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A Right Royal Day Out
Buckingham Palace (London)
Member Name: milmol7
Buckingham Palace (London)
Advantages: Very well organised, visit can be done at own pace, great staff, superb day out
Disadvantages: Lots of walking, only one opportunity to rest during the visit (2.5 hours)
The idea to visit Buckingham Palace was initially a bit of a throwaway remark. I expected it to be ridiculously expensive, but we had our trip to London booked which included my birthday and I was just browsing around the internet for possible things to do. When I reached the "Royal Collections" website and saw that the State Rooms tour was £19 per adult, it suddenly became a real possibility, which rapidly (i.e. booked in minutes!) became a firm date.
The website is clearly laid out with a large "visit" tab at the top, which offers the options of State Rooms, Royal Mews, Queens Gallery and Clarence House. Clicking on "State Rooms" you are taken through to the book tickets page where there is also a wealth of information about the visit including the all important ticket prices. Concessions are available at £17.50 for over 60's or students, under 17 £10.50 and under 5's free. A family ticket (2 adults plus up to 3 children) is available at £50.00. There are further options if you wish to incorporate a visit to the mews and/or garden tour.
Having decided to book, the next stage is to book your date and time. There is a calendar showing availability, and we booked about 3 weeks in advance and found plenty of availability for all times on our chosen day. Following on from that it is a standard "add to basket - checkout" format, including the option to giftaid your payment if you wish. The booking process took about 5 minutes (that's taking out the 20 minute debate about what time of day we wanted!) and the tickets arrived in a posh looking envelope through the post in 3 days. If you book close to your date of travel you can arrange to collect your tickets on the day.
The day got off to an amazing start when we discovered that it was "changing the guard" on the day we went - this is only done every other day, at 11.30am, and our visit was booked for 1pm. Unsurprisingly, the changing of the guard attracted thousands of spectators, so the area was absolutely packed. I was getting pretty edgy having heard a few scare stories about queuing times, people being asked to come back later etc so although an hour early we decided to find out where we would need to go to see if we should start queuing early.
The entrance and ticket office is to the left hand side of the Palace, clearly marked, and there were staff members standing around who were really helpful. We were assured not to worry, just come back at the time stated. Sure enough, by 1.00 the crowds had significantly thinned out around the area and we walked straight in having passed our tickets over.
Under some huge marquee style covering there are some waiting benches where the timed group gather and at 1.00 another staff member appeared to talk us through the ground rules. Primarily these were no photography or mobile phones, we were told the length of the visit (2-2.5 hours) and that there are no toilets in that time and no opportunities for sitting. Obviously if either of those things were a problem, they said to approach the staff for assistance, which would be given. This chat lasted just a few minutes, and we were off. We were a group of around 25-30 people I guess.
The next phase is an airport-style security check, scanners for pocket contents and bags before walking through a metal detector style 'doorway'. Once through there we were asked to leave our rucksack for collection at the end, but it was fairly big, and any sized handbags, carrier bags etc were fine to take through the tour. The rule is that if your bag is small enough to pass through the scanner it will be ok to take in.
Finally, you collect your audio tour. There were 4 members of staff giving the units out, which consisted of a small walkman style unit with a neck band and a pair of headphones which were soft and comfy to wear.
I'm not going to say anything specific about the tour because I wouldn't have wanted to have known anything about it before I went; I loved the surprise of it all.
For us the tour took 2 hours start to finish, it could have been done quicker and equally it could have lasted a little longer. The displays can take as long as you like to look at, and there are parts which may be of less interest which you can move quicker through. The beauty of the audio tour is you can really take your time, you press a key to move on when ready, no one is hurrying anyone along at any time. The audio guide contains lots of information on a huge range of areas, but this year (2013) it is all geared towards the Queen's coronation, so presumably it differs each year.
Part way round there is one opportunity for sit-down, in a short film show area. There are lots of steps and staircases, but the Palace is accessible for everyone and there are numerous staff around in every room, and walking around. All of the staff I encountered were really cheerful, friendly and approachable, asking if people were ok with their audio guides, or just saying "hello".
When it's all over...
At the end of the tour you emerge overlooking the huge Palace lawns at the back. There is a desk to return the audio guide, and another alongside to reclaim your bags. This was seamless and there was no wait at all. To the right hand side there is a large Palace Tea Room, which we didn't visit, but would make a lovely spot for a welcome cuppa and probably a slice of cake, overlooking the gardens.
The toilets are in a temporary building around 50 yards away along the path to the left, there are plenty of toilets and they are clean and modern with plenty of basins and hand-dryers too. After the toilets is the gift shop, which is another experience on its own! There is a "Palace" version of every household item and gadget, food item, toy, clothing - you name it, as well as books and other souvenirs. All the prices are predictably ridiculous, we spent about 10 or 15 minutes browsing in the shop and eventually we bought some tea bags in a Buckingham Palace embossed tin, for a bargain £7. Once again the staff were plentiful, friendly and efficient - no queues.
Finally you take a walk around the outer edge of the gardens to the exit. This is stated as half a mile, although it didn't feel like that far, it was a pleasant, flat walk which took maybe 10 minutes of a slow walk. The path goes through some interesting plants and trees and it's just nice to finish off imagining the royal family walking around the paths and gardens where you're walking.
Right at the end is the last hurrah from the Palace - by completing your details on the back of your entrance ticket you can have it stamped to enable you to return again within 12 months free of charge. This is great if you have had to rush your visit for any reason, and is a gesture they don't need to make, a good touch I think.
My visit to the Palace was a fantastic experience. I'm not an enthusiastic Royalist, although I do like the Royal Family, but for anyone with any interest in royalty, British heritage or history, there is a wealth of material for everyone. My partner isn't particularly interested in royalty at all, but he said that it was great value and thoroughly enjoyed the visit.
The audio tour is superbly done, and there is so much to see that I have recommended it to everyone who has had the misfortune to bump into me (or now read my review) since!
Summary: A wonderful experience which I recommend to anyone
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