10 great places to have a royal good time


By Sarah Sekula, Published in USA Today

If you’re itching to go to London, the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in April is a grand excuse. Amid the stately palaces, gorgeous gardens and lofty towers, you can design your own pathway to royalty. Christopher Johnson, editor of Where London and an expert on places steeped in noble history, shares his regal picks with Sarah Sekula for USA TODAY.

Hampton Court Palace
A visit to King Henry VIII’s magnificent palace, Hampton Court, lets you explore its 500-year history and see how his six wives were “kept,” Johnson says. “Be sure to visit the palace’s chapel. It was here that the king was informed of fifth wife Catherine Howard’s adultery and immediately had her dragged away, screaming, to be beheaded at the Tower of London. Her ghost is said to haunt the palace.” visitlondon.com

Tower of London
“Nobody does ‘bling’ like the royals,” Johnson says. The Tower of London houses more than 23,000 jewels. The Imperial State Crown alone has 2,868 diamonds, 273 pearls, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds and five rubies. Amazingly, only one person has tried to steal them. He failed. visitlondon.com

Kew Palace
“Kew, with its lush botanical gardens, is possibly London’s most beautiful space, and its palace is the jewel in the crown,” Johnson says. It’s the former residence of King George II’s three daughters and then “mad” King George III. “Its Georgian splendor has not changed a jot,” he says. “Look for Queen Charlotte’s jigsaw cabinet for a fascinating insight into how the royals passed the time.” Open April through September. kew.org

Hyde Park
What once was a place for King Henry VIII and his court to hunt deer and wild boar in the 16th century is now a respite for tai chi, paddle boating and just kicking back. Come summer, nothing beats grabbing lunch and a jug of Pimm’s, a popular cocktail, and finding a shady spot in the park, Johnson says. Head to the south side to spot the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment who reside at the Hyde Park Barracks. royalparks.org.uk


Royal Opera House
What does it take to prepare for a performance of Tannhäuser or Swan Lake? Find out during a backstage tour of the Royal Opera House. The Royal Ballet also is housed here. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of the troupe practicing grand jetés and pliés. Afterward, check out the Amphitheater Bar, or come back for an evening performance to enjoy the Crush Room for freshly prepared lobster. www.roh.org.uk

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
Johnson’s favorite royal park is hands-down the Regent’s because of “its stunning rose garden, boating lake and London Zoo.” And, he says, “on balmy summer nights, toasting Shakespeare with Champagne at the Open Air Theatre” is a prized pastime dating to 1932. Upcoming performances include Lord of the Flies, The Beggar’s Opera, Periclesand Crazy for You. openairtheatre.org

Royal Academy of Arts
“This magnificent building in Piccadilly, founded in 1768, is the oldest fine arts institution in Britain and houses treasures like Reynolds, Michelangelo, Gainsborough, Constable, Turner, even Queen Victoria’s paint box,” Johnson says. Its annual Summer Exhibition, showcasing contemporary art by emerging artists, is an institution on the social calendar. royalacademy.org.uk

The London Dungeon
Experience a different kind of royal treatment at the London Dungeon, where costumed characters like Jack the Ripper and Sweeney Todd lurk around every corner, Johnson says. “But it’s Bloody Mary, the deadliest daughter of Henry VIII, that provokes the biggest scare. Jump on a sewer barge to escape her clutches. Be careful, though; next stop is Traitor’s Gate.” thedungeons.com

Buckingham Palace
“Each time I visit I discover unexpected treats around every lavishly decorated corner,” Johnson says. “A Rembrandt here, a ceremonial robe there.” The interior is elaborate, just as you’d imagine, but outside there’s even more to see. At the Royal Mews, a working stable to the south of Buckingham Palace Gardens, ceremonial Windsor Grey horses canter by. Finish the visit by viewing the Changing the Guard ceremony and it’s a perfectly royal day, indeed. royal.gov.uk

Kensington Palace
Ever since Princess Diana first blushed coquettishly on camera nearly three decades ago, Brits have been fascinated with her. “Kensington Palace was her official home in London, as well as Queen Victoria’s birthplace, and is still something of a shrine to her memory,” Johnson says. It’s undergoing a $20 million renovation to be complete in the spring of 2012. In the meantime, the Enchanted Palace, a temporary visitor experience, boasts designer frocks, live theater and interactive elements, inspired by the seven princesses who once lived there. visitlondon.com