Guide To Europe's Most Beautiful Royal Palaces
Here's my guide to the most beautiful palaces in Europe. I tell you all about them and how to tour them virtually.
Do you need a dash of royalty or some guilty pleasure escapism in your life? This should do the trick. This Europe travel guide takes you to 25 of the most beautiful and iconic palaces in Europe, which you can enjoy on vacation or online from home.
Once (or still) home to kings, popes, and emperors, these palaces represent Europe's finest and most lavish architecture. If you've been dying to experience the overwhelming opulence of Versailles or peak into Queen Elizabeth's life at Buckingham Palace, you're in luck. With these virtual palace tours, you can feel like a royal in your pajamas.
The Best Palaces in Europe: and How To Tour Them Virtually
Here's my list of 25 gorgeous palaces that you should put on your bucket list or itinerary for Europe.
1. Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna Austria
This swishy Renaissance palace was the summer home of the Hapsburg dynasty, the family that ruled the Austro-Hungarian empire for nearly 650 years. Of Schönbrunn's 1441 rooms, 40 are open to the public.
On the "Imperial Tour," you see 22 rooms, including the imperial apartments of Emperor Franz Joseph and famous wife, Empress Sisi. On the "Grand Tour," you can ogle 18 more rooms, including the 18th century interiors from the time of Maria Theresa, who conceived of and built Schoenbrunn. Mozart famously gave his first concert at age 6 in the Mirror Room.
2. Pope's Palace, Avignon France
From 1309-77, the popes lived in the Palais des Papes in the enchanting riverside town of Avignon, rather than in Rome. That period was called the "Avignon Papacy." Six papal conclaves were held there before the popes returned to Rome.
Built in 1335-52, the Pope's Palace is the largest Gothic building in western Europe. The imposing facade resembles medieval fortified churches. Highlights are the Pope’s private apartments, the Matteo Giovannetti frescoes, and the soaring chapel.
3. Schloss Neuschwanstein, Schwangau Germany
Clad in glistening limestone and strategically perched in the Alps, Neuschwanstein Castle is the most visited palace in Germany and one of Europe's most popular sites. With its majestic turrets, decadent interior, and dramatic backstory, Neuschwanstein is essentially the embodiment of a fairy tale. A fairy tale spun by a daydreaming king, Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria.
Ludwig was a reclusive king, loner, and possibly a misanthrope. Ludwig didn't care much for affairs of state either. Instead, his life work was his pathological obsession with castle building, something you might expect from a "mad" king.
Neuschwanstein took 24 years to build. It's a prime example of 19th century Romantic style architecture, sprinkled with numerous tower, gables, turrets, and balconies. Inside, it's full of vibrant color and depicts scenes from Richard Wagner's operas. The highlights are the Throne Room, Singer's Hall, and Ludwig's fancy bedroom.
You can take a virtual tour of Neuschwanstein on Google Arts & Culture or on the Neuschwanstein website here. If you want more info, here's my complete guide to visiting Neuschwanstein Castle and a guide to all of Mad King Ludwig's castles in Bavaria.
4. Pena Palace, Sintra Portugal
Pena Palace is an extravagant 19th century Romantic palace in Sintra, an easy 30 minute day trip from Lisbon. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal. Pena Palace is beloved by its adoring visitors. It's the most romantic of the romantic palaces out there.
Not only is Pena Palace startlingly colorful, it's a heavy handed mish mash of different architectural styles. It looks like several castles smooshed together. It's a schizophrenic whirlwind of onion domes, turrets, crenellation, and fanciful sneering gargoyles.
Pena Palace was commissioned by King Ferdinand II in 1842, possibly in an attempt to rival Neuschwanstein Castle. The palace's facade serves as a color-coded legend. The red portion of the castle is the oldest part. The ochre or yellow arches and domes showcase the Moorish influence. The blue tiled structures are reminiscent of the Manueline style.
5. Royal Chateau de Chenonceau, Loire Valley France
Built in the 16th century, the Chateau de Chenonceau is the most famous and romantic of the Loire Valley chateaus. It spans the River Cher with picturesque palace arches for boats to glide under. Chenonceau housed and was influenced by many famous women over the centuries -- Diane de Poitiers, Catherine de' Medici, and Louise Dupin. Hence, it's nicknamed the "Ladies Chateau."
Highlights of the meticulously maintained chateau are the lavishly decorated ceilings, the ornate chapel, the Grand Gallery, the bedroom of Diane de Poitiers, and the Medici Gallery (now a museum). The museum houses Old Master paintings by Rubens, Pouissin, and Tintoretto.
Chenonceau has partnered with Google Arts & Culture. So you can take an extensive virtual tour, read stories about the historic chateau, or examine the art collection here. Here's another virtual tour of the glamorous chateau.
6. Winter Palace, St. Petersburg Russia
The Winter Palace was the official home of the Russian imperial family until the Russian Revolution in 1917. Commissioned by Empress Anna, construction of this monolith began in 1732. When Catherine the Great took the throne in 1762, she completely redid the interiors. The palace continued to be embellished through the 19th century.
Today, the Winter Palace houses the State Hermitage, one of the world's best museums. It's the second largest museum in the world with a slew of masterpieces. You can explore its artsy endless halls with the Google Art Project guide or explore the palace on Google Arts & Culture.
Alternatively, check out the Hermitage website, which boasts a large digital archive with very convenient navigation. In the Highlights section, you'll find the Hermitage's most significant pieces: Faberge eggs, sculptures (especially Canova's Three Graces and Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss), and jewelry.
7. Palace of Versailles, Versailles France
The Palace of Versailles has opened its digital doors. Built by the Sun King Louis XIV, the Palace of Versailles is the most ornate and famous royal chateau in France, located just outside Paris. Once behind closed doors, the 17th century palace is now yours for digital viewing at home.
The palace has partnered with Google Arts & Culture to present virtual exhibits online. Google takes users on a journey of the palace's rich decor and art collection of over 22,000 pieces.
You can also take a plethora of amazing virtual tours on the Palace of Versailles' website. Nothing is left out! You can see the Hall of Mirrors, the royal apartments, tour the famous Le Notre gardens, etc.
For the full scoop on everything you can see and read online, here's my guide to taking a digital tour of the Palace of Versailles. If you want to virtually tour other famous chateaux, here's my guide to glamorous chateaux in France.
8. The Alhambra, Granada Spain
The Alhambra is the world's last and greatest Moorish fortress. The Alhambra sits on a stunning piece of real estate – a high, mountainous location on Sabika Hill with sweeping views over the city of Granada and the surrounding countryside.
The Alhambra began as a small fortress in 889 A.D. In 1232, the first Nasrid sultan, Mohammed I, established a royal residence when he came to power. In 1492, the Moors fell. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella reclaimed the Alhambra and transformed it into a royal palace.
The Alhambra became a UNESCO site in 1984. There are four must see sites: the Nasrid Palace, Charle's V Palace, the Alcazaba, and the Generalife Gardens. The Nasrid Palace is the over the top ornate highlight, with its incredibly beautiful Moorish ceilings and ornate plasterwork.
You can take a virtual tour of the Alhambra on Google Arts & Culture. The official Alhambra website offers an impressive 3D virtual tour of the entire palace complex. You can take another virtual tour here and listen to a YouTube documentary video here. Here's my complete guide to visiting the Alhambra.
9. Doge's Palace, Venice Italy
Set in St. Mark's Square, the Doge's Palace or Palazzo Ducale is the very symbol of Venice. This pink and white marble Gothic-Renaissance building was the official residence of the doges who ruled Venice for more than 1,000 years. It once held Casanova in a cell, but he dramatically escaped.
Aside from the gorgeous rooms and staircases, there's some fantastic works of art on display: Veronese's Rape of Europe and The Triumph of Venice, many paintings and ceilings by Tintoretto, and Tiepolo's Neptune Bestowing Gifts upon Venice.
You can tour the Doge's Palace virtually on Google Arts & Culture, take a 360 tour of the exterior, or take a 360 tour of the city of Venice itself. For a virtual tour of all Venice's most important landmarks and museums, click here.
10. The Belvedere Palace, Vienna Austria
The Belvedere Palace is one of Vienna's most visited tourist spots and an important UNESCO site for its showy architectural ensemble.
The Belvedere Palace was built in 1712-23 by Johann Lucas von Hildebrandt, a master Baroque architect. It was the swishy summer residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy, a legendary military leader of his time.
The Belvedere is now an important museum. It's a haven of Baroque and Austrian art from the 19th and 20th centuries. Its main claim to fame is the world's largest collection of Gustav Klimt paintings, including the world famous The Kiss. It also boasts masterworks by Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, two important Expressionist painters.
Here's my complete guide to visiting the Belvedere Palace. You can also tour it virtually on Google Arts & Culture. There's also an online exhibit dedicated to The Kiss. If you like Klimt's gold toned art nouveau pieces, I also have a guide to the Klimt Trail in Vienna.
11. The Palacio Real, Madrid Spain
The Royal Palace of Madrid is the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family. But they actually live in the more modesst Palacio de la Zarzuela. The Palacio Real is only used for state ceremonies.
The palace was built on the site of a Moorish alcazar after it burned down in 1734. The palace somewhat resembles the Louvre in style. There are are over 3,000 rooms inside. Visitors have access to 50 rooms, including the lavish state rooms, the throne room, the royal chapel, and the Hall of Columns.
Not only are the furnishings sumptuous, but the palace is filled with some great art work by the likes of Goya, Velazquez, El Greco Peter Paul Rubens, Tiepolo, and Caravaggio.
12. Buckingham Palace, London England
Buckingham Palace may be the world's most famous royal home. Buckingham Palace is the Queen's royal residence and administrative headquarters in London. It's the site of royal weddings, jubilees, and the changing of the guards. It's known as the "Queen's House."
You can tour it virtually on Google Arts & Culture. The virtual tour takes you to Grand Staircase, the Throne Room, the White Drawing Room, and the Blue Drawing Room. A similar virtual tour is available on the Royal UK website.
Aside from the sumptuous royal furnishing, Buckingham Palace houses an impressive art collection. It features work by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Canaletto.
13. Nymphenburg Palace, Munich Germany
The 17th century Schloss Nymphenburg is one of Europe's largest palaces. The palace consists of a large villa and two long wings. It has intricate parquet floors, colorfully painted ceilings, paintings galore, and sumptuously decorated period rooms.
The two key highlights of the central villa are the glittering Stone Hall, with its nymph-filled frescos, and the Gallery of Beauties, which displays King Ludwig I's (Mad King Ludwig II's grandfather) portraits of beautiful women.
There are quite a few lovely mini-schlosses sprinkled throughout Nymphenburg Palace Park. These tiny follies were where the Wittelsbachs escaped when courtly life proved too annoying. The most famous folly is the glittering Amalienburg, the best example of Rococo Architecture in Germany.
14. Wurzburg Residence, Wurzburg Germany
Wurzburg is a delightful UNESCO town in northern Bavaria. Aside from its adorable medieval streets, it's the home of the famous Wurzburg Residence. This ornate palace was home to the Wurzburg bishop-kings, who aimed to build an eye popping spectacle akin to Versailles.
The palace is so glamorous that it's been dubbed the "German Versailles." In 1720, prince-bishop Johann Philipp Franz von Schönborn commissioned the residence. The palace took 60 years to build.
The highlights are the intricate stucco work throughout the palace, the magnificent frescos by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (a famed Italian Rococo artist), and the visually stunning White Hall.
15. Drottningholm Royal Palace, Sweden
Built in 1600, Drottningholm Palace is the best-preserved castle or palace in Sweden. The Baroque structure still serves as the King and Queen’s permanent residence and setting for official receptions.
Inspired by Versailles (like so much else), Drottningholm Palace has over 600 rooms. It's especially renowned for the Chinese Pavilion and the Palace Theater. The unique architecture showcases the changing tastes of the royals over the centuries.
The palace is beautifully situated on a island. Now, you don’t have to hop on a boat to peak inside. You can take a virtual tour of the palace here.
16. Royal Palace of Caserta, Naples Italy
The incredible Palace of Caserta is a UNESCO site in Naples. Built by King Charles VII of the House of Bourbon, it was used as the main residence of the kings of Naples. With over 1200 rooms, the palace was one of the largest palaces in 18th century Europe.
The sprawling palace complex was built on a grid with four outer wings. You enter via the Grand Staircase of Honor, surrounded by marble. The palace is lavish inside, especially the gold filled throne room. Caserta Palace comes complete with stunningly beautiful gardens, with long reflecting pools and statuary.
Interestingly, the palace was a filming location for Mission Impossible III. You can take a virtual tour of the palace here. There are also several Google Street View tours on Google Arts & Culture that will take you inside and outside the palace.
17. Hampton Court Palace, Molesey England
London's Hampton Court Palace is the world's greatest surviving medieval palace. And it has a deliciously rich and scandalous history.
Hampton Court Palace was the favored playground and leisure complex of England's infamous King Henry VIII and other notorious characters in English history. "Golden Boy" Henry suffered an injury there that would change the course of his life -- transforming him from a dashing energetic king into a tyrannical monster.
Hampton Court Palace is really a tale of two palaces smooshed together. It's a combination of the Gothic Palace of Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII and the Baroque Palace built by the Stuart monarchs William and Mary. The palace was a royal residence from the early 1500s until the 1730s.
18. Munich Residence, Munich Germany
The Munich Residence is Munich's #1 attraction. The Residence was the luxe city palace and seat of government of the Wittelsbach dynasty. The clan ruled Bavaria for over 700 years, for better or worse.
Their Versailles-like palace is awash in tapestries, swirly Rococo gilt, quirky reliquaries, and grottos. In fact, the palace has so many tapestries, you might give up admiring them out of sheer visual overstimulation.
The Residence is now a museum. But it's really just a lavishly decorated palace, for the most part. The Residence is a hodgepodge mix of architectural styles — Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, and Neo-Classicism. But that’s befitting a palace that lorded over Bavaria for over 700 years.
Inside, the Residence has of over 120 rooms. Highlights include the Shell Grotto, the Anitquarium, the Ancestral Gallery, the Green Gallery, and the Ornate Room.
19. Schloss Sanssouci, Potsdam Germany
This 18th century palace is synonymous with Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. Sanssouci is a French word that means "without concern." That's how Frederick envisioned his palace -- as a place where he could escape court life and the burdens of royal duty.
Like the Wurzburg Residence, Sanssouci is sometimes considered the Versailles of Berlin. Though it's much smaller than Versailles, and built in a Rococo style. The palace gardens are also exquisite with fountains, vineyards, and Baroque terraces. The park also contains the Neue Palace and the exotic Chinese House.
20. Prince's Place of Monaco, Monaco
The Grimaldi family has lived in the Prince's Palace for more than seven centuries. It was upgraded to a royal residence in the 15th century. As a result, the palace reflects the history of both the family itself and of Monaco.
The palace is a mix of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture. Like many palaces, it has a Hall of Mirrors modeled after Versailles. The palace was seized during the French Revolution. But it was restored to the Grimaldis in 1814 and they retrieved the stolen art work.
The Grimaldi family, rather like the Kennedy's, is reputed to suffer from a "curse" beginning in the 13th century. A string of scandals, divorces, infidelity, death, and heartbreak have plagued the family. Most notably, actress turned princess Grace Kelly was killed in a tragic car accident.
The palace is perched on a cliff-like promontory. From the top, you have a royal panoramic view. You can tour the Prince's Palace virtually on its website.
21. Palazzo Doira Pamphilj, Rome Italy
The Doria Pamphilj Gallery is a lavish 17th century Roman-Rococo palace. It began life as the humble Aldobrandini Palace. But Camillo Pamphilj greatly expanded and decorated the palace. It has over 1000 gorgeous rooms, including a Hall of Mirrors. The heirs still live in the palace.
The Doria Pamphilj also operates as a museum with an incredible art collection. The Doria Pamphilj boasts over 650 works spanning the 15th to the 18th centuries, including pieces by Velazquez, Raphael, Bernini, Caravaggio, Titian, Carracci, and Bruegel. Velazquez's Portrait of Innocent X is world renowned and has a dedicated room in the palazzo.
22. Hofburg Palace, Vienna Austria
The Hofburg Palace is a must see site in Vienna and one of the world's biggest and most lavish palace complexes. The Hapsburgs lived there for centuries, until 1918. The Hofburg is still the residence of the President of Austria.
There are three parts of Hofburg Palace that you can visit: the Sisi Museum, the Imperial Apartments, and the Silver Collection. While the apartments are sumptuous, rivaling Schönbrunn, the Sisi Museum is the most fascinating part of a visit.
The Sisi Museum opened in 2004. It's a chic cult-like museum dedicated to the fanatic fans of Empress Elisabeth. The museum shines a light on the "misunderstood" princess, whose tragic life resembles that of modern day Princess Diana and has been the subject of books and film.
You can take a virtual tour of Hofburg Palace here. If you want to learn more about Empress Sisi, here's my complete guide and you can also check out Google Arts & Culture here. If you'd like to learn more about the Hapsburg dynasty, listen to this BBC documentary here.
23. Palazzo Vecchio, Florence Italy
Steeped in history, the Palazzo Vecchio was Florence's seat of power, the home of the City Council that governed the Republic of Florence. The Palazzo Vecchio is now a museum. It sits in the famous Piazza della Signoria, which is studded with many famous sculptures (or copies thereof), including Michelangelo's David.
On the first floor of the palace, you can visit the Hall of the Five Hundred, awash with frescos by Vasari. On the second floor are the sumptuously decorated private rooms of the Medici, with recently restored frescos in the beautiful Apartment of the Elements. You'll also find Donatello's groundbreaking Judith and Holofernes sculpture in the Hall of Lilies.
If you're up for a climb of 400 steps, the Tower of Arnolfo offers 360 views. You enter via the Museum of Palazzo Vecchio, with a combined ticket for Palazzo Vecchio or for an additional small fee.
Here's my complete guide to the Palazzo Vecchio. You can also tour it virtually here.
24. Pitti Palace, Florence Italy
The magnificent Palazzo Pitti is one of Florence's most stunning architecture gems. Built in 1457, it was designed by Brunelleschi and built for the Florentine banker Luca Pitti, a Medici rival.
But, like everything else it seems, the palace soon became Medici property. In 1549, Cosimo de' Medici's wife purchased the Pitti Palace. It became the Medici's principal private residence, the family's third palace in Florence. The Medici expanded it and placed 8 art galleries in its interior. The Royal Apartments showcase styles from three different eras of ownership.
The most important museum is certainly the Palatine Gallery. It occupies the left wing of the first floor. The gallery houses an impressive collection of over 500 paintings, chock a block on top of each other amid lavish furnishings. There are works by Raphael, Titian, Rubens, Caravaggio, and other European and Italian painters.
Be sure to check out Botticelli's and Lippi's Madonna and Child in the Prometheus Room. Two of Andrea del Sarto's massive Assumption of the Virgin are in the Iliad Room. And, one of my favorites, Artemisia Gentileschi, has another version of Judith in the Saturn Room.
25. Te Palace, Mantua Italy
This extraordinary Palazzo in Mantua was designed and decorated by the talented artist-architect Giulio Romano. Raphael's favorite pupil. Te Palace is all about love. Or lust. It was the bling-y summer palace of the Gonzaga family.
Te Palace was built for the pleasure loving son of Isabella d'Este, Frederico II. He used it as an escape pad -- to get away from his wife, his mother, and the restricted court life of the Ducal Palace. The palace is filled with lavish, almost mind-blowing, Mannerist frescos executed by Romano in 1525-35.
The Sala dei Cavalli, or Hall of the Horses, is the banquet hall where the Gonzaga were surrounded by paintings of their favorite prize-winning horses. Gray and brown horses stand in profile, looking almost 3D. They're almost life size, set against faux marble walls and landscapes.
The Sala of Psyche is the most opulent room, filled with erotic paintings bordering on debauchery. The frescos depict Cupid and Psyche and the theme of their forbidden love. The mythological pair are a stand in for the forbidden love of Frederico and his mistress (also named) Isabella.
Here's my complete guide to visiting Te Palace. You can tour the palace virtually here.
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