Though most famous today as the former residence of Princess Diana, Kensington Palace has been a royal residence for more than three centuries.
Kensington Palace was purchased in 1689 by William and Mary as a country retreat from the smog and dirt of central London. It was renovated and expanded by Sir Christopher Wren, and remained the center of court life until the mid-18th centrury.
After the death of George II, the last reigning monarch to live at Kensington, the palace sank into obscurity as the home of minor royals. Here Princess Victoria -- later Queen Victoria -- was born in 1819 and spent her youth.
The state rooms at Kensington are decorated to represent either the Palace in the time of William and Mary or the youth of Queen Victoria. The difference between the two periods is striking, not so much for the differences in decor, but because the rooms in the earlier period were clearly meant to display England''s power and wealth to the world, while Victoria''s rooms were very domestic -- not unlike those in our houses today.
While you are in William and Mary''s section of the Palace, be sure to check out the grand stairway leading up to the King''s apartments. It''s decorated with a trompe l''oiel classical background that''s populated by portraits of William''s courtiers, who peer down upon those seeking an audience with the Monarch, and guarded by eternally watchful faux-sentinels.
In addition to the State Apartments, the Palace also contains a collection of Queen Elizabeth II''s outfits, Princess Diana''s evening gowns, and costumes representing court dress through the ages. The audioguide you get with admission provides facts about each dress, as well as information on the labrynthine protocol for court dress and behavior.
One of the nicest things about Kensington Palace is its situation at the far end of Kensington Gardens/Hyde Park. In the springtime, when I visited, the gardens were awash in daffodils, banks of which surrounded the house--very pretty, especially when viewed from the pond in front of the Palace on the Kensington Gardens side.
The most senic way to get to the Palace (if the weather is good) is to get off the Tube at the Queensway stop, cross the Bayswater Road, and walk into Kensington Gardens on the path called Broad Walk. This leads right up to the Palace.
Admission to the Palace is £10.20 for adults, £7.70 for students, but if you look, you can find discount admission offers. In the 2002-2003 season, for instance, the Underground was offering 2-for-1 admission with the display of a Travelcard.