Palaces and castles today are some of the most visited tourist sites in the world. Often evoking a fairy tale like association, these monumental buildings were the homes of some of the most powerful monarchs who shaped world history. Each ruler had a sense of style and power that reflected in the architectural style of the palace he/she commissioned.
Thousands of tourists flock to see not only the grandeur of these buildings, many of which have been converted to museums, but also the magnificent manicured gardens and the priceless collections of art works they house.
Below are some of the most popular palaces from around the world.
Date of Construction: 1238- 1358
Commissioned: An anonymous Islamic document records that in 1238, shortly after coming to Granada , Ibn Nasr marked out the foundations for the new citadel and established the Nasrid Dynasty. Work on the palace city on the Alhambra hill was carried out by Muhammad II who came to power in 1273. The city was called Madinal al Hamra and was to Granada what Versailles later was to Paris.
The palace city evolved continuously and it is difficult to gauge the exact chronological development.
The Alhambra as we know it today was created in the 14th century during the reign of Muhammad III (1302-09) whereas the summer palace of the Generalife, famous for its gardens was built during the reign of Ismail 1 ( 1314-1325). It was converted into a royal palace in 1333 by Yusuf I to whom the intricate and splendid interiors are credited. Once the Moors left by 1492, Charles V ruled Spain and rebuilt portions in the Renaissance style designed by Pedro de Machuca which was built in the Italian style.
Architectural Style: The architecture of the palace is in the Moorish Islamic style although the architect is unknown. Its most beautiful portions include courtyards surrounded by rooms, slender columnar arcades, fountains and water basins with the most prominent of them being the lion court.
Court of the Lions Photo Courtesy: Farhan A Mehboob
Visitors are overwhelmed by the variety of spaces, the hidden corners and the range of ornamental and extremely intricate detail. The spectacular ceilings are made up of thousands of honeycomb formations called Muqarnas.
What stands out the most are the intricate epigraphs on the walls and columns bearing Koranic inscriptions and the Nasrid motto “the only conqueror is God ”
Special Features: Surrounded by woods and mountains, the Alhambra derives its name from the color red. The imposing palace is reputed to be the most visited tourist site in the world after the Taj Mahal. (Note: those who wish to visit must book their tickets quite in advance especially during the tourist season to avoid disappointment)
It is one of the best examples of Islamic civilization at its artistic height.
Unlike many other palaces, it is crafted out of easily destructible material like plaster, wood and tiles instead of marble, alabaster or stone.
A central feature of the palace is the 14th century Court of Lions which gets its name from the central fountain carved in lions. It is the embodiment of the art of Nasrid Spain, with its many columns, elaborate honeycombed arches and almost every inch of masonry covered in intricate carvings and decorations. Some refer to the style as “Nasrid Baroque)
The Generalife is interpreted as a ‘the noblest of villas” and is the summer pavilion of the palace. Surrounded by Moorish gardens that are usually south facing, there are terraces of different heights, central open pavilions for afternoon siestas, long pools surrounded by potted plants and paths shaded by pergolas.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is one of Spain’s major tourist attractions showcasing the country’s most well-known Islamic architecture
2) THE PALACE OF VERSAILLES
Date of Construction: 1664-1710
Commissioned: It started as the hunting lodge of Louis the 13th and was constructed on further with huge amounts of money to become the grand palace for Louis 14th, the Sun King. The construction of the palace can be divided into 4 intensive building campaigns over his reign. It served as the royal residence from 1682-1789 for Louis the 14th, 15th and Louis the 16th up until the French Revolution.
Architectural style: French Baroque style, designed by architect Luis le Vau. The interior designer was Charles le Brun and the style came to be known as the Louis 14th Style. The magnificent 800-hectare garden was landscaped by Andre le Notre and is considered to be one of the most extravagant in history with its manicured lawns, fountains and sculptures.
Special Features: The Hall of Mirrors is the largest room in the palace. This stunning room is made up of a hallway containing 17 mirror arches that face 17 windows overlooking the garden. Each arch contains 21 mirrors. It was here that the Treaty of Versailles was signed ending the 1st World War.
The Grand Canal is one of the most distinct features of the garden that took 11 years to construct from 1668-1679. It runs a total length of 1670 meters and was made to reflect the sunset. It originally housed yachts, gondolas and gondoliers from Venice.
Current Status: Today, the Palace of Versailles is one of France’s many national monuments. The building is so large that only a small portion of it is open to the public. Many of the rooms are government offices. Visitors may tour the sections of the north and south wings closest to the center as well as the central section itself.
3) BLENHIEM PALACE
Date of Construction: 1705 – 1722
Commissioned: It was presented by Queen Anne to John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough. On August 13, 1704, the Duke along with the assistance of Prince Eugene of Savoy won a decisive victory over the French at Blindheim. The palace was named after the place on which this victory took place and was then given a more anglicized name as Blenheim.
Architectural Style: Situated in the heart of England’s countryside in Oxford shire, this 18th century Baroque palace was considered to be made in a new style of architecture. The park around it was created by the famous landscape gardener “Capability Brown”. It depicts the beginnings of the English Romantic Movement which took inspiration from the love for nature. The architecture of the palace greatly influenced the architecture and organization of space in the England and abroad in the 18th and 19th century.
Special Features: It is the birthplace of Winston Churchill (born 30th November 1874) and he also proposed to his wife here. It is also the only country house in England to be called a palace that does not belong to the royal family.
Current Status: A UNESCO World Heritage site, it is also the current residence of the 12th Duke of Marlborough. Today it hosts a number of events, activities, exhibitions and tours including wedding celebrations.
4) LAHORE FORT AND SHALIMAR GARDENS
Date of Construction: The earliest reference to the fort according to the Pakistani historian Wali Ullah Khan dates the construction to the 11th century. It was upgraded around 1566 by Mughal Emperor Akbar.
Commissioned: The existing base structure was started by Mughal Emperor Akbar (1156-1605). A number of stately palaces lie within it with further additions made to the base by subsequent rulers Jehangir, Shah Jahan and Auranzeb. The construction of the Persian style Shalamar Garden in 1641 occurred under the reign of Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan.
Architectural Style: Islamic Mughal architecture with beautiful white marble lattice windows, gorgeous tile work on the exterior wall, geometric and floral designs, massive stone walls, arched hallways, pools and fountains, mosques and inlaid courtyards.
Special Features: The Alamgiri Gate: This massive and grandiose entrance to the Lahore Fort was built by emperor Aurangzeb in 1673. The huge arched entrance was designed so that the emperor’s elephant mounted caravan could easily pass through.
Constructed by 1598, Moti Masjid is a pearl colored mosque built from white marble in the reign of emperor Nur-ud-Din Jahangir for the private use of the ladies of the royal family.
Sheesh Mahal is a small palace of mirrors built by Shah Jehan in 1631 for the empress and her court. The entire interior is intricately decorated with glass mirrors set into the stucco interior.
Hathi Paon or the Elephant path was built for elephants belonging to the royal harem , so that the ladies could enter the inside of the fort without having to dismount outside.
Diwan –e- aam or the Hall of Public audience is a large rectangular platform built by Emperor Shah Jahan as an open sheltered court. Here he would receive the common man who wanted an audience with him.
Diwan – e Khas or Hall of Private Audience was where the Emperor met the nobility made up of Khans, Nawabs, Rajas and Maharajas.
The Naulakha is a marble pavilion that derives its name from the number 9 as it cost 9 lakh rupees to build at the time. Delicate flowers and geometric designs have been inlaid with precious, semi-precious stones and gold into the marble walls. It was built in 1633 by emperor Shah Jehan overlooking the Ravi River. The structure was vandalized of its precious stones during the Rule of Ranjit Singh. It still retains its grandeur and glory and is in the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites
5) HOHENSALZBURG FORTRESS AND PALACE
Date of Construction: 1077
Commissioned: Archbishop Gebhard I of Helfenstein ordered it to be built above the city he resided in.
Architectural Style: Early Baroque. The interiors are decorated with intricate Gothic wood carvings and ornamental paintings. It was built as a residence for the prince bishops at the time and to protect them.
Special Features: Overlooking the city of Salzburg, the fortress is currently the largest and fully preserved structure of its kind in Central Europe. It can be reached by funicular railway built in 1892 which takes passengers up to it.
Stunning 360 degrees, panoramic views of the city of Salzburg can be enjoyed from the height of the fortress from the watchtower.
Current Status: Today the fortress is open throughout the year r the general public. It is a popular venue for artists from around the world who meet here for courses at the International Summer Academy. The medieval rooms, the romantic courtyard and the bastions regularly serve as scenery for events like the Fortress Concerts.
6) THE PALACE OF PENA
Date of Construction: 1842-1854
Commissioned: The palace was commissioned by Ferdinand August Franz Anton from Austria who was married to Dona Maria II (1819-1953), Queen of Portugal. He wanted a castle that would compete with the beauty and grandeur of Neuchweinstein in Bavaria built by King Ludwig II.
Architectural Style: The palace is one of the best examples of 19th century Portuguese Romanticism, with gargoyles peering down over the main entrance. It amalgamates a mixture of eclectic styles including Neo-Gothic, Neo-Manueline, Neo-Islamic and Neo- Renaissance as the King desired vault arches, Medieval and Islamic elements to be included.
Special Features: Each section of the palace is styled differently, distinguished by its bright colors and fine stone carvings. The palace is built on a hill overlooking the town of Sintra, providing stunning views below and is surrounded by 200 hectares of trees. It is one of the best tourist attractions of Portugal.
Current Status: From the years 1910- 1912, the palace was converted into a museum. In 1995, UNESCO listed the Sintara Hills, where the palace and park are located, as Cultural Landscape, World Heritage. This was the first cultural landscape to be listed in Europe.
7) BELVEDERE PALACE VIENNA
Date of Construction: 1697 – 1723
Commissioned: The palace was built as a summer residence for Prince Eugene of Savoy and consists of two palaces; upper and lower Belvedere, the Orangery and the Palace stables.
Architectural Style: Prince Eugene chose Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt as the chief architect and the palace is considered to be one of the most important Baroque buildings in Austria.
Special Features: The stunning Baroque gardens feature beautiful sculptures, fountains and cascades and a large ornamental pond. Visitors can enjoy the great panoramic view of Vienna from the Upper palace.
Current Status: The palace today showcases Austrian art from the middle Ages to present day including the world’s largest Klimt collection housed in Upper Belvedere including “The Kiss”. The lower Belvedere housed the former living quarters and the staterooms that today have been converted into museums. With art works from the Middle Ages and Baroque period
8) THE GRAND PALACE THAILAND
Date of Construction: 1782
Commissioned: The palace was built in the heart of Bangkok after King Rama I’s ascension to the throne. This served as his residence as well as administrative offices.
Architectural Style: It is made up of a complex of buildings in traditional Thai style arranged in an asymmetrical form. Additions have been added on to the original construction by successive reigning kings over its 200 years of history.
Special Features: To the north of the royal residence lies the Royal Monastery of the Emerald Buddha 9 Wat Phra Kew), making it one of the most venerated sites in Thailand. The Emerald Buddha is actually carved from a block of green jade and was discovered in 1434 in a stupa in Chiand Rai.
The upper terrace contains four main monuments including a reliquary in the shape of a golden chedi. Additionally there is a Mondop containing sacred scriptures inscribed on palm leaves and the Royal Pantheon in which statues of past rulers are enshrined.
Current Status: Thai kings lived in the palace for 150 years but by the turn of the twentieth century moved to another location. The palace however still hosts all kinds of ceremonial and auspicious occasions.
9) THE DOLMABACHE PALACE
Date of Construction: 1842- 1853
Commissioned: Sultan Abdulmecid ascended the throne in 1839 and wanted a palace-styled on the Parisian model. It was built during a period when the Ottoman Empire was already into its decline.
Architectural Style: The name Dolmabahce means “Filled up Garden”. The design and construction of this brilliant white marble palace were entrusted to the hardworking, Armenian Balyan family. It is a mix of traditional Ottoman architecture with elements of French Baroque, German Rococo and English Neoclassical styles and reflects the strong influence of European styles and standards. Located along the European shore of the Bosphorus, between the ports of Besiktas and Kabatas, the palace resembles a “ brilliantly white wedding cake besides the bright blue waters of the Bosphorus”
Special Features: The most outstanding feature of the palace is the beautiful crystal staircase with its gilt inlay , mahogany banister and rich carpets. The staircase is itself unusual in design, with the first section leading up to the landing from which it again descends giving access to the next part of the building.
It also houses the world’s largest Bohemian crystal chandelier in the ceremonial hall, a gift given by Queen Victoria with 750 lamps and weighing 4.5 tons.
Mustafa Kamal Atatturk spent his last days in the palace where for many years the clocks of the palace were stopped at the time of his death at 9; 05 am on November 10 1938.
Current Status: Once the Turkish Republic was founded, Ataturk stayed in one of the smaller rooms of the palace and used it to welcome his foreign guests, and it was also a center for national and international conferences. It was later converted into a museum and is one of the most popular tourist destinations of Turkey today.
10) WINTER PALACE
Date of Construction: 1754-1762
Commissioned: The original site housed an imperial residence built in wood in the Dutch style for Peter the Great and his family. This was replaced by a stone building in 1711, but it was not until 1731 when Empress Anna Ioannovna appointed the court architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli that the palace was increased in size. Another 17 years later, Empress Lizaveta Petrovna, once again asked Rastrelli to rebuild the palace in a new design. She died before the palace was completed, and it was then enjoyed by Catherine the Great and her successors.
Architectural Style: Naryshkin Baroque
Special Features: The Jordan Staircase is one of the few features retaining the original 18th-century architectural style. It was used by the imperial head in a ceremony to bless the waters of the Neva River.
Current Status: The State Hermitage Museum, founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great, is the largest Art gallery in Russia and one of the most renowned museums in the world containing over 2.7 million exhibits.The Winter Palace became an official part of the museum on 17th October 1917.