It has been over 250 years since the Hampton Court Palace was home to Britain’s royalty, but this opulent palace has been restored to show how monarchs including King Henry VIII and William III once lived.
Hampton Court Palace initially belonged to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey but in 1529 Wolsey fell out of favour (he was opposed to granting King Henry VIII a divorce) so the king seized the palace and set about enlarging it.
In the 17th century, King William III embarked on a massive renovation project that replaced many of the palace’s Tudor features with the Baroque style.
What to see at Hampton Court Palace
Hampton Court Palace features some of the world’s finest Baroque-style royal apartments and expansive gardens that include the popular maze, which was planted in 1702. Other highlights include the Great Vine (planted in 1769), the large Tudor kitchen (which prepared meals for the entire court), Henry VIII’s crown and over 60 acres of formal gardens.
If you’re visiting with young children – particularly those aged 3–5 years old – then start your visit in the Magic Garden. Each area of the garden represents a part of the palace and children can explore this area, spotting objects from the Hampton Court before seeing the real thing in the palace. During busy periods you may be limited to a 90-minutes stay in the Magic Garden. Please note: the Magic Garden is only open 30 March–3 November.
Many important artworks – mostly dating from the Tudor era (which occurred around the same time as the Renaissance) to the early Georgian era – from the Royal Collection including Andrea Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar are on display in the Mantegna Gallery in the Lower Orangery.
The Cumberland Art Gallery is another of Hampton Court’s art galleries. This gallery displays temporary exhibits from the Royal Collection including paintings by Gainsborough, Holbein, Rembrandt, van Dyck and Warhol.
The Chapel Royal is noted for the vaulted ceiling commissioned by Henry VIII and it is also the spot where Henry VIII learnt about the accusations of adultery against his new wife Catherine Howard, that led to her execution at the Tower of London.
There is a replica of Henry VIII’s crown on display in the Royal Pew in the Chapel Royal. Although the original was melted in 1649 under the orders of Oliver Cromwell, there was accurate documentation at the time showing the exact size and position of each of the crown’s jewels and Harry Collins (the crown jeweller) was able to produce an accurate replica.
The exhibition about Henry VIII is one of the more interesting sights for visitors to the palace. This exhibition shows a different side to the common perception of a fat tyrant who sent three of his wives to the Tower. The exhibition depicts a charming young king with displays about his relationship with Catherine of Aragon and Thomas Wolsey and also showcases his moves on both the dancefloor and the tennis court.
The Great Hall is one of the most impressive areas of the palace. It is here that The King’s Men (William Shakespeare’s theatre company) performed for King James I over the 1603–4 Christmas/New Year period.
Between 1530 and 1737, the massive kitchens at Hampton Court Palace catered for around 400 people twice a day. Visiting the kitchens lets you see why they needed such a large staff to produce so many meals in a time before refrigeration, microwaves and Thermomixes.
The first real tennis court at Hampton Court was built in the 1520s for Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII and Charles I also loved the sport. Real tennis is the original indoor game that modern lawn tennis evolved from. Although the tennis courts at Hampton Court Palace are part of the private Royal Tennis Court club, during summer (Apr–Oct) visitors are able to see displays about the palace’s tennis courts and also see a game in progress. It is one of fewer than 50 real tennis courts in the world.
Hampton Court is also noted for 303.5 ha (750 acres) of parkland and 24.28 ha (60 acres) of formal gardens. The gardens are home to deer, the world’s oldest grapevine and the world’s oldest puzzle hedge maze.
It is possible to take a 15 to 20-minute tour of the gardens in a horse-drawn charabanc similar to what was popular during the Victorian era. Tours cost £4 and run on weekends during May and June and every day July–September.
For many visitors, the maze is the highlight of a visit to Hampton Court. William III commissioned Hampton Court Maze around 1700 and it is the world’s most famous and also the UK’s oldest surviving puzzle hedge maze. The average person takes 20 minutes to reach the centre of the maze.
The 250-year-old Great Vine is the world’s largest, and oldest, grapevine. The vine measures 4m (13 ft) around its base and the longest rod is 36.5m (120 ft) long. You can buy grapes produced by the Great Vine in the palace gift shop between late August and mid-September.
The formal Privy Garden has been carefully reconstructed based on records from 1702 showing how it would have looked during the reign of William III.
Although the palace is noted for its formal gardens, it also has a very impressive vegetable garden. Hampton Court’s Kitchen Garden was built in 1689 on the site of Henry VIII’s jousting arena. The garden has been restored to how it would have looked in the 18th century and is even still producing herbs, fruit and vegetables popular at the time including now-forgotten favourites such as costmary, sweet maudlin and trick-madame.
Hampton Court Palace in film and television
Several films and television series have been shot at the palace including A Man for All Seasons (1966), To Kill a King (2003), John Adams (2008), Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011), Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), Cinderella (2015) and The Favourite (2018).
Visiting Hampton Court Palace
Hampton Court is in East Molesey in Surrey, 19 km (12 miles) from central London. It is in zone six, 35 minutes by train from Waterloo station with trains departing every half hour
Admission is free for London Pass holders and Historic Royal Palaces members. Your entry ticket includes a multi-language audio guide.
Hampton Court Palace doesn’t get too crowded as it is such a large site that is located away from the main tourist attractions in central London. On busy days there may be a small queue to enter the Magic Garden and also to buy tickets, but you can skip the ticket queue if you either have a London Pass or have pre-booked your tickets online.
There are three restaurants and cafes at Hampton Court Palace: the self-service Tiltyard; the Privy Kitchen Cafe, which serves traditional food and the Fountain Court Cafe, which serves afternoon teas in a restaurant setting. There is a bigger choice of places to eat and drink outside the palace grounds including the Mute Swan pub across the road from the entrance although Bridge Road in East Molesey has a better selection of places to eat and drink with affordable prices and more of a local flavour.
It is easy to spend the whole day at Hampton Court Palace, although you could quickly see the highlights in two hours. However, as it is not in central London, you should allow half a day even for a short visit.