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If you were to fall asleep tonight and wake up inside one of the State Rooms, you’d never guess where you were. Is it opulent? No question. But if gilding, teardrop chandeliers, 18th-century portraits, and ceremonial halls could ever be considered standard-issue, Buckingham Palace is your basic palace. Queen Elizabeth’s mild taste—call it “respectable decadence” of yellows and creams and pleasant floral arrangements, thank you very much—is partly the reason. Remember, too, that much of this palace was built or remodeled in the 1800s—not so long ago in the scheme of things—and that the queen considers Windsor to be her real home. That’s right: Buckingham Palace is a mere pied-à-terre.
All tickets are timed and include an audio tour that rushes you around too quickly. (If you want to see highlights of the formal gardens, that’s another £9.) The route threads through the public and ceremonial rooms at the back of the Palace—nowhere the Royal Family spends personal time (and besides, tours are held only when they’re in Scotland, 2 months a year). Highlights include the 50m-long (164-ft.) Picture Gallery filled mostly with works amassed by George IV, an obsessive collector; the 14m-high (46-ft.) Ballroom, where the queen confers knighthoods; the parquet-floored Music Room, unaltered since John Nash decorated it in 1831, where the queen’s three eldest children were baptized in water brought from the River Jordan; and a stroll through the thick Garden in the back yard. It’s definitely worth seeing—how often can you toddle around the spare rooms in a queen’s house, inspecting artwork given as gifts by some of history’s most prominent names? But it’s no Versailles. If you’re in London any time other than August or September and spot her standard of red, gold, and blue flying above, you’ll at least know the queen is home. If it’s the Union Jack, she’s gone.