Tag Archives: london

England’s Royal Palaces

Coming from the U.S., palaces and castles seem like something out of a storybook. We just don’t have them here. Part of Europe’s appeal for American tourists is being able to see and experience these magical places. That’s why Alex and I decided to visit several when we planned our anniversary trip to England. During our time there, we went to Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and Hampton Court Palace. While Buckingham Palace is located in downtown London, Windsor Castle and Hampton Court Palace are both situated within an hour’s drive of the city.

Windsor Castle is one of the Queen’s official residences, about 25 miles outside of London. It’s in a beautiful part of the countryside and is therefore not accessible from the tube or train. Driving up to the Castle is interesting though, as it’s surrounded by a cozy little town. Public parking can be found nearby and is only about a 5 minute walk from the Castle.

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The castle exterior is absolutely stunning. It’s one of very few castles of its age that remain in such excellent condition, thanks to the Monarchy’s ongoing presence. The style of architecture is very reminiscent of the Tower of London and in fact dates back to the same origins. Contrary to the exterior, the interior rooms of the castle were both modern and ornate.

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During our visit, we got to see the Changing of the Guards. We missed the beginning when the Guards walk through the street, but caught the last 10 minutes inside the Castle walls. Typically, the entire ceremony takes about 30 minutes.

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The castle is also home to St. George’s Chapel. It is actually much larger than I expected it to be. This is where King Henry VIII and his favorite wife, Jane Seymour, are buried.

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Speaking of Henry VIII, the other palace we visited outside of London was Hampton Court Palace. It’s one of his former residences and is not currently occupied by the Monarchy.

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We really enjoyed our time at this Palace and found it to be quite unique. It’s actually very interactive. You may just find Henry VIII or Anne Boleyn strolling around:

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Inside the Palace is the Great Hall, where Henry indulged in feasting. We were joined in here by Henry VIII once again, along with Anne Boleyn’s brother George.

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We followed both of them into the Great Watching Chamber, which is the entrance to Henry’s State apartments. They were met by Anne Boleyn, where a furious argument ensued between her and the King. At this point, they took leave of the sizable audience that had formed around them. With the help of our audio guides, we made our way through the rest of the palace independently.

The Tudor Kitchens were spectacular. They were all set up for the King’s nightly feast:

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All sorts of food were being prepared, including soup, pies, and meat…all of the plastic variety. It still looked good enough to eat!

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In addition to the Tudor experience at Hampton Court, there are several extensions from the 18th century and a vast, magnificent garden.

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You could stroll around the gardens for hours if you wanted. You can even attempt to make your way through a hedge maze, for a small fee. The maze itself is fairly small, but still fun. We didn’t go through it this time, but have on previous visits to Hampton Court. This Palace is one of our favorites, especially because of its accessibility from London. Unlike Windsor Castle, it is accessible by train. You can take the tube to London Waterloo, and then hop a train to Hampton Court from there.

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London Landmarks

London reigns supreme when it comes to historic sites. No guidebook could even begin to scratch the surface of the city’s history, and we won’t attempt to do that either. There’s just too much to see within one lifetime. Luckily, some of London’s most historic sites happen to be major landmarks. Here, we’ve included a short introduction to some of our favorite spots:

Buckingham Palace

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Buckingham Palace became the official London residence of the Monarchy with Queen Victoria in 1837. Currently, Queen Elizabeth II lives here. Buckingham Palace is pretty accessible to the public- visitors are able to walk right up to the front gate and watch the Guards. If you have the chance, try to catch the Changing of the Guards ceremony…it is a very impressive sight to see! During the months of August and September, you can take a tour of the State Rooms inside the palace. The two closest tube stops are St. James’s Park (Circle and District lines) and Victoria Station (Circle, District and Victoria lines).

Westminster Abbey

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A brief walk from Buckingham Palace is Westminster Abbey. The Abbey’s royal history is second to none. It’s where all coronations are held and has hosted many royal weddings, including Prince William and Dutchess Catherine’s in 2011. Princess Diana’s funeral was also held here, and it is the burial place of many British monarchs and historical figures, including: Elizabeth I, Henry VII, Mary I, Mary Queen of Scots, Geoffrey Chaucer, Oliver Cromwell, Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Rudyard Kipling, and Sir Lawrence Olivier. Entrance fee is 18 GBP per person, and comes with an audio guide. If you are not coming from Buckingham Palace, the nearest tube stops are Westminster (District, Circle, and Jubilee lines) and St. James’s Park (Circle and District lines).

Big Ben & Houses of Parliament 

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Situated directly behind Westminster Abbey is Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Big Ben has been a London landmark for over 150 years, and was recently renamed the Elizabeth Tower in honor of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. While it’s a lovely gesture, most people’s loyalties lie with the original nickname. Big Ben is attached to the Houses of Parliament, where Government decisions are made by the House of Commons and the House of Lords.  Guided tours of Parliament are offered for around 17 GBP. For those interested in politics or current events, you can sit in on a debate for free, no advanced notice required. Both landmarks are part of the Palace of Westminster, which sits right along the Thames River. It is a beautiful sight to see at night. The nearest tube station to these sites is Westminster (District, Circle, and Jubilee lines)

Tower Bridge

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Often mistaken for “London Bridge”, Tower Bridge competes with Big Ben for the title of most iconic London landmark. It sits across the Thames river, directly next to the Tower of London, hence the name. You can go up inside the bridge as part of an exhibition, which includes a tour of the engine rooms for 8 GBP per person. There are also magnificent views from the walkway at the top. The nearest tube station is Tower Hill (District and Circle Lines).

Tower of London

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Any history buff will feel like a kid in a candy store at the Tower of London. Over the last thousand years, the Tower of London has served as a palace, a prison, a royal armory, a zoo, and a treasury. The picture above is of the White Tower, which is the original and central building. Currently, it houses a vast collection of armor and weaponry used by various Monarchs. Behind the White Tower, the Crown Jewels are housed in the Waterloo Barracks. Moving walkways take you through several rooms of crowns, tiaras, and jewelry worn by Royalty. It’s truly an awe-inspiring collection, although expect to be pushed around in here by overeager individuals! Children who visit the Tower of London will enjoy seeing the ravens that wander around the grounds. Their wings are clipped, and tradition holds that if any escape, that the Tower and the Monarchy will fall. They bear a lot of responsibility!

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The Tower of London is perhaps most infamous for it’s gruesome history. It’s the place where many “traitors” of the monarchy have been held prisoner and executed. Some of its most famous victims include two of Henry VIII’s wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. It’s also the location where two of Britain’s young princes mysteriously “disappeared” in the 15th century. They have never been found, but rumor has it that their uncle was somehow involved before becoming King.

The Tower of London is guarded by Yeoman Warders, also known as “Beefeaters”. At night, visitors can attend the traditional Ceremony of the Keys, when the Chief Yeoman Warder locks up the Tower. It is free, but you must apply in writing, several months in advance. The entrance fee to visit the Tower of London is around 20 GBP per person. It’s a bit pricey, but there is a lot to see. There are also plenty of meal options should you choose to spend the greater part of the day here.The nearest tube stop is Tower Hill (District and Circle Lines).

The London Underground

The tube, the underground, the metro, the subway…whatever you call it, it’s been getting people around London quickly and efficiently for years. In fact, it was even used as a nighttime shelter during World War II!

Londoners rely heavily on this mode of transport, because it is extraordinarily well-connected and easy to navigate. There are 11 interconnected lines, which are each color coded differently. If you are flying into London from Heathrow Airport, you can travel from the terminal to downtown via the Piccadilly Line. Whether you plan to be in London for one day or a week, I highly recommend using the tube to get around.

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I recommend purchasing an “Oyster card”. It will hold your prepaid fare and is scanned each time you take the tube. You can buy one of these at any station and top it up whenever you’d like.

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One word of advice: make sure you factor transportation costs into your budget when coming to London. The fares can get pretty expensive if you are traveling with more than one person. Here is the current Underground fare chart. I can’t recommend whether or not you should pay as you go or purchase the travelcard because it will vary depending on your individual needs and which zones you will be traveling in. We personally chose the pay as you go option, and it cost us around $150 total for 6 days in all 9 zones.

Tour of Buckingham Palace

During the months of August and September each year, Buckingham Palace opens its doors to the public. Since Alex and I were in London celebrating our wedding anniversary in August, we had the opportunity to go and visit.

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The tour of Buckingham Palace includes a visit to the State Rooms and garden. The private residences of the royal family are not accessible whether or not they are in residence at the time. If you are curious as to whether or not the Queen is present during your visit, just look at the flag on top of the Palace. If it is the British flag, she is not there, and if it is the Royal Standard, she is. When we visited, the British Flag was flying.

The cost of the tour was around 20 GBP per person, which roughly translates to around $32. When booking online, you will see that there is limited space for each time slot. I thought this meant that it was fairly exclusive due to space limitations, but apparently it is not. I was stunned to see a line wrapped around the palace for the same entry time. It will be PACKED when you arrive, but this shouldn’t deter you from booking tickets. The tour itself is self-paced and comes with an audio guide, so you can mosey around at your leisure. The crowd breaks up once you are inside the palace.

We were not allowed to take photographs once inside, so unfortunately I can only share my experiences with you. We initially entered the palace through the side entrance and traveled through several corridors towards the state rooms. On the way, there is a large viewing deck on the quadrangle, which is basically the interior courtyard. This is where all the cars go when they enter the palace.  Since it’s a working palace, it’s not unusual to see activity here of some sort.

Moving on, we visited the state rooms. The most “famous” room is the bright red throne room where William and Kate took their official wedding portraits. Each room had it’s own color scheme distinguishing it from the rest and were all very beautiful and ornate.

Our tour ended in the gardens, where were now allowed to use our cameras. I snapped these while we were outside:

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All in all, we spent between 2 and 3 hours walking in and around the Palace. They also have a great souvenir shop on the way out, selling “official” royal items. I would also recommend trying to see the Changing of the Guards before or after your visit. The British Monarchy’s Official Website will have up to date information on dates and times. It’s a very big ceremonial tradition and is always intriguing to watch.

As far as logistics of getting to Buckingham Palace, your best best is to get off the Tube at either Victoria Station or St. James’s Park (Circle and District Lines).