There is something so fascinating about grand palaces found all around the world. There is the history, glamor, size, glorious décor, and complete over-the-top designs of superb architecture set in usually equally splendid gardens. And then there is the thought that whichever palace we are currently admiring, was or sometimes still is, a family home.
Wherever there is a great palace, it tends to be that city’s main attraction, and draws countless international visitors, and trying to think of my options for this list, I was spoilt for choice. In Europe and Asia at least, nearly every large city has a palace, sometimes more than one. Wherever there is a royal family still in place, there is a plethora of royal residences, one often more magnificent than the next.
It is difficult to choose one magnificent palace over another, so here, I basically went through my previous vacations and trips and selected those that at least made me gasp in admiration, each for different reasons, and trying to limit myself to one per country selected. Here are some truly magnificent palaces, personal favorites in no particular order, which are worth putting on your itinerary.
1. Forbidden City
The Forbidden City in Beijing is not just a palace, but an entire palatial neighborhood. Covering some 7.75 million square feet, this “palace” was home to 24 Chinese emperors between the 15th and early 20th centuries. The largest imperial palace in the world, it is a mind-blowing step back into history, where you can spend days wandering around but will never see it all.
From dragons to tortoises, the décor is magnificent, and the intricacies of who lived where and their history even more so. When you look at any of the other palaces mentioned below, none are remotely similar to this one, built for one single emperor and his court.
Pro Tip: For your first visit, go with a tour guide to learn more about the history and significance of the palace, then come back on your own to just stroll and look more closely at leisure.
2. Château De Versailles
It is practically impossible to narrow it down to one magnificent palace in France. While many visitors might opt for Chambord, I have chosen the most famous of them all, the Palace of Versailles but not necessarily for its main building, but for its extras. Yes, the main palace is wonderful, but, in my mind, even the famous Hall of Mirrors is overshadowed by the upper room in the Palais Garnier in Paris.
But what makes this palace wonderful for me is the addition of things such as the King’s Vegetable Garden outside of the main wall but connected by a gate. It’s the vast boating lake next to the forest which harks back to the château’s past as a hunting lodge. It is the private theater, Marie Antoinette’s rural hamlet, and the Grand as well as Petit Trianons. And that garden. Not necessarily the showy main path that spreads between the palace and the lake, but the intimate small side gardens, each one of which is different.
Pro Tip: I nearly chose Chantilly as my favorite French château. Not only is the château beautiful, as are its gardens, but I am forever enchanted with its magnificent library, and would very much like it in my house.
3. Topkapi Palace
Istanbul is one of my favorite cities in the world, it is not just full of wonderful sights to see, but I also love the watery setting. The juxtaposition of the old and new(er) city, and the various bodies of water just doesn’t get any better. Now imagine you could choose a perfect spot where to live and to look out across the water and the city, while still having plenty of privacy. Bingo: The Topkapi Palace.
I first came across the palace in the 1964 film Topkapi with Peter Ustinov, and later again in books such as Elif Shafak’s The Architect’s Apprentice. But there is nothing better than visiting yourself and meandering through the grounds and the different buildings while looking at the treasures and simply sitting on a bench or the wall overlooking the meeting point of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn. You can see, but barely hear, the bustle and noise of the city below. A perfect spot for imagining this being your home. Minus the intrigue, maybe.
4. Hawa Mahal
Looking up at the pink façade of Hawa Mahal, the Palace of Breeze, in Jaipur, Rajasthan — the name alone is so magical! — and hearing that it was essentially the porch of the much larger City Palace built for Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh behind it, is stunning. This intricate and delicately decorated façade was the women’s section of the palace, allowing the women living in the palace to sit in the windows of the enclosed small balconies, watching the world go by below, without being seen themselves.
So, really, listing this part as a palace is somewhat incorrect, as it was only part of the palace. Behind it, in the vast grounds, is a fascinating area filled with astronomical devices, other smaller palaces, many now museums, and ornate gardens.
Pro Tip: For a luxury stay, or simply lunch, head to Rambagh Palace a couple of miles south, once the home of the Maharaja of Jaipur. When I visited I spotted the former, and now late, maharani on the grounds.
5. Schloss Neuschwanstein
When you think Disney, you think of a certain turreted castle, and Schloss Neuschwanstein was Disney’s inspiration. Perched on a mountaintop looking out over the Alps, lakes, and forests, this delicate building is truly a fairy-tale castle, with its slender yet sturdy towers and pointy rooftops. It was built as a retreat for King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who reportedly emptied his kingdom’s coffers repeatedly to build pretty castles.
With this one he did very well, and he lived inside the castle in a make-believe world. Sadly, he was soon declared insane and reportedly committed suicide — even though that is still disputed — before even seeing the final version of this, his most magnificent castle.
Pro Tip: With King Ludwig II’s hobby being building castles, there is another one right next door: Hohenschwangau. Steps away as the crow flies, or the swan in this case, but on a neighboring mountaintop.
6. Reggia De Caserta
This palace is an interesting one, as few people have ever heard of the Reggia de Caserta palace, nor of its former occupants: The Kings of Naples. Constructed in the mid-1700s by the House of Bourbon-Two Sicilies in the style of Versailles and Schönbrunn in Vienna, this is not only a pretty palace but also reportedly the largest royal residence in the world by volume. Its 1,200 rooms spread over five floors include a library, theater, and a chapel, not unlike Versailles.
The tiered English Garden is one of the finest, oldest, and loveliest of its kind, and the grounds include a forest, a nearly 2-mile-long stretch of fountain — from the end of which you see the palace looming on the horizon and various outbuildings — and even a silk factory.
7. Windsor Castle
My last choice was a difficult one. I wanted to include the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, but decided against Russia. I wanted to include Schönbrunn in Vienna, but already mentioned it above, and thought about Potala Palace in Tibet and Pena Palace in Portugal. In the end, I opted for Windsor Castle, which is not really a palace, but a grand royal residence. Why did I choose it over the others? Because it is just so impressive, so imposing, and so much nicer than the official royal residence, Buckingham Palace.
So, there you have it. Windsor Castle is the oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world and has been the home of the kings and queens of Great Britain for some 1,000 years. It sits in the lovely suburb of Windsor, in a gorgeously huge garden and forest, and simply is a must-see when in London.
Fun Fact: My family history has it that I visited the castle when I was a toddler on vacation from Germany and decided I wanted to sit on the throne. So, I did… briefly, until my parents were severely reprimanded about letting me loose. Shame this was before the advent of cell phones; otherwise, I’d have proof to show you.