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The world’s largest and oldest continuously occupied fortress, Windsor Castle is a majestic vision of battlements and towers. Used for state occasions, it’s one of the Queen’s principal residences; when she’s at home, the Royal Standard flies from the Round Tower.
Frequent, free guided tours introduce visitors to the castle precincts, divided into the Lower, Middle and Upper Wards. Free audio tours guide everyone through its lavish State Apartments and beautiful chapels; certain areas may be off limits if in use.
It was William the Conqueror, just five years after his successful invasion of England, who commanded that an earth-and-timber fortress be built beside the Thames. Completed in 1080, it was rebuilt in stone by his great-grandson, Henry II, in 1170. Successive monarchs made their own marks, with Edward III turning Windsor into a Gothic palace and Charles II adding baroque flourishes to emulate Louis XIV’s Versailles outside Paris. George IV swept in with his team of artisans to establish what’s still Windsor’s identity, as a palace within a medieval castle. Thanks to all this rebuilding, the castle now holds almost a thousand rooms, in architectural styles that range from half-timbered fired brick to Gothic stone.
Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House
Filling a side chamber as you approach the State Apartments from the North Terrace of the Upper Ward, this astonishing creation is not a toy but a masterpiece of artful miniaturisation. Designed at 1:12 scale by Sir Edwin Lutyens for Queen Mary, and completed in 1924, it displays a phenomenal attention to detail. It's equipped with fully functional plumbing, including flushing toilets, plus electric lights, tiny Crown Jewels, a silver service and wine cellar, and even a fleet of six cars in the garage.
Flanked by armour and weapons, the Grand Staircase sets the tone for the spectacular State Apartments above, dripping in gilt and screaming ‘royal’ from every painted surface and sparkling chandelier. Presided over by a statue of Queen Victoria, the Grand Vestibule displays artefacts and treasures donated by or captured from the countries of the British Empire, while the Waterloo Chamber celebrates the 1815 victory over Napoleon. St George's Hall beyond still hosts state banquets; its soaring ceiling is covered in the painted shields of the Knights of the Garter.
A succession of 10 opulent chambers, designated as the King’s Rooms and Queen’s Rooms and largely created by Charles II, hold royal portraits and paintings by the likes of Hans Holbein, Bruegel, Rembrandt, Peter Paul Rubens, van Dyck and Gainsborough.
St George’s Chapel
This elegant chapel, commissioned for the Order of the Garter by Edward IV in 1475, is a fine example of Perpendicular Gothic architecture. The nave and beautiful fan-vaulted roof were completed under Henry VII, and the final nail driven under Henry VIII in 1528.
Along with Westminster Abbey, it serves as a royal mausoleum. Both Henry VIII and Charles I lie beneath the beautifully carved 15th-century Quire, while the Queen's father (George VI) and mother (Queen Elizabeth) rest in a side chapel. It’s also where Prince Harry married Meghan Markle in May 2018.
St George’s Chapel closes on Sundays, and otherwise at 4pm daily, though visitors can attend choral evensong at 5.15pm.
Albert Memorial Chapel
Built in 1240 and dedicated to St Edward the Confessor, the small Albert Memorial Chapel was the place of worship for the Order of the Garter until St George's Chapel, alongside, snatched away that honour. After Prince Albert died at Windsor Castle in 1861, Queen Victoria ordered the chapel to be restored as a monument to her husband, adding a magnificent vaulted roof that incorporates gold mosaic pieces from Venice.
Although the chapel holds a monument to the prince, he’s actually buried, with Victoria, in the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore House in Windsor Great Park. Their youngest son, Prince Leopold (Duke of Albany), is, however, buried here.
Changing of the Guard
A fabulous spectacle, with triumphant tunes from a military band and plenty of foot stamping from smartly attired lads in red uniforms and bearskin caps, the changing of the guard draws crowds to Windsor Castle each day. Weather permitting, it usually takes place at 11am on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.