Where to start
Royal locations to visit in London
As the home of the Queen, the palace is usually closed to visitors, but you may view the interior for a brief period each summer while the Windsors are away on their holidays. You'll be able to see the State Rooms, still used to entertain dignitaries and guests of state, and part of the gardens. There is also a café. At any time of year, you can visit The Queen's Gallery to see her personal collection of treasures, including paintings by Rubens and Rembrandt.
Acquired by William and Mary in 1689, Kensington Palace was radically altered first by Sir Christopher Wren and again in the reign of George I, when William Kent added the intricate trompe l'oeil ceilings and staircases. The Palace has recently re-opened after major refurbishment, with improved visitor access and facilities as well as 'Victoria Revealed', a new, permanent exhibition, which looks at the life and reign of Victoria through her own words. Visitors learn about Victoria's first day as Queen at Kensington Palace, the early days of her relationship with Prince Albert, their family life and aspects of Albert's involvement in the 1851 Great Exhibition. Exhibits include Victoria's wedding dress and jewellery, along with personal objects including paintings by Winterhalter and Landseer and gifts that Victoria exchanged with Albert during their engagement. There are also replica Victorian toys and interactive displays including clothes to try on.
Tower of London
Despite the exhausting crowds and long climbs up stairways, this is one of Britain's finest historical attractions. Who would not be fascinated by a close-up look at the crown of Queen Victoria or the armour (and prodigious codpiece) of King Henry VIII? The buildings of the Tower span 900 years of history and the bastions and battlements house a series of interactive displays on the lives of British monarchs, and the often excruciatingly painful deaths of traitors. There's easily enough to do here to fill a whole day, and it's worth joining one of the highly recommended and entertaining free tours led by the Yeoman Warders (or Beefeaters). Make the Crown Jewels your first stop, and as early in the day as you possibly can: if you wait until you've pottered around a few other things and generally got your bearings, the queues are usually immense. The other big draw to the tower is the Royal Armoury in the White Tower, with its swords, armour, poleaxes, halberds, morning stars (spiky maces) and other gruesome tools for separating human beings from their body parts. Kids are entertained by swordsmanship games, coin-minting activities and even a child-sized long bow. The garderobes (medieval toilets) also seem to appeal. 'Fit for a King' is a showcase for royal arms and armour, including armour created for King Henry VIII on his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. 'Royal Beasts' explores the history of the Tower of London's Royal Menagerie, which was founded during the reign of King
The cultural significance of Westminster Abbey is hard to overstate, but also hard to remember as you’re shepherded around, forced to elbow fellow tourists out of the way to read a plaque or see a tomb. Edward the Confessor commissioned a church to St Peter on the site of a seventh-century version, but it was only consecrated on 28 December 1065, eight days before he died. William the Conqueror subsequently had himself crowned here on Christmas Day 1066 and, with just two exceptions, every English coronation since has taken place in the abbey. Many royal, military and cultural notables are interred here, including Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. Poets’ Corner is the final resting place of Geoffrey Chaucer and Robert Browning. Henry James, TS Eliot and Dylan Thomas have dedications. In the Abbey Museum, you'll find effigies and waxworks of British monarchs, among them Edward II and Henry VII, wearing the robes they donned in life. The 900-year-old College Garden is one of the oldest cultivated gardens in Britain and a useful place to escape the crowds. An ongoing refurbishment revealed the restored Cosmati Pavement to the public in spring 2010, but the abbey has ambitious plans to create improved visitor facilities and a new gallery. Its popularity can only have increased since the wedding in April 2011 of Prince William and Catherine Middleton.
Household Cavalry Museum
This museum within the historic Horse Guards building affords a behind-the-scenes look at the work that goes into the ceremonial duties and operational role of the Household Cavalry regiments which make up the Queen's official guards. Their story is told through a collection of ceremonial uniforms, royal standards, gallantry awards, musical instruments, horse furniture and silverware amassed over 350 years of serving the Royal family. Family activities take place during school holidays. Visitors to the Household Cavalry Museum can see troopers working with horses in the 18th-century stables of the horses which parade just outside every day; the stables are separated from the main museum by no more than a screen of glass. The museum's newest exhibit, created in response to visitor demans, is a video explaining where the horses come from, how they are chosen, why so many of them are black and how they are cared for and trained. The museum is closed between June 18 and September 6 2012 to accommodate the London 2012 Olympic Games Beach Volleyball competition.
Royal Museums Greenwich
On this Greenwich Park site you'll find the National Maritime Museum, the Queen's House, which was designed in 1616 by Inigo Jones but not completed until 1638, and the Royal Observatory, founded in 1675 by Charles II. The museum's Maritime London gallery is a permanent exhibition exploring the importance of London's maritime heritage and its impact on world trade. Exhibits include wreckage from a Zeppelin shot down over the Thames estuary in 1916, the original model for Nelson's Column and early 19th-century plans for the Rotherhithe Tunnel. Exhibits in the museum's Your Ocean gallery, which is aimed at families and teenagers, examine current issues affecting marine conservation, including global warming, over-fishing and pollution. The Time Galleries in the Observatory map the quest of astronomers, horologists who attempted to pin down the elusive concept of time. The Cradle of the Navy: The Royal Hospital School at Greenwich is a permanent display in the Queen's House on the school's origins and life at Greenwich, where it occupied the building now used by the museum from 1806 to 1933. The £15 million extension features six astronomy galleries, a science and astronomy education centre, and a working horology centre. The centrepiece of the project, which almost doubles in size the Observatory areas open to the public, is the 120-seat Peter Harrison Planetarium – the only public planetarium in the UK, it features daily shows (admission charge applies), including 'Sky tonight
Hampton Court Palace
Henry VIII had many homes, but this one positively oozes historical drama. Shakespeare performed here and Cromwell made it his home after the Civil War. The ghost of Henry's fifth wife, Catherine Howard, who was executed for adultery at the Tower of London, is said to shriek around in the Haunted Gallery. Bluff King Hal is always a favourite monarch with children, who are fascinated by his portly appearance, eccentric ways and six wives, but although Henry VIII has a reputation as a tyrant, Hampton Court was for the most part a pleasure palace. Archaeologists recently found the remains of a wine fountain in the largest of the courtyards, and a lovingly crafted four-metre-tall reconstruction started serving wine from spring 2010. In Henry's time, there were tournaments and feasts, musical entertainment, plays, dances and more. The world famous gardens are truly wonderful, with the maze taking centre stage in any child's itinerary. It's the oldest in the country, having been planted between 1689 and 1694. The various Tudor and Baroque buildings sprawl across six acres, with costumed guides adding a lively dimension to the state apartments, courtyards and cloisters. Rooftop Tours are available to families with children age 12+, which must be booked in advance. They don't come cheap at £35 a head, but what teenager could resist a licensed clamber on such a huge roof?. Themed activities are plentiful during the school holidays, and on selected bank holidays and weekends Tudor cook
St Paul’s Cathedral
The passing of three centuries has done nothing to diminish the magnificence of St Paul's Cathedral, Christopher Wren's masterpiece and London's most famous cathedral. In the last decade, a £40 million restoration project has painstakingly removed most of the Victorian grime from the walls and the extravagant main façade looks as brilliant today as it must have when the first stone was placed in 1708. The vast open space of the interior contains memorials to national heroes such as Wellington, Lawrence of Arabia, John Donne, Alexander Fleming and William Blake. Highlights of St John's Cathedral include the Whispering Gallery with its famously good acoustics and the Golden Gallery with its giddying views come here to orient yourself for sightseeing. As well as tours of the main cathedral and self-guided audio tours, you can join special tours of the Triforium –visiting the library and Wren's 'Great Model' (booking required).
Wander through London's Royal Parks
At 1.5 miles long and about a mile wide, Hyde Park is one of the largest of London's Royal Parks. The land was appropriated in 1536 from the monks of Westminster Abbey by Henry VIII for hunting deer and, despite opening to the public in the early 1600s, was only frequented by the upper echelons of society. London's oldest boating lake, The Serpentine, is at the bottom of Hyde Park. It's not especially beautiful but is home to ducks, coots, swans and tufty-headed grebes, and is also of great historic interest. It was a hotspot for mass demonstrations in the nineteenth century and remains so today. The legalisation of public assembly in the park led to the establishment of Speakers' Corner in 1872 (close to Marble Arch tube), where political and religious ranters – sane and otherwise – still have the floor. The park perimeter is popular with skaters, as well as with bike riders and horse riders. If you're exploring on foot and the vast expanses defeat you, look out for the Liberty Drives (May-Oct). Driven by volunteers (there's no fare, but offer a donation if you can), these electric buggies pick up groups of sightseers and ferry them around. The Joy of Life fountain, next to Aldford Street North Gate, alongside Park Lane, is a popular spot for splashing around in when the weather heats up.
At the end of the seventeenth century, William III – averse to the dank air of Whitehall Palace – relocated to Kensington Palace and consequently, a corner of Hyde Park (Kensington Gardens) was sectioned off to make grounds for the residence. Nowadays, Kensington Gardens is only delineated from Hyde Park by the line of the Serpentine and the Long Water. Beside the Long Water is a bronze statue of Peter Pan, erected in 1912: it was in Kensington Gardens beside the Round Pond eight years earlier that playwright JM Barrie met Jack Llewellyn Davies, the boy who was the inspiration for Peter. Princess Diana's presence in Kensington Gardens is also strong: Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground is a favourite for children, especially its massive wooden pirate ship, complete with accompanying ‘beach’, teepees and play sculptures. The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain, a shallow stone ring of trickling water, is also popular for paddling. For adults, the Serpentine Gallery, the sunken garden and the beautiful flower walk provide alluring ways to while away a sunny afternoon.
Regent's Park is one of the city's most popular open spaces, covering 410 acres in north-west London. Originally a hunting ground for Henry VIII, it remained a royals-only retreat long after it was formally designed by John Nash in 1811; only in 1845 did it open to the public as a spectacular shared space. Attractions run from the animal odours and noises of London Zoo to the enchanting Open Air Theatre. Various food and music festivals pitch up here over the summer and rowing boat hire, bandstands, beautiful rose gardens (with some 30,000 roses and 400 varieties), tennis courts, ice-cream stands and eateries (including the delightful Garden Café) complete the picture. Regent’s Park has several playgrounds, but the most interesting is at Hanover Gate where, in 2010, a new timber treehouse area for older kids was built within a large sandpit next to the boating lake and existing playground.
St James's Park
St James's Park was founded as a deer park for the royal occupants of St James's Palace, and remodelled by John Nash on the orders of George IV. The central lake is home to numerous species of wildfowl, including pelicans that have been kept here since the 17th century, when the Russian ambassador donated several of the bag-jawed birds to Charles II. The pelicans are fed at 3pm daily, though they have been known to supplement their diet at other times of the day with the occasional pigeon. The bridge over the lake offers very snappable views of Buckingham Palace. Along the north side of the park, the Mall connects Buckingham Palace with Trafalgar Square. It looks like a classic processional route, but the Mall was actually laid out as a pitch for Charles II to play 'paille-maille' (an early version of croquet imported from France) after the pitch at Pall Mall became too crowded. On the south side of the St James's Park, Wellington Barracks contains the Guards Museum; to the east, Horse Guards contains the Household Cavalry Museum.