Most people know it as the place where Lady Diana raised Princes William and Harry with Prince Charles from 1984 to 1996, but now it’s where Prince William, Kate, and George live. (Sorry. You won’t run into them in the bathroom.) It has been a royal domicile since 1689, when William and Mary took control of an existing home (then in the country, far from town, which inflamed William’s asthma) and made it theirs. Handsome and haughty, with none of the symmetry that defined later English tastes, the redbrick palace is not as ostentatious as you might expect. At least from the outside. A 2013 “transformation” ruined the experience within. Historic Royal Palaces, pandering badly, used its stewardship to build an arty amusement park, filling priceless spaces with junky art installations (voices whispering from gramophones, graffiti-like quotations scrawled across carpets and walls) based on scandals that happened here. The venerable palace was stripped of a sense of import and now it’s a spook house for art snobs.
In 2014, the newly reopened King’s Apartments, pegged to King George III and Queen Caroline, was explained to visitors not with a detailed historical dossier but with a scratch-and-sniff guide to odors that might have filled the palace once—kids love such sensationalism, and the costumed characters wandering about, but anyone who can reach the pedals knows it’s all style over substance. Queen Victoria has her own section, but she’s given the trashy treatment, too, and rather than teaching visitors what enabled a girl of 18 to rise to successfully control the most powerful empire in the world, she is shown, misogynistically, in terms of gender roles: as a good girl, a loving wife, and a grieving widow. One room draped in black leads you to believe Prince Albert died in it, but no, he died at Windsor. Thankfully, the walk-through still includes the magnificent King’s Staircase, lined with delicate canvas panels whose perimeters are rigged with tissue paper slivers designed to tear as a warning of shifting or swelling. The staircase is considered so precious that it was only opened to the public in 2004, 105 years after the rest of the palace first accepted sightseers. Also, in the Gallery there’s a working Anemoscope, which has told the outside wind direction since 1694, and a map of the world as known in that year. You’ll also get a chance to see gowns worn by HM the Queen, Diana, and Princess Margaret, who also lived here. Overall, through, if you’re short on time, the Palace is no longer a must-see.