Queen Elizabeth smiling

The British royal family is one of the most powerful institutions in the world, so it’s no surprise that they own some of the United Kingdom’s most impressive and awe-inspiring homes. There are 26 official royal residences, ranging from the sprawling Buckingham Palace in central London to the more modest Frogmore Cottage, where Prince Harry and Meghan Markle lived for a time before dropping their status as senior royals and moving stateside (via Veranda).

The houses where the royal family resides are all "held in trust" by the Crown Estates, as noted by The Guardian, and the details of this arrangement are outlined by the official U.K. Parliament website. The rules of what can and cannot take place in royal palaces are pretty interesting. In fact, a royal residence is exempt from many state laws, as Hello! magazine noted. Read on to take a look inside some of the royal family’s stately homes and learn more about their storied histories.

The queen gave her first holiday address at Sandringham House

Sandringham House exterior

If you follow the British royal family’s traditions, you’ll know that every year they spend Christmas at Sandringham House in Norfolk. It has long been a holiday tradition for the royal family to assemble at Sandringham, and in fact, it was the site of Queen Elizabeth’s first broadcasted holiday address to the nation, which took place in 1952, according to Hello! magazine. Christmas 2020 marked the first year in decades that Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip skipped their annual trip to Sandringham.

As Hello! noted, the estate was purchased by Queen Victoria. "The British royal family acquired the estate in 1862, when it was purchased as a country home for Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, and his soon-to-be wife, Alexandra of Denmark," Town & Country reported. Notably, George V, Prince Edward’s son, once referred to the house as "dear old Sandringham, the place I love better than anywhere else in the world." Eventually, the queen inherited it from her own father.

Sandringham House hosts a number of cool features

historical image of Sandringham House

Sandringham House was built in a Jacobean style and features a saloon, a drawing room, and a ballroom. It has also held a number of rooms dedicated to specific activities, including — at one time at least — a bowling alley, as noted by Architectural Digest.

According to Hello! magazine, Sandringham "still features a lot of Queen Mary’s influence," with the publication noting, "The walls feature pale green wooden panelling and striking Spanish tapestries, with an open fireplace and mahogany dining table that looks like the perfect setting for a dinner party." It is Grade II-listed as a historic landmark.

Sandringham has welcomed visitors since 1977, so that people could explore the sprawling gardens and estate. The official Sandringham Instagram often shows off the estate, and in 2020, it shared a glimpse of the home’s interior, giving curious royal fans a peek at the property’s wooden columns and coat of arms lining a wall. Serious royal followers will be happy to learn they can rent a house on the property for long-term use if they want to be neighbors with the queen (via Architectural Digest).

Windsor Castle is one of the oldest castles in the world

Windsor Castle exterior

Windsor Castle has a long and storied history in the British royal family, beginning with William the Conqueror in the 11th century, according to the Royal Trust Collection. When it was built, it wasn’t designed to house the upper classes but was much more practically built with defense in mind (via Reader’s Digest). From the 12th century onward, the castle has been used as a residence for the royals. In fact, according to the Royal Collection Trust, Windsor Castle is the "oldest and largest occupied castle in the world." The RCT reported, "George IV had a love of fine objects and a taste for the theatrical. With his architect, Sir Jeffry Wyatville, he completely remodelled the Castle’s exterior during the 1820s, giving it the romantic and picturesque appearance seen today."

Practically speaking, it’s one of Queen Elizabeth II’s primary residences, according to the official royal website. While many associate Buckingham Palace most strongly with the queen, she spends much of her time at Windsor, which is a short ride from nearby London. Hello! magazine reported that the queen and Prince Philip actually spent the pandemic lodging at Windsor, away from the crowds of the nation’s capital. This wasn’t the only time Elizabeth has taken advantage of Windsor as a refuge. In World War II, she and her sister, Margaret, actually hid in the castle’s dungeons to wait out air raids (via Daily Mail).

Windsor Castle has had many high-profile moments

Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle

Along with its impressive history, Windsor Castle is quite the building to behold. It is substantial at 484,000 square feet in size, and it contains approximately 1,000 rooms, according to Hello! magazine. Over the years, Windsor has played host to countless important events, including some high-profile royal weddings. Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles’ nuptials took place there in 2005, while, more recently, it was where Prince Harry and Meghan Markle said their "I do’s." Their ceremony took place at St. George’s Chapel on the Windsor grounds, which is a gothic structure that has stood the test of time (via CNBC).

The castle welcomes visitors, who can walk the halls where major historical moments took place and peer inside some of these historical rooms. Take the "ceremonial route" to see all of the spaces where the royals have held important state visits. The Royal Collection Trust shared, "Perhaps the most striking room on the ceremonial route is the Grand Reception Room. With its chandeliers and gilding it was once used as the main ballroom in the Castle. One object you can’t miss in this room is the large malachite urn, presented to Queen Victoria by Tsar Nicholas I in 1839, and one of the largest examples outside Russia."

If you go visit, check to see if the queen’s standard is flying above the Round Tower, which will indicate that the queen herself is in residence.

Highgrove House is known for its gardens

Highgrove House exterior gardens

Located in Gloucestershire, Highgrove House is one of the more modest homes owned by the British royal family with just nine primary bedrooms (via RSVP). The house was purchased in the ’80s before Prince Charles and Princess Diana were married, according to House & Garden. After the purchase was made, Charles oversaw extensive renovations, as well as the creation of an expansive garden that draws many tourists to the countryside home each year. When talking about his experience at Highgrove, Charles said in 1993, as reported by Town & Country, "The garden at Highgrove really does spring from my heart and, strange as it may seem to some, creating it has been rather like a form of worship."

In his book, "Diana: Her True Story — In Her Own Words" (via Town & Country), Andrew Morton wrote that Charles actually asked for Diana’s design advice early in their courtship, saying, "As he took her on a guided tour of the eight-bedroom mansion, the Prince asked her to organize the interior decoration. He liked her taste though she felt that it was a ‘most improper’ suggestion as they were not even engaged."

Highgrove House’s unexpected feature

Camilla at Highgrove House

Since Highgrove House’s interior isn’t open to the public, as noted by Woman & Home, there isn’t actually a lot of information available about what the interior looks like today. Some interesting details have been revealed, however, about the security features the house contains. The home has a unique feature that sets it apart from your typical country manor — a 20-by-20-foot steel-lined panic room that is to be used in case of emergency, as shared by House & Garden.

Considering that Charles is the heir to the throne, the royal family has prioritized his safety in the case of a terrorist attack. Brian Hoey, author of the book "Not in Front of the Corgis," wrote (via Country Living), "Inside are medical supplies including containers of Charles and Camilla’s blood group, long-lasting food and drinks, an armoury, radio transmitters equipped to obtain a signal even within its steel walls, air purifiers and chemical lavatories."

The royals visit Balmoral Castle often

Balmoral Castle exterior

While many of the homes the British royal family inhabits are technically publicly owned, Balmoral Castle is a private residence where the royals retreat to relax every summer. Still, the public can visit between April and July each year. Located in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, the land and original castle were purchased by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1852, according to the royal family’s official site, and the following year, construction began on a new castle in the Scottish Baronial style.

Over the years, Balmoral has been the location of many major events for the royals. Prince Charles and Diana Spencer spent part of their honeymoon at Balmoral, and it was where the queen later learned of Diana’s tragic and unexpected death in 1997, as noted by Architectural Digest. Charles spent part of the COVID-19 pandemic at Balmoral, and the queen and Prince Philip made their annual trip there in the summer of 2020 despite the ongoing global health crisis (via Town & Country).

Balmoral Castle’s interior is a mix of old and new

Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip at Balmoral

Princess Eugenie has called Balmoral "the most beautiful place in the world," as noted by Town & Country, and it’s hard to disagree. She also added, "It’s a lovely base for Granny and Grandpa, for us to come and see them up there, where you just have room to breathe and run." It’s a place to enjoy the outdoors as well as some of the royal family’s favorite pursuits like horseback riding.

While its surroundings are certainly beautiful, the castle’s interior is equally impressive. Architectural Digest reported that glimpses of the interior show a mix of old and new. The publication noted, "Today, photographs indicate that dark green appears frequently throughout the residence. There are also mirror-topped marble fireplaces, upholstered chairs with box-pleated skirts, and lots of leather-bound books." But, of course, the royal family can still enjoy some modern delights like flat-screens too — even the queen has to kick back and watch TV sometimes!

Queen Elizabeth lived in Clarence House after marrying Prince Philip

Clarence House exterior

Located in London, Clarence House is the official residence of the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, according to the Royal Collection Trust. Originally constructed between 1825 and 1827, it was intended for King George III’s son William Henry, the Duke of Clarence, and has acted as a royal residence ever since. When Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip first married, they lived in Clarence House until Elizabeth ascended to the throne in 1952 (via RCT). It was even the location of Princess Anne‘s birth.

Many of the home’s furnishings were actually wedding gifts for the young couple. The RCT shared, "In the Dining Room, for instance, the Georgian dining table and 20 ladder-back chairs were the gift of the Royal Warrant Holders Association, while the mahogany sideboard and four side tables were a present from Queen Mary." When Elizabeth and Philip moved out, the Queen Mother moved in.

Clarence House has had many renovations over the years

Clarence House interior

When the Queen Mother passed away, it had been half a century since Clarence House had undergone any major renovations, so it had to be spruced up before Prince Charles could move in, according to the Royal Collection Trust. The refurbishments were done in an eco-friendly manner fitting with the prince’s environmentally-conscious sensibilities. Kathryn Jones, Senior Curator of Decorative Arts for Royal Collection Trust, told Google Arts and Culture, "Today it still honors the taste of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother — in the Morning Room in particular, I think — where you can see her Chelsea porcelain and her painting collections."

Today, the house is where Charles and Camilla receive official visitors when they’re in the nation’s capital (via Town & Country). While it’s currently closed to visitors, it will reopen in 2022. In the meantime, those curious about the inside of Clarence House can take a virtual tour, which is provided by Google Arts and Culture and provides access to the home’s interior.

Many royals have called Kensington Palace home

Kensington Palace gardens

London’s Kensington Palace is a popular tourist attraction, located near Hyde Park in the city’s Kensington neighborhood (via Woman & Home). It also serves as the official residence of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, William and Kate (via Royal.uk). According to the Royal Parks’ official site, it’s also home to many other notable figures, including the "Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, Duke and Duchess of Kent and Duke and Duchess of Gloucester."

The palace was built in the 17th century on the foundation of what was then called Nottingham House, and the upgrade was completed by Christopher Wren, who is best known for being the architect behind St. Paul’s Cathedral. Over the years, Kensington Palace has acted as the home base for many senior royals, including Queen Victoria. It came into prominence when Princess Diana took up residence, living there from 1981 until her death in 1997.

Inside William and Kate’s London home

Kate and Michelle Obama at Kensington Palace

Prince William and Kate Middleton have a four-story, 20-room apartment within Kensington Palace, known as Apartment 1A, as noted by Hello! magazine. Vogue described the palace’s interior, saying, "The royal couple’s home spans across four storeys with 20 rooms including three bedrooms, two nurseries and five reception rooms, along with dressing rooms and staff quarters." This isn’t even their only residence; they can always retreat to their country home, Anmer Hall.

William and Kate use their home for official state visits, and in 2016, they even hosted Barack and Michelle Obama in the formal drawing room. The decor inside is traditional, with floral prints and antiques scattered throughout the space. Some other rooms of the palace, as shown on Instagram, mix historic elements with a more modern sensibility, with white walls being paired with older pieces of furniture and modern appliances. Today, while visitors aren’t allowed in Apartment 1A, they are able to tour the King’s State Apartments, the queen’s State Apartments, and the palace gardens (via Historic Royal Palaces).

Buckingham Palace is truly massive

Buckingham Palace at sunset

Buckingham Palace is perhaps the most well-known home owned by the British royal family. It’s one of the most imposing structures in central London. The palace itself is massive, containing 775 rooms and spanning 829,000 square feet, as noted by British Heritage. Hello! magazine reported that the space contains "19 state rooms, 52 royal and guest bedrooms, 92 offices, 78 bathrooms, and 188 bedrooms for the household staff." Notably, all this makes Buckingham Palace over 15 times larger than the White House!

The building was built in 1703, and has been expanded many times over the centuries (via Far & Wide). It’s the official London residence of Queen Elizabeth, who lives in private quarters there during the week for much of the year. It’s also where visitors can see the changing of the guards, which takes place most days and is free to watch (according to Visit London).

Buckingham Palace has a number of beautiful rooms

Buckingham Palace dining room

With so many rooms inside the palace, there are dozens of iconic spaces that have played host to major events over the years. Some of the prominent rooms within Buckingham Palace include the Regency Room, the Private Audience Room, the Yellow Drawing Room, and the 1844 Room, according to Hello! magazine. The State Dining Room played host to Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding reception in 2011, and the Music Room is where many senior royals were christened, including Prince Charles, Princess Anne, Prince Andrew, and Prince William.

Buckingham Palace also features a grand balcony, where you can see the royal family making public appearances following major events such as royal weddings (via Town & Country). While it is possible to tour some sections of Buckingham Palace, those who aren’t able to make a trip across the pond will appreciate the virtual tour provided by the royal family, which includes views of the Grand Staircase, the White Drawing Room, the vibrant red Throne Room, and the Blue Drawing Room.