Windsor Castle, one of Britain's monarch's principal official residences, is also one of its most iconic landmarks. It's not far from Heathrow Airport, and arriving passengers can usually recognize it from the air.
A residence and fortress for almost 950 years, this must-see attraction is the oldest and largest continually occupied castle in the world. It's also very popular, so a bit of advanced planning for your visit won't go amiss. Here you'll find basic visitor information plus recommended highlights and some insider tips.
How to Get to Windsor Castle
The Castle is about 25 miles from Central London and easy to reach by car or public transportation.
- Southwest Trains operates a direct service to Windsor & Eton Riverside Station from London Waterloo Station every half hour throughout the day (hourly on Sundays). The journey takes just under an hour, and round trip fares start at under £12.
- First Great Western runs a faster, more frequent service to Windsor & Eton Central Station from Paddington Station every 10 to 15 minutes throughout the day. The journey takes between 25 and 35 minutes but involves changing trains at Slough. Don't worry: there is only a 4-minute lapse between the two trains involving crossing from one side of the platform to the other. Round trip tickets start at £10.50.
Either station is a less than 10-minute walk from the castle, so your choice would probably depend on whether you are closer to Paddington or Waterloo at the start of your trip.
Tip: Check National Rail Enquiries for more departure points, special promotions, and combi-tickets offered by rail companies.
Green Line Express Coaches (routes 701 and 702) travel between London Victoria Station and Windsor several times per hour. The journey takes about an hour and ten minutes and round-trip fares start at £15. Many tours with transportation and admission can be arranged through your hotel or through the Visit Britain online shop.
Take the M4 to exit 6, and follow signs to Windsor Town Center.
- Parking lots fill up quickly during popular times of year so, if you must drive, arrive early.
- Choose the long-stay parking areas, which cost less than half the rate of short-stay parking. You may have to walk about 20 minutes, but it will be an interesting stroll.
Tickets and Admission
Ticket prices vary depending upon whether the Royal Apartments are open to visitors. That, in turn, depends upon whether the Royals are in residence.
The range of prices includes adult, senior over 60, student, under 17, and family (for two adults and three children under 17). In addition, children under 5 are admitted free. Check the Royal Collection website for the latest prices.
- Before you leave, register your tickets for unlimited re-entry for a full year from the date of your visit. This offer does not apply to tickets purchased as part of a tour package from a third-party seller.
- Buy tickets online to save waiting time.
The castle's hours of operation reflect the fact that Windsor is a working castle, used for many ceremonial and state occasions and is the weekend home of the Queen through most of the year.
Practical Information Before You Start Your Visit
Windsor Castle is full of fascinating objects, astonishing rooms, and wonderful works of art. Once you've entered, allow at least two (preferably three) hours to explore the castle. Depending upon when you visit, you may find long lines at the ticket desk and security areas, so you'll be glad you followed our advice to buy your ticket online before arriving.
Tip: If you're keen to see the Changing of the Guard Ceremony, time your visit to be within the castle grounds at 11 a.m. when the ceremony takes place on the Quadrangle. During the summer, it occurs every day, weather permitting, and from October 1 onwards, the guard changes every other day.
Security at Windsor Castle
The Visitor Center is on St Alban's Street next to the main entrance to the castle grounds. Once you have a ticket, you'll pass through an airport-type security checkpoint with metal detectors and so forth. Then it's on to an entry courtyard where you pick up your audio tour and a leaflet with a map of the grounds. Both are free with admission.
Wheelchairs can be borrowed from the Visitor Center, though they cannot be booked in advance and cannot leave the castle grounds.
Pushchairs and strollers can be used in the castle grounds but not in the State Apartments and other exhibition areas. Don't worry: there's a check room for them in the castle undercroft along the way.
Tips for Families:
- The only restrooms and baby changing facilities are down some stairs to the left of the Audio Tour Counter. The castle covers 26 acres, and it’s a long way back, so a pre-visit pit stop is a good idea, especially for children.
- Other than some ice cream and bottled water on the North Terrace, snacks and meals are not available in the castle grounds, and you can't bring a picnic. Windsor is a busy little market town, though, and there are plenty of pubs and inexpensive restaurants close by. Before you leave the the castle precincts for a meal, pick up a free re-entry band from one of the castle shops. All that is going to change, however. A £37 million program of upgrades will include a new cafe in the spacious, 14th-century undercroft.
- Free Family Activity Trail leaflets are available from the Visitor Center. During school vacations and weekend, the castle also offers a schedule of family activities and events at the Education Center.
The Making of the Castle
William the Conqueror began building Windsor Castle in 1070, as one of a chain of fortifications around London. By 1100, more than 900 years ago, his son Henry I had created living quarters within it, making it not only the largest but also the oldest continually occupied castle in the world. It, along with Buckingham Palace and The Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, is among the Monarch's principal official residences. Others, like Sandringham and Balmoral, are the Royal Family's private homes.
An Extravagant Monarch
Over the years, various monarchs added bits and pieces to the castle, giving it the familiar, fairy tale profile it has today. Key "masterbuilders" who enhanced Windsor Castle were Edward III in the 14th century, Charles II in the 17th century, and George IV in the early 19th century.
George IV was a man of extravagant tastes. As Prince Regent, he turned a Brighton farmhouse into England's other iconic fantasy palace: The Royal Pavilion. His major contribution to Windsor Castle was creating its most familiar feature by raising the 800-year-old Round Tower 10 meters, about 33 feet.
The Round Tower
As you climb Castle Hill on the approach to St. George's Gate, you get a chance to take in the scale of Windsor Castle. Within its walls, it is actually a collection of buildings, a kind of small village where more than 150 people live and work. The castle footprint covers the same area as 268 tennis courts.
The Round Tower
The Round Tower sits atop a man-made mound that dates from the castle's earliest days. This is known as a motte, and it was built as the final castle keep. The "moat" around it, now a rose garden, was never flooded but was built as a dry defensive ditch for the keep.
Today the Round Tower houses the Royal Archives and the Royal Photographic Collection. Check the flag flying above it. If it is the Union Jack, the national flag of the UK, the Queen is not in residence. You can tell she's at home when the Royal Standard is flying. When the Royals are staying at Windsor, some parts of the castle and some of the so-called Semi-State Apartments are closed to the public.
If you think that tourists visiting the castle to see how the Royals live is a 20th-century phenomenon, you'd be wrong. Throughout its history, Windsor Castle has attracted visitors. People came from far and wide to catch a glimpse of the Monarch and the Court, to visit the State Apartments, and to see the artworks.
Queen Mary's Doll House and The Drawings Gallery
Queen Mary's Doll House, now on permanent display at Windsor Castle, was a gift to Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth II's grandmother, who was fond of miniatures. The four-story Palladian mansion, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, architect of New Delhi, was never intended to be played with. Instead, it was meant to demonstrate the best of British craftsmanship and modern design circa 1924.
All the top artists and most fashionable designers of the period contributed to the dollhouse. The dining table is set with silver plates, the Queen's bathroom has an alabaster tub with golden taps, and there is even a strongroom with tiny copies of the Crown Jewels.
France and Marianne
Don't miss the display cases in the corridor next to the dollhouse. They contain a pair of dolls, France and Marianne, that were given to Princess Elizabeth and her little sister Margaret Rose by the French government in 1938. The exhibit contains a selection of the wardrobes made for the dolls by all the leading French designers of the day, including Hermès, Jean Patou, Louis Vuitton, Worth, Lanvin, and many others. The dolls have fur capes and - Barbie eat your heart out - each has a necklace and bracelet fashioned by Cartier.
Tip: Queen Mary's Doll House is very popular. Only a few people at a time are allowed in to see it, so the wait can be very long. Check the signs posted along the queue that count off the time remaining in line in 15-minute increments. It is worth the wait, but bring along a jacket as the entrance on the North Terrace is one of the highest spots around and can get windy and cold.
The Drawings Gallery
It's easy to miss the Drawings Gallery on your way through the undercroft of Windsor Castle to the flashier exhibits beyond. Don't. The room is used for frequently changing temporary displays from the Royal Collection, and they are always memorable.
The Royal Library, for example, holds 600 drawings by Leonardo Da Vinci, the largest Da Vinci collection in the world. At any given time, six are exhibited. Works to see have included The Angel of the Annunciation drawn around 1638 by Guercino and an early 18th-century drawing by Canaletto, The Piazzetta Looking South, one of the few existing drawings done on the spot by this artist.
There was also a beautiful collection of Holbein drawings, studies for portraits of the Tudor court. If you've never seen a master drawing up close, you may find the humanity of these images very moving. The gallery is a revelation.
The State and Semi-State Apartments
The trail that visitors follow at Windsor Castle will take you through a series of what are known as State and Semi-State Apartments. Before that, take some time to enjoy the Waterloo Chamber. It was created to honor the forces who defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. The paintings of the heads of state and peace negotiators of the time were all painted from life by a single artist, Sir Thomas Lawrence. The Indian carpet, woven for Queen Victoria's Jubilee, is thought to be the largest seamless carpet in existence. During the 1992 fire at Windsor, it took 50 soldiers to roll it up and carry it to safety.
The State Apartments
This sequence of rooms was created for Charles II and Catherine of Braganza between 1675 and 1678 and reflects the baroque tastes of the times. They are always open to the public and display some of the greatest treasures of the Royal Collection.
- The King's Drawing Room: Here find paintings by Rubens and Van Dyke and a remarkable musical clock.
- The King's Bedchamber: Charles II never slept in this bed, used for the courtly ceremonies of levée and couchée - wakey wakeys and nighty nights before the King actually retired to a smaller room nearby.
- The King's Dressing Room: Some of the most important Northern Renaissance paintings in the Royal Collection are here, including Breughel's painting the Massacre of the Innocents and a wonderful portrait of a lady in green by Bronzino.
- The Queen's Drawing Room: Among the paintings, look for the famous Portrait of Charles I in Three Positions by Van Dyke.
- The King's Dining Room: Created for Charles II's private entertaining, it is dark and masculine, covered in rococco decoration and wood carvings by Grinling Gibbons.
- The Queen's Ballroom: Among the collection of Van Dykes, look for the portrait of the five eldest children of Charles I, the King beheaded in 1649.
- St. George's Hall: Often used for state banquets, this room is 185-feet long and can hold a table that seats 160. The ceiling is a hammerbeam roof, constructed of green oak after the 1992 fire using medieval carpentry methods. The shields are coats of arms of the Garter Knights. The plain white ones mark the Order of the Garter Knights disgraced by crime or treason.
- The Lantern Lobby: Formerly a private chapel, this is where it is believed the 1992 fire began. Today it is used to display gilded silver objects from the Royal Collection. A suit of Henry VIII's armor against a wall gives some idea of the old king's size. Walk around it to see the profile view.
The Semi-State Apartments
This sequence of ornate rooms was created to suit the extravagant tastes of George IV, creator of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. They are used by the Queen for formal and informal entertaining and are sometimes closed to the public.
The rooms were badly damaged in the 1992 fire but most of the contents, removed earlier during rewiring, survived. The glittering gilded ceilings are remarkable restorations. In some cases, elaborate parquet flooring that had been charred was saved by simply turning over the individual pieces of wood.
St George's Chapel
St. George's Chapel was built 1475 and 1528, with the last elements of fan vaulting completed under Henry VIII. It's considered a masterpiece of Late Medieval Perpendicular Gothic.
Tip: Look for the mirror table in the central aisle of the nave. It provides a good view of the elaborate ceiling.
Officially, St. George's Chapel is what is known as a Royal Peculiar which means it is not part of the usual Anglican hierarchy, under the supervision of a bishop and archbishop. Instead, the Queen appoints its clergy. It is the spiritual home of the Order of the Garter, the site of several important royal tombs and the occasional royal wedding ceremony. Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys Jones were married there. Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles had a blessing at St. George's Chapel after their civil ceremony in Windsor.
Royal Tombs and Memorials
- The tombs of King George V and Queen Mary are located here. Anyone who has seen pictures of the British royal family in the early part of the 20th century will instantly recognize Queen Mary's distinctive hairdo in the carving.
- Look for the elaborate but rather moving carved memorial to Princess Charlotte, only child of King George IV, who died in childbirth. The memorial is in a side chapel toward the back of the nave.
- A side chapel that can be seen off the north Quire aisle holds the relatively simply memorials of Queen Elizabeth II's parents (George VI and Elizabeth, the Queen Mother) and her sister, Princess Margaret.
- A simple stone slab in the center aisle of the Quire is the entrance to a vault that holds the tombs of Henry VIII, Charles I (beheaded by Cromwell's forces, after the English Civil War), and Jane Seymour (Henry VIII's third wife, who died following the birth of Henry VIII's only son).
Medieval carved wooden stalls in the Quire are where the Knights of the Order of the Garter gather during their annual ceremony. The banners hang over their individual stalls and about 700 engraved and enameled brass plates of former knights are attached to the backs of the stalls. In 2008, Prince William became the 1,000th knight of the order.
Attending a Service at St. George's Chapel
The Chapel is open to visitors between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. During worship services, including Sunday services, the Chapel is closed to visitors, but the public is welcome to attend and take part.
There are at least three services daily. Check the St. George's Chapel diary to find out when to attend a service.
It isn't necessary to visit Windsor Castle and pay admission to worship at St. George's Chapel and, in fact, worshippers may enter the castle grounds before and after its normal opening hours to attend services. Just approach a Guard at the King Henry VIII Gate (normally the exit for visitors to Windsor Castle). He will direct you to an usher from the chapel who will take you in for the service.