If you have to pick just one palace to visit in London, select this one because there’s so much more to do than look at golden furniture. A 35-minute commuter train ride from the center of town, Hampton Court looks like the ideal palace because it defined the ideal: The redbrick mansion was a center for royal life from 1525 to 1737, and its forest of chimneys stands regally in 24 hectares (59 acres) of achingly pretty riverside gardens, painstakingly restored to their 1702 appearance. Visitors come looking for vibrations left by Henry VIII during the 811 days he spent here (yes, that’s all; he had more than 60 houses), and the Crown still stocks many of the 70 public rooms, which start out Tudor and end up Queen Anne, with rare art.
Guides pander to Tudor scandals to make history more interesting, and days are full of events, which may include re-enactments of gossipy events by costumed actors, Tudor-style cook-offs in the old kitchens, Shakespeare plays in the hammer-beamed Great Hall, or ghost tours. Whatever you do, don’t neglect the 24-hectare (59-acre) gardens and make time to lose yourself in the Northern Gardens’ shrubbery Maze, installed by William III; kids giggle their way through to the middle of this leafy labyrinth. The well-mannered South Garden has the Great Vine, the oldest vine in the world, planted in 1768; its grapes are sold in the gift shop in August.