Once upon a time, castles were the domain of monarchs and peers of the realm, and most people had little hope of seeing their princely chambers.
But times have changed and today visitors to Great Britain can tread in the footsteps of royalty – from Tudor celebrities to modern-day monarchy – on tours of their historic estates.
BALMORAL CASTLE, SCOTLAND
Queen Victoria described Balmoral, a 20,000-hectare domain cradled by the wild encircling hills of Scotland’s Royal Deeside, as “my dear paradise in the Highlands”. Balmoral so captivated the royal couple that Prince Albert bought the estate in 1852. The majestic baronial-style castle you see today was completed in 1856.
Balmoral abounds with royal romance and tragedy: following Prince Albert’s death in 1861, Victoria shut herself away at Balmoral, with ghillie-turned-servant John Brown her closest confidant. In 1946, Prince Phillip of Greece proposed to Princess Elizabeth at Balmoral, and in 1947, the couple honeymooned at Birkhall, an 18th-century lodge on the estate.
Visitors can soak up the bucolic charms of the Queen’s Scottish home from March to July (the royal family stay here throughout August, September and October).
Only some areas of the castle are open to visitors, including the grounds, gardens and the castle’s huge ballroom, which has an exhibition of memorabilia and objets d’arts relating to the royals.
The Carriage Hall houses royal carriages and exhibitions of the estate’s wildlife and landscapes, and a ranger service offers guided woodland walks. Or perhaps opt for a Land Rover safari that takes in the estate’s farm and pine forests.
Before heading to Balmoral, the Queen takes part in a ceremony to launch Edinburgh’s Holyrood Week, celebrating Scottish culture and history. The occasion also marks the monarch’s annual sojourn at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, her official residence in Scotland, which stands at the end of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.
Founded as an Augustinian monastery by King David I of Scotland in 1128, Holyroodhouse was built under the orders of James IV in 1498.
Guided and self-guided tours include the grand State Apartments, Throne Room, Great Gallery – decorated with portraits of legendary Scottish kings – and romantic ruins of the 12th-century Holyrood Abbey.
But it is the “most famous room in Scotland” that lures so many visitors like me to Holyroodhouse – the bedchamber of the ill-fated Mary, Queen of Scots, dominated by a small, high‑canopied bed.
Born in 1542, Mary’s turbulent tenure at the palace included the murder of her private secretary, David Rizzio, and disastrous marriages to both her Scottish husbands – Lord Darnley and James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell.
BUCKINGHAM PALACE, ENGLAND
Queen Elizabeth II lives at Buckingham Palace, her official London residence, for about six months of the year, spending weekends at Windsor Castle.
While tourists mill around the central London palace on a daily basis, particularly during the colourful Changing of the Guard ceremonies, it’s worth splashing the cash to see the gilded chambers of the 775-room palace George III purchased in 1761.
The Royal Day Out tour includes the palace’s majestic staterooms, the Queen’s Gallery, which hosts a program of changing exhibitions, and fascinating Royal Mews, which houses coaches including the Gold State Coach used at every coronation since George IV in 1821.
KENSINGTON PALACE, ENGLAND
A royal residence since 1689, sprawling Kensington Palace was the seat of royal power until Queen Victoria moved to Buckingham Palace in 1837. Once like a gilded prison seen only beyond towering gates, the palace recently underwent a £12 million refurbishment.
Royals have lived here for generations – the Duke of Windsor called Kensington “the aunt heap”. Queen Victoria was born and raised here, Charles and Diana moved in a year after their marriage, and today Apartment 1A is the London home of William, Kate, George and Charlotte.
From the public wing, visitors can view sumptuous state apartments, see dresses worn by Princess Diana at the exhibition Fashion Rules, and explore the permanent exhibition Victoria Revealed, where the queen’s wedding dress and curios are on display in the rooms where she once lived.
An excellent afternoon tea is served at the 18th-century Orangery, surrounded by manicured gardens. Once part of Hyde Park, where Henry VIII hosted deer chases, Kensington’s gardens include the Sunken Garden, planted in 1908 and modelled on a similar garden at Hampton Court Palace.
HAMPTON COURT PALACE, ENGLAND
In 1838, the young Queen Victoria ordered that Hampton Court Palace “should be thrown open to all her subjects without restriction”.
Once home of Henry VIII, his daughter Queen Elizabeth I, and a bevy of royals across the centuries, Hampton Court is situated at Richmond-upon-Thames, a pleasant three-hour boat journey from Westminster along the Thames River (or half an hour by train).
Built in 1515, the red-brick palace is a maze of artwork-adorned staterooms, covering hundreds of rooms and a 55-room Tudor kitchen complex. Walk in the footsteps of Henry VIII through the Great Hall, hung with the King’s most splendid tapestries, and the beautiful Chapel Royal, where monarchs worshipped for centuries.
Hampton Court is set in 300 hectares of gardens and grounds that include the Great Maze, begun in 1690, and historic Royal Tennis Courts.
While Hampton Court was said to be King Henry’s favourite palace, he was buried at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, in 1547.
WINDSOR CASTLE, ENGLAND
Each year the Queen spends her month-long Easter break at Windsor, the world’s oldest occupied castle. Built by William the Conqueror around 1080, 39 monarchs have called the massive stone fortress home. Windsor is still very much a working royal palace today, used regularly for ceremonial and state occasions.
Treasures in the Royal Collection – furniture, artworks and porcelain – can be seen in the castle’s magnificent state apartments. The Royal Archives, the Royal Photograph Collection, and the Royal Library are all based here.
Visitors can tour the state apartments, see Queen Mary’s Dolls House, and the richly decorated rooms created for George IV.
Later, in the twisting streets of Windsor town, you may happen across the one-time home of Nell Gwynn, mistress of Charles I. The ground floor is now the Nell Gwynn Chinese Restaurant.