Royal watchers are already booking hotel rooms and flights just for the fun of being in London during the royal spring wedding. A glimpse of the royal carriage en route to Westminster Abbey! An imperial wave from the palace balcony! All possible, but not guaranteed. However, if they shifted their trip to August or September, they could assuredly visit the palace, not just to watch the Changing of the Guard outside in the Forecourt, but actually to tour the 19 State Rooms. Who doesn’t want to see the presumptive future home of Wills and Kate?
Every summer Queen Elizabeth II decamps to Balmoral Castle for her Scottish vacation and opens to the public. For most people, it’s the only chance to see what life in the royal homestead is really like. This is not only the official royal home, it is also the administrative headquarters of the monarchy, a working palace where the queen conducts the business of meeting the prime minister every week, awarding knighthoods and honors at Investitures, receiving diplomats accredited to the Court of St James, and presiding over state banquets and diplomatic receptions.
Last summer, well over 400,000 people visited the Palace. And this year, wedding fever is expected to swell attendance.
What you’ll see are the 19 State Rooms, which form the heart of the working palace, all lavishly furnished with masterpiece paintings and sculpture; exquisite Sèvres porcelain, glorious crystal chandeliers, priceless tapestries, and some of the finest English and French furniture in the world, all from the Royal Collection. (The rest of the 775 rooms, including 52 royal and guest bedrooms, 188 staff bedrooms, and 78 bathrooms are not on the tour.)
Enter the Grand Hall, go up the red-carpeted marble Grand Staircase, past portraits set in the walls by Queen Victoria, and into the Green Room, hung with its signature green silk walls framed by lattice-patterned plasterwork pilasters. Through a wide doorway you can see the Throne Room, the most dramatic interior that architect John Nash designed for the Palace. Twin thrones sit on a crimson dais under a tall red velvet canopy. Inscribed with the initials ER II and P, they were made for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh in 1953. Around the ceiling a plaster frieze depicts the War of the Roses.
The tour continues through the Picture Gallery, a long hall lined with masterpieces, among them Holbein, Rembrandt, Rubens, Canaletto, and Van Dyck. The palace now has the largest collection in Britain, thanks in part to King Charles I, known as the best royal art collector, and King George III, who bought art in bulk.
Through several smaller rooms, furnished equally sumptuously, you reach the Ballroom, largest of the State Rooms. Its dimensions—112 feet long, 50 feet wide, and 46 feet high— and Queen Victoria’s organ, only hint at its grandeur. Here the Queen can entertain 600 guests at a banquet, 1500 at a reception, and hundreds of recipients of the Queen’s honors. It was opened in 1856 with a ball to celebrate the end of the Crimean War. This year for the first time visitors will see it set up for a State Banquet, the traditional horseshoe-shaped table dressed with silver-gilt from the Grand Service, first used to celebrate the birthday of George III in 1811. Lavish buffet arrangements of jewelled cups, ivory tankards and chased dishes, sconces, shields and basins will be arranged along each side of the room.
In the smaller State Dining Room, the brilliant crimson damask walls are hung with huge portraits of the Hannoverian monarchs and consorts, and, like the following group of State Rooms, it looks out on the 40-acre garden. The Blue Drawing Room with a poetry frieze celebrating Milton, Spenser and Shakespeare, and the White Drawing Room, where the Queen usually receives visitors, flank the Music Room and its tall bay windows, used for royal christenings. Ornately designed ceilings, glittering crystal chandeliers, and priceless porcelains and furnishings are signature features of all these rooms.
Down the Ministers’ Staircase to the ground floor Marble Hall, out through the Bow Room to the garden, and the tour is over.
By the time you get to the Palace this summer, you’ll know just where the royal nuptials were celebrated, where the champagne toasts were made, where Kate and Wills had their first married dance. It will be almost as good as being there. Almost.
For online tickets and complete information log on to the official palace site. All major credit cards accepted. There usually aren’t guides on public visits, but an excellent audio guide is included with your ticket, and an Official Guidebook is available.
The State Rooms, Aug 1-Sep 25, 2011; entrance on Buckingham Palace Road. Adult £17.50 ($28); Over 60/Student £16.00 ($25); UU Under 17 £10 ($16); Family (2 adults and 3 under 17) £46.00 ($74); includes audio guide and this year’s special exhibition, “Royal Faberge.”
A Royal Day Out is an omnibus ticket to The State Rooms, plus the Royal Mews and The Queen’s Gallery, both s next to the Palace; only available Aug 1-Sept 25, 2011. Adult £31 ($50); Over 60/ Student £28..25 ($45); Under 17 £17.50 ($28); Family £81.50 ($130) (2 adults and 3 under 17).