Princess Diana: Top spots to retrace her life in London

Princess Diana has been gone 20 years, but in London, admirers can still find traces of her memory in royal palaces, through the four splendid parks connecting them, in the city’s two grandest cathedrals, and in her favorite haunts.

And her sons, Princes William and Harry, have chosen to observe this anniversary of her death with special exhibits and a new formal statue to be unveiled later this year near Kensington Palace.

This summer, the House of Windsor has mounted a display of Diana’s small desk and personal mementos in the Music Room of Buckingham Palace, which is open for visits while the Queen is away, through October 1.  William and Harry chose things the Princess kept on the desk in her apartment at Kensington Palace.

Kensington Palace, which Diana called KP, was her home during her marriage to Prince Charles and until her death. Londoners focused on that palace to express their grief. One English writer said that with the death of the People’s Princess “the English finally learned to cry.” This summer, flowers in the Palace’s formal garden have been completely white, in Diana’s memory. 

And inside, “Diana: Her Fashion Story,” has drawn huge crowds to the display of many of her best-known gowns.  There’s the ink-blue velvet gown she wore to the Reagan White House, where she famously danced with John Travolta.  And a black halter-top gown worn at Versailles. In addition to all the dresses, there are her informal clothes, displayed with photos, like the tweed outfit worn at Balmoral during her honeymoon.  The exhibit remains open through February 2018.

Until the new statue is unveiled later this year, the only official memorials to Priness Diana are in the royal parks that run through West London.  The Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Walk is marked off by enameled metal discs set into the pathways, starting on the far end of beautiful St. James’s Park, near Westminster Abbey, winding around its lake, past Buckingham Palace, through Green Park and then Hyde Park and through Kensington Park to the palace.  Also in Kensington Park are two memorials enjoyed by children, a nod to the Princess’s dedication to children’s causes.  The Diana fountain is a large cement ribbon of a wading pool.  And the memorial playground is full of innovative things for climbing and spaces for families to spread blankets.  

St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey are considered must-see attractions in London. And Diana’s history is woven into the history of those great cathedrals.  Stand at the foot of St. Paul’s wide staircase and visualize the 20-year-old alighting from her carriage and fixing her 25-foot train before walking up the wide red carpet on her father’s arm.  At Westminster Abbey, stand at the foot of the main altar where all coronations are held and where Diana’s coffin stood.  At the Abbey’s daily evensong, open to the public, a visitor sits right there as a boys’ choir’s voices fill the ancient space.  And feet away is where Elton John sang “Candle in the Wind” during the funeral.  

Nearby, you can tour the Royal Mews and see the glass coach that carried Diana to her wedding, and the open coach that the newlyweds took from St. Paul’s back to Buckingham Palace, the same one William and Kate chose for their wedding.

Diana Spencer came from an aristocratic family whose country home was at Althorp, 75 miles north of London. It is the site of her grave, chosen by her family so that it would  not be a tourist destination.  But the Spencer family’s ancestral 1756 London mansion, just behind St. James’s Palace and a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace, is open to tourists on Sundays. Among Spencer House’s glorious rooms are its famous glowing golden Palm Room with tree-sized palm-shaped columns and palm fronds fanned across the ceiling with gold-leaf ornamentation.  

All of that frou-frou was not what the Princess most wanted her two sons to grow up with.  She talked about wanting them to have experiences like regular people. Today, some of the small restaurants where she often took the kids for breakfast or pizza, just outside the Kensington Palace gates, are still there, lined with Diana photos.  

Just across from the tall black gates that guard Kensington Palace Gardens on the north side is the little Cafe Diana.  Fouad Fattah was the manager then and still is today, serving up eggs under walls covered in Diana photos, some inscribed to him.  He loves to talk about when the Princess and the boys came in.  Fattah says her first visit was just days after the place opened and put up its sign; she waved from her car and a few days later appeared in the shop, as she did occasionally over the years, sometimes with the boys for breakfast, and other times in the afternoon for her favorite cappuccino, according to Fattah.  A traveler easily can combine breakfast or lunch at Cafe Diana with a Saturday morning trip to the Portobello Road street market at Notting Hill Gate, just a few blocks from Kensington Palace.

On the other side of the Palace, the southern side closer to High Street Kensington, Diana often went to a small pizza place, Da Mario, which, like Cafe Diana, proudly shows off her photos.  Manager Marco Molino says the boys loved his pizza and the booths.  He says Diana was so comfortable that she also would come to meet with a particular paparazzi photographer to discuss where she might be appearing.  Also in Kensington is Sticky Fingers restaurant, owned by Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman, where a visitor can see the booth they call Diana’s amid the Stones memorabilia.

Diana also hung out in the tony Knightsbridge area, home to the Harrods and Harvey Nichols emporiums.  She was a big fan of the restaurant and bar on the fifth floor of Harvey Nichols.  And she often at at San Lorenzo, an upscale Italian spot just around the corner from Harrods.  

For the traveler looking for images of Diana, Harrods is worth a trip.  When she was killed, along with boyfriend Dodi Al-Fayed, Harrods was owned by Dodi’s father, Mohamed Al-Fayed.  He built a shrine to them in the store’s lower level, which is still there today, though he no longer is the owner.  It’s tucked away at the foot of an escalator, with images of Diana and Dodi, a lipstick-smudged wine glass and a very large bronze statue of them dancing, like a Bernini.  The inscription at the base calls them “innocent victims.”  You can sign a condolence book.  

Another image of Diana is seen by hundreds of tourists each day.  At Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, the Princess stands opposite her sons and the entire royal family, her gaze in their direction.  She is gone, but there.

 

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