This grandiose palace has the distinction of being the only historic house in Britain to be named a World Heritage Site. Designed by Sir John Vanbrugh in the early 1700s in collaboration with Nicholas Hawksmoor, Blenheim was given by Queen Anne and the nation to General John Churchill, first duke of Marlborough, in gratitude for his military victories (including the Battle of Blenheim) against the French in 1704. The exterior is mind-boggling, with its huge columns, enormous
pediments, and obelisks, all exemplars of English baroque. Inside, lavishness continues in monumental extremes: you can join a free guided tour or simply walk through on your own. In most of the opulent rooms family portraits look down at sumptuous furniture, elaborate carpets, fine Chinese porcelain, and immense pieces of silver. Exquisite tapestries in the three state rooms illustrate the first duke's victories. Book a tour of the current duke's private apartments for a more intimate view of ducal life. For some visitors, the most memorable room is the small, low-ceiling chamber where Winston Churchill (his father was the younger brother of the then-duke) was born in 1874; you can also see his paintings and toy soldier collection. He's buried in nearby Bladon.
Sir Winston wrote that the unique beauty of Blenheim lay in its perfect adaptation of English parkland to an Italian palace. Its 2,000 acres of grounds, the work of Capability Brown, 18th-century England's best-known landscape gardener, are arguably the best example of the "cunningly natural" park in the country. Looking across the park to Vanbrugh's semi-submerged Grand Bridge makes for an unforgettable vista. Blenheim's formal gardens include notable water terraces and an Italian garden with a mermaid fountain, all built in the 1920s.
The Pleasure Gardens, reached by a miniature train that stops outside the palace's main entrance, contain some child-pleasers, including a butterfly house, a hedge maze, and giant chess set. The herb-and-lavender garden is also delightful. Blenheim Palace stages a concert of Beethoven's Battle Symphony in mid-July, combined with a marvelous fireworks display. There are many other outdoor events throughout the summer, including jousting tournaments. Allow at least three hours for a full visit.
Off A4095, Woodstock, OX20 1PX, England