several just a short walk away - so getting your trip off to a great start won’t cost you a King’s ransom, either.
Being right in the centre of town (and in the middle of the congestion charging zone), Buckingham Palace isn’t the easiest of places to park at. There are private car parks nearby, or you may get lucky and find a metered parking bay on a backstreet nearby. The postcode for your satnav is SW1A 1AA.
By tube and bus
Bus numbers 11, 211, C1 and C10 all stop on Buckingham Palace Road. There are also several Underground stations a short distance away. Victoria is a ten-minute walk away, or for a nicer walk, you could take the Tube to Green Park and enjoy a nice downhill stroll towards the Palace.
By train and coach
Buckingham Palace is just a 10-minute walk away from London Victoria, where you can get trains from suburban London stations and places further afield, like Brighton and Dover. The coach station is not far from here and is used by National Express coaches serving locations UK-wide.
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