In our travels throughout Europe, Lee and I have visited numerous royal palaces. Many still function today as residences of the reigning monarch, although there are others which are now nothing more than grand, elegant tourist attractions. They appeal to the traveler because they embody the spirit of an older time, or display incredible wealth, while some are particularly important for their history. All are interesting, although I must admit that there is a certain sameness, which can cause a traveler to say, "Enough!"
The group discussed and pictured here represents the very best of the palaces we have seen. Enjoy!
1. Versailles, just outside of Paris, France
The most important excursion from Paris is to Versailles, the epitome of a kingly palace, the envy of monarchs everywhere, often copied, never duplicated. It is located just (about 50 km or 30 miles) west of Paris and makes an excellent day trip. There are numerous options for the visit. Highlights include the Hall of Mirrors, the State Apartments, King’s Apartments, and the Gardens. A guided tour is recommended to get the most from the visit, since guides offer many interesting tidbits of information. Inside, no matter how the visit proceeds, the cacophony of sound from various guides speaking myriad languages, each trying to speak louder that all the others, is disconcerting to say the least. Try to arrive early in the day, before the hordes of buses and their tour groups.
2. Buckingham Palace, London, England
Buckingham Palace is another “must-see” in London. The palace is still the city residence of the Royal Family. The public is allowed to view the state rooms, but not the private living quarters of the Queen, her family and guests. Perhaps most impressive is the “Changing of the Guard” which takes place at 11:30 AM every day from April to mid-July, then goes to an alternating day schedule for the remainder of the year. During the summer months, crowds are huge so it is advisable to arrive early in order to stake out a territory. It is quite the ceremony, but then the Brits are known for their pomp and circumstance.
3. Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey
Topkapi Palace, another of the major sights of Istanbul, was the residence of the Ottoman sultans from the 1400’s to the 19th century. During their heyday, they ruled an empire which stretched from the gates of Vienna to the Indian Ocean, from North Africa to the Crimean Peninsula. The palace complex is basically a city within a city, with interconnected courtyards and kiosks along with other buildings. Within its walls were typically between 4000 and 7000 people who resided here and/or served the household. The complex stands at the confluence of the Sea of Marmara, the Bosporus, and the Golden Horn and offers spectacular views over the water.
Entry is through the Imperial Gate which accesses the First Court, now a public park lined with flowers and trees. At the end of this court are the ticket booths and the Executioner’s Fountain, where important enemies were beheaded.
Entry into the Second Court is through the Gate of Salutations. Its two towers were used as dungeons to imprison those awaiting execution. The Palace Kitchens, to the right, upon entering this court, are a series of rooms which now house a collection of Chinese, Japanese, and European porcelain. The kitchens once prepared food for upwards of 10,000 people. On the opposite side of this court are the Armoury, which displays weapons from Islamic empires, and the Council Chamber, where policy meetings were held (the sultan’s cubicle is directly above and he could listen in on the meetings to keep tabs on his officials). Also in this court is the Harem, where the palace women were sequestered. Harem tours require separate tickets and should be booked immediately upon arrival to insure a place.
The Gate of Felicity marks the entrance into the Third Court. The most impressive attraction in this court is the Treasury, which contains unbelievable wealth in gold and jewels, including an 86-carat diamond (the “Spoonmaker”), the “throne of Ahmet III” which is inlaid with tortoiseshell and mother of pearl, set with rubies and emeralds, and the Topkapi Dagger which is set with huge emeralds (this item recalls the film, “Topkapi” which starred Melina Mercouri). Also in the Third Court is the Pavilion of the Sacred Relics, one room of which contains the Door of Repentance, taken from the holy Kaaba of Mecca. The second room houses objects associated with Mohammed, such as his footprint, hair, mantle and sword.
The Fourth Court contains the kiosks, or summer houses, in its gardens and leads to balconies overlooking the waterways mentioned earlier.
4. Doge’s Palace, Venice, Italy
The Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale) was the home of the reigning duke or doge of Venice. The architecture, as is normal in Venice, is a mix of East and West. Entry through the Porta della Carta brings the visitor into the internal courtyard.
Upon arrival at the Hall of the Grand Council (Sala del Maggior Consiglio), note the huge Tintoretto oil painting Paradise (the largest oil painting in the world) behind the Doge’s throne. As you walk over the Bridge of Sighs, so-named since prisoners sighed and said goodbye to the world as they crossed from here into the prison, imagine being sentenced to a dank, dark prison with no hope of ever seeing Venice’s canals again.
Exit is via the Giant’s Staircase, named for the large statues which straddle its doorway into the palace.
5. Chambord, in the Loire Valley, France
Chambord began as a hunting lodge, but has evolved into perhaps the most elaborate and perhaps garish example of royal excess. Its towers and pinnacles are, nevertheless, imposing and striking.
6. Chenonceau, in the Loire Valley, France
Chenonceau is softer and more pleasing than Chambord, especially because it extends over the river Cher, making for a dramatic effect. On the inside, the part of the villa known as the gallery (an addition supervised by Catherine de Medici) is probably the most interesting part of the visit. Chenonceau’s gardens are also worth a stroll and offer numerous photo opportunities.
7. Hofburg, Vienna, Austria
The Hofburg is the magnificent winter palace of the Hapsburgs. There are numerous buildings and courtyards that compose the complex and one could easily spend the better part of a full day to see it all. It exudes a regal elegance which is appropriate to the station of its residents. Of note are the Imperial Treasury (one of the greatest in the world), the Imperial Apartments (with their tapestries, silver, and porcelain), the Chapel, the New Chateau (Neue Burg), the National Library, and the Albertina (a museum of graphic arts and other artworks).
8. Prince’s Palace of Monaco
High on a promontory of rock above the azure Mediterranean lies the Principality of Monaco. At its apex sits the Prince’s Palace, still the main residence of the current monarch, Prince Rainier III. The palace is noted for its beautiful frescoes, opulent state apartments, and its intricately-paved main courtyard.
9. Palacio Real, Madrid, Spain
The Palacio Real (royal palace) is a spectacular chateau in the tradition of Versailles or Buckingham Palace, although much smaller. It is still the residence of Spain’s King (Juan Carlos). The rooms display splendid opulence with their ceiling frescoes, sculptures, tapestries, and beautiful furniture.
10. Schonnbrunn Palace, Vienna, Austria
Schonnbrunn Palace, the summer residence of the Hapsburgs, was originally a hunting lodge, but has evolved into a palace along the lines of Versailles, with 1441 rooms, vintage furnishings, and elaborate, formal gardens. It is located on the outskirts of Vienna, conveniently accessible via mass transit from the inner city. It, like Versailles, contains a Hall of Mirrors. Much of the tour of the interior chronicles the life and times of Maria Theresa, who ruled for 40 years. The State Apartments are perhaps the most impressive (and also the most ornate) rooms in the palace, especially the “Room of Millions”.
The grounds of the mansion are Romanesque, elegant and extensive, from the flower gardens, nearest the residence, to the “Roman Ruins” a huge collection of fountains and sculptures, to the Gloriette, a marble villa with a stone canopy displaying the Imperial Eagle. Be aware that the walk up to the Gloriette is rather steep and lengthy.
11. Palace of the Grand Master, Rhodes, Greece
The town of Rhodes is a beautiful walled, Medieval city. The streets are cobblestones, for which the town fathers used smooth beach stones — very unusual and attractive.
City gates are turreted and built into the walls. The Street of the Knights (Ippoloton) leads up to the imposing Palace of the Grand Masters. The street itself is considered one of the best preserved Medieval relics in the world. The buildings, known as “Inns”, along the street, were where the Knights of St John were housed and are all cultural landmarks in their own right.
12. Royal Pavilion, Brighton, England
A popular day trip from London is an excursion to Brighton, on the south coast of England to visit the Royal Pavilion, an unbelievably elaborate palace. The architecture is Eastern and the furnishings Chinese. It was used as a residence by King George IV, but when Queen Victoria succeeded him, she moved the royal quarters back to London, so the palace ceased to be a resort for the monarchy. It was, however, purchased and restored to its former elegance by the city of Brighton, and is worth a hour or two. Brighton is also known for its beach.
13. Linderhof Palace, Bavaria, Germany
Linderhof Palace, another of Mad King Ludwig’s castles in Bavaria, is his smallest castle, but gilded to the nines. The rooms have painted ceilings, tapestries on the walls, huge chandeliers, etc. The grounds are also elaborate, with fountains and many statues. Of special note is the Grotto, a make-believe cave with its own pool containing a shell boat similar to the one in Wagner’s opera, Lohengrin. Also on the grounds is Ludwig’s private Moorish Kiosk.
14. Reggia Casserta, Casserta, Italy
A worthwhile day trip from Naples involves traveling north on the Autostrada 1 to the town of Caserta to check out the Royal Palace, Reggia Caserta. Here is Italy’s answer to Versailles, a huge, sprawling edifice with 1,200 rooms and extensive gardens. Be sure to view the incredibly opulent Royal Apartments.
15. Residenz, Munich, Germany
The Residenz served as home to the rulers of Bavaria for over 500 years. It is a vast complex of buildings and daunting to visit, but there are two requisite places of interest, the Treasury, with its statue of St George Slaying the Dragon, which is gold and studded with numerous gems, and the Cuvillies Theatre, considered Germany’s best example of a tier-boxed opera house in Rococo design.
16. Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh, Scotland
Downhill from Edinburgh castle, at the opposite end of the Royal Mile is Holyrood Palace, the house of the Queen when she is in town. Much of it dates back to the 1300’s and includes the bedchamber of Mary, Queen of Scots. The newer part of the palace (1500’s) is extremely dignified and “royal”. Attached to the palace are the ruins of an Abbey and a pretty garden.
17. Nymphenburg Palace, Munich, Germany
Schloss Nymphenburg was the summer palace of the Wittelsbachs, the ruling family of Bavaria for many years. It is located on the fringe of Munich, far from the Medieval city center, so it is best visited by public transport, the U-bahn. The palace grounds are vast, so it is quite a walk from the U-bahn station to the palace complex. The part of the main building which can be visited is fairly compact, and offers the typical palace accoutrements, elaborate decorations and wall hangings. Stroll the formal gardens behind the palace which offer some serenity and solitude.
18. Royal Palace, Brussels, Belgium
Monarchie, the Royal Palace of Brussels, sits at the top of the city’s Old Town, opposite the Royal Park. It is only open to the public during the summer months.
19. Palace of the Grand Dukes, Luxembourg City, Luxembourg
The Palace of the Grand Dukes is an elegant building constructed with light-colored stone. It recalls the splendor of the Grand Duchy’s Medieval past.
20. Royal Palace, Prague, Czech Republic
Part of the huge Prague Castle complex, the Royal Palace’s huge Vladislav Hall was host to indoor jousting tournaments during the Middle Ages.
21. Primate Palace, Bratislava, Slovakia
Around the corner from the town hall, in its own small square, is the Primate Palace, where Napoleon and Franz I, the Austrian Emperor, once signed a peace treaty (1805). There are tapestries on display as well as a Hall of Mirrors (which pales compared to Versailles’). In the courtyard is St George’s Fountain.
In the Primate Palace are some of the most beautiful and modern rest rooms in Europe (worth the price of admission to the palace!)
22. Royal Palace, Amsterdam, Netherlands
The Royal Palace is located on the hectic and noisy Dam Square. It’s no wonder that the royal family prefers to live elsewhere, using this grand building only for occasional receptions and other special events.
23. Belvedere Palace, Vienna, Austria
Belvedere Palace, just outside the inner ring, is a beautiful estate, now a museum, on a small hill which provides a view of the Vienna Woods, so beloved by Strauss and the Viennese people. The grounds are well manicured, extremely attractive, and enhanced by reflecting pools and sculptures as well as the buildings themselves.
24. Chateau, Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic
Part of the Castle complex, on a prominent ridge overlooking the town, this royal residence displays Bohemian splendor in its Renaissance Rooms, Schwartzenburg Gallery, and in the Rococo Chateau Theater.
25. El Escorial, Spain
One of the most popular excursions from Madrid is west to El Escorial (more precisely, Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial), which has been the summer palace for the Kings of Spain since 1564. It was built by Philip II and completed by his son. It is another great chateau in the spirit of Versailles.
Yet it is more than a residence; it is also a monastery with a lovely chapel. As expected, the rooms are extremely ornate, with beautiful artwork and tapestries. Especially noteworthy are the five wooden doors, gifts from the Kingdom of Austria, which are incredibly detailed, with inlaid wood of different colors. Also significant are the Pantheons, the crypts of the kings (all but 3 monarchs since 1564 have been interred here), and the Pantheon Infantes, the tombs of the royal children who did not become kings.