Watched by millions of people annually, the Changing of the Guard in London is one of those iconic ceremonies that everyone should see at least once. Check out this must-read guide before you go.
London is a fascinating city – on the face of it, it’s fiercely cosmopolitan – packed with skyscrapers, cool bars and quirky things to do.
But tradition still lives strong. There are age-old ceremonies and historic landmarks dotted all over London.
Can we make a confession? Until recently it had been years since we had seen The Changing of the Guard.
Somehow, this fabulous ceremony has been taking place several times a week, full of pomp and circumstance and we’ve been too busy doing other things to make time to add it to our London itinerary. Facepalm.
Don’t make the same mistake – whether you’re a first-time tourist or a battle-hardened Londoner, everyone should see the ceremony at least once.
If you’re planning to go and see the ceremony (and you totally should), this is what you need to know.
What is the Changing of the Guard?
The Changing of the Guard is the official ceremony when the Foot Guards currently guarding the monarchy (the Old Guard) are released from their duty, to be replaced with new soldiers (the New Guard).
It might sound confusing, but it’s a fun experience to witness.
Whilst Kings had always had an army of men protecting them, it wasn’t an official institution until Henry VII made the Royal Body Guard a permanent job role.
This means that these soldiers have been guarding Kings and Queens for over 520 years – in other words, they’re pretty good at their jobs.
The Old Guard hands over the responsibility for protecting the palace to the New Guard – along with a ceremonial set of keys to the palace. This is officially known as Guards Mounting.
The Guards Mounting ceremony is carried out by soldiers from the Foot Guards – you know the ones, the dudes with the massive black bearskin hats and bright red tunics (well, they’re grey during wintertime but you get the point).
What could be a simple changeover has been elevated to a striking military procession, complete with a series of marches.
It’s a very visual event but lent extra ceremony by the accompanying music played by the Guards Bands.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the band only plays traditional music – but you’d be completely wrong.
The music ranges from old military marches to well-known pop songs – the James Bond theme tune is a particular favourite and the Game of Thrones theme tune has been known to pop up from time to time too.
Head there and try to identify which songs are playing – you might just recognise one.
Read More: Cool Facts about London
How to See the Changing of the Guard?
If it wasn’t grand enough, there are actually three different ceremonies that are referred to as the Changing of the Guard.
The best-known takes place at Buckingham Palace, but another ceremony also takes place down the road at Horse Guards and yet another in Windsor (where the Queen has another one of her many castles).
The Buckingham Palace ceremony is the biggest (and the best?), so this is what we’ll focus on in this article, but we’ve also included a section on the Horse Guards ceremony if you want to go and check that out too.
Where Should I Watch the Buckingham Palace Changing of the Guard?
You have five main options for watching the Buckingham Palace ceremony: Friary Court in St James’s Palace, The Mall, The Victoria Memorial, Buckingham Palace Gate and Wellington Barracks.
We recommend watching the ceremony from The Victoria Memorial if you can, or around Buckingham Palace Gate.
Both have the advantage of being at the centre of all of the action – you can see the New Guards arriving, the handover ceremony and then the Old Guards departing.
If you’re on the Victoria Memorial, you get a pretty good view of the ceremony from the raised steps – all this without having to get there ridiculously early like you would if you wanted to get to the front at the gates themselves.
The other three (The Mall, St James’s Palace and Wellington Barracks) all have the advantage of being less busy, but if we’re honest, we don’t think that they offer the same experience – nothing beats viewing it right in front of the imposing gates at Queenie’s house.
We’d advise seeing it at Buckingham Palace once and then moving onto a different location if you have time on a different day.
You can also book onto this Changing of the Guard Guided Tour for an in-depth experience.
When is the Changing of the Guard? What Times Does it Happen?
It generally takes place on Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays between January and May and August to December. The ceremony happens daily in June and July.
It starts at 10:45, though the actual handover happens at 11am. You’ll want to arrive a little bit earlier to secure yourself a great spot.
The main ceremony outside of Buckingham Palace lasts for around 40 minutes. You can see the breakdown of timings in the Schedule of the Ceremony section below.
Schedule of the Ceremony
- 10.40am: The New Guard form for inspection at Wellington Barracks then depart for Buckingham Palace once the Regimental Colour (flag) arrives.
- 10.30am: A Group of Old Guards leave Friary Court at St James’s Palace and march in formation to Buckingham Palace – often accompanied by a marching band or drum corps.
- 10.45am: The Old Guards from St James’s Palace arrive at Buckingham Palace and line up alongside the Buckingham Palace Old Guard detachment on the forecourt of the palace.
- 10.55am: The New Guards arrive at Buckingham Palace.
- 11am: Once in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace, The Old Guard and New Guard present their arms (salute with their rifles) to each other and exchange the keys to Buckingham Palace. The presentation of arms and exchange of keys marks the transfer of responsibility from the Old Guard to the New Guard.
- 11am – 11.30am: Music plays and Guards parade their regimental colours as the soldiers are inspected, Officers report to the Senior Captain and new sentries from the New Guard are posted. A duty Drummer informs the Director of Music that the handover has been completed and the band reform at the Centre Gates.
- 11.35am: The New Guards march into their positions at Buckingham and St James’s Palace. The Old Guards march back to Wellington Barracks.
The best chances for you to see some action are when the New Guard arrive at the beginning of the ceremony and when the Old Guard leave at the end.
There’s a lot of marching and music in between, but it can be difficult to see unless you have a good position right outside the palace or on the Victoria Memorial as it takes place inside the palace forecourt.
Changing of the Horse Guards
You can see the Changing of the Queen’s Life Guard ceremony at Horse Guards Parade at 11am during the week and at 10am on Sundays.
Horse Guards Parade is a ceremonial parade ground located just off Whitehall. It marks the formal entrance to both St James’s and Buckingham Palace.
It’s best-known for the smaller Guards Mounting ceremony that takes place in the courtyard, as well as for being the location of the annual Trooping the Colour ceremony.
The Queen’s Life Guard dates all the way back to 1660 when King Charles II was restored to the throne – they’ve been protecting the reigning monarch ever since.
Unlike the ceremony at Buckingham Palace, The Guards Mounting ceremony takes place daily at the Horse Guards (unless it’s cancelled due to bad weather).
The Queen’s Life Guard leaves the Barracks at Hyde Park at 10:28am sharp (or 9:28am on Sundays), passing through Hyde Park Corner, Constitution Hill, and The Mall. The changing of the guard ceremony takes place straight after.
Seeing the Ceremony in Windsor
It’s easy to combine a trip to Windsor with seeing the Changing of the Guards ceremony there.
The dates change every month, you should check this website to see which days of the week the ceremony will take place. It generally happens on Saturdays, Tuesdays and Thursdays for most of the year but can change – rarely will it take place on a Sunday, though.
The best places to see the procession in Windsor without going into the castle is either on Windsor High Street or on Corn Exchange – from where the guards march on to Windsor Castle.
If you want to see the ceremony itself, you need to buy a Windsor Castle ticket and head there for 11am (ideally just before). Get there early as it can get very busy.
The History of The Changing of The Guard
So why does all this happen? Well as you know, England is a place that loves tradition – especially when it is something to do with our monarchy. As mentioned above, this tradition dates back to King Henry VII.
The Guard Regiments, though (that’s the ones you’ll be seeing at the parade) were formed in 1656 with the goal of protecting the exiled King Charles II. They were made of the best-trained and most-loyal soldiers and officers and are some of the oldest regiments in the British army.
In fact a guard regiment has fought in every major conflict the UK has been involved in since the 1600s. They’ve also done so with great distinction, often picking up many medals for valour and bravery – kind of adds a new flavour to the men in funny hats right?
How Has the Ceremony Changed?
Actually the ceremony has remained much the same over the years (apart from the introduction of some new music that is). What has changed though, is its location.
It might not be totally obvious, but British royalty hasn’t always lived at Buckingham Palace. In fact they’ve only been there since 1837. When the Changing of the Guard ceremony first came into being the royals would have lived at the Palace of Whitehall – their residence until 1698 when it burnt down.
After that they moved to St James’s Palace where you can still see a changing of the guard today. That’s because although the royals live at Buckingham Palace, St James’s is still a working royal building, used to host foreign dignitaries and family when they come to London.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Did You Know?
- Although we refer to it as the Changing of the Guard – the ceremony’s proper name is actually Guard Mounting.
- The guards’ hats are a standard 18 inches tall and weigh 1.5 pounds each.
- If you get in the way of the guards, they won’t march around you – you will be instructed to “make way for the Queen’s Guards”.
- The guards are trained to deal with and ignore public nuisance, but in very limited and serious cases they are permitted to point their weapons at a person and restrain them.
- When The King is in residence – a.k.a when he’s chilling at home – four sentries will guard Buckingham Palace. If there are only two guards, he’s probably off on her jollies somewhere (likely Windsor Castle or Scotland).
- The Household Guard is split into five regiments. While they might look the same at first glance, you can tell the difference by looking at the colour and placement of the plume on their hat and also at the spacing of their buttons. See if you can spot the difference.
- The guards change their uniforms in the winter and summer months. The summer uniforms are the instantly-recognisable bright red tunics, but they wear a heavier muted-grey tunic during the winter months – far more practical for the colder weather. You’ll be glad to know that the bearskin hat stays all year round though.
Tips for Watching the Changing of the Guard
- Keep a close eye on your belongings as the ceremony is often targeted by pickpockets.
- You could get to Buckingham Palace really early to get a good position (like 45 minutes early) but then you will be standing and waiting around for ages before anything happens.
- We’d recommend turning up 10 minutes earlier – you probably won’t get the perfect vantage point but it will be good enough – there’s pretty much no viewpoint where you won’t be able to see the New Guard marching up to the palace and the Old Guard marching away after they’ve been relieved.
- The ceremony can be cancelled at the last minute during bad weather (in Britain, the weather truly dictates our lives – this is no exception). If it looks like it’s going to be really rainy, try and check ahead – but don’t be too disappointed if it’s cancelled shortly before it’s due to start.
- Look at the flag being flown above Buckingham. If it’s the Royal Standard rather than the Union Jack, it means that the King is in residence at the palace. Who knows, maybe he’s peeking from behind the curtains and goggling at the huge crowd.
- The nearest underground stations to Buckingham Palace are Victoria, St James’s and Green Park. It’s also a relatively easy walk from Hyde Park Corner station.
- We’ve given you more than enough information to arrange your visit, but if you want to book onto a guided tour, this one provides an informative and enjoyable experience.
Map of Important Locations for the Changing of the Guard
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