The doors of the monarch's official residence are only open to the public in August and September, when the Queen heads off to Scotland on her annual summer holiday. (Want to know if the Queen's at home? If she's in residence the Royal Standard flies above the palace; if not, it's the more famous red, white, and blue Union Flag.) The standard tour covers the palace's 19 State Rooms, with their fabulous gilt moldings and walls adorned with old masters.
The Grand Hall, followed by the Grand Staircase and Guard Room, are visions in marble and gold leaf, filled with massive, twinkling chandeliers. Don't miss the theatrical Throne Room, with the original 1953 coronation throne, or the sword in the Ballroom, used by the Queen to bestow knighthoods and other honors with a touch on the recipient's shoulders. Royal portraits line the State Dining Room, and the Blue Drawing Room is dazzling in its splendor. The bow-shape Music Room features lapis lazuli columns
between arched floor-to-ceiling windows, and the alabaster-and-gold plasterwork of the White Drawing Room is a dramatic statement of wealth and power.
Changing the Guard remains one of London's best free shows and culminates in front of the palace. Marching to live military bands, the old guard proceeds up the Mall from St. James's Palace to Buckingham Palace. Shortly afterward, the new guard approaches from Wellington Barracks. Then within the forecourt, the captains of the old and new guards symbolically transfer the keys to the palace.
If bought directly from the palace ticket office, tickets are valid for a repeat visit over the course of 12 months from the first visit.
Admission is by timed ticket with entry every 15 minutes throughout the day. Allow up to two hours.
A Royal Day Out ticket, available only in August and September, gives you the regal triple whammy of the Royal Mews, the Queen's Gallery, and the State Rooms, and is valid throughout the day. Tickets cost £33.25. Allow four hours.
Get there by 10:30 to grab a spot in the best viewing section for the Changing the Guard (www.changing-the-guard.com), daily at 11:30 from May until the end of July (varies according to troop deployment requirements) and on alternate days for the rest of the year, weather permitting.