For as long as I can remember, the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace has been touted as one of the must-do-in-your-lifetime experiences. It’s on every generic bucket list. It’s in travel guides and blogs. And it fucking sucks. London is an incredible city full of amazing things to see and do. The Changing of the Guard is not one of them. In fact, given all the other things you could be doing in London, it’s actually a colossal waste of time.
What and when is the Changing of the Guard
The Changing of the Guard is a military exercise carried out by soldiers on active duty in the royal palaces and castles of England. In actuality, you can see a changing of the guard at many important sites around Europe, because as the name implies, the ceremony is intended to relieve the guards on duty and replace them with new guards. But no ceremony is more over-the-top and unnecessarily popular as the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, which lasts 45 minutes, and includes military bands playing music.
It’s scheduled at 11 am on different days depending on the time of year. In the summer, you can expect the ceremony every day, but in the winter and early spring, it’s performed only on certain days of the week. The ceremony may also be cancelled due to unforeseen events like bad weather or national tragedies. You can find the most updated schedule for the Changing of the Guard here.
Why the Changing of the Guard sucks
Though it may have once been interesting to catch a glimpse of the changing ceremony at some point in the last 100 years, it’s now one of the worst travel experiences because of how popular it is. The crowds descend on the forecourt of Buckingham Palace one to two hours before it begins. You have to watch from behind the palace gates, so if you don’t get a space right against the gate, your view of the ceremony is the back of people’s heads and the gate itself. The farther you are from the gates, the harder it is to hear the band as well.
For this reason, it’s recommended you arrive at least 45 minutes before the start time for a ceremony that is already 30 minutes too long. Some people opt to stand on and around the Victoria Memorial which is across the street from the palace gates. The only upside to this is that you can see the guards marching in and out of the palace. But otherwise, you’re far away from the “main event,” which occurs inside the gates.
During the ceremony, the guards do marching drills back and forth, which is only interesting for the first 3 minutes when you see them all in their red uniforms and traditional furry bearskin hats. When it’s cold, prepare for an even bigger disappointment, because they’ll be wearing gray.
The band put on a show while the guards officially change shifts, playing a combination of traditional marching music and pop music. But even the 007 theme song can’t make standing there for an hour and a half worth it. People around you start to talk so you can barely hear the band. Everyone is shoving their selfie sticks in your face. And people are jostling you to get a better view.
And the worst part is that once you’re there, you can’t really escape because the roads are closed to allow the Guard to enter and exit the palace. When the crowds begin to disperse, even relatively quiet and peaceful areas like Green Park and St. James’s Park become a crowded mess. It’s like leaving the worst concert you’ve ever attended.
What to do instead
If you’re hell bent on seeing this military exercise, you might at least consider going to a less popular one and seeing the changing of the horse guards in Whitehall. This also takes place at 11 am, so most people will be Buckingham. The ceremony is only about 30 minutes. This nearby option is held at the Horse Guards Parade ground which is on the other side of St. James’s Park from Buckingham. It’s about a mile away, walkable in 15-20 minutes. So if you arrive at Buckingham when it’s already too crowded and decide not to stay, you can still make it to the smaller changing ceremony at Whitehall.
I’m not sure why I’ve done this three times in my life (four if you include one at Windsor Castle), but as a note to myself and to all of you: you can skip this overrated travel experience. I feel like I can safely recommend you do absolutely anything else with your morning. You can go to one of many gorgeous parks in the area, where you can feed the ducks or ride paddleboats. You can go to one of the many free museums like the Tate Modern or the British Museum. You can sleep in or go enjoy a large British breakfast or brunch. Literally all of those things are a better use of your time in London than the Changing of the Guard.
Get the GPS-guided version of this and other London guides on GPSmyCity here.