Walking in the Footsteps of Queen Elizabeth II, on Your UK Vacation

People & Culture

Royal Parade in London and Guards marching in front of Queen Elizabeth II, London, England, UK Cropped

Walk in the footsteps of Queen Elizabeth II, while on your UK vacation, and visit the many homes she’s lived in over the past 65 years.

Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her Sapphire Jubilee this past February 6, 2017, marking 65 years on the throne of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. This solidifies Queen Elizabeth’s place as the longest-reigning monarch in the history of England and currently the longest-reigning monarch on the planet since the passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand last October. There are few individuals more famous and instantly recognized. In fact, it’s hard to overstate how important Queen Elizabeth has been in Britain and the larger world over the past century.

Queen Elizabeth remains incredibly popular in public polls and the entire royal family is again the focus of rabid public attention since the marriage of Prince William and Catherine Middleton and the birth of their children, Prince George and Princess Charlotte. Add in the public’s increased interest in the early years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, depicted in the popular Netflix show, The Crown, and you have a perfect storm of interest in Queen Elizabeth II’s life and times.

From Birth to Marriage, Child to Princess

Queen Elizabeth was born on April 21, 1926 at the home of her maternal grandparents at No. 17 Bruton Street in Mayfair, London. Unfortunately, the house in which she was born no longer exists, but if you do pass down Bruton Street, you can see a plaque on the wall commemorating the Queen’s birth. In her childhood years, Queen Elizabeth lived with her parents, Albert and Elizabeth (the later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother), at 145 Piccadilly. Sadly, that home also doesn’t exist anymore. It’s now an InterContinental Hotel.

When her father became king, Elizabeth moved along with her family, to Buckingham Palace, the main seat of royal power. After World War II ended, in which Elizabeth served in the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service as an ambulance driver, she became engaged to Philip Mountbatten, a prince of Greece and Denmark. She married Prince Philip on November 20, 1947 at Westminster Abbey.

One of the most popular sites in all of England, Westminster Abbey is the site of coronation for British monarchs and a famous burial site for important individuals over the centuries. Kings and queens like Edward III and Elizabeth I are buried here, as well as scientists Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, writer Charles Dickens, composer George Frederic Handel, and wartime politician, Winston Churchill. You can visit their tombs, while on your UK vacation, and learn about the long history of English kings and queens.

After her wedding, Elizabeth stayed at both Windlesham Moor, which is now owned by an Arab sheikh and not accessible to the public, and Clarence House, which is currently the official residence of the Prince of Wales. Clarence House recently opened up for public tours so you can make a visit on a trip to London.

Twilight view of Westminister Abbey Cathedral in London, England, United Kingdom (UK)
View of Westminister Abbey Cathedral at twilight, London

Her Father’s Home Becomes Her Home

In early 1952, King George VI died of lung cancer, and as he had no male children, Elizabeth was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom. The coronation occurred on June 2, 1953 at Westminster Abbey and was broadcast on television, a first for the crowning of a monarch. As Queen, Elizabeth set up her main residence in Buckingham Palace, the primary seat of the British Crown.

Buckingham Palace was built in 1703 for the Duke of Buckingham. The royal family didn’t acquire the building until 1761 when King George III bought it as a private residence for his wife, Queen Charlotte. Until then, it was a private residence known as “Buckingham House.” After King George III acquired it, the building became known as “The Queen’s House,” and didn’t gain the moniker “Buckingham Palace” until 1791.

In the 19th century, designers John Nash and Edward Blore refurbished and expanded the palace under orders of the royal family. Finally, when Queen Victoria was crowned in 1837, Buckingham Palace became the official London residence of the royal family. However, even though the Queen lives here, she does not personally own the building. The palace is held by the Crown Estates and reserved for occupancy by the reigning monarch.

As the home remains the primary residence of Queen Elizabeth, many of its rooms are closed to the public. However, the 19 state rooms are open to the public during August and September, when the Queen summers in Scotland. These state rooms boast a large series of treasures from the Royal Collection. There are Rembrandt and Rubens paintings as well as antique furniture kept from the reign of past kings and queens.

As well, the special exhibit of this upcoming summer focuses on royal gifts the Queen has received from other monarchs and dignitaries over the past 65 years. These gifts represent the artistic heights of the many nations the Queen has visited over her years. They also act as souvenirs of her travels.

Buckingham Palace, London, England, UK
Buckingham Palace

The World’s Largest Inhabited Castle

While Buckingham Palace is the main residence for Queen Elizabeth, she spends her weekends and Easter at Windsor Castle in the west end of London, past Heathrow Airport, in the English county of Berkshire. Like Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle is not personally owned by the Queen, but by the Crown Estates. It’s the largest inhabited castle in the world and has been in pristine condition for over 900 years.

Its grey stone façade is world famous as is its daily “Changing of the Guard.” Crowds swell between 11am and 11:30am to witness the change, which is accompanied by a regimental band and an elaborate marching routine. Get there early if you want to snap a photograph from a good vantage point.

Unlike Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle is accessible all year around. The state apartments show off elaborate costumes and royal treasures, as well as Queen Mary’s Doll’s House, an incredibly detailed miniature palace complete with miniature jewels and chandeliers. You can also visit St. George’s Chapel, which houses the tombs of Henry VIII and Charles I.

Aerial View of Windsor Castle, home of Queen Elizabeth II in Berkshire County, England, UK
Aerial view of Windsor Castle in Berkshire County

The Queen’s Personal Residences

While Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle are held by the Crown Estates, Balmoral Castle and Sandringham House belong to Queen Elizabeth personally. Located in the north of Scotland in Aberdeenshire, Balmoral Castle is the Queen’s favourite residence. Prince Albert bought the land the castle is located on in 1852 as a gift for his wife, Queen Victoria. He knocked down the old building and commissioned a new castle to be built in its stead, which was completed in 1856.

The Queen uses Balmoral Castle as her late summer house, spending August and September there. As Balmoral Castle is less a formal residence of a monarch and more a personal home for the Queen and her family, the building is mostly kept private. Only the ballroom and the grounds are accessible to visitors. However, the ballroom displays photographs of the rest of the castle, and the grounds and stables are among the most gorgeous in the whole of the United Kingdom

Sandringham House is located in eastern England in Norfolk and acts as a private retreat for British monarchs. King Edward VII built the current house in 1870 when he was still Prince of Wales. To this day, the manor boasts Edwardian décor. It also houses the extensive art and treasure collections of Edward’s wife, Queen Alexandra, and future daughter-in-law, Queen Mary. You can tour the state rooms of Sandringham House, as well as the gardens and private museum. The museum is located in the former coach house and stables and contains many royal gifts as well as an original 1939 Merryweather fire engine.

Horses near Balmoral Castle, Scotland, UK
Horses near Balmoral Castle, Scotland

See the Crown Jewels and Visit the Other Official Residences

While Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle have many of the Queen’s treasures, her greatest treasures are housed in the Tower of London. William the Conqueror first constructed the central White Tower in 1078 and the Tower has acted as a prison for the majority of its almost-thousand-year history, imprisoning significant figures from Anne Boleyn to Ronnie and Reggie Kray. Nowadays, it’s most famous for housing the Crown Jewels of England. You can visit the Tower and see the crown used during Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953.

After seeing the opulence of the Crown Jewels, you may want to pamper yourself and feel like royalty. A visit to Harrods department store for high tea lets you take part in a deeply British tradition while enjoying one of the most luxurious department stores in the world. You might also consider staying in a luxury London hotel, which is as close to a palace as non-royalty can manage.

Tower of London, England, UK
Tower of London

If you venture outside England, you can see the Queen’s other official residences. The Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh was the home of Mary, Queen of Scots, and is the Queen’s official Scotland residence. The current building was constructed between 1671 and 1678. You can visit the 14 state apartments, the ruins of Holyrood Abbey from the 12th century, as well as the royal gardens.

Across the Irish Sea lies the official residence in Northern Ireland, Hillsborough Castle. Sold to the British government in 1922, this Georgian mansion was originally built in the 18th century for the Hill family. Queen Elizabeth stays here on any official visits to Northern Ireland. You can tour the state rooms and Granville Garden, as well as the throne room where citizenship ceremonies are held. In Lady Grey’s sitting room, you can also see a mahogany writing desk that was apparently made for the Titanic’s sister ship, the Britannic, which sunk in 1916 during World War I.

Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom UK
Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh

Queen Elizabeth II has lived a remarkable life and these many castles and manors offer you a peek inside that life, while on a UK vacation. While you have plenty of options, few things carry as much romance and regal appeal as retracing the steps of the Queen, that defined the country and the century.