The idea of visiting Windsor Castle probably first took hold while watching the 2018 royal wedding between the now-controversial Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Harry and Meghan. But it was the solemn pageantry of Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral last September – which concluded with her internment at Windsor Castle — that sealed the deal: I wanted to visit Windsor Castle.
So here I was, on a solo four-day getaway to London, where, on my last day, I’d sightsee in the capital with a longtime English friend. In London, I enjoyed all the typical tourist attractions in surprisingly warm and sunny February weather — including a visit to Westminster Abbey, where the coronation of King George III was held in May. To me, that and the fascinating Tower of London are the two don’t-miss attractions in London; the history is mind-blowing, and they are both visually dazzling to behold.
There was also a ride on the London Eye – not nearly as tall as The Shard, which also offers amazing views from above – but perhaps more dramatic because of its Ferris wheel-like vibe. Joined by an English friend, we then savored an afternoon tea at the Royal Albert Hall, one of the true highlights of my visit. Complete with delicate pastries and beautiful tea sandwiches (including curry-flavored “Coronation Chicken,” a popular British favorite created for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953), it was, as they say, an experience.
Planning a day trip to Windsor Castle on one of my three “free” days seemed like an interesting little adventure. And, as I was soon to discover, it was surprisingly easy, too. Windsor Castle, like Westminster Abbey, played a major part in King Charles’ recent coronation. While 2,000 guests attended the crowning ceremony at the Abbey – and millions more watched it on TV – Windsor Castle was the site of a “Coronation Concert” the following day. Thousands of people – by way of a lottery – were able to attend this first-time-ever concert on the Castle grounds, featuring everyone from Lionel Richie to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Katy Perry. There was great music, dancing, colorful aerial displays, and exuberant celebration.
Drawing about 1.5 million visitors each year, Windsor Castle is only 23 miles outside downtown London and a surprisingly quick trip by train. I opted to leave from Paddington Station (and yes, there is a Paddington Bear statue there), which would require one change of trains in a small town called Slough (rhymes with “cow”). Any apprehension I had about making this change of trains was squashed as soon as I realized that most of us on the train were headed to the same place – the Castle. Just step off the train, and then, minutes later, onto another one. And for less than $18, booked via Trainline.com, it was a genuine bargain to do my own trip to Windsor.
Windsor Castle is open five days a week; closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays, so be sure to plan accordingly. I’d been in London less than a day on my late winter getaway when I headed out on a bright Monday morning for Windsor – but this side trip was so easy, and I never felt overwhelmed.
Interestingly, my late winter getaway to London was blessed with spectacularly sunny, spring-like weather. I was caught off guard by that, and by the fact that both London and Windsor were swarming with British and European tourists. I quickly learned that it was the school mid-terms – meaning, everyone it seemed, had the week off. Fortunately, I had booked my ticket for Windsor in advance; I’m sure, however, I would have still gotten in but it may have just been a bit of a longer wait. (You can, I should note, save a couple of dollars with an advance booking; adult tickets are £28 (about $33); there are several other pricing categories and kids under five are free). The admission price includes a self-guided audio tour that takes visitors around both the interior and exterior of the castle and can take several hours, depending on your interests.
The largest and oldest occupied castle in the world, Windsor Castle was founded by William the Conqueror in the 11th Century and has been the home of 40 British monarchs (including King Charles, who is expected to stay there one or two days each month). The entire castle complex – referred to as the Lower Ward, Middle Ward, and Upper Ward – covers a sprawling 13 acres of land, and dominates the charming town of Windsor.
The 1992 Fire
Walking around both the exterior and interior of Windsor Castle, it’s hard to believe that in November 1992, a devastating fire – started by a high-watt lightbulb touching fabric in Queen Victoria’s private chapel — quickly engulfed the palace, destroying 115 rooms, including nine staterooms. This devastating event was one of several reasons the late Queen famously called 1992 her “Annus horribilis” (“horrible year). The long process of repair and restoration – which took a full five years — began almost immediately. The areas that were most badly damaged, such as St. George’s Hall, were redesigned in a modern Gothic style. The cost, £37 million (almost $40 million today in U.S. dollars), was mostly made up of proceeds from admission to the Castle, and to Buckingham Palace, which was opened to the public for the first time in 1993.
The Queen’s Home
Before making it her full-time residence in 2020 – just at the start of the pandemic — the late Queen Elizabeth II spent weekends — as well as a month over the Easter holiday and a week in June — at Windsor Castle. While many monarchs have made their mark on the property, King George IV (1762-1830), added many of the iconic Gothic features, along with the grand Waterloo Chamber. After the 1992 fire, many parts of the castle were restored to how George IV had left them, that particular monarch having created some of the most richly decorated interiors and a remodeled exterior after ascending the throne in 1820.
What surprised me the most, was the sheer scope of Windsor Castle. It seemed like the entire town of Windsor is built around this dramatic almost storybook-like castle.
There’s a lot to see here, so take your time. Interestingly, no interior photos are allowed – something that makes for a “be-here-now” experience as you explore and learn about its rich history. Divided into rooms and apartments, each area of the castle’s interior has a theme, or a function – or is known for the people who lived here. The “big ticket” items are the state apartments, the semi-state rooms (the apartments of George IV), and St. George’s Chapel. Another popular stop is Queen Mary’s Doll’s House, built between 1921-1924, for Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth II’s paternal grandmother. One of the largest dollhouses in the world, it contains about 1,000 miniature works of art.
St. George’s Chapel
My main interest was to see St. George’s Chapel, the home of many royal weddings – including those of Harry and Meghan five years ago, and Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys-Jones in 1999 — and where the Queen was recently laid to rest with her family. Founded in the 14th century by King Edward III and extensively enlarged in the 15th century, this Gothic chapel is located in the castle’s Lower Ward, and well-marked by directional signs. As part of the included audio tour, visitors can slowly make their way through the chapel, learning of its incredibly complex history as they go. Approaching the Queen’s final resting place, the line of visitors slowed down considerably. Everyone took their time to pay their respects to the UK’s longest-reigning monarch.
There’s no time frame for visiting Windsor; you could spend the entire day within the castle grounds if you choose. It’s that sense of leisurely exploration that makes the visit so special.
Windsor – both the castle and the town – are filled with lovely shops and restaurants; there are many choices if you’re in need of a bite to eat. Within the Castle grounds, there’s the Undercroft Café, below St. George’s Cathedral. For a delicious and inexpensive afternoon tea, check out Clarence Brasserie & Tea Room, only a two-minute walk from the Castle. For only £8.65 (about $10.40), you can enjoy traditional afternoon tea (a scone, strawberry jam with clotted cream, and tea or coffee). There’s the “Duchess of Bedford Afternoon Tea,” which also includes a cucumber sandwich, and an egg sandwich (£12.95; about $15.60). For a few additional pounds, you can also get a version with prosecco. Traditional meals are available as well, but I was all in for the tea experience.
For any Anglophile, a fan of “The Crown,” or anyone even remotely interested in the Royal Family, a side trip to Windsor from London is decidedly easy – and equally fascinating.
Nicole Pensiero is a South Jersey-based writer and a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association.