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 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.
Wander 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. 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.
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. 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.
Don't miss 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.
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 £48, or £45 if you book online.
Choose which parts of the palace to explore based on a number of self-guided audio walking tours. Come Christmas time, there's ice-skating on a rink before the West Front of the palace.
Evening ghost tours (£28 per person) are held 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. Tours can sell out weeks in advance, so book ahead of time.
Hampton Court Rd., East Molesley, Surrey, KT8 9AU, England
0844-482–7799-tickets; 0844-482–7777-information (24 hrs); 20-3166–6000-from outside U.K.