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Exploring Royal Scotland: The Royal Yacht Britannia

In honour of The Queen’s Holyrood Week, we’re taking a look at royal history in and around Edinburgh. Our senior reporter Kristin Contino headed to Scotland to find out more about some favourite royal spots.

“Britannia is the one place where I can truly relax,” The Queen once said, and when you tour the ship for yourself, you can understand exactly why.

The decommissioned yacht, now permanently docked in Edinburgh’s Leigh neighbourhood, is one of Scotland’s most popular tourist attractions, but for 44 years, it was the floating palace of Britain’s royal family.

History of the yacht

The Royal Yacht Britannia was launched in 1953 and during four decades of royal service sailed the equivalent of once around the world for each year, calling at more than 600 ports in 135 countries.

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The Queen and her family spent many royal tours and holidays aboard Britannia, as well as honeymoons. Four royal honeymoons took place on the yacht, including Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales; Prince Andrew and Sarah, Duchess of York; Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones; and Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips. Interestingly, all of these marriages ended in divorce.

The Queen and Prince Philip attended a ceremony celebrating the yacht travelling one million miles in 1994, but the same year, John Major’s Government announced there would be no refit for Britannia as the costs would be too great. The question of a replacement yacht was a hot topic leading up to the 1997 election, but the new Labour Government announced there would not be a new royal yacht in October 1997. 

The Royal Yacht Britannia was decommissioned on 11 December 1997 in Portsmouth, and the ceremony is one of the rare times Her Majesty has ever cried in public. All the clocks on Britannia were stopped at 15:01, the time The Queen was piped ashore for the last time, and remain that way to this day.

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In 1998, Britannia permanently docked in Edinburgh and opened its doors as a tourist attraction. It has been named as Scotland’s best visitor attraction by Visit Scotland for the past 12 years, and 95 per cent of items on display are originals on loan from The Royal Collection. This is definitely not a recreation, but what the ship actually looked like when the family used it.

Touring the ship

One of the things that surprised me about Britannia is you actually can’t see the ship from the road, as it’s blocked by a large shopping mall called Ocean Terminal.

I can imagine it’s fairly depressing for The Queen to have her beloved Britannia now docked with a permanent view of a Debenhams, but it’s lucky for visitors to Edinburgh that they can experience the royal yacht for themselves.

After taking an elevator inside Ocean Terminal, you enter Britannia through what looks like a typical mall store. A massive LEGO Britannia sits in a glass case next to the ticket desk, and you walk through a gallery of images and information about the history of the ship until you reach a hallway where you collect your audio guide headset and cross a bridge outside to board the yacht.

The exterior of the Royal Yacht Britannia. Photo: Kristin Contino

The audio guide does an excellent job covering the different rooms and their purposes. A special children’s version of the audio tour was entertaining for my son, and they even had a Corgi hunt aboard the ship.

Children (or children-at-heart) are invited to count the stuffed dogs they see on the tour of Britannia and when you exit – through the gift shop, of course – you’ll be given a badge if you count the correct number.

A stuffed Corgi relaxes on a crew member’s bed aboard Britannia. Photo: Kristin Contino

You first enter the ship and see The Bridge, where the officers navigated the yacht around the world. Later in the tour, you’ll see the below decks areas where officers and crew members lived and worked, and the engine room with its gleaming brass fixtures. But most visitors are probably there to see what was the highlight of my tour: The state apartments.

Britannia is the only place you can see one of The Queen’s bedrooms since you don’t get to view these types of private rooms on the tours of Buckingham Palace or Balmoral. Both The Queen and Prince Philip slept in cosy, quite simple bedrooms with single beds (no shared room for them, but the bedrooms are connected by a door).

The Queen’s floral-themed bedroom on The Royal Yacht Britannia. Photo: Kristin Contino
Prince Philip’s bedroom aboard Britannia. Photo: Kristin Contino

The only room on the ship with a double bed is the room Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales used on their honeymoon; Prince Charles had the bed specially brought in for the occasion.

Touring the state apartments the visitor gets a sense of just how normal (or as close to “normal”) life was for The Queen and her family on the yacht. Nothing here is grandiose, and The Queen and Prince Philip decorated this way specifically to make the ship feel homely and laid back, more like a country house than a palace. This also makes sense given the post-WWII period when the ship was built, when it would have been unseemly to splash out on gilded, over-the-top surroundings.

The floral sofas in the state drawing room, for example, wouldn’t look out of place in an episode of The Golden Girls. This drawing room, which could hold up to 250 people, is where the family would chat by the fire, play games, and entertain guests after dinner, and the baby grand piano in the room was played by Diana, Princess of Wales and Princess Margaret over the years.

Britannia’s cosy state drawing room. Photo: Kristin Contino

Even the white-panelled state dining room, which is the most formal room on Britannia, is lovely but fairly simple in terms of its decor. This lets the floral centrepieces, candles, and beautiful crystal and china on the table take centre stage. You can see various artefacts from state visits around the world here, such as swords and other trinkets, and these are displayed both in glass cabinets and on the walls.

This room is now available for hire to corporations and private guests, and it must be a wonderful venue for a special event. Britannia, in fact, is where Zara Phillips and Mike Tindall held their pre-wedding cocktail party in 2011.

Britannia’s dining room. Photo: Kristin Contino

The teak-panelled sun lounge, overlooking the deck, was The Queen’s favourite room, and I have to agree it was mine as well. This is where Her Majesty would take breakfast and afternoon tea every day, and the family would relax and engage in hobbies such as cards or painting. Prince Philip enjoyed setting up his easel to paint, and you can see one in the corner of the room – next to the drinks cabinet.

Britannia’s sun lounge. Photo: Kristin Contino

The sun lounge overlooks the ship’s verandah deck, where the family would sunbathe, play games, dance and enjoy the sea views. I recently saw a video on a royal documentary with Prince Charles sliding across the deck on a makeshift water slide and couldn’t help but laugh as I stood on deck picturing the scene.

It’s not hard to imagine why the family enjoyed their time onboard so much, as it afforded them the moments of privacy they so rarely got to experience.

Senior reporter Kristin Contino on the deck of Britannia. Photo: Kristin Contino

Below decks, you can view the crew’s quarters and some of the working areas. Britannia really was like a floating city, with its own post office, several pubs, a hospital wing – including operating theatre –  and a laundry room.

Fun fact: The Royal Yachtsmen, also known as “Yotties,” aboard Britannia sometimes had to change uniform up to six times a day. That being said, Britannia also was the only ship in the Royal Navy to have a laundry service permanently on board. Temperatures in the room could reach 120 degrees with the steam presses, dryers, and laundry machines constantly in use.

The laundry room below decks on Britannia. Photo: Kristin Contino

Before you leave the ship, I highly recommend the Royal Deck Tea Room. My family and I enjoyed a really lovely tea with amazing sea views (it didn’t hurt we were seated right by the windows).

The royal family used to use this room for entertaining and playing deck games, and with soft music playing and a vintage feel the overall vibe makes you feel like you could have been in the 1950s or 60s when Britannia was in its heyday.

The Royal Deck Tea Room, where you can sip afternoon tea like royalty. Photo: Kristin Contino

Having tea and cakes here was the perfect way to end my day aboard Britannia – well, until I made my way into the gift shop. 

For more information on the Royal Yacht Britannia or to purchase tickets, visit their website.

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About author

Kristin was Chief Reporter for Royal Central until 2022 and has been following the British royal family for more than 30 years. Kristin has appeared in UK and U.S. media outlets discussing the British royals including BBC Breakfast, BBC World News, Sky News, the Associated Press, TIME, The Washington Post, and many others.