Princess Diana’s death in 1997 was one of the lowest points for the British monarchy in recent history. In the aftermath, support for Buckingham Palace sank and there were questions of the royal family’s relevance in the age of the Internet and globalization. Two decades later, the monarchy is revitalized largely because of the affection the world has for Diana’s eldest son, Prince William, his wife, Kate Middleton, and their growing family.
A visit to London will not only make you realize how much England’s capital adores the monarchy, but how intertwined the royals are with the city’s culture. In other European capitals such as Paris and Vienna, whose links to their nation’s monarchies ended many years ago, museums and cultural institutions present history with some level of objectivity. Not so in London, where Queen Elizabeth II remains a towering figure at the city’s main attractions and many of her predecessors are revered with monuments, landmarks, or other grand public displays.
Here are some of the major icons of London that you will visit and which all have seemingly unbreakable ties to Great Britain’s royal family.
Unlike most of London’s attractions, Buckingham Palace hasn’t been visited by generations upon generations of people. In fact, when you arrive you may be one of the few people you know who has entered into the walls where the queen lives. In 1993, Queen Elizabeth II decided to open her main residence to the public and collect an entry fee from each visitor. The funds initially went toward restoring another historic residence of the monarchy, Windsor Castle, which had been damaged by a fire. Even after Windsor Castle was repaired, the palace remained open and expanded its offerings. Visitors now have the chance to see the palace garden, enjoy strawberries and Devonshire cream in an on-site cafe, and view the remarkable State Rooms.
The palace has 19 State Rooms, many designed by famed architect John Nash in the early 19th century, and they include incredible pieces of art, including Canova’s statue “Mars and Venus”, gilded ballrooms thick with opulence, and a massive organ purchased by Queen Victoria in 1850 that was once called the most powerful musical instrument in England.
You will also find the Throne Room, with the queen’s royal chair in plain view, and the spot where the wedding photos of Will and Kate, aka the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, were taken in 2011.
Tickets: Adult entry starts at 23 British pounds (about $30 USD) to see the State Rooms; an informative audio tour is included. Entry into the Palace Garden and Royal Mews comes at an additional cost. Visit the Royal Collection Trust website’s tickets page for details.
Visiting Times: In 2017, the palace is open for visits from July 22-October 1.
The Crown Jewels — the British monarchy’s lavish riches that, according to the queen, “signify the royal authority to lead and protect the nation” — are on view at the Jewel House at London’s leading attraction. The lineups to enter the Jewel House are long and once inside you aren’t likely to be quick to leave. The Crown Jewels contain 140 pieces of regalia — including swords, maces, and other Medieval ornamentations — and total 23,578 gemstones certain to hold your gaze.
Although antiquated, the jewels may not be as old as you might think. Following the overthrow of the monarchy in the mid-17th century, almost all of the crown jewels were sold, destroyed, or melted into gold that was deposited in the national mint. The oldest piece in the collection is a 12th-century anointing spoon that is modest compared to the other pieces in the collection. When revolutionary leader Oliver Cromwell died in 1658, the monarchy was restored and Charles II ordered the jewels to be replicated. Some of the most famous ones in the current collection include the Koh-I-Noor diamond, obtained by Queen Victoria in the 19th century after the British began to take control of India.
Many of the jewels are still used in ceremonies. In 1953, the regalia was on brilliant display during the queen’s coronation. You can view many of those pieces as well as watch a video of the coronation ceremony, which took place at Westminster Abbey, while inside the Jewel House.
The Tower of London has many other sights besides the jewels — and not all so pretty. The Bloody Tower, as its name indicates, has a gruesome history of murder and treachery. The Tower Prison is known for its famous occupants and its torturous practices. The Royal Beasts hall describes the many animals that monarchs kept captive in the tower. These included lions, tigers, elephants, bears, and monkeys — few of which lived an enviable existence.
While some of what you will learn is tear-inducing, the Tower of London also gives you refreshing glimpses of the modern city. You no doubt will stare over the ramparts to the new towers, skyscrapers of glass and concrete that aren’t nearly as awful to be in as their dated counterparts — no matter what cubicle dwellers might say.
Tickets: Adult entry costs 21.50 British pounds (about $28.20 USD) if purchased online at the Tower of London’s ticketing page (a savings of 3.50 British pounds, or $4.40, over the price you would pay at the gate).
Visiting Tip: It will take more than three hours to see the entire Tower of London complex. The wait for entry into the Jewel House will be long, so you should head there first before your feet tire out.
Westminster Abbey is extraordinary for many reasons, including its longevity. The 1066 coronation of William the Conquerer took place here and so has every coronation of the nation’s rulers since. The church is so tightly knotted to the British throne that in some cases even death does not part it from its ruler. Some of the famous royal tombs in the church include that of Queen Elizabeth I and her half-sister and rival to the crown, Mary Queen of Scots, and Edward I, also known as Edward Longshanks, made infamous in “Braveheart” for his treatment of the Scottish.
It’s not only royals who are buried in the church. One of the first tomb markers you will step across when you enter is Charles Darwin’s. Several prime ministers are buried in Westminster and a section is devoted to writers who rest beneath the abbey’s floor.
A Gothic structure, the church is immense and immaculate, with a roof that vaults 225 feet (69 meters). Its 32,000 square feet of space will hold your attention for the approximately two hours it takes to complete a tour.
Tickets: You can visit Westminster Abbey on Wednesday evenings after 4:30 p.m. and admission is half price (10 British pounds, or $13.10 USD). Last entry on Wednesdays is at 6 p.m. The church closes at 3:30 p.m. on other days. You can purchase tickets online and save. Adult admission when purchased online is 20 British pounds ($26.20 USD), a savings of 10 percent off the gate fee for an adult ticket.
If Westminster Abbey is the church of the monarchs, then St. Paul’s Cathedral is the place of worship for everyone else. It’s a marvelous structure with a colossal dome whose ornate ceiling will make you crane your neck til it hurts.
Despite its nickname as “The People’s Church”, St. Paul’s has many connections to the royals. In 2016, the queen marked her 90th birthday by attending a service at the cathedral with members of her family. An even more celebrated event took place in 1981, when Diana married Prince Charles at the cathedral, one of the few times St. Paul’s was chosen over Westminster Abbey for royal nuptials.
The Anglican church was reconstructed by architect Christopher Wren in the 17th century following the Great Fire of 1666. The colossal dome is its defining structure. Perhaps the best activity at St. Paul’s is the climb to the top of its Golden Gallery, which sits near the base of the dome.
The hike is not for everyone. There are 528 steps, many of them up narrow, winding staircases that will test your stamina — and your tolerance for vertigo. The view, though, is worth the effort and discomfort. You can step onto the balcony that circles the dome and see London from the sky. It offers gorgeous panoramas that will be among the highlights of the photographs you take on your trip.
Tickets: Purchase tickets online for 16 British pounds ($21 USD), a savings of 2 British pounds ($2.62 USD) off the gate entrance fee. The last entry for the gallery viewing at the top of the tower is at 4:15 p.m. each day.
Once property of Westminster Abbey, the large green space that is now Hyde Park became part of the monarchy during Henry VIII’s notorious tenure in the the 16th century. He fabricated it so it could be his hunting grounds. Future rulers added the Serpentine Lake by damning the Westbourne River, allowing water to pool permanently in the park.
Like Central Park in New York, Hyde Park allows residents or visitors to escape the bustle of the big city, relax by water, and enjoy a bit of nature in an environment replete with urban constructs. Unlike so much else of central London, the park isn’t regal. That can be refreshing, though it is odd and curious that what should be a major attraction — the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain — is nothing more than a band of water flowing around a circular concrete canal. For a public figure of Diana’s stature the memorial seems conspicuously underwhelming.
In years to come, maybe after her son ascends the throne, you can imagine she will be immortalized in London with statues and adornments made to stand up against time — in much the same way her predecessors in the royal family have been enshrined.