London is one of my favorite cities to visit because it’s old and has layers and layers of history. London has the perfect blend of everything to make a history nerd, like myself, ecstatic. One of the oldest ceremonies you can experience in London is the Changing of the Guard ceremony. It’s also one of the largest tourist draws out there. There is a fascinating story of the ceremony’s origin on the official website of the Guards.
Before I go on any further please keep in mind that all of the soldiers who perform any ceremonial duties in London are active and serving members of the British Army. The 7 regiments that officially form the Household Divison of Guards (Coldstream, Grenadier, Welsh, Scots, Irish, Life Guards and Blues and Royals) are all soldiers who risk their lives to keep their country safe. Please treat them respectfully at all times.
I actually encountered three Irish Guards at a pub one evening that had just arrived back from Afghanistan. They explained how hard it was to be patient on ceremonial duty and to settle back into “normal” life. They were on countdown until they could go back, but they explained that they understood the ceremonial part of the duty was an important part of their division’s history. The Guardsmen are expected to maintain a stoic mask at all times, but that doesn’t stop them from having a LOT of crazy stories about things tourists will do or say to try and make them break character.
The Changing of the Guards actually takes place at both Windsor Castle and at Buckingham Palace. If you’re able to go to Windsor Castle, the Changing of the Guards Ceremony there is much less crowded than in London. I wasn’t able to get to Windsor on my latest trip, but I was able to see a good amount of the Changing of the Guard Ceremony in London. I learned this time around there is actually no way for you to see the entire ceremony. The beginning and ending portions take place at the Wellington Barracks off the Royal Mall while the middle will take place just inside the gates at Buckingham Palace.
I couldn’t believe how many people lined up about an hour and a half before the start of it . Tourists line the gates in front of Buckingham Palace and along the steps of the monument to Queen Victoria to scramble for the best view. I wanted to maximize my time so I choose to watch the ceremony from the gates in front of the Wellington Barracks. The band that will lead the procession there warms up and goes through a very similar set list that they will play on the Buckingham Palace grounds. The “new guards” that will replace the guards currently on duty (“old guards”) are inspected and line up for the short march to the palace.
You will hear the clatter of hoof beats at 10:45ish as the “new guards” of the Household Cavalry will ride past the palace on their way to the Horse Guard’s Parade grounds. They move quickly and if you don’t know to expect them, it will definitely catch you off guard. It’s a nice introduction to the ceremony. I was able to get a few photographs with my phone. I find the mounted cavalry members more impressive than the foot guards. If you missed the “new guards”, look for the “old guards” who will ride past the palace as well right before the end of the ceremony on their way back to the Hyde Park Barracks.
At exactly 10:57 am, I watched the barrack gates open and the band and foot soldiers march past us as a hoard of tourists ran past to follow them. The area in front of the Wellington Barracks cleared up considerably and left the perfect opportunity to squeeze in a quick visit to the Guards Museum. It costs 8 pounds and has some fantastic information and displays if your’re interested in the history of the foot guard regiments There is another museum for the Household Cavalry regiments located at Horse Guards Parade (also worth a visit too). I don’t think it will take you more than 30 minutes to walk through.
By the time I finished at the Guards Museum, I could hear the band returning to the Wellington Barracks with the “old guards”. I lined up at the gates and watched them march back in. The band played as the “old guards” lined up for one final set of instructions and to return their regimental color, or flag, back into its storage location. I didn’t get to watch the middle of the ceremony, but I don’t feel like I missed that much. There are plenty of videos on the internet for me to enjoy it. If it’s something you want to see, get to the Buckingham Palace gates by 9:30 am if the ceremony is at 11.
Bring your tea, coffee or snacks while you are waiting. Time can pass slowly and it can be frustrating if you’re with your family as kids get antsy. If you want to see the ceremony in detail, steak out a place right in front. You can see just as well from the top steps of the Queen Victoria monument. Be prepared to have unknown tourists invade your personal space. They will do anything to get closer and have no shame in pulling out their phones, selfie sticks and in some cases tripods. I like to think of it as a real world Disney parade.
The other option for you is to head over to Horse Guards Parade to watch them perform the 4:00 pm inspection everyday or to watch them prepare for their own part of the Changing of the Guards Ceremony. I did both, but felt like watching them change from the “old guard” to the “new guard” was a waste of time unless you watch the very beginning or very end of the ceremony. The ceremony involves the rides sitting still and unmoving on their horses for about 40 minutes. There is no need to arrive early for the cavalry Changing of the Guard as people will come and go as they please. I’ll cover the 4:00 pm inspection in another post.
If you are planning to watch the ceremony in summer, you’ll find the guards in their traditional scarlet tunics. During the summer they were perform the ceremony everyday. In winter, however, it is only held a few times a week. The guards will wear their grey overcoats. It’s always best to consult the schedule on the official website, here. The ceremony is always subject to change based on the weather as well. If it’s raining, most likely the ceremony will not take place. I hope my experiences help give you a few ideas for when you will go see the Changing of the Guards. Happy travels!