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Hampton Court Palace

The former home of King Henry III and other British monarchs is open to the public, and it's easy to reach by train from central London.

Tudor West Front of Hampton Court Palace

ABOVE: The Tudor West Front of Hampton Court Palace.

Hampton Court Palace is billed as "The Greatest Palace in Britain" that offers "a magical journey back through 500 years of royal history." The palace, which lies on the Thames River just 12 miles from London, is the largest of the Historic Royal Palaces group that includes Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace, the Tower of London, Kew Palace, and the Banqueting House in Whitehall.

Hampton Court Palace: a capsule history

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey acquired the 14th Century manor at Hampton Court in 1514. Construction on a new palace began in 1515, and the resulting 1,000-room country house was finer than King Henry VIII's own palaces--a problem that Henry solved by appropriating the estate in the 1520s.

Henry expanded the palace, which remained largely unchanged until the reign of William and Mary, when the Tudor structure was modernized under the direction of Christopher Wren. The last monarch to live in the palace was George II, who died in 1760.

The palace today

Queen Victoria opened Hampton Court Palace and its 600 acres of parkland to the public in 1838. Today, you can tour the building's royal apartments with costumed guides, explore the reconstructed Tudor Kitchens, stroll through 60 acres of formal gardens with fountains, get lost in Britain's oldest maze, enjoy a variety of special events and performances, or even attend Sunday services in the Chapel Royal.


State Apartments:

Henry VIII's Great Hall, Hampton Court Palace

ABOVE: Henry VIII's Great Hall is richly decorated with gilded woodcarvings, stained glass, and priceless tapestries.

Along with the Tudor Kitchens (see below), Henry VIII's State Apartments are the most popular attraction inside the palace.

The Great Hall is the palace's largest and most impressive room, with an ornate carved-wood ceiling and a collection of Flemish tapestries that date back to the 1540s.

The tapestries, each of which is said to have cost the equivalent of a modern-day battleship, are maintained by a world-renowned Textile Conservation Studio on the palace grounds.

The Chapel Royal, where Henry VIII worshipped, is still a consecrated Anglican church. It's open for visits from Monday through Saturday, and you can worship with the choir on Sundays.

Other worthwhile sights include the King's Apartments of William III, the Queen's State Apartments of Mary II, and the palace's courtyards and cloisters.


Tudor Kitchens:

Tudor Kitchens, Hampton Court Palace

ABOVE: Hampton Court's experimental archaeologists research the past by living the way the Tudors did, and they enjoy sharing what they've learned. INSET BELOW: Creating fire the old-fashioned way, with a flint and steel.

The Tudor Kitchens of Hampton Court Palace are popular with visitors of all ages, but they're more than a tourist attraction.

In these reconstructed kitchens, which once occupied 50 rooms of the palace, a team of "experimental archaeologists" study everyday palace life in Henry VIII's time by cooking, eating, and working with implements and techniques from the 1500s.

They even make their own clothes, which they wear both on the job and in their living quarters within the palace.

experimental archaeologist, Hampton Court PalaceWhen this article was written, the team was directed by J. Marc Meltonville and Richard Fitch, who have been working in the royal kitchens since the early 1990s. Neither man fits the image of a dusty academic: Marc appeared in the muddy opening battle of Gladiator, while Richard, a trained leatherworker who once made a briefcase for Prince Charles, appeared in the Robin Williams film Being Human.

  • Note: Hampton Court Palace recommends that you allow 20 minutes for a quick walk through the Tudor Kitchens or 25 minutes if you're using the free audioguide.


The Gardens:

Sunken Garden, Hampton Court Palace

ABOVE: Springtime arrives in the Sunken Garden.

Hampton Court Palace has 60 acres of formal gardens and 750 acres of royal parkland, tended by 38 gardeners and specialists.

The palace's "facts and figures" sheet reports that 200,000 flowering bulbs are planted through the formal gardens, 140,000 plants are grown in the palace nurseries, and there are some 8,000 trees in the Hampton Court Palace gardens and estate.

(Home composters take note: The gardeners recycle 95% of the palace's green waste.)

The palace gardens date back to the 16th Century, when the first Privy Garden was laid out between 1530 and 1538 for King Henry VIII. The layout was changed in the early 1600s, and again after 1659 when William and Mary had the gardens rebuilt in the Baroque style of the Continental courts.

More changes occurred in the 18th Century, and by the mid-19th Century, the old formal gardens had given way to an informal park setting with lawns and trees.

In the early 1990s, archaeologists and historians began a project to restore William and Mary's Privy Garden to its 1702 state. The restored, historically accurate Privy Garden was reopened to the public in 1995.

Other major attractions in the Hampton Court Palace gardens include the Tender Exotics Collection (displayed between June and September), the Wilderness in the North Gardens (currently planted with more than 1 million bulbs), the Maze (allow 20 minutes to reach the center), and the Great Vine (see sidebar).

Visiting the Gardens: Some areas of the Hampton Court Palace Gardens are open to the public without charge; others require a ticket during the summer season.


Guided tours:

Costumed guides at Hampton Court Palace

ABOVE: Tiptoe through the Tudors with guides who dress the part. INSET BELOW: Lantern-lit tours are for guests who aren't afraid of ghosts.

Tour guide at Hampton Court PalaceGuided tours aren't required at the palace: You can simply walk through the rooms on your own, with or without an audioguide.

Still, unless you're in a hurry, allow time for a tour or encounter with a guide in historical costume. Most of these are 30 minutes long, with topics that range from "Jacobean Character Tour of Henry VIII's State Apartments" to "Gossip and Intrigue with a Courtier in Clock Court."

Depending on when you visit, other tours and daily events might include a presentation on the Great Vine by the Keeper of the Vine, a garden history tour, or a performance of Baroque music on period instruments in the King's Apartments.

  • Note: Tours, encounters, and presentations are included in your ticket price. Audioguides are also free, and are available in six languages.


Special events:

Hampton Court Music Festival

ABOVE: The Hampton Court Music Festival features international stars like Nigel Kennedy, Van Morrison, and Joaquín Cortés.

Hampton Court Palace offers special performances, exhibitions, and festivals throughout the year. Several of the most famous take place annually:

  • June: The Hampton Court Palace Festival appeals to a variety of musical tastes, with nightly performances that range from Baroque chamber music with fireworks to opera to jazz, blues, and soul.

  • July: The Hampton Court Palace Flower Show is the world's largest horticultural show, with displays from more 150 British nurseries. The Royal Horticultural Society boasts that the show has "of the greatest annual gatherings of roses in full bloom in the world."

  • Christmas season: From December until early January, Hampton Court Palace has special holiday events. There's even a Hampton Court Palace Ice Rink where you can skate with the palace's Tudor walls and battlements as a backdrop.

In addition, the Historic Royal Palace staff choose a theme each year that might range from "Jacobean Cookery" to "Shakespeare at Hampton Court Palace" to "The Year of the Garden." Special events are built around these themes. To see what's during the current year, visit the Hampton Court Palace section of www.hrp.org.uk.


How to reach the palace:

South West commuter train to Hampton Court Palace

ABOVE: Hampton Court Palace is easy to reach by commuter train from London's Waterloo Station.

By train. South West commuter trains run at 30-minute intervals from London Waterloo Station to Hampton Court. The trip takes 32 minutes, and the palace is only a two-minute walk from the station.

Visit the South Western Railway or Trainline for more information, including timetables.

By boat. Thames River Boats normally operates riverboat trips to Hampton Court Palace from Westminster Pier in London, with stops at Kew and Richmond. The one-way journey takes about three hours when the boats are running.

Turk's has service from Richmond and Kingston from April to mid-September in normal years. The company also rents motorboats and rowboats at the Palace Boathouse.

By car or bus. See Hampton Court Palace's "Getting here" page for highway directions, a map link, and information on bus routes.


Visitor information:

The Maze at Hampton Court Palace

ABOVE: The Maze at Hampton Court Palace was the first hedge maze in Great Britain. INSET: A costumed performer entertains palace visitors.

Entertainer on stilts at Hampton Court PalaceHampton Court Palace's hours vary by season. For current hours and ticket prices, see the official Hampton Court Palace Web site.

Disabled guests should be sure to read the palace's "Accessibility" page.

Restaurants

The Tiltyard tearooms (in the palace gardens) and the Privy Coffee Shop (inside the palace, near the Tudor Kitchens) offer drinks, snacks, and light meals.

Two kiosks in the gardens sell ice cream during the summer months.

Picnicking is allowed in the gardens and several other areas.

For a more substantial lunch, or for dinner after a visit to the palace, try the Caffè la Fiamma across Hampton Court Road in the village shopping district next to the palace. The Italian food is excellent, and you can watch herds of deer through the restaurant's windows as you dine.

Shops

The palace has a shop where you can buy gifts, jewelry, clothing, toys, books, and other items.

Accommodations

The Georgian House is on the palace grounds and has a private walled garden. The three-story house was built in 1719 as a royal kitchen. Today it has four bedrooms, two bathrooms, and beds for eight guests. Minimum stay is four nights, and your visit has to begin on a designated "changeover day."

For other hotels and vacation rentals in the area, please see:


Also see:
Textile Conservation Studio
HRP Collections Care: Facts and Figures

More Historic Royal Palaces:
Tower of London
Kensington Palace

Photos (except train) copyright © HRP. Used by permission.