She stares down at me from the picture on the wall, smiling, a portrait of a happier time. A white dress; a thin figure; short blonde hair; pearly teeth; and dazzling eyes. This is the Princess Diana who the people remember.
In a room full of portraits here at Kensington Palace in London, hers draws the most attention. It’s not surprising – her presence here always did.
You only have to cast your mind back to the hundreds of thousands of flowers placed at the gate outside after her death to see how the building and the woman were so intrinsically linked.
Once she became a royal, she never truly stopped being one. Kensington Palace may have been her sanctuary at times but it was also her prison.
There are tributes to the Princess Diana here – the portrait, a collection of her dresses, modern wallpaper created with sketching of her. But, although we may associate the palace with her, many imposing women have come before.
Before Diana it was Princess Margaret, the Queen’s sister. She used Kensington Palace as her residence and would host parties with some of the world’s most glamorous and interesting celebrities.
She was a controversial figure, perhaps more interesting in socialising than official duties, but it helped raise the status of the building in the eyes of royal watchers.
King Edward VIII (her uncle) had once previously called it the “aunt heap” because of the number of lesser royals who had been given rooms there. Princess Margaret certainly made it more lively.
History of Kensington Palace
Kensington Palace gets its name because it was once a private home in the village of Kensington. (Back in the early 1600s when it was built, London did not stretch out this far.)
It became a royal residence in 1689 when King William III and Queen Mary II, as joint monarchs, bought it so they could live away from Whitehall Palace and out of the city (mainly because William was asthmatic).
The monarchs used architect Christopher Wren to turn it from a country house into a palace, which he did by adding sections to what was already there.
After Mary, and then William, died, Queen Anne took Kensington Palace to be her home. She asked Christopher Wren to complete the renovations. She also added the gardens and commissioned the famous Orangery.
The last ruler to use Kensington Palace as their official residence was King George II, who died in the building in 1760.
After that, Kensington Palace was used to house minor royals, who would share the building by living in different apartments.
Princess Margaret was probably the most senior royal to live in Kensington Palace until Prince Charles and Princess Diana moved to the palace in 1981 as their official residence.
Now, of course, it is home to Prince William and his family – meaning that it is the official residence to the second, third, fourth, and fifth in line to the throne!
Because it is still used by the royal family, you won’t see a lot of the inside when you visit Kensington Palace, but there’s something special about knowing William and Kate could be just metres away.
Considering that, it’s actually surprising there isn’t more security (although maybe it’s here and just well hidden).
Exhibitions at Kensington Palace
The areas of Kensington Palace you can visit are essentially a museum made up of some of the older and more historical rooms.
But these exhibitions at Kensington Palace are very interesting – particularly if you don’t already have a detailed knowledge of the history of the British Royal Family.
King’s State Apartments
The largest permanent exhibition at Kensington Palace is the King’s State Apartments, the series of rooms that was used for official tasks like audiences and meetings.
As you walk through the rooms – the Presence Chamber, the Privy Chamber, the Cupola Room, and so on – you’ll notice that there is not much furniture because staff and visitors would stand when they were meeting the monarch.
But there are some exquisite sculptures and works of art on display here. The most important collection is in the King’s Gallery.
But, having said that, don’t miss the painting by Vasari of Venus and Cupid in the King’s Drawing Room. And the King’s Staircase that you enter from is a masterpiece in itself.
Queen’s State Apartments
This collection rooms were originally created for Queen Mary II in 1690 and there’s quite a lot that hasn’t changed since then.
Unlike the other rooms, the Queen’s State Apartments were made for living and so you get a much homelier feel here.
The Queen’s Dining Room was where Mary and William would eat together in private and the Queen’s Gallery is where Mary would read and do needlework, for instance.
You’ll see more wonderful pieces of art here and get an insight into the life of the royals from the 17th and 18th centuries.
There are always a couple of temporary exhibitions at Kensington Palace that are usually on display for at least one or two years before being changed.
These exhibitions generally focus on previous residences of the palace and the recent collections on display have been about Princess Diana’s fashion and the life of Queen Victoria.
I find these temporary exhibitions really interesting because they usually give you a lot more personal information than you normally find in the official stories of the Royal Family.
Kensington Palace tours
Many of the most interesting facts I am actually learning from a tour of the palace and the gardens. There’s only so much information you can get from the signs within the building.
My guide, Alison, seems to be able to answer any tricky question I throw her. (“What does the Queen see when she looks out her window at Buckingham Palace?” I throw in at one point just to test her – and she does admirably.)
The history is just as interesting as the stories you read in the magazines these days, though. The most imposing figure presented through the museum is Queen Victoria, the longest-serving British monarch until Queen Elizabeth II.
She was living in Kensington Palace when she became queen at the age of 18. Although she moved to Buckingham Palace after her coronation, the rooms where she grew up have now been dedicated to her life.
On display are fascinating items like childhood toys, presents and even her wedding dress. Photographs show her decline in mood after the death of her husband, Prince Albert.
My guide, Alison, explains that Victoria blamed her eldest son for her husband’s because he got sick after travelling to confront him about a scandal.
The Kensington Palace tour is fascinating and ultimately it is more about the people and their stories than the building itself.
If you are interested, I would recommend you have a look at this tour of Kensington Palace, which also shows you some other sights in the area.
There are also some other tour options that you might prefer here:
Even if you don’t get a real sense of what it is like to live in Kensington Palace today, you will come away with an excellent understanding of some of the people who once called it home.
Tickets for Kensington Palace
Regardless of whether you’re going to take a tour of Kensington Palace or not, it’s worth being a bit prepared to save yourself time.
Tickets for Kensington Palace are quite expensive so it’s worth considering whether one of the tourist cards for London would save you money if you’re planning to do a lot of sightseeing.
One option is the London Pass, which has different options for durations from 1 day to 10 days. It gives you free entry to about 80 attractions in London, including Kensington Palace, along with other benefits.
It’s quite expensive but you definitely save a lot of money if you’re planning to see a lot of sights. You can buy the London Pass here.
Another option to consider is the Royal Palaces Pass, which gives you entry to either three or four of the palaces around London: Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace, and Banqueting House.
You can use the pass to visit each of the palaces within a two year period. Buy the Royal Palaces Pass here.
You can also become a Historic Royal Palaces member, which will give you free entry to five palaces for a year. There’s more info about that here.
Where is Kensington Palace?
The official address of Kensington Palace is Kensington Gardens, London, W8 4PX.
How do you get to Kensington Palace?
If you’re coming by the Underground, the closest stations are High Street Kensington (District, Circle, and Piccadilly lines) or Queensway (Central line). Both stations are less than ten minutes’ walk away.
If you’re coming by bus, you can use routes 70, 94 and 148 along Bayswater Road, or routes 9, 49, 52, 70 and 452 along Kensington High Street.
When is Kensington Palace open?
Kensington Palace is open every day from March to October from 10:00 – 18:00.
From November to February, the palace is open from 10:00 – 16:00.
Last admission is an hour before closing time.
How much is entry to Kensington Palace?
Admission to Kensington Palace costs £21.50 for an adult, £17.20 for a concession, and £10.70 for a child aged 5 to 14.
There are also family ticket options – for example, 2 adults and up to 3 children for £53.70.
Do you need to buy tickets in advance?
Kensington Palace uses a time entry ticket system and it means you may have to wait if you buy a ticket when you get there.
I would recommend getting a ticket in advance so you don’t have to wait a long time in a queue.
You can find out more information at the official Kensington Palace website.
And, if you need a rest after exploring the palace, or if you’re looking for a special London experience, there’s one more thing I want to tell you about.
Afternoon Tea at Kensington Palace
How British to take afternoon tea. And how royal to have one’s afternoon tea in Kensington Palace Gardens!
Normally, if you wanted a special afternoon tea here, it would be in the baroque-styled Orangery which was built in 1704-05 for Mary’s younger sister, Anne, who became Queen when William died.
But the Orangery is closed until 2021 for renovations so instead the afternoon tea is served in the purpose-built Kensington Palace Pavilion, which is still lovely (just not historic).
The afternoon tea is served from 12:00 – 16:00 and costs £34 per person. That includes sandwiches, scones, cakes and tea or coffee.
You can just turn up but there may be a wait if it’s busy. It would be better to make a reservation in advance.
There are also some lovely tours you can take that will show you around the area and then include the afternoon tea.
There is this tour of Kensington Palace Gardens with afternoon tea, for example. Or there is this epic 7 hour tour of London’s gardens that finishes with afternoon tea.