Britain’s royal residences: where the queen cools her crown

By: Rick Steves
This item appears on page 45 of the August 2018 issue.

Less than an hour from London, Windsor Castle is the weekend home of Queen Elizabeth II and was the site of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. Photo by Cameron Hewitt
Chances are you weren’t invited to the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, which took place at Windsor Castle (neither was I), but that doesn’t mean you can’t visit the place where it happened or other royal residences in Great Britain.

In addition to Windsor Castle, there are London’s Kensington, Buckingham and Hampton Court palaces and the more remote Balmoral Castle in the Scottish Highlands — great places to put yourself in royal shoes for a day.

• British royalty has been calling Windsor home since the days of William the Conqueror — almost a thousand years — and it’s still a favored castle of Queen Elizabeth II, who considers Windsor her primary residence. She generally hangs her crown there on weekends, using it as an escape from her workaday grind at Buckingham Palace.

While commoners can’t stay at her digs, the town that lies just outside its walls makes for a cozy stopover. I find it to be an especially good spot for a peaceful and charming last night in England. Though it lies just under the landing path of London’s Heathrow Airport, it’s a delightful town at night. Windsor also works as a day trip from London, accessible by train in under an hour.

Day or night, the castle — claimed to be the largest and oldest occupied castle in the world — dominates the town. William the Conqueror built the first fortification in the late 11th century for himself and his occupying Norman forces. With easy access to London via the River Thames and a handy hunting forest nearby, later royals soon began enhancing the site as a sumptuous palace.

The castle’s spectacular St. George’s Hall is the site of state banquets, when a single table is set stretching the length of the hall, seating 160 guests. A visit to the ornate state rooms (open whenever the queen isn’t in residence) includes a chance to enjoy an up-close peek at Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House.

The castle grounds are also home to St. George’s Chapel, where Prince Harry and Meghan Markle said their vows. Dating from about 1500 and one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in England, it holds the tombs of 10 sovereigns, including Henry VIII and his favorite wife, Jane Seymour.

• Back in London, Kensington Palace is on the royal radar because it’s the home of Prince William, his wife, Catherine, and their three children. While some of the palace is open to the public, the royals’ private quarters are strictly off-limits.

Kensington Palace has long been associated with Queen Victoria, who was born there in 1819. Sitting primly on its pleasant park-side grounds in central London, the palace is immaculately restored.

After Queen Victoria moved the monarchy to Buckingham Palace, lesser royals bedded down at Kensington. Princess Diana lived there both during and after her marriage to Prince Charles.

• Unless you’re in London in August or September (or are on Her Majesty’s A-list), it’s unlikely you’ll get a peek inside the royal birthplace of Prince Charles: Buckingham Palace. The Queen opens 19 of her palace’s lavish state rooms to the public — but only in late summer when she’s out of town.

• Fifteen miles up the Thames is Hampton Court Palace, the 500-year-old royal hangout that was a favorite of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Charles I.

Always festive on the outside, Buckingham Palace’s lavish interior is also open to visitors in late summer when the Queen is out of town. Photo by Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli

The stately palace stands overlooking the Thames and includes some impressive Tudor rooms. The industrial-strength kitchen was capable of keeping 600 schmoozing courtiers thoroughly, if not well, fed. The sculpted garden features a rare Tudor tennis court and a popular maze.

• The royals don’t limit themselves to England. Today, Queen Elizabeth II and her family still spend a good part of their summers at Balmoral in the Scottish Highlands.

Balmoral has been home to royals since 1848, when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited and fell in love with this remote part of Britain. In that same year, while the rest of Europe was ensnared in antiroyalist, pro-democracy revolutions, Victoria purchased Balmoral Castle on a vast, 50,000-acre estate.

The queen proceeded to embrace Highland culture, which led to something of a renaissance in the local way of life in this northern part of Scotland.

Today, Balmoral welcomes the public for much of the year. However, access is limited; you can roam the gardens, see some exhibits in the stables and visit a single big room in the palace.

Every time there’s a coronation, a marriage or a birth, the British recharge their inclination to embrace their royalty. For royal watchers, visiting these residences is a chance to be a small part of pomp.

Rick Steves writes European travel guides and hosts travel shows on public TV and radio. Contact Rick Steves’ Europe (Edmonds, WA; 425/771-8303, www.ricksteves.com).