8 Opulent Palaces to Visit Around the World
By Matt Stofsky
A beautifully decorated home is something to appreciate, but a luxuriously appointed Royal Palace is something else entirely. With hundreds of rooms, master works of art on every available surface, and beautiful gardens at every turn, these historic Royal residences will blow you away. While you’re sweating it out this summer in your studio apartment, peruse our list of the most opulent palaces around the world, and give yourself something to aspire to.
1. PALACE OF VERSAILLES // VERSAILLES, FRANCE
A breathtaking complex of lush gardens, perfectly manicured grounds, and ornate decor, the palace of Versailles has become synonymous with opulence, but the UNESCO World Heritage Site had much humbler origins: The original building, constructed in 1624, served as a hunting lodge for Louis XIII. His son, Louis XIV, expanded the chateau into a sprawling complex and moved the government there in 1682. Every design element of the palace and its grounds was purposefully crafted to glorify the ruling class. One of the crowning features of Versailles is the Hall of Mirrors, a 230-foot long arcade featuring 17 massive mirrors opposite 17 windows overlooking the gardens below. All in all, Versailles is luxury on an unprecedented scale that you need to see to truly believe.
2. SCHÖNBRUNN PALACE // VIENNA, AUSTRIA
Step into the rich, complex history of the Habsburg Dynasty at the stunning Schönbrunn Palace just outside of Vienna. Though the site hosted buildings in the Middle Ages, it became part of the Habsburg lands in 1569. In the 17th century, the grounds hosted a hunting lodge that was destroyed by Turkish troops in the siege of Vienna, and in 1693, Leopold I commissioned a palace, designed and constructed by architect Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, on the site. The palace and surrounding grounds as seen today date the 18th century, when Empress Maria Theresa reigned. The 1441-room palace has played host to many significant moments in Austrian and European history: It's where 6-year-old Mozart gave his first concert at the palace (playing for Empress in the Mirror Room) and where Napoleon set up shop in 1805 and 1809. The grounds also serve as the home of the Vienna Zoo, the oldest zoo in the world.
3. THE WINTER PALACE // ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA
Jonathan, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Located on the south back of the Neva River in St. Petersburg, the Winter Palace served as the main residence of the Russian royal family starting in the 1760s. (These days it's home to the Hermitage Museum, Russia's largest art gallery.) The three-story, green-and-white palace—which is shaped like a rectangle with a central courtyard—has a staggering 1057 rooms, 1786 doors, and 1945 windows. The interior has gone through many transformations over the years, including a sweeping reconstruction project undertaken in 1837, after a great fire destroyed many of the palace’s rooms.
The palace is also home to a massive wine cellar, which Cambridge University historian Orlando Figes told PBS was "the largest wine cellar ever known to history." During the storming of the Winter Palace in October 1917, Figes said, "The leading mob that had taken the Winter Palace immediately began ransacking these cellars. The drinking from the cellar, and the looting that accompanied it, continued for several weeks." The boozing didn't stop until December, when "the Bolsheviks had to impose martial law on Petrograd because of the chaos," Figes said. "It wasn't until the new year that Petrograd, perhaps with the biggest hangover in history, finally woke up and got back to some order."
4. BUCKINGHAM PALACE // LONDON, ENGLAND
Buckingham Palace, the primary London residence of the Queen of England, has been valued at over £1 billion. But before it was a palace—and one of the most expensive homes in the world—it was Buckingham House, which George III purchased in 1761 to use as a family home. In 1826, King George IV wanted to expand Buckingham House into a true palace. A budget of £450,000 was approved by Parliament, but by 1829, costs has swelled to over half a million pounds, a fact that cost architect John Nash his job. Construction was finished under a different architect—Edward Blore—and a different monarch—William IV, who took over after George IV's death. In 1837, Queen Victoria moved in, making her the first monarch to live in Buckingham Palace.
Today, the palace has an impressive 775 rooms, including 19 state rooms for official functions. The first royal appearance on the palace's famous balcony—which has been used to commemorate important moments in British history, from the Queen’s birthday to the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain—occurred in 1851, Queen Victoria's reign.
5. TOPKAPI PALACE // ISTANBUL, TURKEY
pristyles, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
Built between 1460 and 1478 on an ancient Roman acropolis, Topkapı Palace in Istanbul served as the seat of the Ottoman government for nearly 400 years. Located on the Istanbul Peninsula between the Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus River, and the Golden Horn, Topkapı—which covers nearly 100 acres—was important both culturally and militarily, housing a massive armory along with cultural artifacts and relics. These days, it's a museum; one of its most impressive exhibits is the Spoonmaker’s Diamond, an 86-karat jewel that hangs in the Treasury room (the museum is home to other priceless items, too).
6. ALHAMBRA PALACE // GRANADA, SPAIN
Originally a fortress, the Alhambra Palace in Granada was converted into a palace around 1050. In 1333, it was greatly expanded by Yusuf I, sultan of Granada. Alhambra hosts over 2 million visitors a year. The palace's full Arabic name, Al Qalat al-Hamra, translates to "red fort," a reference to the reddish hue of the clay used in construction. Inside the palace complex, ornate mosaics adorn the walls, along with beautiful calligraphy and poetry. The palace’s lush gardens feature cypress trees and elaborate fountains, giving the entire complex an otherworldly quality. This focus on aesthetics dates back to the original designers of Alhambra, whose intent was to cover every available area with decoration, resulting in a complex collage of styles.
7. THE FORBIDDEN CITY // BEIJING, CHINA
One of the most recognizable palaces in the world, the Forbidden City, located in central Beijing, housed 24 emperors from the Ming all the way through the Qing Dynasties. The 980-building complex covers 178 acres; material used to construct the buildings include incredibly valuable Phoebe zhennan wood, golden bricks, marble, and giant boulders (according to a contemporary translated document, one 31-foot-long, 135-ton stone was hauled on a sled over ice by a team of men, a process that took 28 days).
Since the Forbidden City was replaced as the seat of government in 1912, it has become a museum devoted to Chinese cultural heritage that houses approximately 1 million artifacts.
8. PENA NATIONAL PALACE // SINTRA, PORTUGAL
Perched atop the second-highest peak in the Sintra hills, Pena National Palace was commissioned by King Ferdinand II and built in the mid-19th century on the site of a former medieval monastery. With its striking color palette of pink and ochre along with the circular watchtower and winding battlements, the architecture takes its cues from the German castles of the Rhineland region; Islamic influences can also be seen in the complex's elaborate tile decor and vaulted archways. Five hundred different species of trees from around the globe were planted on the hills around the castle. The Chalet of the Countess of Edla, located on the surrounding grounds, was intended as a private summer residence for Ferdinand and his future second wife. The building was designed to resemble the Alpine chalets of central Europe, and the surrounding gardens feature plants both native and exotic.