After 70 years of service, Queen Elizabeth II was laid to rest in 2022. Britain’s longest-ever serving monarch has been succeeded by King Charles III and as with all of the sovereigns that preceded them, the current Royal Family has left its own indelible imprint on London.
For centuries, British aristocracy has built palaces, landscaped gardens, paid for places of worship and had their legacy cast in bronze, stone and gilded-precious metals. Here’s the very best of Royal London, from Buckingham Palace to Queen Elizabeth II’s favorite supermarket, Fortnum and Masons.
Home of the reigning British monarch since Queen Victoria (r. 1837–1901), this grand neo-classical place in the City of Westminster is now the official London residence of King Charles III (r. 2022– ).
A triumph of neo-classical architecture, complete with a 20th-century Portland stone façade, the central balcony of the east wing is where the Royal Family appear during special occasions, including the Trooping of the Color, an annual military display that has marked the monarch’s birthday for 260 years.
Flanked by both St James’ and Green Park, crowds will often gather around the 25m-high Victoria Memorial, which looks out towards the Mall, for celebrations such as Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond and Platinum Jubilees. Designed by sculptor Thomas Brock, it’s the tallest monument in England to be dedicated to a monarch. Marble Arch had previously stood in front of the palace as a cour d’honneur, until it was moved to the northeast corner of Hyde Park.
The Palace takes its name from the Duke of Buckingham, John Sheffield, who built the eponymous Buckingham House on this spot in 1703. Bought by George III (r. 1760–1811) in 1762, the Palace has been rebuilt and remodeled numerous times since. Much of what you see today is the work of John Nash’s 19th-century, budget-busting redesign, including the two wings that enclose the grand forecourt.
When King Charles III is away on holiday, visitors can visit the Palace’s 19 richly-decorated State Rooms, its gardens, and the wonderful Throne Room, which features the chair upon which Queen Elizabeth II was crowned. Note that following the death of the Queen in 2022, the State Rooms are closed until at least the end of October 2022.
The Royal Mews
The Royal Mews, which includes the King’s stables, will not reopen to visitors until 2023. Instead, visit the Household Cavalry Museum to explores the work of the King’s two Household Cavalry regiments
The Queen’s Gallery
Opened in 2002 as part of the Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee celebrations, this £20 million art gallery inside Buckingham Palace houses the Royal Collection of art. Sympathetically designed to be in keeping with John Nash’s ideals for Buckingham Palace, the gallery was originally a conservatory before Queen Victoria had it converted into a private chapel in 1843.
Bombed during WWII, the space was converted into a gallery in 1962 and today it showcases Old Master paintings, artworks depicting Buckingham Palace, and works by Rembrandt, Van Dyck, and Rubens. The Queen’s Gallery has reopened following the death of the Queen.
Officers and soldiers march in front of Buckingham Palace during the Changing of the Guard ceremony © David Steele / Shutterstock
Changing the Guard
Taking place outside of Buckingham Palace each Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday (daily in June and July), Changing the Guard is the ceremonial switching of the Royal Body Guard detachments that protect the monarch.
It first took place under Henry VII (r. 1485–1509) and today the regimental display of marching and pageantry sees sentries from the new King’s Guard leave from Wellington Barracks at St James’ Palace at 10:30 am and head in their distinctive scarlet tunics and tall bearskin caps down to Buckingham Palace, to replace the duty soldiers. Accompanied by the bugles, bagpipes and drums of a military band, Changing the Guard is an impressive show of Royal spectacle. Arrive by 9:45 am to get a decent view.
Diana Memorial Fountain
A short walk from Buckingham Palace is Hyde Park, where you’ll find the Diana Memorial Fountain, a vast granite creation by Kathryn Gustafson near the Serpentine Lake. Built in 2004 as a tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales who tragically died in a traffic accident in 1997. Featuring water that flows in two directions before meeting in a pool, the sculpted fountain was designed to reflect Diana’s “inclusive” nature. There are three bridges where visitors can cross the water too.
To follow the route taken by the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II after it departed Buckingham Palace, head northeast along The Mall towards Admiralty Arch, the neoclassical stone building built to commemorate Queen Victoria. When you reach Trafalgar Square, turn right down Whitehall and along to the Houses of Parliament, marked by Elizabeth Tower, the 96m-high clock tower previously known as Big Ben.
This is where the Queen lay-in-state inside Westminster Hall ahead of her funeral. The impressive, echoey hall was built in 1097 under William II (r. 1087–1100), son of William the Conqueror. Its vast ceiling looks like the hull of an upended galleon and is the largest timber roof in Northern Europe.
Travelers can visit by guided tour when Parliament is in recess (dates change annually, but the summer break is usually mid-July to September), which include a look inside the Robing Room, where the sitting Monarch gets dressed for the State Opening of Parliament. The Great Hall is also where King Charles I (r. 1600–1649) was condemned to death.
Prebook your tickets for early in the day to avoid the crowds when visiting London’s Westminster Abbey © Patryk Kosmider / Shutterstock
Only meters away from the Great Hall is Westminster Abbey where the State Funeral of Queen Elizabeth II took place in 2022. Originally built under King Edward the Confessor (r. 1042–1066), the Early English Gothic-style church that survives today was erected under Henry III in 1220 (r. 1216–1272) who became the first King to have his full ceremonial coronation held here.
All of Britain’s monarchs since have been crowned at the Abbey – except for Edward V, who was never crowned, and Edward VIII, who abdicated ahead of his coronation. Thirty British Kings and Queens are buried here too, including Henry III who lies inside an impressive tomb. The abbey has also hosted 16 Royal weddings, including that of Prince William and Catherine ‘Kate’ Middleton in 2011.
When visiting Westminster Abbey, it’s worth the extra £4.50 to tour the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries, which boast incredible aerial views from 16m above the Abbey’s inlaid Cosmati floor. Visitors can see William and Kate’s royal marriage license, learn more about the Abbey’s 1000-year history and explore an enormous collection of royal objects, including coronation chairs, ermine robes, and wooden effigies of previous monarchs.
Stroll Kensington Palace and its colorful gardens during spring and summer © Chris Jenner / Shutterstock
West of Hyde Park, Kensington Palace is home to the Prince and Princess of Wales, William and Kate, and their children. Originally the country getaway of Britain’s only joint monarchs, William III (r. 1689–1702) and Mary II (r. 1689–1694), the pair had the mansion extended by 17th-century starchitect Sir Christopher Wren, of St Paul’s Cathedral fame, and added the Orangey.
Much of the palace is open to the public, including the sumptuous King’s and Queen’s State Apartments, and although few reigning monarchs actually lived here, it still had a colorful history. Queen Victoria was born in the dining room here in 1819 and when the palace fell into disrepair, she ordered for it to be refurbished. It was also the residence of Diana, the Princess of Wales when she died. A number of her gowns are still on display.
This wonderfully-manicured garden inside the grounds of Kensington Palace was initially modeled on the Pond Garden at Hampton Court Palace. This is where The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry and Meghan, announced their engagement to the world.
There is also a statue of Princess Diana here, which stands overlooking a pond. It was sculpted by Ian Rank-Broadley. The statues of three children standing with Diana are said to signify the generational impact of her work.
The huge, 265-acre Kensington Gardens are one of eight Royal Parks in London. If they feel like an extension of Hyde Park, that’s because they once were. Much of the landscaping here was under the watchful eye of Queen Caroline, wife of George II, who used water from the River Westbourne to create both the Long Water lake – attracting both swans and other birds – and the Serpentine in 1728. With wide, tree-shaded boulevards and sharp, manicured lawns, the gardens are lovely to wander around. They now include a number of new wildflower meadows too.
Spy the Albert Memorial opposite Royal Albert Hall, glowing in winter in Hyde Park © Alexey Broslavets / Shutterstock
Located at the south of the gardens is the extravagantly-gilded Albert Memorial which was commissioned by Queen Victoria in memory of her beloved husband. The 54m-tall monument was designed by George Gilbert Scott and took 10 years to complete. It remains one of the grandest high-Victorian Gothic works in the world.
Tower of London
Out to the east of the city is the Tower of London which was built under the watch of William the Conqueror in the 1070s. Its Norman-style White Tower is London’s oldest building, though several monarchs across the centuries expanded this former royal residence which was home to both Henry III (r. 1216–1272) and Edward I (1272–1307).
Henry VI (r. 1422–1461 and 1470–1471) was murdered in the Tower, whilst Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard – both wives of Henry VIII (r. 1509–1547) – were executed here too. As was Lady Jane Grey, who reigned as Queen for nine days in 1553.
The Tower of London is also where the Crown Jewels are kept under lock and key. This dazzling collection of 23,578 gemstones are kept under armed guard in Jewel House and are still regularly used by the reigning monarch for events such as the State Opening of Parliament. You’ll see a variety of sparkling crowns, tiaras, orbs and scepters, along with gleaming rings, weapons and tableware.
The crown jewels are less likely to be stolen now they’re under armed guard at the Tower of London © Joseph M. Arseneau / Shutterstock
Crown Jewels controversies
However, some of the jewels are not without their controversy. The 105.6-carat Koh-i-Nûr (Mountain of Light) diamond, which sits in the Queen consort’s crown, is thought to have originated from either India or Pakistan. Until 1839 it belonged to Ranjit Singh, Maharaja of the Sikh Empire.
However, historians have argued that following Singh’s death – and the subsequent accession of his five-year-old son Duleep Singh – colonists from the British East India Company imprisoned Duleep’s mother when he was 10 years old. The British then forced Singh to amend the Treaty of Lahore so they could claim sovereignty of his empire and the Koh-i-Noor diamond.
Similarly, there have been calls from South Africa for the Royal Family to return the Great Star of Africa, a huge 530.4-carat diamond which was cut to sit in the Scepter with Cross and mounted in the Imperial State Crown.
Given to King Edward VII (r. 1901–1910) as a birthday present by the Transvaal government in 1907, politicians and historians say the diamond was taken illegally as the British ruled the government. Colonial powers were also accused of taking lands and appropriating mines which belonged to native peoples.
St Paul’s Cathedral
This 300-year-old dome-topped masterpiece by Sir Christopher Wren has hosted some of the Royal Family’s biggest celebrations. Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee was held here in 1897, as was King George V’s Silver Jubilee in 1935. Queen Elizabeth II then held her Silver (1977), Golden (2002) and Diamond Jubilees (2012) at this vast, emblematic cathedral. St Paul’s was also where King Charles III (then Prince Charles) married Lady Diana Spencer in 1981.
Following Queen Elizabeth II’s death in 2002, St Paul’s was where the first official rendition of God Save The King was sung during a special memorial service. The cathedral’s State Bell, Great Tom, also tolled 96 times following the Queen’s death – one for each year of her life.
For nearly two decades, King Charles III and Camilla the Queen Consort have lived in this wonderful pale-stucco mansion designed by John Nash. Queen Elizabeth II, the Queen Mother, and Princes William and Harry have also called this home.
Charles III will live at Clarence House whilst renovation work is undertaken at Buckingham Palace. Tours of the building are usually by guided tour, however, the house will be closed throughout 2022 and won’t reopen until further notice.
St James’s Palace
Next door to Clarence House is St James’ Palace is where the Accession Council met following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Built by Henry VIII, it remains a working palace and it hosted Prince Louis’ christening in 2018. Although it’s not open to the public, you can peek through the railings and see the fine Tudor gatehouse.
Closed for renovations, but the National Portrait Gallery is the place to see paintings of previous British monarchs © Alex Segre / Shutterstock
National Portrait Gallery
Undergoing a major facelift until spring 2023, the National Portrait Gallery has scores of paintings that depict some of Britain’s most revered Kings and Queens. Among the portraits in the collection are paintings of Queen Elizabeth II, King Charles III (who sat as Prince Charles) and Prince William. There are also some wonderful works depicting everyone from Henry VIII and Richard III (r. 1452–1485) to Mary I (r.1553–1558) to King George III (r. 1760–1811)
This popular (although pricey) West End museum has more than 20 waxworks of the Royal Family amongst its collection, including a recreation of Queen Elizabeth II in her striking Diamond Jubilee dress, a carbon-neutral waxwork of King Charles III and models of the Camilla, Queen Consort, plus the new Prince and Princess of Wales, William and Kate.
Fortnum & Masons on Piccadilly was a favourite of Queen Elizabeth II ©Hemis/Alamy Stock Photo
Fortnum & Masons
If you want to eat like a King for the day, head to Fortnum & Masons, a luxury store just north of Buckingham Palace. One of a number of businesses with a Royal Warrant of Appointment – a mark that confirms they supply goods or services to the Royal Household – Fortnum’s was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth II. Founded in 1707, its gourmet food hampers are the stuff of legend.