The beloved seat of Henry VIII's court, sprawled elegantly beside the languid waters of the Thames, Hampton Court is steeped in more history than virtually any other royal building in England. The Tudor mansion, begun in 1514 by Cardinal Wolsey to curry favor with the young Henry, actually conceals a larger 17th-century baroque building, which was partly designed by Sir Christopher Wren. The earliest dwellings on this site belonged to a religious order founded in the 11th century and were expanded over the years by its many subsequent residents, until George II moved the royal household closer to London in the early 18th century. After entering through the magnificent Tudor courtyard, start with a look through the State Apartments, decorated in the Tudor style, and on to the wood-beamed magnificence of Henry's Great Hall, before taking in the strikingly azure ceiling of the Chapel Royal. Watch out for the ghost of Henry VIII's doomed fifth wife, Catherine Howard, who lost her head yet
is said to scream her way along the Haunted Gallery. (Believe it or not, what is certainly true is that the corridor is prone to sudden drops in temperature—and no one quite knows why.) Latter-day masters of the palace, the joint rulers William and Mary (reigned 1689–1702), were responsible for the beautiful King's and Queen's Apartments and the elaborate baroque of the Georgian Rooms.
Well-handled reconstructions of Tudor life take place all year, from live appearances by "Henry VIII" to cook-historians preparing authentic Tudor feasts in the 15th-century Henry's Kitchens. (Dishes on offer in the adjacent café include a few of these traditional recipes.) The highlight of the formal grounds is undoubtedly the famous maze (the oldest hedge maze in the world), its half-mile of pathways among clipped hedgerows still fiendish to negotiate. There's a trick, but we won't give it away here: it's much more fun just to go and lose yourself. Meanwhile, the Lower Orangery Exotic Garden shows off thousands of exotic species that William and Mary, avid plant collectors, gathered from around the globe. Family tickets offer savings—two adults and up to three children are covered for £43.80 (£40.80 if you book online). Family ghost tours (£14 per person) are given on evenings throughout the year. Not only are they entertainingly spooky, but they're a great opportunity to see the older parts of the palace without the crowds. Scarier, adults-only versions cost £27.50 and last two hours. Tours can sell out several weeks in advance, particularly in holiday seasons, so book well in advance.