From where to stay to where to go, here’s how to visit the city like you rule it.
Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday falls this year, and travelers bound for the English capital can’t help but get swept up in the festivities. With Trooping the Colour (a huge parade, filled with military salutes and an RAF fly-by) coming up on June 11, London’s pulling out all the stops for her majesty this year. But if you’re looking to infuse your trip with some real pomp and circumstance, here’s our suggestion: hit up Kensington. No part of London is more infused with royal haunts and institutions than the historic—not to mention iconic—neighborhood.
While Buckingham Palace dazzles from behind imposing black gates, Kensington—or the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, as it’s officially named—offers a refreshing balance of grandeur and accessibility. Free of tourist mobs and aggressive souvenir vendors, Kensington shows off its royal colors in a more graceful way. From a traveler’s perspective, it’s ideal: you can stroll the quiet residential lanes, gawking at multi-million pound townhouses, visit London’s “second-best shopping street” (the Duchess of Cambridge has been spotted browsing racks at Reiss and LK Bennett), and wind up in vast Hyde Park, on the neighborhood’s north border.
What to See
Start with the obvious: Kensington Palace. Unofficially dubbed the “Princess Palace,” this royal residence offers a unique, 300-year perspective on its many famous occupants. Queen Victoria (born here in 1819) made this her home with husband Prince Albert, for the entirety of their brief, tragic marriage. Of course, Princess Diana lived here, as did Queen Anne and Princess Margaret. Now, it not only houses Will and Kate, but brother Harry keeps an apartment here, too.
Best of all, the palace—along with its fantastic painted staircases, gaping salons, and sunken gardens—is open to visitors. It hosts regular exhibitions like the new “Fashion Rules Restyled,” an eye-popping display of couture gowns that Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Margaret, and Princess Diana actually wore. Want to admire the green velvet evening dress Princess Diana once wore for a Vanity Fair shoot with Mario Testino in 1997? It’s here.
Next up? Royal Albert Hall. The iconic, circular theater has been welcoming eager patrons of the arts since 1871, and is no less spectacular today. Just ask Stevie Wonder, One Direction, and the Dalai Lama, all of whom have made appearances. With fiberglass diffusers hanging from the domed ceiling, plus a 9,999-pipe organ, it’s one of the most acoustically rich auditoriums in the city. Later this summer, the popular, two-month classical music series BBC Proms will take over the space, starting July 15 (be quick, though: tickets go on sale May 7).
If all this talk of royals has you excited, keep in mind that, should you ever come face-to-face with a member of England’s rulers, protocol should be strictly followed at all times. Terry Holmes, executive director of a local hotel group, advises to err on the side of caution: “Behave just as you would if you met her in a more formal situation. The latest generation of Royals comes across as much more approachable, but they are still royalty and deserve the same respect as Her Majesty the Queen, and all those before her.” She continues: “They’re not your friends, so unless directed otherwise, adhere to formalities.”
In plainer terms: neck bow if you’re a male, small curtsy if you’re a female. “Don’t speak unless you’re spoken to, and don’t proffer your hand out for a handshake unless they do first.” If you happen to cross paths with the Queen, stick with “Your Majesty” at all times.
Where to Eat
The chances of you casually bumping into the Duchess of Cambridge over lunch at London's restaurants are relatively low, though travelers can plan a meal at one of Kensington’s royal-approved restaurants. At the family-run Locanda Ottoemezzo, you’ll enjoy plates of homemade pasta and fresh burrata from the same kitchen where Kate and William used to go on dates. The relaxed Da Mario was a known favorite of Princess Diana and her two young boys. Looking for something more British? The newly opened Ivy Kensington Brasserie is chic and cosmopolitan, while offering a classic menu of fish and chips, full English breakfast, and shepherd’s pie.
Where to Stay
As far as places to stay go, you won’t find better than the Milestone Hotel, which sits directly on Hyde Park in a lavish Victorian residence that dates back to 1883. “Our doormen have the privilege of seeing members of the Royal family drive past the hotel on a daily basis,” boasts head concierge Jose Pauco. Upstairs, the themed suites—with names like the Viscount, the Prince Albert, and the Kensington Garden—have four-poster beds, copper tubs, rich tapestries, and private balconies overlooking Kensington Palace. (Already have accommodations? Spend an evening in Stables Bar, which takes a mad scientist approach to the old fashioned—served inside a bell jar, the drink is bathed in a plume of orange peel-infused smoke, which wafts around while you take the first sip.)