By Rick Steves
Windsor Castle, the official home of England's royal family for 900 years, claims to be the largest and oldest occupied castle in the world. The queen considers this sprawling and fortified palace her primary residence. Thankfully, touring it is simple: You'll see immense grounds, lavish staterooms, a crowd-pleasing dollhouse, an art gallery, and the chapel.
Immediately upon entering, you pass through a simple modern building housing a historical overview of the castle. This excellent intro is worth a close look, since you're basically on your own after this. Inside you'll find the motte (artificial mound) and bailey (fortified stockade around it) of William the Conqueror's castle still visible. Dating from 1080, this was his first castle in England.
Queen Mary's Dollhouse — a palace in miniature (1:12 scale from 1923) and "the most famous dollhouse in the world" — often comes with the longest wait. If dollhouses aren't your cup of tea, you can skip that line and go immediately into the lavish staterooms. Strewn with history and the art of a long line of kings and queens, they're the best I've seen in Britain — and well-restored after the devastating 1992 fire. Take advantage of the talkative docents in each room, who are happy to answer your questions.
The adjacent gallery is a changing exhibit featuring the royal art collection (and some big names, such as Michelangelo and Leonardo). Downhill from here is St. George's Chapel, housing numerous royal tombs. It's a fine example of Perpendicular Gothic, with classic fan vaulting spreading out from each pillar (about 1500). The simple chapel housing the tombs of the current Queen's parents, King George VI and "Queen Mother" Elizabeth, and younger sister, Princess Margaret, is along the church's north aisle. Next door is the sumptuous 13th-century Albert Memorial Chapel, redecorated after the death of Queen Victoria's beloved Prince Albert in 1861 and dedicated to his memory.
Windsor, 20 miles west of London and just off Heathrow Airport's landing path, is a convenient stop for anyone arriving at Heathrow, picking up a car and not going into London. It's also readily accessible by train or bus. The town's pleasant pedestrian-only shopping zone litters the approach to its famous palace with fun temptations.