Gold-laced tapestries, chandeliers that hang from gilded ceilings, sculptures carved from the best marble—palaces are filled with the very best that money (and centuries worth of inheritance) can provide. Though they may still be homes for heads of state, many historic royal residences open their doors to the public. Here’s a look at eight palaces in Europe worth adding to your list.
Vienna’s Hofburg Palace was originally built in 1279 and has been added to in the centuries since. Some of the most powerful rulers in history have walked the halls here, including the Habsburgs, the Holy Roman Emperors, and even the current President of Austria. On a visit here, you can see the Kaiser Apartments where the royal families lived and worked and the Imperial Treasury Museum that houses the best of the family jewels. The Sisi Museum is also not to be missed. It tells the quirky, melancholy story of the Empress Elisabeth who, while obsessed with youth, beauty, and death, was beloved by her people.
Palace of Versailles
The Palace of Versailles is now less than an hour from the heart of Paris, but when it was built in the mid-17th century, it was a world away from the problems of the French people living in poverty. Louis XIV, known for his lavish taste, turned Versailles into one of the largest palaces in Europe (and the world) and used it as the seat of the monarchy. Everywhere you look, you see gold paneling, massive chandeliers, bright frescoes, and other adornments quite literally fit for a king. It’s easy to lose yourself in the majesty of the rooms and twists and turns of the gardens that stretch to the horizon. There’s more than one reason why millions visit this striking monument to opulence every year.
Rundale Palace in Pilsrundale, Latvia, has been through many incarnations in its nearly 300 years of existence. Originally built for the Dukes of Courland, it has also been used as a German army commandant’s office, an infirmary, and a school. After 50 years of renovation, its 54 rooms now look much like they did in the latter part of the 18th century. Its salons are filled with brocade tapestries, fine tile work, and elaborate mouldings. The Gilded Hall, decorated in Rococo style, is often compared to the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Any visit here must also include a walk through the sprawling gardens.
A list of the grandest palaces in Europe would be incomplete without Prague Castle. High on the hill overlooking Prague, the largest castle complex in Europe dominates the skyline. This UNESCO World Heritage Site includes four churches, four palaces, over a dozen buildings, a half-dozen gardens, and one vineyard, for good measure. Even the short tour takes about two hours to complete. There is so much to see here. From the magnificent stained glass of the St. Vitus Cathedral to the two tons of silver that make up the tomb of St. John of Nepomuk, a visit to Prague Castle is likely to leave you gawking at the magnificence of this 1100-year-old site.
Royal Palace Amsterdam
Construction of Amsterdam’s Town Hall began in 1648 during the heart of the Dutch Golden Age. At the time, Amsterdam was the largest business center in the world. The building’s decorations demonstrate the grand light in which Amsterdam saw itself – parts of the marble-filled interior literally outline the city’s sphere of influence on a map of the world. Sculptors and painters of the time produced works highlighting the power of the city and the Dutch Republic as a whole. The Town Hall became a royal palace when King Louis Napoleon (Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother) moved in in 1806. Though the Royal Palace Amsterdam changed ownership several times after that, it became the property of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1936 and is still used by the head of state for ceremonies and events. Visitors can see much of the palace, including meeting spaces, bedrooms, the treasury, and even an execution chamber.
For four centuries, Topkapi Palace in Istanbul was the ruling seat of the Ottoman sultans. Once more city than palace, this brilliant complex was home to as many as 4000 people at the height of its glory. Inside, bright tiles, turrets, grand columns, and courtyards all come together to demonstrate the grandeur of the empire. The highlight of a tour of Topkapi Palace is the Harem—400 sumptuous rooms that accommodated the concubines and the Queen Mother and served as the school rooms for the prince. Equally impressive is the Imperial Treasury where the sultans’ extensive collection of jewels is displayed.
A combination fortress, palace, and garden, the Alhambra is situated on a hill overlooking Granada, Spain. The palace was constructed during the mid-13th century by the Moors, whose style is reflected in the carvings and tile throughout the buildings. Its beautiful gardens and courtyards and its brilliantly colored interiors have stood the test of time. Now one of Spain’s major tourist attractions, the Alhambra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
When it comes to the quintessential palace in Europe, it’s hard to think of anything more regal than London’s Buckingham Palace. With its cream-colored facade, ornate gates, and ever-vigilant guards, this symbol of the British monarchy has endured for over 300 years. The 775 rooms of the palace are decorated in a variety of different styles, including early 19th-century blue and pink designs, Belle Époque cream and gold motifs, and even Chinese themes. The state rooms, used for official and state entertaining, are open to the public each year in the late summer.
Have you visited a palace before? What did you think?