Hampton Court Palace, a sprawling red-brick ensemble on the banks of the Thames thirteen miles southwest of London, is the finest of England’s royal abodes. Built in 1516 by the upwardly mobile Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, it was purloined by Henry himself after Wolsey fell from favour. In the second half of the seventeenth century, Charles II laid out the gardens, inspired by what he had seen at Versailles, while William and Mary had large sections of the palace remodelled by Wren a few years later.
The Royal Apartments are divided into six thematic walking tours. There’s not a lot of information in any of the rooms, but audioguides are available and free guided tours are led by period-costumed historians who bring the place to life. If your energy is lacking – and Hampton Court is huge – the most rewarding sections are: Henry VIII’s State Apartments, which feature the glorious double-hammer-beamed Great Hall; William III’s Apartments; and Henry VIII’s Kitchens.
Tickets to the Royal Apartments cover entry to the rest of the sites in the grounds. Those who don’t wish to visit the apartments are free to wander around the gardens and visit the curious Royal Tennis Courts (April–Oct), but have to pay to try out the palace’s famously tricky yew-hedge Maze, and visit the Privy Garden, where you can view Andrea Mantegna’s colourful, heroic canvases, The Triumphs of Caesar, housed in the Lower Orangery, and the celebrated Great Vine, whose grapes are sold at the palace each year in September.