My four-year-old daughter sits on a stool, looking impossibly small in the backdrop of the enormous fireplace. She turns a long spindle as two plucked chickens roast slowly over the flames. Looking up, she smiles at me hesitantly.
“Mind you don’t let that go idle,” says the cook, dressed in a white period piece with a black cap. “We’ve got 300 people dining here today.” He winks at her, and she grins before returning to her very important job.
We’re standing in the kitchens of Hampton Court Palace, a sprawling compound once home to the larger-than-life King Henry VIII. Designed to be able to create 1,000 meals a day to feed Henry’s court and servants, the kitchens feel like a castle in and of themselves, with cathedral ceilings and mammoth tables.
We’re in London for three days, at the tail end of a holiday to see family. As my husband and I are history buffs, we wanted to see as much as we could of the city’s wide and varied history. With three children ages 5 and under, we weren’t sure how to do that in a way that would keep the whole family entertained. Enter Historic Royal Palaces.
In their own words, Historic Royal Palaces are “a team of people who love and look after six of the most wonderful palaces in the world.” Historic palaces in their care include Hampton Court, Kensington Palace, and The Tower of London. We decided to take on one each day during our stay in London, and hoped our children would be able to keep up.
The beauty of the Historic Royal Palaces is that they are truly living history, and keeping our kids entertained ended up being the last thing we needed to worry about. Everywhere we turned, it seemed, our children were being invited to engage with history. Whether it was helping to cook in the Hampton Court kitchens, playing with Victorian-era doll houses in Kensington Palace, or having a conversation with the Yeoman Warders who guard the Tower of London, my kids were not just observing stories or the past—they were experiencing it for themselves.
Tower of London
The Tower of London is impressive from any angle. Looming on the side of the Thames River, the tower has been a staple of the London skyline for nearly 1,000 years. Built in the 1070s by William the Conqueror, the large stone tower still stands impressively as an iconic London landmark.
The Tower has functioned over the centuries as a prison, a palace, and even a zoo for exotic animals like bears, monkeys, and elephants given to the royal family as gifts. Perhaps most famously, the Tower is known as the place where Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII, spent her last days before being beheaded.
Today, the Tower guards the Crown Jewels. Every day, the Yeoman Warders (also called Beefeaters) perform centuries-old traditions, such as the Ceremony of the Keys. A Yeoman Warder Tour is an excellent way to see the tower, especially with children in tow. The guides entertain and educate in equal measure, telling my children about the polar bear who caught fish from the Thames River and the seven ravens who guard the tower.
Hampton Court Palace
Located just outside the city in Richmond, Hampton Court took us nearly an hour to get to from Central London. The sheer size and impressive structure of the palace made it worth the trip alone. Hampton Court is like a city all of its own. Over 500,000 square feet, the palace is one of the largest in the world. Our kids especially enjoyed visiting the Henry VIII wing of the palace, sitting in the throne chairs in the banqueting hall, and playing with the interactive menu.
Outside, the palace boasts acres of gardens to explore. The gardens are designed like mazes, and each room seems to open up to another enchanted walled garden. For children, the Magic Garden offers hours of adventure, complete with a mythical beast, towers to besiege, and—of course—a dragon.
We visited Kensington Palace on our last morning in London. We walked through Hyde Park, which is somehow lovely even in the rain, sharing the wet pathway with swans and geese. Shaking out our umbrellas, we were quickly swept away by Kensington’s ornate decoration, beautiful staircases, and rich history.
Our children especially enjoyed the Victorian exhibit, which focuses on the childhood of Queen Victoria in Kensington Palace. We learned about her complicated relationship with her mother, her turbulent ascension to the throne, and how she filled the many hours of the childhood she often referred to as lonely.
The Historic Royal Palaces offer a gift to all their visitors in that they allow them to experience the past as it is. They are stunning, well kept, interactive, and educational: a worthwhile endeavor for the whole family.
If You Go
Become a Member: Visiting the jewels of Britain’s history can become a pricey endeavor, especially if you have a family. Under 5’s are always free, but for older children, it’s definitely worth considering a family membership. We saved just by visiting two of the locations.
Arrive Early: The Historic Royal Palaces are exceedingly popular destinations. It’s worth arriving early to avoid long lines.
Plan for the Day: The Tower of London and Hampton Court take about three hours to explore, longer if you want to be more thorough. Plan snacks and your arrival time accordingly. Hampton Court is about an hour outside of Central London. We used public transport to get there, which ended up being half the fun for our kids!
Visit the Café and Gift Shop: The gift shops and the cafés at all of the HRP sites are exceptional. Stop in for a good cup of tea and a Christmas ornament!