Britain’s Top Royal Attractions

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Though the lives of the British monarchy may seem incredibly rarified and impossible to tap into, the fact is that it’s surprisingly easy to get a taste of the royal experience when visiting Great Britain. Whether you’re a history buff who wants to see the lavish halls built by Henry VIII, or you’re a longtime devotee of Queen Elizabeth II, England and Scotland are home to many sites where you can follow in the footsteps of the Royal Family. Ever wondered where the Queen celebrates Christmas? Want to visit the palace Prince William and his wife, the Duchess of Cambridge, call home? Look no further—these are Britain’s top royal attractions.

By Michael Alan Connelly

Zach Nelson

Buckingham Palace

WHERE: London, England

What was originally called Buckingham House, a large townhouse built in 1703, is now Buckingham Palace, the official London residence of Britain’s sovereigns since 1873 as well as the administrative headquarters of the monarchy. Massive in size, the palace has 775 rooms, including 19 State Rooms, where foreign dignitaries are hosted and entertained. Outside the palace, the theatrical Changing of the Guard regularly attracts huge crowds, but in order to get past the gate you’ll need to visit between late July and late September, when the doors of the palace are open to the public for tours. You’ll only be able to visit the State Rooms, but they are resplendent, decorated with gilt moldings and masterpieces by the likes of Rembrandt and Rubens. A “Royal Day Out” ticket will also give you access to the Royal Mews and the Queen’s Gallery.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s London Travel Guide

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Kensington Palace

WHERE: London, England

Bought in 1689 by Queen Mary and King William III, it was converted into a palace by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor, and Royals have been in residence ever since. Queen Victoria was born and raised in Kensington Palace, and Princess Diana lived here with her two sons following her divorce from Prince Charles. Today, it’s the home of Prince William; his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge; and their young son, George. (It will also be the home of their soon-to-be-born second child.) Visitors can stroll through Kensington Gardens or have a picnic there; inside, you can see the State Apartments, including the Queen’s State Apartments, dedicated to William and Mary and the Glorious Revolution, and the lavish King’s State Apartments, originally built for George I. There are also permanent and temporary exhibitions: “Victoria Revealed” considers the private life of the monarch based on her diaries, while “Fashion Rules” (through summer 2015) displays a collection of gowns worn by Princess Margaret, Princess Diana, and Queen Elizabeth.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s London Travel Guide

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St. James’s Palace

WHERE: London, England

Commissioned by Henry VIII, this Tudor brick palace was the primary residence for kings and queens for more than 300 years. Today, it remains the official residence of the sovereign, despite all monarchs having lived at Buckingham Palace since the time of Queen Victoria. Still, foreign ambassadors are received by the “Court of St. James’s.” Today, the palace serves as home to various royal apartments and offices; the office of Prince Charles is located here, and it serves as the London residence of Anne, Princess Royal; Princess Beatrice of York, Princess Eugenie of York, and Princess Alexandra. Though the palace is not open to the public, its façade and accompanying guardsmen are worth seeing in person.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s London Travel Guide

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Balmoral Castle

WHERE: Ballater, Scotland

Designed by Prince Albert himself and constructed in 1855, this grand estate replaced a more modest castle that stood here before it became the site of Queen Victoria’s Highland home. Today, it’s one of Queen Elizabeth II’s favorite retreats; she follows her predecessors’ routine of spending about six weeks at Balmoral every year, from mid-August until the end of September. During that time, the estate is closed to visitors, but otherwise you can view the formal gardens, ballroom, and carriage hall, with their collections of royal artifacts, commemorative china, and taxidermy. In November and December, guided tours are offered on certain dates, allowing you to peek inside the Royal Cottage, where Queen Victoria spent much of her time.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Aberdeen and the Northeast Travel Guide

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Sandringham House

WHERE: Sandringham, England

Privately owned by Queen Elizabeth II, Sandringham House has been a private home for four generations of the Royal Family. Though the site of the house has been occupied since Elizabethan times—Queen Victoria purchased the land and its prior home in 1862—the current structure was completed in late 1870. The Queen typically spends a week here in late July, and it also where the Royal Family traditionally celebrates Christmas. During these times, the house and gardens are closed to the public, though the woodlands, nature trails, and museum of royal memorabilia in the old stables remain open, as does the church, which is medieval but in heavy Victorian disguise. Otherwise, tours go through most rooms of the house, though avoid any places where current royals might keep their possessions. Sandringham House also offers insights into how the Queen entertains guests, as it features a ballroom, billiard room, bowling alley, and a shooting lodge on the grounds.

PLAN YOUR TRIPVisit Fodor’s East Anglia Travel Guide

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Windsor Castle

WHERE: Windsor, England

Brooding and imposing, Windsor Castle is currently the largest inhabited castle in the world. It’s also notable for being the only royal residence continuously used by the Royal Family since the Middle Ages, and, indeed, the longest-occupied palace in all of Europe. Work on Windsor Castle was started by William the Conqueror in the 11th century, and his successors (up to and including Queen Victoria) expanded the castle into the monumental structure it is today. The castle is known to be the preferred weekend home of Queen Elizabeth II, but it remains open to the public at most times. There is much to see on the grounds, including St. George’s Chapel, where 10 English monarchs are buried (Henry VI, Charles I, Henry VIII), and the elaborate Albert Memorial Chapel, built by Victoria after her husband’s death.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Thames Valley Travel Guide

Zach Nelson

Westminster Abbey

WHERE: London, England

Since its completion in the 1240s, awe-inspiring Westminster Abbey has played an important role in royal history. At the foot of the Henry VII Chapel sits the Coronation Chair, which has been graced by nearly every monarch since Edward I had it made in 1301. Including structures that pre-date the current building (an abbey has stood here since the seventh century), Westminster Abbey has hosted 38 coronations—the first being William the Conqueror in 1066—and 16 royal weddings, most recently that of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011. A number of former monarchs are buried in tombs here: Henry VII, Elizabeth of York, the so-called Princes in the Tower (the two boys believed to have been abandoned in the Tower of London by their uncle, who would be crowned Richard III), Elizabeth I, Mary I, and Mary, Queen of Scots. The abbey’s High Altar was used in the funerals of Princess Diana and the Queen Mother.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s London Travel Guide

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Palace of Holyrood House

WHERE: Edinburgh, Scotland

The Queen’s official residence in Scotland, the Palace of Holyroodhouse, commonly referred to as Holyrood Palace, sits at one end of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, at the opposite end to Edinburgh Castle. The palace was built in the 1670s, though this site has served as the principal residence of Scottish kings and queens since the 15th century, when they decamped from Edinburgh Castle. After the Union of the Crowns in 1603, the Scottish royal court left Holyrood for England, and the palace fell into decline. However, Charles II took an interest in the estate and had it rebuilt in the style of Louis XIV, which is the style it remains in today. It later sank into decline again, but Queen Victoria and her grandson King George V made it suitable for royal residence once again. When the Queen is not in residence, tours are available to the public, allowing you to see the former haunt of Mary, Queen of Scots, and where her secretary David Rizzio was murdered.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Edinburgh and the Lothians Travel Guide

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Tower of London

WHERE: London, England

What is called the Tower of London is actually a complex of some three dozen structures where London’s history vividly springs to life. Founded during the Norman Conquest of England, and William the Conqueror built the iconic White Tower, which gives the complex its name, in 1078. The Tower of London has had many incarnations as a palace, barracks, mint for producing coins, archive, armory, and the Royal Menagerie, though it is perhaps most notoriously known for being a prison and a place of death. Elizabeth I was imprisoned here before ascending to the throne; Anne Boleyn was beheaded here. Villainous Richard III abandoned his two young nephews here to die so that he could go on to be crowned king. On the brighter side, the Crown Jewels are housed here, and they are a must-see attraction.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s London Travel Guide

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Hampton Court Palace

WHERE: London, England

Celebrating its 500th anniversary in 2015, Hampton Court Palace was originally built as the grand residence of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the Archbishop of York and Lord Chancellor under King Henry VIII. Having lost favor with the king by 1528, Wolsey gifted the estate to Henry, who expanded the property and made it the seat of his court. Hampton Court remained a royal residence until the early 18th century, when George II relocated to be closer to the center of London. Today, the estate is open to visitors year-round; highlights include the grounds, which feature the oldest hedge maze in the world and the Lower Orangery Exotic Garden; the wood-beamed magnificence of Henry’s Great Hall; and the Haunted Gallery, where it is said you can hear the screams of Henry’s doomed fifth wife, Catherine Howard, and where you’ll sense a sudden drop in temperature.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s London Travel Guide

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Edinburgh Castle

WHERE: Edinburgh, Scotland

A historic fortress that dominates its city’s skyline, Edinburgh Castle is Scotland’s most-visited paid tourist attraction. The earliest surviving structure on the grounds dates to the 11th century, though much of what you’ll see today was built in later eras. The castle continued to serve as a royal residence until 1603, after which it was mainly used as military barracks. Today, it’s open to the public daily; highlights include the Crown Room, which houses the “Honours of Scotland” (the crown, scepter, and sword that once adorned the Scottish monarch), and the Great Hall, which displays arms and armors in an impressively lofty space. Every day at 1 pm, the firing of the battery’s gun frightens visitors and locals alike. This is a wonderful place to be on a clear day, as the views from the battlements can be breathtaking.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Edinburgh and the Lothians Travel Guide

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Chatsworth House

WHERE: Bakewell, England

The ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire, Chatsworth House is one of England’s grandest country houses. The original structure was completed in the 1560s, but it has been altered significantly over several generations, starting in 1686. Chatsworth has hosted many dignitaries over the years, and it is notable for being one of the locations where Mary, Queen of Scots was held prisoner. Surrounded by dazzling parkland, the estate is home to home to a priceless collection of furniture, neoclassical sculpture, Van Dyck portraits, and stunningly decorated spaces such as the Blue Drawing Room and the library. Chatsworth and its grounds are open to the public nearly every day of the year, with the exception of certain dates around Christmas and New Year’s Day.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Lancashire and the Peaks Travel Guide

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Kew Palace

WHERE: London, England

Alternately known as the “Old Palace” and the “Dutch House,” Kew Palace is the smallest of Britain’s royal palaces but elegant nonetheless. Originally built as a private home in 1631, it was purchased by King George III in 1781, though members of the Royal Family had been leasing the property and living there since 1734. Queen Charlotte had an orné—a rustic-style cottage retreat—added in the late 18th century (she died at Kew Palace in 1818), while George III made this one of his primary residences after insanity forced him to withdraw from public life. More recently, Price Charles hosted a 2006 dinner here to celebrate the Queen’s 80th birthday. It’s free to visit Kew Palace, but it’s located inside Kew Gardens, which requires a paid ticket to enter.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s London Travel Guide

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Warwick Castle

WHERE: Warwick, England

Well preserved and stately, this medieval castle rests on a cliff overlooking the beautiful River Avon. William the Conqueror first built a castle here in 1068, though the current castle dates to the reign of King Henry II. By the 1500s, Warwick Castle had fallen into disrepair, and in 1604 King James I gifted the decaying structure to Sir Fulke Greville, who converted it into a country house. Today, the castle is owned by the company that runs Madame Tussauds wax museums, and so visiting Warwick Castle is much like visiting a museum with exhibitions galore. There is an armory filled with medieval weapons and works by Old Masters, but also 12 rooms dedicated to an imaginative wax exhibition titled “A Royal Weekend Party—1898.” Elsewhere, the dungeon exhibit features wax re-creations of decaying bodies and executions. Outside, handsome peacocks strut on 60 acres of landscaped grounds.  

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Stratford-Upon-Avon Travel Guide

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St. Paul’s Cathedral

WHERE: London, England

In comparison with Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral shares little history with the Royal Family. There’s one important exception, however: the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. While royal weddings are traditionally held at Westminster Abbey, Charles and Diana chose St. Paul’s because it afforded more seating for guests and allowed for a longer procession through the streets of London. The wedding took place on July 29, 1981 and was watched by an estimated 750 million viewers around the world.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s London Travel Guide

Zach Nelson

St. James’s Park

WHERE: London, England

Originally acquired by Henry VIII in 1532 as royal deer-hunting grounds, St. James’s Park is London’s most regal green space. Surrounded by Buckingham Palace, St. James’s Palace, and the Palace of Westminster, St. James’s Park is not only London's oldest park, but also its smallest and most ornate. The aviary and zoo installed by James I are no longer present, but a large number of pelicans, geese, ducks, and swans (which belong to the Queen) breed in the park. In the warmer months, deck chairs are placed around the lake, and the popular Inn at the Park restaurant becomes an ideal spot to stop for a meal or snack.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s London Travel Guide

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Hyde Park

WHERE: London, England

Much like St. James’s Park, Hyde Park started out as hunting grounds for Henry VIII; later, it was notably the site of the Great Exhibition of 1851, largely planned by Prince Albert, and the iconic Crystal Palace. (The Albert Memorial is located in adjacent Kensington Gardens.) Today the park bears little royal association, though it holds the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain, which was unveiled in 2003.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s London Travel Guide

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