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, George, Charlotte, and Louis live when they’re in town. (No, you won’t find their toothbrushes 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, to ease 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. Historic Royal Palaces, grasping for currency, installed 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 most of its context and now it’s a spook house for art snobs. The newly reopened King’s State Apartments, pegged to King George III and Queen Caroline, is explained to visitors not with a thoughtful historical dossier but with a scratch-and-sniff guide to odors that might have filled the palace once. Kids may appreciate 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—rather than teaching visitors what enabled a girl of 18 to rise to master the most powerful empire in the world, it shows her failing the Bechdel test and living in terms of men: as a good girl, a loving wife, and a grieving widow. It’s also misleading: One room draped in black leads you to believe Prince Albert died here, 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 that will tear as a warning of shifting or swelling. The staircase is considered so precious that it wasn’t opened to the public until 2004, 105 years after the rest of the palace first accepted sightseers. 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 see gowns worn by HM the Queen, Diana, and Princess Margaret, who lived here as well. Overall, though, if you’re short on time, this pandering Palace is no longer a must-see.