Windsor Castle is the world’s oldest and largest inhabited castle and is easily Windsor’s star attraction and one of the most popular day trips from London.
The castle was built by William the Conqueror in the 11th-century to protect Norman settlement in the region and oversee a strategically important part of the River Thames. Subsequent monarchs put their stamp on the castle with Henry III strengthening the defences and building a luxurious palace within the castle in the 13th-century and Edward III expanding the castle even further in the 14th-century and in the early 19th century George IV almost doubled the height of the castle’s Round Tower.
It has been home to 39 monarchs and Henry VIII and Elizabeth I are said to have been particularly fond of the castle.
In addition to being Queen Elizabeth II’s favoured weekend retreat, Windsor Castle is one of the Queen’s official residences. She spends around a month here every year during March–April and is also in residence for a week in June when she attends the service of the Order of the Garter in St George’s Chapel and the nearby Royal Ascot race meeting.
The whole complex covers over five hectares (13 acres) and includes the royal palace, which is used regularly by the royal family, and St George’s Chapel, where Henry VIII is buried. Some of the castle’s highlights include paintings by Canaletto, Rembrandt and Van Dyck; Henry VIII’s armour; the bullet that killed Admiral Lord Nelson; and the amazing Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, which took 1,550 craftspeople three years to build.
A major fire in 1992 destroyed many parts of the castle, but it was reopened five years later after a £37 million restoration programme.
What to see at Windsor Castle
In 1848 Queen Victoria first opened the State Apartments to the public and now Windsor Castle attracts over one million visitors each year.
Changing of the guards
The Household Troops have guarded the monarch since 1660 and Changing the Guard ceremony takes place on a regular basis to allow the handover between two groups of guards.
The Changing the Guard ceremony involves the guards marching through Windsor to the castle with the actual ceremony taking place inside the castle. It is free to watch the procession to the castle, but you need an admission ticket to the castle to watch the actual ceremony.
The ceremony is usually held at 11am within the castle grounds on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, although it is subject to change and it is best to check the Household Division’s website for an up-to-date schedule.
State Apartments and the Semi-State Rooms
The State Apartments comprise the castle’s most impressive rooms. The apartments are in a relatively modern building dating from the 19th-century, although it follows the medieval foundations originally laid out by Edward III.
These rooms generally follow separate architectural styles with furnishings and art matching the respective period with different rooms reflecting Classical, Gothic, Rococo and Jacobethan design aesthetics.
The most famous of these are those rooms designed in the Rococo style, which include the White, Green and Crimson Drawing Rooms.
A handful of rooms reflect a more modern design including Victorian Gothic and even Art Deco and the State Dining Room is restored in a style popular in the 1920s.
Some State Apartments at the eastern end of the castle were restored after the 1992 fire but were restored to retain their original appearance.
The Semi-State Rooms are the State Apartments created for George IV and include the sumptuous Crimson Drawing Room. However, these rooms are not open during summer or when the State Apartments are closed for special events.
The Grand Reception Room
The opulent Grand Reception Room features gold-covered walls and ceilings and contains many priceless artefacts including a large malachite urn presented by Tsar Nicholas I to Queen Victoria in 1839.
Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House
The 1:12 scale dolls’ house was built between 1921 and 1924 by Sir Edwin Lutyens for the Queen Mary, the wife of King George V. Lutyens is the architect best known for designing New Delhi but was also responsible for many other buildings including The Cenotaph in Whitehall and the Midland Bank in Manchester, now the Gotham Hotel.
This is one of the world’s most elaborate dolls’ houses with an amazing collection of working miniature items including shotguns that break and load, working lifts, a garage with miniature cars with working engines and even flushable toilets and water running through its pipes.
There are even over 200 miniature books containing short stories commissioned specifically for the doll’s house’s library, written by some of the leading authors of the early 20th-century including A A Milne, Rudyard Kipling and W Somerset Maugham.
Temporary exhibitions at Windsor Castle
Windsor Castle also hosts a programme of temporary exhibits including:
Wartime pantomime pictures
While the Waterloo Chamber portraits by Sir Thomas Lawrence are undergoing maintenance work, the 16 pantomime pictures that were commissioned during the Second World War are on display. During the war, the Sir Thomas Lawrence portraits were removed from the palace for safekeeping and the pantomime pictures were created by art student Claude Whatham to brighten up the palace’s bare walls.
St George’s Chapel
The 15th-century St George’s Chapel is considered a masterpiece of English Perpendicular Gothic architecture. Many royal weddings and funerals are held in St George’s Chapel, most recently the royal wedding between Princess Eugenie and Jack Brooksbank in October 2018.
Britain’s oldest order of chivalry, the Order of the Garter, was established by Edward III in the 14th-century and its annual ceremony is held at St George’s Chapel.
The chapel is closed to visitors after 4.15pm Mon–Sat and is closed all day on Sundays. However, it is a working church and worshippers are welcome to attend services at 5pm Mon–Sat and throughout the day on Sundays.
Parks and gardens
Not only are there gardens within the castle walls, Windsor Castle is also surrounded by extensive parkland.
The 264 hectare (655 acres) Home Park lies to the eastern side of the castle and includes a golf course, the Royal Household Bowling Club, the Royal Household Cricket Club and the Windsor Home Park Lawn Tennis Club.
The 2,020 hectare (5,000 acres) Windsor Great Park lies immediately to the south of the castle and was originally the castle’s private hunting ground and is still home to game including deer. The northern part of the 4 km (2½ mile)-long Long Walk is the most visited and most photographed part of Windsor Great Park and it is sometimes used for royal wedding processions.
Visiting Windsor Castle
Windsor Castle is right in the centre of Windsor so it is easy to find if you’re staying in town.
Many people visit as a day trip from London, which is around half an hour away by train. Windsor has two railway stations and there are two ways to get here by train: from London Paddington to Windsor and Eton Central (changing trains at Slough) and the direct train from London Waterloo to Windsor and Eton Riverside. Both Windsor stations are around a five-minute walk from the castle.
Although the train from London Waterloo to Windsor and Eton Riverside is a direct service, it is the slower option as it is a suburban train that stops at every station en route to Windsor and can take up to half an hour longer than the train service between London Paddington and Windsor and Eton Central, even though this requires changing trains at Slough.
As soon as you arrive at Windsor Castle it is recommended that you take the free 30-minute Castle Precincts tour. This tour of the outdoor areas of the castle gives you an overview of the castle and is an excellent introduction before going inside. This tour ends at the entrance to the State Apartments, which is the next logical part of the castle to visit.
It is best to allow at least three hours to properly visit Windsor Castle, although during winter when there are no queues you may be able to see everything in 1½–2 hours. However, if you are visiting from London you should allow half a day to visit allowing time for lunch and return transport from London.
During summer it can get busy with long queues to get in, particularly in the morning especially on days when there is a Changing of the Guard. Your best bet to avoid the worst of the queues is to come around lunchtime when most of the morning visitors are leaving; however, this means that you miss the Changing the Guard ceremony, although you should still be able to see the procession through Windsor town.
To get the most from your visit, it is best to time your visit to coincide with the Changing of the Guard and also that you come at a time when the State Apartments, the Semi-State Rooms and St George’s Chapel are open to visitors.
The Semi-State Rooms are open from the end of September to late March but are closed during summer. These rooms are also closed on days when the State Apartments are closed.
The State Apartments are usually open but may be closed to the public during special events.
The best time to visit is on a Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday morning during winter. During winter most areas of the castle should be open to visitors including the Semi-State Rooms and the Changing of the Guard ceremony occurs on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings. As a bonus, visiting outside the summer peak season means that you will be able to visit at a time when queues are either short or non-existent.
Admission is free for visitors with a London Pass and the London Pass also includes return travel from London, but only if you travel from London Paddington to Windsor and Eton Central changing trains at Slough (travel between London Waterloo and Windsor and Eton Riverside is not included in the London Pass).
Your admission ticket includes the Castle Precincts tour mentioned above and also a multimedia guide with audio tours in English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish. There are also special English-language audio guides specifically for families (focusing on things that children may find interesting) and descriptive audio guides for blind and partially-sighted visitors.
When you arrive you need to pass through an airport-style security checkpoint which means that you can’t have anything sharp such as scissors in your bags.
Photography is not permitted inside the castle buildings or inside St George’s Chapel, although you are free to take exterior photos within the castle grounds.
You can’t eat or drink within the State Apartments nor inside St George’s Chapel and you cannot have picnics on the grounds. There are plenty of places to eat and drink in Windsor and you can get re-entry permits from the gift shops and the audio guide return point. However, it is usually easiest to have something to eat immediately before visiting and then head straight to a restaurant, cafe or pub at the end of your visit.