Europe is hard to beat when it comes to history, architecture and cultural heritage. Royal palaces are among the most exceptional attractions, particularly those listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Here are some of the oldest, largest and most famous palaces in Europe that will be a thrilling highlight on any trip.
Moorish Masterpiece – Alhambra, Spain
UNESCO Palace in Spain
Nothing quite prepares you for the incredible location of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. This fortress-palace complex is a magnificent UNESCO World Heritage monument perched on the edge of a sheer rocky precipice overlooking the city.
The original 11th century palace was built by a grand vizier of one of Granada’s Zirid sultans, and during the 13th and 14th centuries it was restyled as a fortified enclave by the ruling Nasrad emirs. Renaissance additions were made by the Holy Roman Emperor, Carlos V, in 1527.
In yet another turbulent twist in Spanish history, Napoleon’s troops attempted to blow up the complex in 1812. Fortunately for us, they failed. Watchtowers, mosques, schools, baths, a mint and even a royal cemetery have been lost over time, but what remains is still huge.
The Alhambra complex includes the solid Alcazaba (fortress), the Nasrid Palaces, Court of Lions, the hulking Palace of Carlos V, Museum of the Alhambra, the Generalife gardens and St Mary’s Church (a former mosque). Terraced gardens, marble lions, lace-like stucco, hand-painted tiles, fountains and a cedar-star ceiling enthrall, impress and humble the 6000 visitors that tramp through the Alhambra’s maze of courtyards every day.
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The Most Famous Palace in the World – Versailles, France
UNESCO Palace in Paris
A relative newcomer by comparison, the grand Château de Versailles, or Palace of Versailles, was built by Louis XIV at the pinnacle of his reign. It epitomised the bourgeois lifestyle of the king and his court from 1682, which the brutal French Revolution 107 years later swept away.
Often copied but never outdone, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of France’s most visited attractions, so it’s worth buying a Paris Pass to get Fast Track admission.
With 700 rooms, 1,252 fireplaces, 67 staircases and 357 glittering mirrors, this opulent palace wows visitors – and that’s before you explore the 250-acre gardens, the largest palace gardens in Europe. The Gardens of Versailles are infinitely renowned by their own right. A meticulously landscaped garden with sculptures, fountains and the site of dance parties – Salle de Bal.
Other Versailles’ highlights include the The King’s Grand Apartment, the Opéra Royal de Versailles, the magnificent Royal Chapel and the mesmerising Hall of Mirrors.
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The Only Non-Royal Palace in England – Blenheim Palace, UK
UNESCO Palace in Oxford, UK
Built in 1705, Blenheim Palace is one of the largest country houses in England. Given to the first Duke of Marlborough as a reward for his victory at the Battle of Blenheim, it became the ancestral home of Sir Winston Churchill and is still occupied by his descendants.
Situated near London, this baroque palace has a grand entrance, Great Court, state apartments for frequent royal guests and opulently appointed salons.
Take the unique interactive tour of the palace with the ‘ghost’ of Grace, a former maid.
Historians will enjoy the Churchill exhibition, which includes the uniforms, papers and photographs of this wartime British prime minister. You can spend the rest of the day exploring the landscaped park and formal gardens of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, described as ‘a naturalistic Versailles’.
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Outstanding Habsburg Residence – Schönbrunn Palace, Austria
UNESCO Palace in Vienna
You can spend a whole day exploring Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Austria’s most visited attraction.
The imposing palace and gardens were created by the wealthy Habsburgs and remain furnished just as if the Imperial Family was still in residence. Commissioned by Emperor Leopold I at the close of the 17th century, the palace was the hub of court life, with suitably opulent baroque architecture and splendid furnishings.
The palace tour includes the salon where six-year-old Mozart entertained Empress Maria Theresa, and the rococo Millions Room, filled with Indian and Persian miniatures. Don’t miss the golden coach of Empress Sisi and the Blue Chinese Salon, where the last Austrian emperor, Karl I, signed his abdication, ending the Habsburgs’ 640-year rule.
Explore the landscaped gardens and admire the fountains, maze, zoo, Palm House and the colonnaded Gloriette, where afternoon tea provides far-reaching views.
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Finest Royal Residence in Northern Europe – Drottningholm Palace, Sweden
UNESCO Palace in Stockholm
Influenced by the earlier Palace of Versailles, the Royal Domain of Drottningholm stands on Queen’s Island, one of the 14 islands that make up Stockholm. This remarkable UNESCO World Heritage palace is the permanent home of the King and Queen of Sweden and the changing of the guard takes place daily at noon. The sumptuous property includes a castle residence, court theatre, several museums, ornamental gardens and a 1769 Chinese pavilion decorated in Swedish rococo style.
After drinking in the gilt mouldings, chandeliers, antiques and artworks that decorate the palace reception rooms, enjoy the Royal Chapel and the Museum of Antiquities. The Museum De Vries has a unique collection of sculptures in the old Dragoon stables, while the Treasury has displays of state regalia.
Garden enthusiasts will be enthralled by the gardens, fountains and statues that make up the seven cascades of the parterre. Surrounded by Lake Mälaren, Drottningholm Palace also boasts a beautiful, leafy park that is a delightful place to stroll.
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Image Credits: Courtesy of featured hotels; images licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 License
Feature Image by Jean-Marie Hullot