When you usually think of the Cotswolds, your mind goes to pretty towns and quaint villages, but at one of the country’s most famous buildings, there’s something a little grander waiting.
It’s not every day you can say visiting a palace is on your agenda, so when the opportunity arises, who can say no! Blenheim Palace in the Cotswolds is well worth a visit whether you’re a history, architecture or film buff – that’s right, this impressive building has been featured in many films…but more on that later…
Fill your visit to Blenheim Palace with all your favourite activities from magical walks around the grounds and exhibitions in the palace to leisurely coffees and lunches in one of the five (yes, FIVE) eateries around the palace – we mean, with 200 rooms available, we’re surprised more aren’t food-related! This guide to Blenheim Palace is here to help you make the most of your visit.
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Blenheim Palace History
With a rich history and a unique current occupation as a family home, mausoleum, national monument, and UNESCO World Heritage Site, Blenheim Palace is a very interesting place indeed and definitely deserving of its place on our list of the best places to visit in the Cotswolds.
Currently home to the 12th Duke of Marlborough and his family, the palace was actually built and gifted to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, as a thank you from Queen Anne for his victory at the Battle of Blenheim – now that is what we call a thank you present! Since then, Blenheim Palace has been home to generations of the family and even claims the title of birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill in 1874.
If you’re wondering who the mastermind behind this grand construction was, the answer might surprise you. While the Duchess at the time wanted famed architect Sir Christopher Wren (who designed St Paul’s Cathedral), the Duke went for a dramatist he met in a playhouse.
The decision for Blenheim Palace to be designed by Sir John Vanbrugh led to the flamboyant European Baroque style that we see today, which, even though it only cost £300,000 to build at the time, was considered a little too grandiose and extravagant.
We are hugely grateful for how things played out as the jaw-dropping example of design really is a sight to behold, offering visitors the chance to explore a fully-fledged palace. In fact, this is the only building outside of the royal buildings to hold the title of ‘palace’, making it a truly unique visit.
Covering over 2000 acres, the surrounding grounds at Blenheim Palace are just as worthy of exploration. While the original landscape was set out by the architect, it was later modified by Lancelot “Capability” Brown who created the two lakes; a feat that is generally considered one of the greatest examples of naturalistic landscape design to date.
It’s not just a walk in the park (although you could easily just do this if you’re looking for a pretty setting for a stroll) as there are lots of interesting things to do, see and learn at Blenheim Palace.
Tours and Exhibitions
Even though the palace is actually a lived-in home, you are able to enter and walk around some of the areas thanks to tours, exhibitions and some incredible rooms that are open to the public.
Learn about the birth, life and death of Sir Winston Churchill in the Churchill Exhibition, check out the immersive experience in the historic stable block, and step back in time to see the history of the military in the local area in the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum just outside the Woodstock Gates.
In the palace state rooms, you can experience the jaw-dropping design including an unmissable array of artwork from paintings that adorn the walls to the very ceilings above you.
Tours are often available of some of the more important rooms in the palace such as Sir Winston Churchill’s birth room, which features many paintings of the former prime minister as well as the newly introduced painting by Churchill himself named ‘The Atlas Mountains from Marrakesh’.
You can also head into the wider palace with tours of the upstairs and downstairs areas. Upstairs, you can see what life is like for a Duke, from the 18th century to the 21st. You’ll also discover the intriguing world of guests at the palace, from the secret corridors they used to famous invitees including Charlie Chaplin and Sylvester Stallone.
Downstairs, it’s all bells and no whistles as you discover what life was like for the palace staff. See the iconic bell system, which is still in use today, and hear all about the gossip and perks of the job for staff in such a grand (and interesting) place.
Lights, Camera, Action! Trail
Thanks to the eye-catching design, Blenheim Palace has been featured in many films and television shows. Amongst the most notable are Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, Spectre, The Avengers, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – making this a great stop whether you’re a fan of Bond, Marvel or a Potterhead. Although it’s fair to wonder, Blenheim Palace wasn’t featured in Downton Abbey, although with its impressive stature, it easily could have.
With the Lights, Camera, Action! Trail you can walk in the footsteps of these stars as you explore the interior and exterior filming locations that have helped bring countless tales to life on the big and small screen.
Our inner child loves a good maze so naturally, this beautifully designed, life-sized puzzle is at the top of our Blenheim agenda. Two miles long, this maze can provide hours of entertainment (possibly more if you’re not the best at mazes). In the centre, you’re rewarded with a Blenheim topiary display, while just outside the maze you can settle down to a fresh pizza and coffee at the Walled Garden Pizza Café.
With so much to see and do here, it will be of little surprise if you feel the pangs of hunger during your visit. Luckily, you have five options to choose from, which are scattered throughout the palace and the grounds.
The Oxfordshire Pantry
Let’s be honest, if we lived in a palace, we would pretty much live out of the pantry. Luckily, this is close to a possibility at Blenheim thanks to The Oxfordshire Pantry. Pick up fresh sandwiches and salads as well as a variety of homemade cakes including the specially created Blenheim Rascal, which sits comfortably between a fruit scone and a rock cake.
The Orangery Restaurant
With the beautiful greenhouse-style ceiling and large windows, sitting down to an afternoon tea in The Orangery is nothing short of balmy on a sunny day. Once your eyes have made their way down from the surroundings, you can tuck into a range of savouries, sweets and jing loose teas with the traditional afternoon tea menu. Or, for a more historical experience worthy of your location, check out the Churchill afternoon tea, which features favourites from Churchill’s personal cook Mrs Landemare. The roasts are also worthy of historical significance and can be found sitting proudly on our list of the best Sunday lunches in the Cotswolds.
The Walled Garden Pizza Café
Oh how we love a pizza, especially when we can follow its journey from ball of dough to oven to plate! All the classic toppings are available like American Hot plus some homely additions - Allotment Pizza, anyone? Once you’ve chosen your pizza and watched it cook with an eager gaze, take your Italian prize out onto the beautiful sun terrace to enjoy your lunch as it was meant to be enjoyed - al fresco!
The Stables Café
Rich green walls, cosy chesterfield sofas and hanging plants intermingling with the lights combine to make The Stables Café a wonderfully atmospheric place to enjoy a spot of nourishment. In the morning, you can kick your visit to the palace off with a delicious breakfast bap, pop in at lunch for a light bite (which includes their incredible Sunday roast rolls) or give in to your cravings and settle down for a superb afternoon tea, complete with finger sandwiches and buttermilk scones.
In need of a quick pick-me-up while touring the grounds? Satisfy that thirst with ease at the Churchill Cabin with a hot cup of tea and a piece of Winston Churchill fruit cake (you’ll have to visit to find out why it’s named after him) as you rest in the shade and look out over the pretty water terraces.
The incredible grounds that surround the palace are the perfect setting for a walk like no other, from the carefully curated formal gardens to the all-encapsulating route around the parameter of the park.
The formal gardens and lake
Centuries-old and still as impressive as ever, the formal gardens at Blenheim Palace are the perfect place to start your scenic tour. A 1.5-mile walk will take you around majestic water terraces, the Duke’s private Italian garden, the tranquil secret garden full of hidden treasures, The Churchill memorial garden, and the beautiful rose garden – phew, it might only be a short stroll but you’re certainly getting your fill of stunning scenes!
An accessible path leads down to the formal gardens from the west courtyard so everyone can enjoy the regal garden.
After your tour of the formal gardens, you can extend your walk a further quarter of a mile by heading down to the Great Lake. This route takes you past the Grand Cascade and pump house as well as the boathouse (which is open seasonally).
The Queen Pool
This pretty 1.5-mile circular walk leads you around the peaceful banks of the Queen Pool lake and over the 18th-century bridge where you can enjoy views looking back towards the palace. A myriad of water life calls the lake home so you can stop at any point to watch the ducks and swans swim in the water – a perfect show for the little ones.
The park perimeter
This heartier walk takes around two hours to complete as you trek along the 5-mile perimeter of Blenheim Palace and its grounds. As you stroll through open countryside and tree-lined paths, you’ll encounter a few steeper sections to help get that pulse going. You’ll be rewarded with some breath-taking views over the palace grounds though, as well as grazing wildlife and possibly the odd pheasant or too so it’s well worth the effort.
These walks are a great introduction to walking in the Cotswolds. You can check out some of the other popular routes here to really make the most of this picture-perfect Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Blenheim Palace isn’t just a place of majesty and history. A busy social calendar means there’s always something going on from jousting tournaments and fun runs, to butler training and food festivals. If you’re visiting at Christmas you’re in for an extra special experience as the palace puts on incredible after-dark displays, including its illuminating trail around the gardens as well as the magical Kingdom of the Snow Queen and the Blenheim Palace Christmas market. Check out what’s coming up for your visit with their events page here.