How many times have you walked past the magnificent Buckingham Palace in central London and wondered what it looks like inside? The grand iron gates, the imposing white marble facade, the uniformed Beefeaters in the forecourt. What marvels lie just behind those formidable gates? For a narrow window of time in late summer, you dear reader, can see for yourself.
When the Queen and her royal court decamp for the countryside, the Palace’s State Rooms and part of its garden are available for self-guided tours for 10 weeks during the summer. This is understandably a very desirable experience, and its only available for a limited time. The very definition of luxury!
Even better? If you move purposefully, you can experience both the State Rooms and lovely garden behind the Palace in about two hours. So we’re adding it to our list of things to do and places to go if you have only Two Hours in London. This is a perfect taste of the city if you’re on a business trip and have only a short span of time to explore.
We scored a timed ticket to take the tour a couple of weeks ago, and we had So. Much. Fun. If you can, you should definitely take this opportunity. Here’s our report.
Our hotel, The Stafford London, helped us get a prized ticket for the tour. You can do this yourself online, and entries are timed so that the crowds don’t become overwhelming inside.
Spend the time beforehand inspecting the flowers and statues in front of the Palace. Even early in the morning, the entire space is lively and full of energy.
Once your appointed time has arrived, you’ll have just a brief wait in an enclosed staging area outside the Palace. Your fellow visitors are likely to be a very jolly mood. We passed the time chatting with two women from Chicago who had toured Windsor Castle the prior day. Behind us was a family from Dallas whose daughter – who looked about 7 – was wearing a tiara and a fluffy pink tulle dress. Who needs Disneyland when there’s a real castle to be explored?
Our advice is to go as early in the morning as you can. The earliest slot is 9:30A, and we went at 10:00A. It was already a bit uncomfortably crowded in a couple of rooms, and we can only imagine how much more it was like that as the day went on. Early risers will be rewarded with more time to stroll, learn, contemplate and dream.
You may be advised to see the Changing of the Guard, which happens around 10:45A, and then do the State Room tour. We suggest the opposite: do the tour early, and you’ll find yourself done and walking out of the Palace just as the Guard is marching by.
You’ll definitely get to see it – you may even have a really great view – and then you’ll be off to lunch or ready for a picnic under a tree in St. James Park while the crowds swell around the Palace.
Whenever you go, put your smartphone and your camera away. There’s no photography allowed in any of the interiors of the Palace – which we can understand, based on security concerns – so we can’t show you anything from inside the Palace (if you want to see the interiors on the official Palace website, click here).
In many ways, we were relieved to not “have” to photograph anything. And what bliss to not be surrounded by people taking selfies and group shots! It was like going back in time 10 years.
The State Rooms are the public rooms in the Palace where The Queen and members of the Royal Family receive and entertain their guests on State, ceremonial and official occasions. There are 19 altogether, and they mainly reflect the taste of George IV.
It’s pretty cool to be able to see the famous front courtyard from the other side of the gate. The tour winds up the Grand Staircase, through the Throne Room, the Picture Gallery, and several Drawing Rooms, as well as the Ballroom.
Each summer, there’s a special exhibition as part of the State Room tour, and the theme this year is “Prince and Patron,” in honor of the 70th birthday of His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales. It’s a special display featuring a number of works of art personally selected by him, with travel and history as the major focal points.
We enjoyed seeing the interior of the Palace, but the best part of the experience for us turned out to be what awaited at the very end of the tour.
First, you can photograph the rear of the Palace, which has a grand facade.
The Garden Café on the back terrace is a lovely spot for tea and light refreshments.
But the hidden gem, in our view, is the royal garden. Because we did the tour on the early side, we pretty well had the garden path to ourselves. And it was splendid.
It’s remarkable that in the heart of London there’s such a serene and lush landscape.
It’s 36 acres total, and very quickly you lose all sense of being a major metropolis.
Birds and water fowl screetch and caw, and those are really the only sounds you hear, other than the wind in the trees.
It smells really fresh and green, and reminded us of the calm and serenity we felt when we went forest bathing. Who knew one could do that in the middle of London?
There’s an ice cream stand, a gift shop (natch) and plentiful benches so that if you have the time, you can dawdle and live the sweet life for a bit.
But if you’re pressed for time, this is eminently doable. We moved relatively quickly through the Palace, and quite slowly through the garden, and we were easily done in 90 minutes (the tour guides will tell you it takes 2.5 hours, but that’s not what we experienced).
Having taken this tour, we feel quite fondly toward the Royal Family – as one should after having been invited into someone’s home, Well done, Your Majesty! We hope your summer vacation is proceeding well. Thanks for making ours even more special.
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