In 1997, the normally stoic Queen Elizabeth shed a tear when the Royal Yacht Britannia was decommissioned. The ship had traveled more than one million miles in its 40 years of service. Most trips were diplomatic with the royals visiting dignitaries in far-flung foreign ports.
And while the yacht has a fascinating history, it’s still just as loved today. In fact, Britannia was ranked as the top UK landmark to visit by TripAdvisor UK’s 2014/15 Travellers’ Choice Awards. Even still, when I went, I expected to be a little bored. Instead, I was royally engaged for three hours.
In between ports, the yacht was a place where the royals could relax away from the public limelight. All four of the Queen’s children honeymooned on board Britannia. During Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s Mediterranean cruise, the crew became so adept at ducking photographers that Britannia was dubbed "the ghost ship.” Here are some of the reasons the impressive vessel is worth a visit.
1. It’s Easily Accessible
The retired yacht is docked next to the Ocean Terminal -- a huge shopping mall in the Port of Leith roughly a 20-minute bus ride from central Edinburgh. Britannia is accessed via the visitor’s center on the second floor. All five decks can be reached via a shore-side elevator tower, and the ship prides itself on being wheelchair accessible.
2. You’ll Get Personal Glimpses Of Royalty
Britannia offers a more intimate portrayal of the royals than a tour of Buckingham Palace, where tourists only see the formal reception rooms. There are regal reception rooms on Britannia, but you also get to see the family’s living quarters, complete with furnishings that flaunt florals and chintzes.
This is the first time living British royal bedrooms have been on public display. Her Majesty and Prince Phillip had adjoining rooms but single beds. Prince Charles had a double bed brought on board when he married Diana, and there is a photo of the hopeful couple on the bedside table. So sad in retrospect.
3. See How Royal Kids Will Be Kids
Adults sunbathed on the Verandah Deck, and the children frolicked in an inflatable wading pool. As they grew older, a slide doused with water was placed on the steep stairway leading from this deck to the Royal Deck, and Prince Charles and his siblings would see how far they could propel themselves along the polished deck. Even Prince Philip had his turn. But it wasn’t a free-for-all. Princess Anne once said it took a team of nannies to prevent them falling overboard as the children became so excitable at sea. Each child was also allocated a “Sea Daddy,” a crew member to keep them occupied.
4. Understand How Royalty Operates
The yacht was a representation of the United Kingdom’s greatness, and everything had to be ship-shape. A smudge on board would not be tolerated, and even the propellers faced a certain direction before dignitaries arrived. The engine room was immaculate with not a skerrick of grease.
The State Dining Room seated up to 56 dinner guests. The Clintons, President Reagan and wife Nancy, Nelson Mandela, Frank Sinatra, and Sir Winston Churchill were just a few of those who dined on board.
Precision was everything. Chairs were carefully aligned, and the distance between each place setting and the cutlery was measured with rulers.
The gifts in the dining room cabinets reveal the extent of the Queen’s far-flung travels and include a carved shark signed by Pitcairn Islanders, descendants of Fletcher Christian of Mutiny on the Bounty, an Easter Island stone head, a wooden Galapagos tortoise, and a Sioux peace pipe.
5. Enjoy Afternoon Tea On Board
Afternoon tea at the Royal Deck Tea Room is a must during your visit. This is where the Royals enjoyed their meals, too. Floor-to-ceiling windows showcase views of ships plying the Firth of Forth. Tea comes in little silver teapots, and there are excellent cheese scones as well as whisky cake. My table was on the deck -- a wonderful setting for that slice of Victoria Sponge I’d been saving myself for.
6. Learn About Life As A Crew Member
Britannia’s crew included an admiral, 21 officers, and 220 Royal Yachtsmen (called yotties by the Royals).
The yotties’ bunk accommodations were cramped and basic. They wore gym shoes in order to tread quietly and would often use hand signals to communicate rather than shouting orders so as not to disturb the royals.
The officers had their own mess room where they enjoyed a tipple or two. A favorite game was tennis, during which a stuffed wombat toy was placed on the blades of the ceiling fan, careening off at unpredictable angles for awaiting players. The wooden monkey from the Queen’s 1957 visit to Copenhagen had a less painful existence. It would simply disappear from the cabinet each night and reemerge in unusual places in a game of hide-and-seek the whole ship enjoyed.
7. Visit The Royal Gift Shop
The ship’s gift shop sells quintessentially English items like corgi handbags, shortbread tins, tea bags with royal figureheads you balance on the side of your cup, and fine china. You can purchase bottles of Britannia gin or Christmas puddings. These have been made in the galley for the last 60 years and are part of a royal tradition.
Bonus: Consider Enjoying Leith And Staying Aboard The Fingal
Wander around the historic port of Leith, a cosmopolitan area with artisanal restaurants, bars, and shops. To provide memorable accommodation, the team behind the Royal Yacht Britannia launched Fingal, a 23-cabin luxury floating hotel in 2019, and it is moored nearby. £5 million were spent outfitting Fingal in art deco elegance, and royalty stayed here, too. The hotel’s Skerryvore Suite incorporates a portion of the cabin that was sometimes stayed in by Princess Anne.
This is your chance to sleep like a royal -- in a king-sized bed rather than a single. The Royal Yacht Britannia seems a portrait of pomp and privilege, but when compared to today’s more lavish accommodations, it pales in comparison.
Note the clocks on board Britannia are set at 3:01, the moment the Queen last disembarked the royal yacht on December 11, 1997. It was indeed a sad moment for her Majesty, but a great day for tourists who can now enjoy this right royal attraction.