We Americans may be constitutionally averse to monarchies, but we’re just as awed and mesmerized by royalty — and royal homes — as everybody else. And with good reason. The palaces of Europe are among the most impressive residences in the world, built not only for the private pleasure of their occupants but as public showcases of the kingdom’s wealth and prestige. Here are some magnificent regal roosts, all conveniently located in or near a major European city, where you can gawk to your democratic (small “D”) heart’s content.
Note: Admission prices at the gate are for a “combination” ticket including major on-site attractions and access to the gardens. Most offer various ticket options and online discounts.
Schloss Schönbrunn, Austria
Constructed as a summer retreat outside Vienna by the widow of Emperor Ferdinand II, Schönbrunn (the name means “beautiful spring”) was a wedding gift to the new Empress Maria Theresa in 1736. It was she who rebuilt it into a stunning Baroque palace, complete with grounds, formal gardens, hot houses and faux Roman ruins. In 1848, Schönbrunn became the primary residence of her grandson, Emperor Franz Joseph, Austria’s longest-serving monarch. After the dissolution of the Habsburg dynasty in 1918, it was converted to a museum.
INFO About $25.75 adults, $16.25 ages 6-18 (includes audio guide); schoenbrunn.at/en
Château de Versailles, France
With more than 2,300 rooms and 60,000 artifacts, Versailles is the gold standard of European palaces, a reputation enhanced by the fact that it was primarily the creation of Europe’s most luminous monarch, Louis XIV, who so mistrusted his ministers that he insisted they live with him just outside Paris. Fifty years after the French Revolution of 1789 — in which then-current occupants Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette lost their heads — it became a museum of French history and later, the site of the Peace Conference of 1919. Closed Mondays.
INFO About $21.50 (includes audio guide), free under 18; en.chateauversailles.fr
Sanssouci Park, Germany
“Hidden” behind the wall in East Germany for nearly 50 years, 700-acre Sanssouci Park is actually a series of palaces, grounds and ancillary structures constructed as a rural retreat in Potsdam (near Berlin) by the Prussian kings in the 18th century. The oldest is the surprisingly small but elegant Sanssouci (“no cares”) Palace, designed by pomp-and-circumstance-averse Frederick the Great. To commemorate Prussia’s victory in the Seven Years War, he built the much larger (200 rooms) and more opulent “New” Palace. Scattered throughout the park are the Orangerie, Chinese Teahouse, Picture Gallery, New Chambers (guesthouse) and Charlottenhof, the residence of Crown Prince Frederick William. Closed Mondays.
INFO About $20.50 adults, $15 ages 7-18; potsdam-tourism.com
Palacio Real, Spain
With 3,418 rooms, the neoclassical Palacio Real in Madrid is even larger than Versailles and arguably even more impressive because it sports many of its original furnishings, including dozens of masterworks from the studios of Goya, Velázquez and Stradivari. Commissioned by Philip V to replace the medieval Alcázar, which burned in 1734, it was first occupied by his son Charles III and remained the official residence of the Spanish monarchs until 1931. (Its immense Banquet Hall is still used for state dinners.) It also boasts one of the world’s finest armories.
INFO About $10.75 adults, $5.50 ages 5-16, audio guide $4.50; patrimonionacional.es/real-sitio/palacio-real-de-madrid
For more than 400 years (1508-1918), this former castle in Munich was the home of the dukes, electors and eventually (beginning in 1806) the kings of Bavaria. In 1825, the newly crowned King Ludwig I began redoing and expanding the 10-courtyard complex in the neoclassical style. Destroyed in World War II, the resplendently rebuilt Residenz compound features the 90-room former palace of the Wittelsbach dynasty, the Treasury and the rococo Cuvilliés Theatre.
INFO About $14 adults, free under 18 (includes audio guide); residenz-muenchen.de/englisch
Winter Palace, Russia
The fourth and current Winter Palace, now part of the five-building Hermitage complex in St. Petersburg, was built for Czar Peter the Great’s daughter, Elizabeth, but first occupied by her successor, Catharine the Great (ruled 1762-1796). Abandoned by the Romanovs in 1905 for being too vulnerable, it was stormed and looted by the Bolsheviks in 1917, which means most of the furnishings are either re-creations or from elsewhere. Not so the extensive collection of European art, also started by Catharine, now occupying most of the palace’s second floor. Closed Mondays.
INFO About $17.95 adults, free for children and students, guided tours $3.50, audio guides $6.25; saint-petersburg.com/palaces/winter-palace
Hampton Court, England
Matrimonially finicky King Henry VIII seized London’s stately Hampton Court from Cardinal Wolsey in 1529 and expanded it into a Tudor-style palace commensurate with his ego and appetites. Beginning in the 1690s it was substantially rebuilt in the Baroque style by King William and Queen Mary with Sir Christopher Wren (who also built St. Paul’s Cathedral) as architect. A royal residence until 1760, Hampton Court was first opened to the public by Queen Victoria in 1838. And yes, the home of the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, is open for tours, but only the state apartments.
INFO About $29.50 adults, $14 under 16 (includes audio guide); hrp.org.uk/hampton-court-palace
Palais Princier, Monaco
Perched atop a rocky prominence overlooking the Mediterranean, Monaco’s princely palace began as a Genoese fortress in the early 1200s. For more than seven centuries, it has been the ruling Grimaldi family’s primary residence, hence the conspicuous carabiniers (guards) who change at noon. Access is limited to the 10 rooms and connecting galleries of the state apartments, all painstakingly restored to their original splendor by the current prince’s father, Ranier III, and his wife, American former actress Grace Kelly.
INFO About $8.50 adults, $4.25 children and students; palais.mc/en
Kungliga Slottet, Sweden
Still regularly used but no longer occupied by King Carl XVI Gustav, Sweden’s massive (600 rooms) Baroque royal palace was constructed in fits and starts after its predecessor burned to the ground in 1697. Located on an island in the center of Stockholm, it also originally served as the center of government and the national library. Other than routine renovations and modernizations, little has been changed since its completion in 1771, thus making it Europe’s longest-serving royal residence.
INFO About $17.75 adults, $9 ages 7-17 and students, guided tours an additional $2.25; kungahuset.se
Koninklijk Paleis, Netherlands
Built in the mid 17th century to serve as prosperous Amsterdam’s showcase city hall, the marble-interior building was first converted to a royal residence by Frenchman Louis Napoleon, whose brother — that Napoleon — had installed him as King of Holland in 1806. As the palace is still at the disposal of current King Willem-Alexander, only 17 rooms, halls and galleries are accessible. Roughly half of the furnishings on display once belonged to Louis Napoleon.
INFO About $10.75 adults, free under 18 (includes audio guide); paleisamsterdam.nl/en