In a nutshell
What started as a simple riverside manor house in the 15th century became one of Britain’s most lavish palaces, first in the hands of Cardinal Wolsey, then under a succession of kings, beginning with Henry VIII, who spent the equivalent of £18m developing vast kitchens, a chapel, tennis court, bowling alleys, formal gardens and a communal loo with room for 28 noblemen. The famous maze was commissioned by King William III. It’s not hard to imagine courtiers conspiring in darkened corners, servants hurrying along corridors and a pervading sense of ill ease as plots were hatched, lovers betrayed and backs stabbed. Don’t forget to look up: some of the most extravagant detailing is above, in the ornate chimneys, the chapel’s sumptuous ceiling and the frescoes of William III’s apartments.
Get chatting to one of the staff and they’ll happily divulge some juicy royal shenanigans or grim historic practice. Georgian women had their teeth removed - and replaced with false ones - to show that (or perhaps because) they ate sugar, which at the time was more expensive than tea or coffee. And they had plenty of opportunity to indulge, as the palace had its own chocolate kitchen where Thomas Tosier, chocolatier to King George I, made sweet, spiced concoctions. Reopened in 2014 it’s the only surviving such kitchen in Britain.
Best thing about it?
Children are brilliantly catered for. The Magic Garden (summer only) is a highlight: an enchanting outdoor play area of Tudor towers, a raised walkway and slide, sand and water play, grassy slopes to slide down, mythical creatures hidden among the foliage and a spiky giant nest surrounded by the old brick walls. A cheaper ticket (£7.70 adult, £5.50 child), buys access to just the garden and the maze, which are an afternoon’s entertainment in themselves. This Easter there’s a bunny hunt (until 17 April), “Tudor” chocolate making (8/9 April) and – my son’s favourite – decorating your own chocolate cup (until 17 April). From 27 May, there’s a week of outdoor Horrible History shows (adult £12, child £7).
What about lunch?
The Tiltyard, the former enclosed jousting arena, is now the main restaurant, serving hot meals (fish pie or chicken casserole £9.95; kids’ meals £4.95), sandwiches and soups (£5). Two cafes – the Privy Kitchen and the Fountain Court Cafe (summer only), offer panini (from £5.25), coffee (£2.75 latte/cappuccino), tea (£2), cupcakes (£2.95) and ice-cream (£3). For the price of a family meal you could bring your own feast and picnic outside among the daffodils or, in summer, roses.
Exit through the gift shop?
No. There are two shops, but they’re fairly discreetly tucked away.
There are a few parking spaces. Hampton Court station (trains from Waterloo) is opposite the palace on the other side of the river.
Prices and times
Open daily, except 24, 25 and 26 December, 10am-6pm (4.30pm winter). Online tickets £20.30, £10.20 (under 5 free).
Value for money
If the weather is fine it’s easy to spend the entire day exploring the labyrinthine rooms and grounds. This year, from mid April the Tudor court will be brought to life by a play about Henry VIII and his new wife Anne Boleyn in the great hall (Thursday to Mondays); roving performances in Base Court (Tuesdays and Wednesdays) about the dangers of love and heresy; and chefs cooking Tudor roasts on the open kitchen fire (all included in palace admission).
The Georgian House, built by George, Prince of Wales in 1719, can be rented through the Landmark Trust from £864 for four nights (sleeps eight), giving after hours access to the grounds.