(Royal) Day Tripping Around London

Asking Brits whether or not they’re royalists always leads to an entertaining debate. Royalists support the monarchy and its place in modern times, while the opposite camp, republicans, believe it to be an outmoded, borderline-ridiculous institution that diverts funding away from vital public programs.

As a proud American and a traveler who enjoys a bit of romance and tradition, I find the monarchy endlessly fascinating. The royals put on a show for the U.K., especially in England, where each castle and historic site shines with the kind of pomp and circumstance you just don’t see in the U.S. of A.

To get closer to the royal story in all its past and present glory, here are four day trips that are just a hop, skip, or a short train ride from London:

1. Sandringham House (About 2.5 hours north of London in Anmer, England)

Sandringham feels immensely more welcoming and homey than any other royal spot I’ve visited. It’s not a palace or castle, but a beloved country retreat on the outskirts of Norfolk where the royal family spends Christmas every year. Knowledgeable guides reveal “secrets” in each room if you ask questions — I learned that a flat-screen TV is hidden in the saloon, where the queen and Prince Philip take afternoon tea. The estate grounds include Anmer Hall, which will serve as William and Kate’s country retreat.

Sandringham is more magical when you arrive in a manner befitting a queen, on restored vintage Pullman trains. Orient-Express, known for upping the train travel glamour quotient, organizes several iconic trips around Great Britain, including the Sandringham day trip, which will be offered three times in 2014.

2. Windsor Castle (About 23 miles west of London in Windsor, England)

Allow three hours to tour Windsor Castle, where the queen spends many of her weekends. Highlights include the grand State Apartments, the remarkable Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House (said to be the largest in the world), and St. George’s Chapel, the spiritual home of the Order of the Garter, the oldest order of chivalry in Britain. (Prince William became the 1,000th person to join the order in 2008.)

In August and September, you can climb 200 steps to the top of the Round Tower for incredible panoramic views of the grounds. Have lunch in the town of Windsor or afternoon tea at nearby Coworth Park, where William and Harry often compete in charity polo matches. To see where the princes (and other illustrious alums) attended school, enjoy an hour-long public tour at nearby Eton College, founded in 1440.

3. Kew Palace (About 10 miles up river from London)

Was King George III mad? Find out at Kew Palace, which is smaller and more intimate than other royal residences. Though the king would be sequestered here during his increasingly frequent bouts of mental illness, he would still go on to reign for 60 years. Queen Elizabeth II also celebrated her 80th birthday here.

Nearby, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew is a 300-acre wonderland of English landscaping, with greenhouses, a treetop walkway, and Queen Charlotte’s Cottage to explore.

4. The Royal Pavilion (About an hour south of London in Brighton, England)

Most visitors come to Brighton to relax at one of England’s most iconic (and nostalgic) beachside resorts, but you’ll also find the Royal Pavilion — the exotic, eclectic retreat built for George, Prince of Wales, who would later take the position of Prince Regent when his father, “mad” King George III, was deemed no longer fit to rule — in town. “You have to see it to believe it,” a friend told me, of the India-inspired structure and its lavish chinoiserie interiors.

Though the city of Brighton purchased the private palace from Queen Victoria in 1850 and converted it to a public attraction, visitors (400,000 annually) leave with a real sense of England’s Regency era and the quirky personality of the King George IV (when George III passed away, the Prince Regent assumed the title of King George IV). Among the royal rooms to discover are the stunning Banqueting Room, Music Room, and the Great Kitchen, innovative for its time.

Have more time and want to escape London for another day? Check out Hampton Court Palace, King Henry VIII’s favorite palace, in Surrey (about an hour’s drive southwest of London).

Annie Fitzsimmons is Intelligent Travel’s Urban Insider, giving you the dish on the best things to see and do in cities all over the world. Follow her on Twitter @anniefitz.