Buckingham Palace

Top choice palace in The West End

Image by Peter Phipp Getty Images

Built in 1703 for the Duke of Buckingham, Buckingham Palace replaced St James's Palace as the monarch's official London residence in 1837. Queen Elizabeth II divides her time between here, Windsor Castle and, in summer, Balmoral Castle in Scotland. If she’s in residence, the square yellow, red and blue Royal Standard is flown; if not, it's the Union Flag. Some 19 lavishly furnished State Rooms are open to visitors when Her Majesty takes her holidays from late July to September.

Hung with artworks by the likes of Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Canaletto, Poussin and Vermeer, the State Rooms are open for self-guided tours that include the Throne Room, with his-and-her pink chairs monogrammed 'ER' and 'P'. Access is by timed tickets with admission every 15 minutes (audio guide included) and visits take about two hours.

Admission includes entry to a themed special exhibition (eg royal couture during the Queen's reign, growing up at the palace) in the enormous Ballroom, which changes each summer. It also allows access to part of the palace gardens as you exit, although you must join the three-hour State Rooms & Garden Highlights Tour (adult/child/under five years £33/19.70/free) to see the wisteria-clad Summer House and other famous features, and to get an idea of the garden's full size (16 hectares).

Your ticket to Buckingham Palace is good for a return trip if bought direct from the palace ticket office (ask to have it stamped as you leave). You can even make your ticket purchase a donation and gain free access for a whole year (ask at the ticket office).

At 11am daily in June and July and on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, weather permitting, during the rest of the year, the Old Guard (Foot Guards of the Household Regiment) comes off duty to be replaced by the New Guard on the forecourt of Buckingham Palace, an event known as the Changing of the Guard. Highly popular, the ceremony lasts about 40 minutes (brace for crowds).

Originally designed by John Nash as a conservatory, the Queen’s Gallery showcases some of the palace’s treasures on a rotating basis, through temporary exhibitions. Enter from Buckingham Gate.

Indulge your Cinderella fantasies while inspecting the exquisite state coaches in the Royal Mews, a working stable looking after the royals’ immaculately groomed horses and the opulent vehicles they use for getting from A to B. Highlights include the magnificent Gold State Coach of 1762 and the 1911 Glass Coach.

A Royal Day Out (adult/child/under five years £42.30/23.30/free) is a combined ticket including entry to the State Rooms, Queen’s Gallery and Royal Mews.