The next time you arrive at London’s Heathrow Airport, you might be forgiven for wanting a welcome fit for a king. Yet under the now nearly three-month-old reign of King Charles III, there is a persistent rumor that Buckingham Palace, that symbol of the British monarchy since its acquisition by America’s favorite monarch George III in 1763, is going to pass out of private hands and into public ones. There has been talk of its being turned into a giant permanent art gallery and museum, showing off treasures from the Royal Collection Trust. There’s even chatter of — and I can hear the gasps from here — its being transformed into a five-star hotel. You, too, can pay an exorbitant amount of money to sleep where kings and queens have trod.
It remains to be seen whether this will come to pass, but even now, there is a vast amount for the would-be royal tourist to take in. Buckingham Palace is, of course, partially open to the public anyway, its State Rooms open for a period of ten weeks every summer, allowing gawkers to take in British regal bling. The Queen’s Gallery and Royal Mews offer, respectively, a world-class art collection and one of the country’s most distinguished working stables, complete with various ornate royal carriages. So if you want to see inside what was used to transport Elizabeth II to her ceremonial functions, or exactly what Queen Victoria’s taste in portraiture involved, you will not be disappointed.
If you’re after something less grandiose — although these things are very much on a relative scale — then the nearby Clarence House, the former home of the Queen Mother, is a sumptuous John Nash-designed townhouse and currently the residence of Charles III and the Queen Consort. The Royal Collection proudly calls it “one of the last remaining aristocratic townhouses in London.” Its rich and fascinating associations with everyone from William IV to the naughtiest member of the modern-day royal family, Princess Margaret, are well worth a look.
There are other places scattered throughout London that are redolent of the Royal Family. Of course, Windsor Castle — a short trip from Waterloo station — is an invaluable addition to any itinerary. But where should one stay while in the capital? Thankfully, there are several excellent places within easy reach of Buckingham Palace and the St. James’s area, all of which have a great deal to offer the discerning visitor. There is an especial long-standing association between American visitors and St. Ermin’s hotel in Westminster, a short walk from Buckingham Palace, and the late 19th-century plasterwork interior is a dazzling display of Victorian extravagance. It’s just as well, then, that the hotel itself is a suitably comfortable and stylish destination, complete with a fascinating mini-display of espionage equipment that, at one time or another, was associated with St. Ermin’s. It’s proof, if it were needed, that the links between high and low society are never as far as might be imagined.
If one is keen to stay in the kind of hotel that the Royals themselves frequent now and again, then the obvious port of call is the Lanesborough, which overlooks both Hyde Park Corner and the Duke of Wellington’s former home of Apsley House. Rightly regarded as one of London’s finest and most sumptuously appointed destinations, it combines neoclassical premises with extensively (and expensively) remodeled interiors (recently reopened after a two-year refurbishment) and the kind of suites and bedrooms that would make even the most luxury-weary traveler sigh with delight. The addition of a butler gives the whole shebang a Jeeves and Wooster quality. And the genuine warmth is coupled with a dedication to service that means even the most demanding Duke of Windsor type will be satisfied.
It is, of course, true that the truly regal visitor will want a repast fit for a king or queen, which is where the Game Bird restaurant at the upmarket Stafford Hotel comes in. The hotel itself is discretion exemplified, in a side street off of St. James and a short walk both from Clarence House and Green Park, and offers all the understated luxury and formal but never impersonal service that one might wish for. But its restaurant is something else entirely, a fantasia of British cuisine served with flair and imagination. Start with the celeriac consommé or North Sea cod, and then follow it up with the Game Bird pigeon pie or venison, accompanied by exemplary wines by the glass or bottle. Before long, you’ll find yourself in a dazzling stupor of Edward VII-level excess, and not a chorus girl in sight.
London is a city in thrall to the sights and trappings of royalty. From the changing of the guard outside Buckingham Palace to the sight of the red-clad Coldstream guards, complete with bearskin hats, it is hard to avoid the history of its most celebrated family. As the Queen’s funeral showed, Britain can still do pageantry, even if it’s not much good at anything else. So if you’re looking to pay homage to the Royals, rest assured that you’re following in the very best of footsteps. Play your cards right, and you might even sit next to a prince or princess in a cocktail bar.