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Kensington Palace

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ABOVE: The gold gates at Kensington Palace in London, England.

Kensington Palace dates back to the early 1600s, when it belonged to the Earl of Nottingham and was one of several mansions in the village of Kensington. King William III bought Nottingham House in 1689 and hired Christopher Wren to expand it into the palace that exists today.

In the 1700s, the palace was known as Kensington House, a name that was in keeping with its residential character. William III and his successors lived there until 1760, when--after the death of George II--the royal residence shifted to the St. James's Palace.

Since 1760, Kensington Palace has been home to members of the Royal Family other than the king or queen. Princess Diana lived in the palace from 1981 until her death in 1997; today, the palace is home to Prince William and his family.

Kensington Palace is affiliated with Historic Royal Palaces, which also manages Hampton Court Palace, the Tower of London, Kew Palace, and the Banqueting House in Whitehall.

The former State Apartments are open to the public, and the palace is also home to the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection and the Diana, Princess of Wales Dress Collection.

In additon, special exhibits take place regularly.


Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection:

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ABOVE: Ladies, gentlemen, and officers at court. INSET BELOW: 19th Century court dress.

After you've shown your tickets to the guard and picked up your audioguide, you'll enter the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection.

In these rooms, you'll see display cases with mannequins outfitted in ceremonial dress from the 18th Century until modern times. Most costumes are displayed in a real-life context: e.g., in the workrooms of a seamstress and tailor, in a ladies' dressing room, and at social events from different eras.

photoThe displays of court dress are especially interesting, if only because of the rigid codes that governed clothing worn by the ladies, debutantes, and gentlemen who attended social functions in the palace.

(The tradition of wearing special court clothing persisted until World War II, when ostrich-feather headresses and trains finally disappeared from aristocratic wardrobes.)

You can also see a large selection of dresses owned by Queen Elizabeth II. Changing temporary exhibits, such as a recent display of the Queen's hats mounted on rotating spindles, provide a bonus for repeat visitors. 

Warning: The display rooms can be crowded on weekends or during summer, so find a corner or a place along the wall to stand while listening to the audioguide. The narration is well worth hearing.


State Apartments:

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ABOVE: The King's Gallery was built to showcase the royal art collection.

From the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection, you'll go one flight up to the State Apartments, which are divided into several areas:

  • The King's Apartments were decorated during the reigns of William III, George I, and George II. As you tour the rooms, you'll get an idea of how court life functioned in the 17th and 18th Centuries. (In the not too distant future, the palace staff hope to let visitors enter the apartments via the King's Grand Staircase as courtiers did more than 200 years ago.)

  • The Queen's Apartments have a more domestic flavor, with rooms such as a drawing room, bedchamber, and dining room used by Queen Mary until her death in 1694.

  • The Victorian Rooms are a three-room suite that was occupied by Queen Victoria (then Princess Victoria, the Duchess of Kent) until she ascended to the throne and moved to Buckingham Palace in 1837.


Diana, Princess of Wales Dress Collection:

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ABOVE: Detail of pink wild silk dress with embroidered bolero by Catherine Walker (1992). The dress was worn during a visit to India. BELOW: RIGHT: Ink blue silk velvet "Travolta" dress by Victor Edelstein (1995). The dress was worn at a state dinner in the White House, where Princess Diana danced with John Travolta. It fetched $225,000 at a charity auction.

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In the years following her marriage to Prince Charles in 1981, Princess Diana was the most celebrated model of British clothing since Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy.

She commissioned scores of elegant dresses by designers such as Catherine Walker and Victor Edelstein, wearing them at events that ranged from London movie premieres to official tours of the Commonwealth.

In 1997, just months before her death, Princess Diana had 79 of her dresses auctioned by Christie's to raise money for humanitarian causes. Fourteen of the dresses were acquired by philanthropist Maureen Rorech Dunkel of Tampa, Florida, who sent them on a worldwide "Dresses for Humanity" fundraising tour. The dresses are now on permanent display in Kensington Palace.


The Orangery (Kensington Palace Pavilion):

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ABOVE: English tea in The Orangery.

The Orangery, a columned building in the gardens next to the palace, was built for Queen Anne in 1704. It was designed as a greenhouse and summer dining room, with columns separating tall windows that admit vast quantities of sunlight into the long, narrow interior that now serves as a restaurant and cafť.

The Orangery is now the Kensington Palace Pavilion restaurant and tea room, which is open for breakfast, lunch, and afternoon tea.

photoEvery now and then, the restaurant creates menus to honor special occasions. Example: For the 50th anniversary of D-Day, it began serving a "War Time Menu" based on WWII food rations and recipes.

Note: Kensington Palace also has a Palace Café with light meals and take-out food. Outdoor seating is available in good weather.


Visitor information:

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ABOVE: London's Underground offers quick transportation to Kensington Palace from most parts of the city.

Hours and ticket prices. Kensington Palace's hours vary with the season. See the official visitor information page for current opening times and ticket prices.

 Accessibility. Wheelchair access is limited to the dress collections on the ground floor.

Transportation. Kensington Palace is in Kensington Gardens, on the edge of Hyde Park. The nearest Underground stations are Queensway or Notting Hill Gate (Central Line) and High Street Kensington (District/Circle line).

Shops. The palace has a shop that offers souvenir gifts, jewelry, books, housewares, etc. You'll need an admission ticket to reach the shop.

For a detailed guide to the palace and its attractions, visit the Kensington Palace section of the Historic Royal Palaces Web site.


More Historic Royal Palaces:
Tower of London
Hampton Court Palace