With Prince Harry’s wedding only a few months away, another royal baby expected this spring and the growing popularity of the television series The Crown, one of London’s most iconic landmarks is seeing a rebirth in interest among visitors: Buckingham Palace. Yet it remains elusive to many parents, both because it is only open 10 weeks of the year and because it can seem a bit austere for families traveling with kids.
Fortunately, with some pre-planning and our insider tips, every family traveling to England can get a great and kid-friendly royal experience year-round.
Is your trip to London scheduled for late July through September? If so, you’re in luck, as the palace will likely be open during your travel dates. We always advise checking ahead before booking flights or hotels, however, as the schedule does vary from year to year depending on the Queen’s summer travel plans. Remember, this is still a fully operational home to Her Majesty! If your timing is off for a visit, read on as we offer some alternative ideas below.
When the palace is open, we advise devoting a full day of your London itinerary to royal exploration. Begin your morning at the Royal Mews. It’s only a few blocks from the Palace itself and makes a great starting point, especially for children. Here you’ll see the fancy cars, exquisite carriages and best of all, many of the Queen’s horses in their stables. An audio guide will lead you along to the various stopping points. Plan on about an hour here and get lots of photos at the Mews, as photography won’t be allowed in the palace itself. Then head to St. James Park nearby for playtime and a picnic lunch.
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After lunch and playtime, hit your pre-booked time slot to visit the State Rooms of Buckingham Palace. Again, this is an experience where an audio guide will help lead you from room to room. There is a dedicated children’s audio guide, so ask for that as you enter. My favorite stops are the Throne Room, the Picture Gallery and the Ballroom (where State Dinners are held). Families will probably spend 1 to 2 hours here, depending on how long you linger in each room.
Do make time for walking through the gardens at the back of the palace. It’s hard to imagine 39 acres of private parkland in the center of the city—it’ll have you wishing you could score an invite to one of the Queen’s famous garden parties. There’s a casual cafe at the end of the tour overlooking the gardens, so you can promise a sweet treat for the kids.
Also, the gift shop at Buckingham Palace is a great spot for London souvenirs. You’ll find exclusive items here that you can’t get in generic tourist shops. It’s especially nice to pick up a packet of postcards, full of photos from inside the palace, since photography is not allowed.
Many ticket packages include a visit to the Queen’s Gallery. While it does have a small children’s activity room, this is a small, quiet gallery, with works of art based around a different theme each year. Unless your family has a very specific interest in art, I’d advise skipping this attraction as it makes the day too long with children.
Instead, consider capping off the day with a fanciful afternoon tea experience, just like the Queen herself might end an afternoon. Ciao Bambino Family Vacation Advisors can suggest some wonderful locations for families to experience afternoon tea near the Palace.
If seeing the Changing of the Guard is high on your London bucket list, it’s worth investing in one of Ciao Bambino’s fantastic London guides. They can time the tour so that your family is perfectly positioned in a great spot to see it well, and can also try to include the Horse Guards changing ceremony (often much less crowded) and other royally significant sites like Westminster Abbey.
Be advised that the experience can be subject to weather and scheduling changes, so flexibility is key. Plan it for early in your trip, and then if for some reason it is cancelled due to weather, you can always try to see it another day.
Also, talk to your children in advance about being respectful of the guards they’ll see. They are working, and not there to pose for photos. Tourists should never touch the guards or stand too close, and certainly everyone should keep a safe distance from the horses.
Does your trip to London fall outside the public visitation period of Buckingham Palace? Or maybe your kids are a bit to young to handle the experience. Fear not, commoners! There are plenty of other ways to experience royalty year-round in London and its surrounding areas.
Royal Mews & Changing of the Guard: The Royal Mews, described above, is open mostly year-round (closed in winter), and the Changing of the Guard also takes place year-round, weather permitting. Pair these two experiences with afternoon tea and/or playtime in Hyde Park, and you still have a day fit for a queen!
Kensington Palace: At the far western end of Hyde Park is Kensington Palace, the current home of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge as well as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Ciao Bambino advisors can suggest wonderful guides to lead your family around this royal attraction. A visit to this palace pairs perfectly with playtime at the Princess Diana Memorial Playground, one of the best and largest playgrounds in the world. Be sure to buy tickets to the palace in advance, as there is a very popular fashion exhibit there this year and it often sells out.
Windsor Castle: This is a fun and easy day trip out of London, as direct trains run between the city and Windsor throughout the day. Windsor Castle is said to be the Queen’s favorite residence, and she often spends weekends here. In fact, visitors usually have a higher likelihood of seeing her here than they do at Buckingham Palace (my family did!). Get an earlier train out, and time your visit to coincide with the Changing of the Guard experience that happens here also. It tends to be far less crowded than the ceremony outside Buckingham Palace, but do check the schedule in advance. The castle has a family room with activities for kids, and the town itself is a lovely and charming place to have lunch, enjoy afternoon tea or shop. You can also pop over to Eton to wander around the boarding school where Prince William and Harry attended secondary school.
Hampton Court Palace: If you have younger children (like toddlers and preschoolers), this is the royal spot to put on your list. The grounds here are incredible, including a maze and a tremendous adventure playground. The building itself was the primary royal residence before Buckingham Palace was built and was intended to rival France’s Versailles. There are often costumed historical actors walking around, bringing the history to life for visitors of all ages. This is an easy journey out of central London via train.
However families choose to structure their London vacation, a stop in a royal residence — current or former — is always a thrill for kids and adults alike.
Editor’s Note: Photos by Nicole Wiltrout.
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