No trip to England's capital is complete with sampling the pomp and pageantry of the nation's most treasured institution - the Royal family. Over the centuries they've built some of the world's finest palaces. Not only are they splendidly well maintained, many are still working buildings, home to some illustrious tenants and host to all manner of state functions. Many of these have only recently opened their doors to commoners, and they're well worth checking out.
First stop on a tour of royal London has to be Buckingham Palace, the Royal Family's official residence, and one of the world's biggest and most opulent palaces, with 775 rooms (including 78 bathrooms). It began life as the Duke of Buckingham's town house and was converted and upgraded by King George III in 1761. But Queen Victoria was the first sovereign to live there, and she put her stamp on the place by having the famous façade built. It remains a working building, host to state visits, public appearances, garden parties and banquets.
During the summer, the nineteen state rooms at the Palace's heart are open to the public. These huge high-ceilinged rooms are stunningly opulent, and, with decoration that includes paintings by Rembrandt and Canaletto, outdo even Versailles in Paris.
Make sure you don't neglect the palace stables, the Royal Mews, where you can see the royal collection of coaches, including the Gold State Coach that was used in 2002s Golden Jubilee celebrations.
And finally, join the crowds outside in the morning for the changing of the guard. The royal guard, dressed in traditional bearskin hats and tunics and accompanied by a military band, change shift in an intricately choreographed routine.
If Buckingham Palace is full of pomp and splendour, small but beautifully formed Kensington Palace is all about taste and refinement. It has been a Royal residence since 1689, when it was home to William II and his wife Mary. It was the favoured house of the sovereign until 1760, and has ever since been a particular favourite with ladies of the court, whose feminine influence has shaped its development. Today it is home to an exquisite collection of royal fashion from the 18th century to the present day, including a special exhibition on Princess Diana, featuring several of her couture dresses. Another exhibition concerns the world of upper class debutantes. Queen Victoria spent her childhood here, and you can see the 'Cupola Room' where she was christened. Come here on a sunny day to best appreciate the manicured gardens.
Windsor Castle, the world's biggest inhabited castle, is said to be Queen Elizabeth II's favourite residence. She's here over Easter in her official capacity, and in June for the racing at Royal Ascot.
Originally a wooden Norman keep, it has been updated and added to over the centuries and it was turned from a fortification into a palace by Queen Elizabeth I. The Castle's current rather medieval look in fact only dates back to Victorian times.
Queen Elizabeth II has made many improvements and increased access to the public. Visitors can see the state apartments, banqueting halls, a couple of beautiful chapels and the impressive Royal Collection of paintings and sculptures; look out too for Queen Mary's intricate dolls' house.
Hampton Court was built by Cardinal Wolsey in the 16th century, but its most famous resident was King Henry VIII. It's a serene palace by the river, well out of the hustle and bustle of London but still possible to visit as a day trip. Between 1525 and 1737 this was the official royal residence, and it's seen some memorable events; King Henry VIII spent his honeymoon with Anne Boleyn here in 1533, and in 1543 married Catherine Parr here; King Charles I was held prisoner in the palace in 1647 by the republican Oliver Cromwell, who - rather ironically - came to live here afterwards.
Today, the palace maintains the stamp of the Tudors, though it owes much of its present baroque architecture to additions in the 17th century by William III and Mary II. Unlike the other Palaces, it's not a working building, so you're pretty free to roam; particular favourites with visitors are Henry VIII's magnificent State Apartments, the huge Tudor Kitchens, and the creepy Haunted Gallery. The magnificent gardens feature a great maze, planted in 1702.
Tower of London
The Tower of London was founded by William the Conquerer in 1066-7, and served originally as a fortification. The curtain wall and moat were added by Richard the Lionheart in the 12th century. A dozen more Towers have been added to the original Norman White Tower, creating a stern and forbidding complex - suitable backdrop to the bloody events it has witnessed. The Tower was used as a prison and execution ground for high classes, and has held numerous royal prisoners, including Charles I and Edward V. Among those who met the business end of the executioner's axe here were Lady Jane Grey and Henry VIII's inconvenient wife, Anne Boleyn.
But there's much more besides gory history: there's a great new exhibition on Henry VIII, some impressive suits of armour and, of course, the crown jewels stand there to be marveled at. Guarding it all this - as well as working as tour guides - are the famous red-coated Beef eaters.
Here at You2uk.com we've got lots more British castles and other tourist attractions for you to explore in depth, from everyone's favourites - the Tower of London, Dover Castle, Windsor Castle, Arundel Castle, Leeds Castle, Caernarfon Castle and Edinburgh Castle - to the quaint little places that really make your trip.