I recently visited London for the first time ever and had the immense pleasure of visiting Buckingham Palace (the Queen’s digs). I’m a pretty avid royal watcher and fan of the Duchess of Cambridge, so my trip to London was filled with palace visits and Royal footstep retracing. Touring Buckingham Palace was one of the highlights of the trip. I felt like royalty (or at least a nosy long-lost Royal cousin) walking through the rooms that we’ve gotten glimpses into with wedding portraits and state dinner photos.
In 1993, the Queen opened the doors of the palace to the public for the first time. While the opening was originally intended to raise funds for repairs to the fire-stricken Windsor Castle, it remained a summer tradition for locals and visitors alike. By the time I visited in September 2017, the operation was a well-oiled machine, complete with airport-style security, an electronic guide and exhibits throughout the staterooms.
During the summer of 2017, the stateroom tour also included a collection of well-placed Royal gifts. Each room contained not only its usual collection of furniture, artwork and historical architecture, but also display cases of trinkets and oddities given to the Queen by heads of state and Royalty from across the globe. Each room was dedicated to gifts from different regions. The gifts were fascinating, but not nearly as impressive as the sheer magnificence of the palace and its history. It was like living inside a movie you’ve seen a millions times, or stepping into a painting you’ve admired your whole life. I absolutely loved touring Buckingham Palace, but the experience didn’t come without learning a thing or two. So here are my tips on visiting the Queen’s London abode so you don’t have to make the same mistakes I did.
This year, the palace is open from July 22 through October 1. The Buckingham Palace tour is largely available while the Queen is on holiday at her summer residence, Balmoral. Fun fact: You’ll know when the Queen is home by looking at the flag atop Buckingham Palace. If it’s the standard Union Jack, she’s away. But if you see the Royal standard, you can bet Lizzie is kickin’ back at Buckingham Palace. Ahem. I mean, the Queen is tending to very important state business in her official Royal residence.
When you book a tour of Buckingham Palace online, you’ll find a variety of options and prices. I opted for the base tour, a visit to the state rooms that included an exhibition of Royal gifts. While there are more involved options, including guided tours and visits to the Royals mews, gardens and portrait gallery, I didn’t feel like I missed out on anything by skipping them. But of course, that’s the beauty of not knowing. Maybe on a return trip I’ll check out the other areas of the palace. I spent at least two hours on the main tour, so adding on extras would have constituted dedicating an entire day or half day to the palace. If you have limited time or would like to visit multiple sites in one day, you’re probably fine sticking to the state room tour.
Once you make your selection, be sure you know exactly what time you want to visit when you book. There is a £2 service fee for changes made after the fact (I learned this the hard way when I decided to change my tour time from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. to accommodate a visit to the Westminster Abbey in the morning). For me, developing a sensible schedule was like solving a complex puzzle, so try to fit all the pieces together before purchasing tickets and committing to a specific time.
I created a google spreadsheet to outline each day of my trip and calculate the costs. I had a column that highlighted my scheduled time for each attraction and notes on when they opened and closed so that everything was organized in one place. Since I could access it on my phone, it was a convenient way to plan and keep track of things once I was in London. For solo travelers, it’s also a great way to put your family’s mind at ease since they can access it anywhere and see exactly where you’ll be at what time.
Take Photos Out Front First
One of the biggest mistakes that I made when visiting the Queen’s home was skipping out on taking photos out front before my tour of Buckingham Palace. The estate room tour starts just past the front of the building on the left-hand side and ends by Victoria Station, which is several blocks away. After exiting the Palace at the back, you’ll stroll through the gardens (and past a Royal souvenir shop and ice cream stand) and wind up on what feels like a completely different side of town.
My tour was set for 2 p.m., so I made sure to arrive right on time. I spent the morning at Westminster Abbey and wandered up through St. James’s Park (which is amazing, by the way). If I could do it all again, I would have allowed myself about 15–30 minutes to walk around the front of the Palace before the tour and take photos. I ended up having to walk all the way back around to the front of the Palace after the tour (at around 4 p.m.) to admire the Buckingham Palace guards, study the architecture and see the giant statue of Queen Victoria. I definitely would have gotten better photos earlier in the day and saved myself quite a walk after the tour.
The big takeaway? Make sure you spend enough time out front before your tour time, because it’s one heck of a walk back after the tour of the staterooms at Buckingham Palace.
Spend a Penny Beforehand
The only bathroom for guests on the tour is at the very end, next to the Buckingham Palace shop. In fact, it’s not even in the palace; it’s in a separate building, so make sure you’ve visited the loo before entering. Luckily, the attendants are very clear about this when you enter the line for security and will even point you in the right direction to a nearby public restroom (or “toilet” as they say in the U.K.). I had lunch in St. James’s Park shortly before the tour and made sure to make a pitstop while there. If you’re walking up through the park, it’ll fit perfectly into your schedule.
Zip Up Your Camera and Turn Off Your Phone
Unlike Kensington Palace, Buckingham Palace does not allow photos on the public tour. Before you enter the Queen’s home, you’ll stand in a line and walk through airport-style security. It’s at this point that we were instructed to stow our cameras and turn our phones completely off. For a Millennial, this step was a bit difficult. There are no photos allowed inside the Buckingham Palace rooms, for security reasons and to avoid unduly long lines and large crowds, I imagine. While I sorely wish I had been able to take photos, I can only imagine how much longer I would have been in there if I was trying to frame the perfect picture every few seconds.
But being without a phone and camera wasn’t all bad. I was able to focus on the beauty and grandeur of the each of the Buckingham Palace Rooms, all while interacting solely with the provided technology — a digital tour guide that offered historical context for each room and went into detail about some of the gifts on display. These audio guides are included with admission and help you navigate and understand the importance of each new location. There were also several staff members stations in every room, so it was easy to ask questions without being distracted by my phone or camera. Being in the palace was in many ways like being transported back in time, and not having my normal tech added to the illusion.
Check Your Bag
After going through security, everyone is given the offer to check their bag. It’s not required, but boy do I wish I had done so. They’ll store your bag (and camera) and return it to you at the end of the tour. I was hesitant because I didn’t want to part with my camera and other items in my bag just in case something were to happen to it. A quarter of the way through the tour, however, I was regretting that decision.
I carried my small backpack the entire day, which is usually manageable. With the added weight of my camera and standing for hours on end, it got a bit unbearable. I would have relished the opportunity to give my back a break while wandering around the lush lodgings. While there were plenty of benches to take a break throughout the Buckingham Palace rooms, it would have been nice to rest from the weight of my bag.
Travel Tip: Make parting with your belongings simpler and ensure that you have all the important stuff on hand with an easy-to-transport lanyard. When traveling, I keep my license and important cards in a small ID keychain attached to a Lanyard. Mine even has enough room for a tube of chapstick. If I could do it again, I’d throw my lanyard around my neck and leave my bag checked with the Palace staff.
Look Up (and Down)
There are details everywhere inside Buckingham Palace and it’s easy to miss them when you’re overwhelmed by the audio tour, crowds of tourists and massive paintings lining every wall. Take a minute to appreciate it all, even the ceiling. You can see touches of Queen Victoria throughout Buckingham Palace, as she had a huge hand in developing it into the masterpiece that it is today. From her elegant initials strategically placed throughout the Palace to wedding-cake-like ceilings and massive chandeliers, the Buckingham Palace state rooms are decadent. In fact, “decadent” is the word I would use to describe much of London’s architecture and culture, especially anything related to the Royal Family.
One of the most noteworthy and awe-inspiring moments of the tour happens early on as you ascend the great staircase. They audio guide encourages you to keep walking and not stop, but I couldn’t help myself. Everything from the floors to the ceiling was absolutely heavenly. Take your time and take it all in. The lighting is inspired. The gold details on the walls are lavish, but not gaudy. Even the carpet is luxurious. No detail is left untouched on this impressive staircase. It’s almost as if you could hear a triumphant choir singing. I wish I was exaggerating — It was that impressive.
Take Time to Reflect
After the tour, you’ll end up at the back of the Royal residence by the Buckingham Palace gardens. You’ll look out onto the lawn where the Queen hosts garden parties and have the opportunity to visit an outdoor cafe, interactive play area and the Buckingham Palace shop. This is also where you can break out your camera and start snapping behind-the-scenes pics of the Palace (outside, of course). Most are familiar with the formidable facade of the front of the Palace, but being able to see the back is just as impressive.
Before you rush off to the next attraction, take a few minutes to get as many photos as you like and look around at the architectural details. You can start to piece together the path you traveled through the windows above and speculate about what all the other rooms in the Palace must be like.
As you exit, you’ll meander through the Buckingham Palace gardens, past an ice cream stand (I got some, I admit) and even have a few more photo ops before you reach the gate to exit. Make sure you take it all in before you leave. It’s really something quit special to have walked the famed halls of the palace and have just an inkling of what it must be like to be a Royal resident, or at least a visitor, in the Queen’s historic home.
I’ll cherish my tour of Buckingham Palace for years to come. For tickets to Buckingham Palace, visit the Royal Collection Trust website. While there are just a couple more days to see the palace this year, keep an eye out for next year’s summer opening times and other Royal happenings. If you’re even vaguely interested in the Royal Family or British history, It’s well worth the admission price in my book.