The Banqueting House in London: Discover the Capital’s Hidden Treasure

In the shadow of more famous royal residences lies a historical gem that often escapes the notice of visitors: the Banqueting House in London.

Unlike the typical tourist hotspots, this capital’s hidden treasure offers an experience that is nothing short of captivating.

I can personally attest to its charm. What was meant to be a brief visit over the weekend turned into a half-day exploration, and I found myself thoroughly enchanted by its rich history and stunning architecture.

I stumbled upon a mention of the Banqueting House in London online. My curiosity was piqued, and the fear of missing out (FOMO, for the cool kids) kicked in hard when I learned that this historical gem was about to close for a long-term restoration.

So, I convinced my friend to join me on a trip to the Banqueting House on the last day it was open.

A visit to the Banqueting House

Here our excellent architect has introduced strength without politeness, ornament with simplicity, beauty with majesty; it is, without dispute, the first room in the world.’

– C. Campbell, Vitruvius Brittanicus, 1715, Vol I

A brief stroll from Leicester Square to Whitehall, and we find ourselves in front of the elegant white building with tall arched windows.

We spot it instantly—not so much for its striking architecture as for the long line of eager visitors snaking out in front of it.

Clearly, we are not alone in our rush to experience the grandeur of the Banqueting House before it temporarily closes to the public.

Inigo Jones, the visionary architect, completed this masterpiece in 1620. The building was inspired by the timeless classical architecture of ancient Rome.

Back then, it was a real novelty. One can only imagine the awe of Londoners as they laid eyes on this sensational structure for the first time.

The Undercroft

The Banqueting House in London: Discover the Capital’s Hidden Treasure

The queue moves swiftly, and after a quick security bag check, we are greeted by the warm smiles of the friendly staff. We descend first into the Undercroft beneath the Banqueting Hall.

The Undercroft is a dimly lit haven with vaulted ceilings. It once served as a royal drinking den. We discover that King James I and his trusted courtiers revelled here, hidden from prying eyes. Think of it as the 17th-century version of a VIP lounge.

The Banqueting House in London: Discover the Capital’s Hidden Treasure

I imagine the raucous laughter and lively revelry that once filled these shadowy alcoves. Following the death of James I, the Undercroft found new life as a venue for lotteries. The fun never seemed to end here.

Guided talks

The Banqueting House offers a variety of guided talks throughout the day, each shedding light on a different facet of the building’s history.

We join a crowd around a guide who has a knack for storytelling. His stories and anecdotes about the Banqueting House, combined with his animated way of talking, keep us hooked. I find myself thinking that if my high school history lessons had been this riveting, I might have developed a real passion for history.

‘You all know what Buckingham Palace, Hampton Court Palace, and Kensington Palace look like, right?’ the guide poses a rhetorical question.

Who isn’t familiar with the iconic image of the London residence of the British monarchs? Many people have seen other famous palaces too, at least on postcards.

‘But what about Whitehall Palace?’ he adds. Whitehall Palace doesn’t ring a bell for most.

As he later explains, this primary royal residence was largely destroyed by fire in 1698 (which excuses our lack of knowledge). Only the Banqueting House survived.

The Banqueting Hall and Ruben’s paintings

The Banqueting House in London: Discover the Capital’s Hidden Treasure

After exploring the historical exhibits in the Undercroft, we head to the majestic Banqueting Hall. Towering ceilings loom above us, adorned with a masterpiece: Peter Paul Rubens’ paintings.

The Banqueting House in London: Discover the Capital’s Hidden Treasure

Commissioned by King Charles I, the paintings glorify the Stuart monarchs with dramatic, allegorical imagery. They are breathtaking.

Thankfully, there is no no risk of neck strain here. Benches are scattered around, inviting us to lie back or sit and gaze upward comfortably. It reminds me of the seating at the Old Royal Naval College.

We lose ourselves in the painted scenes above, such as the union of Scotland and England, the divine right of kings, and allegories of a golden age and moral triumphs.

The King’s Throne

Close to the entrance, there’s a selfie frame perfect for capturing photos. You can snap pictures of family and friends as they pose or get creative and frame a unique shot of the hall itself.

The Banqueting House in London: Discover the Capital’s Hidden Treasure

Another popular spot is the replica of the King’s throne. Like many other visitors, we can’t help but plop down on it, enjoying a royal moment. Visitors of all ages light up at the chance to play monarch, without the burden of kingdom duties, of course.

The execution of Charles I

The mood shifts as we gather around a guide who recounts the chilling story of the 30th of January, 1649: the execution of Charles I. Goosebumps rise as we listen, standing under the same opulent ceiling the king passed beneath on his way to the scaffold.

Charged with high treason, his death marked the end of monarchy and the dawn of the Commonwealth. This sombre piece of history is honoured annually with a service right here in the Banqueting House.

The Banqueting House in London: Discover the Capital’s Hidden Treasure

Then the guide delves into the details of Rubens’ paintings, and we’re so engrossed that time slips away. Though the Banqueting House may not be vast, we spend hours exploring every corner.

The Banqueting House in London: Discover the Capital’s Hidden Treasure

As we look around, we imagine the historic events that unfolded here, from the exuberant and decadent masques, once the most important royal entertainment, to the ambassador receptions. It’s like stepping through the pages of history.

The Banqueting House today

Over the centuries, the Banqueting House has served as a chapel and a museum. Now, it’s a sought-after spot in London for all sorts of high-profile events.

It hosts everything from celebrity parties to lavish balls and award ceremonies. Royals have been welcomed here, couples have tied the knot, new citizens have taken their oaths, and models have walked the catwalk during fashion shows. This venue is still very much in use today.

If you’re planning a trip to London or looking for something to do over the weekend, consider adding the Banqueting House to your itinerary. It’s more than just a visual treat; it offers a deep dive into fascinating history.

Note that the Banqueting House is currently closed for restoration but is scheduled to reopen in 2025.

Fast Facts

  • The Banqueting House is the only remaining part of the Palace of Whitehall, which was once the largest palace in Europe.

  • The ceiling of the Banqueting House features the magnificent paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, depicting the reign of King James I.

  • The Banqueting House was commissioned by King James I and completed in 1622 by architect Inigo Jones.

  • The Banqueting House is managed by charity Historic Royal Palaces.

Before your visit

  • The Banqueting House is located at Whitehall, London, SW1A 2ER. The closest tube station to Whitehall is Westminster tube station.

  • Admission to the Banqueting House is included in the Historic Royal Palaces membership, which offers access to multiple royal landmarks.

  • You can also purchase your tickets in advance or on the day, subject to availability. Keep an eye out for updates on the Banqueting House’s reopening. Check the official website for opening hours and ticket prices.

  • Guided tours are available to enhance your experience and provide deeper insights into the history of the Banqueting House.

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