Buckingham Palace is the official London residence of the UK monarchy. It began life as a not-too-humble townhouse before being remodeled as a palace in 1825 by architect John Nash for George IV. Though its facade is relatively restrained, behind it hide grand state rooms, open to the public in the summer. Its flamboyant guards are famous for their bearskin 'busbies', and perform the ceremonial 'Changing of the Guard' at 11am most days.
If you’re not a head of state, opportunities to visit the 19 working rooms of the Palace are rare. Take advantage of summer public opening or book an exclusive tour during winter. Included are the ceremonial Throne Room, Grand Staircase, vast Ballroom and the White Drawing Room, all positively dripping with gold leaf.
The Queen's Gallery opens year-round housing items from the Royal Collection, one of the largest fine and decorative arts hoards in the world. Treasures include paintings by Rembrandt, Van Dyck and Canaletto, sculpture by Canova, finely crafted furniture, ornate tableware, and pioneering photography. There are also monthly lunchtime music recitals.
Visit the Royal Mews (1 Feb– 30 Nov 2019) to see the Gold State Coach, and marvel at its elaborate carvings, inlaid painted panels, and oodles of gilt. It weighs a whopping four tons and requires eight horses to draw it. Other Mews activities include dressing up in footman's livery and having your photo taken in a replica royal carriage.
Arrive early for the Changing of the Guard (11am, most days) to commandeer the best viewing spot. Of the attractions inside the Palace, kids will love the Royal Mews (open 1 February-30 November) where they can meet the Queen's horses and see royal coaches. Afterwards, take time out in St James's Park. Grab a snack in the café, then watch the feeding of the park's famous pelicans (2.30-3pm daily).
Street-food-style kitchens in a stripped-back Edwardian arcade. Among the lip-smacking choices are dim sum at Baozi Inn, Super Tacos, and roti at Gopal's Corner, plus donuts and delicious coffee. Look for the roof terrace bar in warmer months.
Grand surroundings, impeccable service, well-heeled patrons, and superb cooking keep the Wolseley perennially on trend. The range of afternoon tea menus (such as a chocolate variation with cocoa-bread sandwiches) are an experience in themselves.
Feel the frisson of history in the underground bunker from which troops were commanded during WWII. As well as strategic maps and vintage equipment in rooms left as they were in 1945, there's a museum dedicated to Churchill's life.
The historic glazed shopping arcades off Piccadilly (Burlington, Piccadilly, Royal and Princes) still house purveyors of exquisite goods. At Burlington Arcade, look out for the uniformed Beadles, keeping order there since 1819.
The Institute of Contemporary Arts has been shaking up London's creative scene since the 1940s. Its avant-garde programme of exhibitions, lectures, independent films and live music is consistently eclectic and challenging.
Transport hub Victoria Station is just around the corner. The Palace is also served by Green Park, St James's Park and Hyde Park Corner Tubes. But a walk up the Mall from Charing Cross/Trafalgar Square gives you spectacular views.
Prices vary for different attractions, though all are free for under-5s. A State Rooms visit is £25 for adults, or enjoy the Changing of the Guard for free. Entrance to the Queen’s Gallery is £12 for adults.
Because the State Rooms are only open for ten weeks each summer, and spaces on tours are limited, it’s best to buy a timed slot in advance. Other attractions can also be booked online. For the Changing of the Guard, the biggest crowds gather at the Palace Gates but you can also see the troops moving between St James's Palace, Buckingham Palace and Wellington Barracks.