Britain is famous for its history and heritage – it’s a country of great traditions, perhaps the world’s most famous royal family, and some of its most celebrated sights. Although many of Britain’s best known, grand and historic homes and castles are to be found in the countryside, travel to London and you’ll find that there are plenty of palaces in the city where you can absorb their stories, and castles around London that capture some fairytale magic.
As a Londoner, I have at times taken for it for granted that I have thousands of years of history on my doorstep. And, though school trips took me to many of London’s most iconic palaces, I was perhaps too young to take in just how spectacular they are. I was therefore thrilled when I took a trip recently with travel company Monograms to London, Paris and Rome. These are all cities I know well, London especially. But with the help of their specialised tours – some of which are free to their guests – I was able to explore London with different eyes, and including some of its wonderfully historic palaces.
I’m sharing a few of my favourite palaces in the city and some castles around London that I visited on this trip, plus others I recommend for you here.
Possibly the most famous of the royal palaces is the Queen’s London residence, and it was the first stop of my free city tour with Monograms. Buckingham Palace has served as the official London residence of the UK’s sovereigns since 1837, and even though the Queen is said to prefer Windsor Castle, she does spend a lot of time at Buckingham Palace.
It is here that official receptions are held and it is famed for its lavish State Rooms, which are open to visitors every summer, as well as the regular Changing the Guard ceremony, where the Queen’s guards hand over responsibility for guarding the palace to the new guard (check the link for dates). Buckingham Palace is also seen regularly on television broadcasts when the royal family gathers on the balcony at the front of the building following royal weddings and for special national events.
As I visited outside of the weeks in the summer that the palace is open to visitors, I was unable to go inside. However, Buckingham Palace is still impressive from the outside and somewhere you really should take a walk to. The whole area revels in regal splendour. If you’re not on a guided tour like I was, I’d recommend walking up to it along the long sweep of The Mall – a road leading from the grand Admiralty Arch, and lined on one side by the bucolic St James’ Park, before ending with a golden monument to Queen Victoria in front of the palace.
Buckingham Palace is huge with 775 rooms, including 19 staterooms, 52 royal and guest bedrooms, 188 staff bedrooms, 92 offices and a whopping 78 bathrooms. If you have the opportunity to do so visit London in the summer to see the State Rooms such as the spectacular White Drawing Room, Throne Room and Ballroom. They are open for ten weeks of the year from July to early October.
Our guide also introduced me to The Royal Mews at Buckingham Palace, which is also worthy of note as it is home to a number of royal carriages, such as the Gold State Coach used for coronations, and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee State Coach first used in 2014.
Interestingly, its interiors are made from objects donated by more than 100 historic sites and organisations across Britain, perhaps proving that even The Crown is upcycling these days. The gilded crown on the top of the coach is carved from oak from HMS Victory, a ship used by Nelson in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, seat handrails are from the Royal Yacht Britannia, window frames and interior panels made from material from Caernarfon Castle; Canterbury Cathedral, Henry VIII’s Mary Rose ship, the Prime Minister’s residence 10 Downing Street, and the Antarctic bases of Captain Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton.
Hop on the train, or do as I did and take a guided coach tour from London as part of a trip with Monograms, and within an hour you will be in the heart of the British countryside and one of the Queen’s favourite royal residences.
One of the most famous castles around London, Windsor is popular with day-trippers from the city because it’s super accessible, and offers a slice of small-town life in Britain. Not only is Windsor one of the quaintest of towns with a quintessentially British nature, but it is home to Windsor Castle, the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world.
Built in the 11th century, after being commissioned by William the Conqueror, the castle makes for an incredible day out from London.
I have to confess – despite visiting Windsor before, I’m that person that lives with all these wonders on my doorstep and yet I haven’t visited them (but, yes, I do travel halfway around the world to see historic sites elsewhere… I know). So Windsor Castle had been on my list for many years, and it did not disappoint.
Even the dense stone walls on the approach to the castle and the turrets I saw as I entered the grounds had me excited to soak up the history they kept secure.
First, I made my way to St George’s Chapel. It’s not a part of Windsor Castle that I was that familiar with, and perhaps this is because despite it being the scene of numerous royal weddings, there is a sense that this is a private chapel. This is the Queen’s place of worship, the final resting place of many former monarchs, and there is no photography or filming allowed inside the building.
For me, this was the greatest tragedy as St George’s Chapel is spectacular and recording and sharing such beautiful buildings is part of my job. I did, however, find some photos available of the chapel online, however, they barely do this magnificent building justice. All I can suggest is that you go and see it for yourself.
The chapel is considered to be one of the finest examples of perpendicular Gothic style with dramatic archways and spindly pillars leading up to a spectacular vaulted ceiling. I was struck by the chapel’s beautiful architecture, and slightly sad that it was slightly hidden away, not allowed to be captured by casual photographers. But that was not all, I was thrilled to discover it also houses the tombs of Kings Henry VIII and Charles I – for me it made for a fascinating historical reference. I can’t recommend a visit to St George’s Chapel enough for its history and spectacle.
Leaving the chapel I headed to Windsor Castle’s State Apartments with my audio guide in hand. Starting with the imposing Grand Staircase, I made my way through the castle’s beautiful rooms, pausing to take in the China Museum – a large collection of Chinese and Japanese pieces from the 17th and 18th centuries. The State Apartments are wonderful, with a huge collection of antiques and artworks from all over the world, plus majestic decór in centuries-old rooms. Oddly, one of my favourite parts though was one of the castle’s most modern. The Lantern Lobby, another vaulted wonder with a lantern-like feel to it. The lobby was built on the site of a former private chapel after a fire, which devastated much of the castle in 1992. At its heart is a suit of armour made for Henry VIII in 1540.
I loved my visit to Windsor Castle and have to recommend it for a visit – my only regret is not having longer to take it all in. So plan on at least half a day if you want to see the castle, wander in leafy Windsor Great Park, which surrounds the castle, and have time to enjoy a little of the town.
Hampton Court Palace
Like many of London’s children, I first visited Hampton Court Palace as a nine-year-old on a school trip, and I had fond memories of it. I’d promised myself I’d return, so when I discovered it was one of many London tourist attractions that were included in Monograms’ self-guided tour offerings, I jumped at the chance to go again.
Sitting on the banks of the River Thames near Richmond, the palace is a way out of central London but easily accessible by train. It took just 50 minutes from Waterloo station, which was a short walk from the hotel I was staying at as part of the package, Park Plaza London Waterloo.
Even though I’d visited before I had no idea I’d enjoy my visit as much as I did. My first stop of the day was one of the palace’s most famous features – its maze. I remember getting lost in it as a child, but surely now, it would be easy to complete, I mused. Thirty minutes and plenty of frantic turning on my heels to go back in the previous direction, and bumping into the same people time and again, I realised that it really is a tricky puzzle. But getting lost is all part of the fun. When you reach the middle, the other half of it is quite easy, though I have to confess that it was a girl of around nine-years-old who pointed me in the right direction in the end. Kids today – they’re scarily savvy!
The palace itself is a maze of buildings and rooms, but take an afternoon there and you will unravel so much of Britain’s history and culture.
Hampton Court was built in 1515 and is known as Henry VIII’s palace, even though other monarchs lived there after him. A huge Tudor palace, by the 1530s, it was also a hotel, theatre and leisure complex at the time. Henry used it to demonstrate his magnificence and power with lavish banquets, extravagant court life and expensive artworks.
It is also here that Hampton Court shares some history with Windsor Castle because Charles I also lived here and then spent some time under house arrest before being executed by Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads following the English Civil War of the 17th century. Following that, even Cromwell lived in the palace for a while.
Despite his puritanical nature, it was understandable that Cromwell would grow to love this London palace. It’s a beautiful example of Tudor architecture, with beautiful decorative chimneys topping its roof and numerous courtyards including the Clock Courtyard featuring the specially made astronomical clock.
As Henry lived a lavish lifestyle, he had around 1,000 courtiers and so Hampton Court’s kitchens were huge and created what at the time were delectable dishes. Visit today and you will find staff recreating these recipes and they happily answer questions and explain what foods were the flavour of the day.
From the kitchens I continued on the audio tour to Henry’s State Rooms, taking time to enjoy the Great Hall and also an excellent Cumberland Art Gallery featuring ancient and modern portraits.
On my way to take in William III’s State Apartments, I was transfixed by the grand staircase featuring a mural by Italian artist Verrio of Victory of Alexander over the Caesars. It was an incredible painting – the bottom section so three dimensional that it seemed almost sculptural, and the characters in the painting leapt out of the scene in a rush of vibrant colour. It took a lot to drag me away. This for me was the highlight of William III’s section of the palace. That is until we got to the gardens and orangery that stretch for what felt like miles from the palace.
Another unusual feature at Hampton Court is a glasshouse containing the world-famous Great Vine. Thought to be the oldest and largest in the world, it was planted in 1768 by Lancelot Capability Brown. The grapes are harvested daily in September and you can even buy some to take away.
Tower of London
The Tower of London isn’t often thought of as a palace, but that is exactly what it was in the past, as well as being home to some of the most expensive jewels in the world, the Royal Mint, the Royal Armouries, a jail and even a zoo. Yes, this is one historic London attraction that has served many purposes over the centuries.
The Tower of London first came into being in the 1070s when William the Conqueror had a stone tower built in the middle of his London fortress. The White Tower, as it became known, provided lavish accommodation and a chapel for the king and his courtiers and many after him for another 500 years.
But the Tower of London has also been a symbol of fear – being “sent to the Tower” was a terrible sentence in medieval Britain, and particularly during the reign of Henry VIII as it often meant that not only were you to be imprisoned but you would likely soon lose your head at the Tower too. Many a famous name has been imprisoned there including Henry’s second wife Anne Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth I, Lady Jane Grey, Sir Walter Raleigh and Guy Fawkes, following the infamous Gunpowder Plot to blow up parliament in the 17th century.
As the most secure castle around London – in the whole of the UK in fact – the Tower has long been home to the Crown Jewels, a selection of crowns, tiaras, and other jewels owned by British monarchs. Among them are the Coronation Regalia, used since 1661 to crown sovereigns of England and were last used for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.
The Tower of London is steeped in tradition and history, but aside from seeing the Crown Jewels it’s the stories that fascinated me most on my visit. And the fantastic Yeomen Warders – the Queen’s guards that work at the Tower also provide hourly tours that bring the rich tapestry of this palace to life.
Other palaces and castles you should visit in and around London
Discover the birthplace of Queen Victoria and former home of the Princess of Wales. Set in one of London’s most beautiful gardens – connected to Hyde Park, Kensington Palace is now the official London residence the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and is popular with visitors for it’s King’s State Apartments and Queen Victoria’s reimagined rooms. It also has some great exhibitions, one on Princess Diana’s fashions was popular recently.
West of Windsor Castle, close to the delightful town of Newbury, is Highclere Castle perhaps one of the most famous on our list, as it is known as the setting for television show Downton Abbey. You can pretend to be Lord and Lady Crawley within the walls of this beautiful example of Jacobean Revival architecture. As not only the exterior but interior shots for the show and movie were filmed at Highclere you can also see rooms that were featured in the show. It also has a collection of Egyptian artefacts because a previous Earl that owned Highclere was with explorer Howard Carter when he discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamun in 1922.
St James’s Palace and Clarence House
St. James’s Palace and neighbouring Clarence House are a short walk from Buckingham Palace. Clarence House is the former Queen Mother’s residence, and is now the London residence of Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall. St. James’s Palace doesn’t open to the public, but you can visit Clarence House in August each year.
Palace of Westminster
Did you know that the UK’s seat of government is actually housed in a palace? Yes, you’ve seen the Houses of Parliament on television many times but the building where they meet is called the Palace of Westminster, and parts of it are nearly 1,000 years old. As a result the palace is, like Elizabeth Tower which houses Big Ben, undergoing a major renovation project but it is still open to visitors.
UK residents can take a 75 minute guided tour on weekdays, while it is open to all visitors on Saturdays with self-guided audio tours and guided tours. And it’s well worth a trip to see the famous green and red seats of the House of Commons and Lords and magnificent Central Lobby – the core of the Palace of Westminster designed by Charles Barry as a meeting place for members of both houses. But what I loved about the Palace of Westminster most was the cavernous and historic Westminster Hall – the oldest part of the building, dating back to the 11th century. Not only has it an impressive wooden ceiling and architecture that tells of the stateliness, but it is the historic heart of the UK’s government and law courts.
A relic of the former Palace of Whitehall, Banqueting House was the medieval London home of the Archbishops of York. Inside it has a staggering ceiling filled with nine paintings by famed European artist Rubens, which were commissioned by Charles I and installed in 1636.
History really comes full circle in London’s castles and palaces. While you can learn about the life of Charles I at Hampton Court, and see his final place of rest at St George’s Chapel in Windsor, head to Banqueting House and you will be at the site of his execution in 1649.
Another castle near London that is perfect for a day trip. Built in 1119, Leeds Castle was used by six medieval queens, home to Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon, and a 20th-century retreat for aristocrats.
Aside from its fairytale castle setting on an island in the River Len in Kent, Leeds Castle is one of the most unique castles near London. Visit its dog collar museum and you will find more than 130 dog collars on exhibit. It also has a falconry centre and a maze which when you get to the centre you can return through an underground grotto.
London’s palaces and the castles that surround the city are some of the most iconic attractions in the world. And with a deep history to unearth, a fascinating culture and beautiful views, they provide a great way to explore the story of Britain.
Want to discover some of these places for yourself? Take a look at Monogram’s London tours.
Download a map of London’s castles and palaces
Use this map to plan your visit and download it to your phone for use offline when you go to visit London’s great houses.