The Downton Abbey Movie Welcomes You Home

Two years ago, I boarded a tour bus at Victoria Coach Station in London for one of the most anticipated adventures of my whirlwind 10-day tour of England. A lifelong royal watcher and Downton Abbey devotee, I was determined to visit the real-life home of the fictional Crawley family — Highclere Castle.

I devoured every moment of my visit to Highclere Castle, which made Downton Abbey even more special in theatres. While the television show offers striking shots of the historic home, the film showcases the breathtaking beauty of the castle and the entire estate in a way that fully captures how magical it is in real life.

Home Is Where Mr. Carson Is

The Downton Abbey film was like going home in so many ways. I feel intimately connected with the setting — not only because I got to visit it a few years ago, but because I’ve spent hours watching it on TV. The cast is familiar and even the new characters introduce narratives and themes we’ve seen before.

The opening of the film reflects the beginning of the series — with the journey of a message. But instead of giving us tragic news about the Titanic, we’re being gifted with the delightful driving force for the plot: a royal visit! But that’s not the only gift the film gives loyal viewers. All of our favorite characters are back (even Sybil is mentioned, although naturally, we don’t see her).

I was delighted as soon as the film began. The music of Downton Abbey has always felt both comforting and questioning to me. You know where you are because the location stays consistent, but you never quite know what changes are in store.

Aside from feeling like a giddy school girl, the intro had me welling up with pride and appreciation. I felt like a delighted mum on graduation day seeing the names of well-respected film veterans and newly minted movie stars sprawled across the silver screen. As soon as the film began, I knew I was home and so were the characters and actors I love.

One of the most anticipated homecomings for the audience and Lady Mary alike was Mr. Carson’s return to Downton. We’re offered a glimpse into how Thomas (with just a glimmer of gray starting to peek through) is running Downton. And while he’s no longer the scheming young man he once was, he still lacks the polished reverence for tradition that Mr. Carson embodies.

Dame Maggie Smith’s famed Dowager Countess is back with enough witty one-liners to satisfy Gary Janetti. But while she’s still filled with spunk and sass, her lines are delivered a touch more feebly, which is understandable given both Smith and her character’s age. It’s a soft vulnerability that you might notice in your own parents or grandparents that makes you feel so blessed to have them around, but reminds you of the limited time you have left with them.

That’s how I felt the entire film. I was so happy to be experiencing it, but each minute that passed meant that we were one step closer to the end, which I wanted to put off forever.

Two girls wearing Downton Abbey-inspired outfits at a special fan film event for the Downton Abbey movie.

Everything We Love and More

The movie captures all the resplended intrigue of a world we can’t quite relate to, all while kicking it up a notch with royalty and the even grander Harewood House (which I also happened to visit while in England!!!). With new, royal characters and an additional stately home, Downton Abbey serves up everything we love about the franchise and more.

Both the upstairs and downstairs plots center around the royal visit, although one of the major downstairs plot lines felt less than realistic to me. I played along and I’m glad I did. Molesley’s devotion redeemed it all and reminded me why I enjoy Downton Abbey so much.

If it’s been a few years since you watched the show, it may be helpful to rewatch a few episodes to refresh your memory. With so many characters and storylines to recall, there were a couple of small instances that left me trying to remember what happened in the final season. It’s easy enough to pick up on most characters and their stories, though. It’s exciting, even, to see how they’ve all gone on with their lives since we last saw them.

The film is perfectly packaged and invites you to comfortably fall for everything you already love about it. Although the lavish world of Downton Abbey feels far removed, the movie reminds us that with all the changes the 20th century brought on, places like Highclere Castle and Harewood House are more accessible than ever before. In fact, these sprawling estate homes rely on period drama lovers in many ways and reflect the changing tides of cultural power and relevance.

Rooted in History

As an American with British roots, part of the appeal of period pieces like Downton Abbey is that they are inspired by reality, but accessible to the everyman. My grandparents hailed from Yorkshire, where Downton Abbey is set. Although they likely never would have had the opportunity to set foot in a grand home filled with lords and ladies, the complex social changes that Downton Abbey explores have given me the opportunity to get an inside look at how the aristocracy lived not too long ago — and how they live today.

At its heart, both the TV show and the film are an exploration of the development of British culture, sprinkled with the glitz and mystique of the early 20th-century. There has long been a delicate balance between upstairs and downstairs, villagers and noble countrymen. “Downton Abbey,” much like headlines about the royal family today, blurs the lines between tradition and progression, making us question what separates the classes.

Class Is in Session

While we all adore the Crawleys and the royal family, much of their lofty circumstances are merely chance. The core family members are graced at birth. Some, like Lady Mary, embrace their rank, while characters like Lady Sybil ignore the confines of their class and stretch toward new values. Men like Matthew Crawley and Bertie Pelham are miraculously gifted their good fortune. Others, like Tom Branson and a new character we meet in the film, enter the fold in a slightly more modern way — through the complex realities of “unconventional” families.

Downstairs, Mr. Carson unwaveringly upholds tradition. His wife, the former Mrs. Hughes, believes in order, structure and respect — but she isn’t afraid to remind those she’s closest to that the Crawley family is made up of humans just the same. Thomas famously begrudges the social structure he’s trapped in, eventually embracing it to advance his career. During the film, Daisy emerges as more opinionated than ever about nobility, while Mr. Molesley nearly falls over himself in admiration for the royal family (I’m right there with you, Molesley). Anna and Mr. Bates exude healthy respect for the Crawleys and the royal family, in many ways crossing the lines between service and friendship throughout the series and the film.

At Downton, there’s no right or wrong answer about the social merits of the upstairs and downstairs. But what is always clear is that change is afoot. A chauffeur can become a trusted son-in-law and help manage a grand estate, despite his political opinions. Lady Mary’s retired racing husband can own a used car shop. Thomas can explore his identity and Mrs. Patmore can open up her own business.

The formidable entrance to Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey was filmed.

As the descendant of coal miners from Yorkshire, it’s inspiring to see the long-established class system explored in Downton Abbey. Aside from the grandeur of the estate home, one of the most striking nuances I noticed while visiting England as an American is how relevant the past still is. History remains in the scars on buildings and land from both World Wars and the memorials that fill the country, even in unsuspecting locations. It lives on with formidable country estates and social structure that still impacts relationships and families. The effects of the early 20th century that Downton Abbey reflects on are embedded in the set locations, which in many cases are real parts of local communities.

Downton Abbey reminds us of a time gone by, all the while revealing the fact that the struggles and triumphs these beloved characters face aren’t too different from modern life. Sisters still argue and reconcile into adulthood. Young people struggle to understand their identity. Family secrets make us question who we are. And most of us are trying to define ourselves despite the tiny boxes that society has placed us in. Homes like Downton Abbey are the constant, standing steadfast as the people within the gilded walls change, grow and, in some cases, remain the same.

Much like I wish the stately homes that dot the English countryside a long life, I never wanted the Downton Abbey movie to end. And while the ending was perfectly tied up in a satin bow, the ribbon could effortlessly be loosened to reveal a surprise wrapped up in the form of a sequel. A girl can dream, right?

Top Tips for Touring Buckingham Palace Like You’re Part of the Royal Family

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.

The front balcony of Buckingham Palace, where many members of the Royal Family have stood and waved at crowds for decades.
The iconic balcony of Buckingham Palace, where Royals wave to well-wisher during weddings, Trooping the Colour and other noteworthy events.

Plan Ahead

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.

A lion and unicorn surround the Royal Crest on an ornate gate at the front of Buckingham Palace.
The Royal crest on display at a gate outside Buckingham Palace.

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.

A dramatic image of the Queen Victoria statue in front of Buckingham Palace.
A decadent statue of Queen Victoria in front of Buckingham Palace.

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.

Thee of the Queen's Guards dressed in red coats and furry bear hats march in front of Buckingham Palace
The Queen’s Guards march outside 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.

A photo of the back balcony of Buckingham Palace with covered areas including an interactive learning and play area for children and a cafe.
The back balcony of Buckingham Palace, complete with a covered, outdoor cafe and interactive children’s play area.

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.

The back of Buckingham Palace peeks through the trees of the garden behind the iconic Royal home.
A view of Buckingham Palace through the trees in the back garden.

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. 

Renee posing with the Royal Family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace inside the children's play area,which allows you to recreate famous photos and learn more about the Palace.
Accidentally covered the Queen while recreating a Trooping the Colour photo inside the interactive children’s area.

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.

Intricate stone carvings of men on war horses in battle adorn the outside of Buckingham Palace.
Details of the architecture of Buckingham Palace seen from the back garden.

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.

An image of the green back lawn of Buckingham Palace taken from the back balcony.
The rear lawn of Buckingham Palace where annual garden parties are held.

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.