A 35-min. commuter train ride from the center of town, Hampton Court looks like the ideal palace because it defined the ideal. The rambling redbrick mansion was a center for royal life from 1525 to 1737, its forest of chimneys standing regally in 24 hectares (59 acres) of achingly pretty riverside gardens, now painstakingly restored to their 1702 appearance. Visitors come seeking vibrations left by Henry VIII during the 811 days he spent here (yes, that’s all; he had more than 60 houses, partly because his court devoured so much food it kept exhausting local resources). The Crown still stocks precious art in many of the 70 public rooms, which start out Tudor and end up Georgian. It can take a whole day to see properly. The inflexibly programmed audio guide, which follows a handful of themed trails (Young Henry VIII’s Story, Henry VIII’s Apartments, and so on), is free, but it harps endlessly on the same old stories about King Henry’s wives; if you’re looking for deeper explanations, research beforehand. What you’re told panders to Tudor scandals because curators apparently think it makes history more interesting. On a surface level it does, but ultimately, it reduces this famous location to little more than a stereotypical set of a tawdry bygone play. The staff can’t even adequately describe the paintings on the walls because the Royal Collection, which loans them, keeps switching their locations at a whim. Days are full of live events, which may include re-enactments of gossipy events by costumed actors; traditional cooking using bygone methods in the Tudor Kitchens (a popular stop); bizarre spoken-word performances in the hammer-beamed Great Hall; or ghost tours. Whatever you do, don’t neglect the 26.7-hectare (66-acre) gardens—regally planted with historical accuracy (topiaries, sculpted yews, 300-year-old trees), they’re half the reason to visit. Make time to lose yourself in the Northern Gardens’ 500-year-old 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 and largest vine in the world, planted in 1768; its black grapes are sold in the gift shop in early September. Wear strong shoes because the grounds are cobbled. Seeing this consumes half a day; if I had to choose between it and Windsor, I’d choose Windsor.