Buckingham Palace is the royal residence. Lord Buckingham had his town house built here in 1705.
Queen Victoria was the first English monarch to reside in the palace, moving into some of its 600 rooms in 1837. Today Queen Elizabeth and her husband actually live in just twelve rooms on the north side; the other rooms are used as offices or reception rooms. On official occasions members of the royal family wave to the crowds from the middle balcony on the east facade.
If you are one of the select few invited to one of the Queen’s garden parties, you may walk through the gates of the palace, but they are generally closed to the casual visitor. Since the summer of 1993, however, the Palace has had a second attraction to add to the Changing of the Guard, which takes place in front of the Palace every day at 11:30 (between August and April, only every other day).
While the royal family is taking its annual summer vacation at Balmoral Castle in Scotland in August and September, 18 rooms of the palace are opened to visitors.
In any case, you can visit the Queen’s Gallery in the south wing of the Palace, with its rotating exhibitions of works of art from the royal collections, all year round. Also open all year to visitors are the Royal Mews to the southwest of the Palace, housing 30 royal horses, 70 or so state coaches and 20 luxury cars of the Queen.
After sightseeing, you can unwind in the two parks adjoining Buckingham Palace. The first, Green Park, created in the 17th century, is a green triangle between the north wall of Buckingham Palace Gardens and Piccadilly; in the spring, it turns into a sea of yellow daffodils.
The oldest royal park, and one of the loveliest in London, is St. James’ Park, located to the east of the Palace and the broad avenue leading up to it, the Mall (underground station: St. James’ Park). The Mall dates to 1660 and, like the parallel avenue of Pall Mall, takes its name from paille maifle, a game resembling croquet, which Charles II is supposed to have played here.
At the southwest end of the Mall is the Victoria Memorial: after a design by Webb, the sculptor Thomas Brook surrounded Queen Victoria with a plethora of allegorical figures representing such Victorian values as justice, truth, motherhood, peace and progress. The general feeling was that the edifice rather resembled an enormous wedding cake, but both Brook and Webb were knighted for their work.
If you turn round and walk back along the Mall towards its northwest end, Admiralty Arch, you will pass three palaces on the left: Lancaster House, today used only for banquets and receptions; Clarence House, residence of the Queen Mother; and St. James’ Palace. This last was planned as a hunting lodge by Henry VIII and converted into a royal palace 150 years later after its predecessor in Whitehall burned down in 1698. Prince Charles has lived here since his separation from his wife, the late Lady Diana, in 1992.
In the red brick building next door, Marlborough House, another Wren creation, the Commonwealth Center has been housed since 1962. Just before you reach the triumphal arch giving onto Trafalgar Square, you will see a light, elegant row of classical houses fronted by Doric pillars, Canton House Terrace.