Gone are the days of kings and queens ruling the populace from on high (in most of the world, anyway). But while many monarchs have fallen, their palaces remain as permanent -- and beautiful -- testaments to their rulers' transient power. From the fairy-tale spires of German castles to the delicate wooden eaves of Japanese feudal strongholds, these royal dwellings have prevailed long after their original residents abandoned them. For those looking for the prettiest of them all, we've rounded up 10 inspiring castles that captivate travelers with their stunning architecture and fascinating royal histories.
[In Pictures: World's Prettiest Castles]
Château de Versailles
When French King Louis XIII originally established Château de Versailles in 1631, it was just a hunting lodge situated about 15 miles west of Paris. It was his son, King Louis XIV, who expanded Versailles into a sprawling palace complex between 1661 and 1710. Each king who lived at Versailles added his own personal touch to the palace. In the 1670s, Louis XIV installed the resplendent Hall of Mirrors, with its intricate glasswork and chandeliers. And in 1774, Louis XVI gifted his wife Marie Antoinette an expansive private estate, tucked away in Versailles' lush gardens. The French monarchy remained at Versailles until 1789, when an uprising connected to the French Revolution forced the regents to flee to Paris. In the years that followed the Revolution, Versailles served many purposes, acting as a lavish retreat for Napoleon Bonaparte, a French history museum (opened by King Louis-Philippe in 1837) and the staging ground for the Treaty of Versailles. Today, the palace is one of France's top tourist sites, luring millions of visitors each year.
Built in 1504 during the Sengoku (Japan's civil war period), Matsumoto Castle was originally designed as a small fortress. It wasn't until Japan's unification under the Tokugawa shogunate in the early 17th century that Matsumoto Castle was refashioned into the three-turreted structure we see today. Matsumoto was built to withstand enemy attack, but by the time it was assembled around 1595, Japan's wars were drawing to a close. Matsumoto was never attacked, which is probably why its 95-foot-tall tower is Japan's longest-standing inner tower. Visitors to Matsumoto -- which sits about 44 miles southwest of Nagano in central Japan -- can marvel at the castle's black walls and swooping, tiered eaves that earned it the nickname Crow Castle (Karasu-jo in Japanese). Plus, a peek out the fifth- or sixth-floor windows affords sweeping vistas of the surrounding mountains. Meanwhile, the landscaped grounds below burst with gorgeous cherry, azalea and wisteria blossoms in the spring.
When he commissioned this architectural wonder for his wife, Catherine I, in 1717, Russian Tsar Peter the Great envisioned Catherine Palace to be a modest, two-story affair. However, visitors to this enormous blue, white and gold structure in Pushkin (situated about 20 miles south of St. Petersburg) will tell you there is nothing modest about it. That's because Peter's daughter, Empress Elizabeth of Russia, had the entire palace redesigned in 1743 in an effort to create a structure extravagant enough to rival Versailles. The result: a 1,066-foot-long Rococo-style fortress featuring a stucco facade gilded with more than 220 pounds of gold. The palace's interior is just as grand. Its Great Hall, or Hall of Light, comprises nearly 10,764 square feet. Meanwhile, the palace's famous Amber Room that was once adorned with nearly 12,000 pounds of amber gems. When Empress Elizabeth's niece, Catherine II (Catherine the Great), ascended the Russian throne in 1762, she remodeled the palace once again. Catherine found her aunt's tastes to be outdated, referring to the palace's showy flourishes as "whipped cream." Catherine II implemented the less-gaudy Classical style, which is best exhibited in the symmetrical lines of the Green Dining Room and the Blue Drawing Room.
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Commissioned in 1868, Neuschwanstein Castle was built to serve as German King Ludwig II's secluded Bavarian retreat. However, on the eve of the king's mysterious death nearly 18 years after the first brick of his domicile was laid, the mountaintop castle was far from completion -- much of it was still shrouded in scaffolding. Construction on Neuschwanstein continued until 1892, though the architect simplified many of Ludwig's more ambitious designs. But the castle is far from simplistic: The Romanesque Revival spires and turrets seem as though they were lifted directly from a fairy tale. (In fact, Neuschwanstein inspired Sleeping Beauty's Castle at Disneyland.) Nowadays, Neuschwanstein Castle welcomes 1.4 million visitors a year, many of whom make the roughly 75-mile drive southwest from Munich to wander its halls.
From its perch atop al-Sabika hill in Granada (about 260 miles south of Madrid), the Alhambra served as an ideal military fortress thanks to its isolated location and coveted views of the surrounding area. The palace didn't become a true royal residence until Muhammed I, the first sultan of the Nasrid Dynasty, arrived in the 13th century. As new sultans came and went, the Alhambra continued to grow. Yusuf I built the Justice Tower in 1348 to serve as the castle's grand arched gateway. Yusuf's successor, Muhammed V, commissioned the Patio of the Lions, which is still famed today for its lion-shaped fountain and Islamic architecture. However, Muslim rule in southern Spain faded quickly. In 1492, Sultan Muhammed XII surrendered the Alhambra to Spanish King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor (and Ferdinand and Isabella's grandson), began a renovation of the Alhambra in 1527. But the older designs still shine through, especially in the Hall of the Moors with its carved ceiling and elegant cupola.
In 1799, Indian Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh had the Hawa Mahal built in Jaipur so that the women in his court could have a clandestine spot to admire the festivities in the market square below. (In those days, royal Indian women observed Purdah, which forbade them from going out in public or being seen by strangers.) The red and pink-hued sandstone edifice's name translates to "The Palace of the Winds," which refers to the westward breezes that blow across the 593 windows gracing the palace's latticed facade. Today, the palace isn't restricted to royal ladies: Tourists can peer through the palace's famous windows, soak up the breathtaking views of the city from the top and explore the small royal museum within. However, the best views of the palace are still from street level -- sunrise bathes the front wall of the palace in golden light from the rising sun, so plan on arriving early if you're looking to capture stunning photos.
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San Simeon, Calif.
Beginning in 1919, newspaper and publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst began laying the groundwork for his dream home atop a hill in San Simeon, Calif. (about 100 miles south of Monterey). Although it was never officially completed (Hearst had to leave the property in 1947 because of health problems), the Hearst Castle stands as a 165-room icon of American entrepreneurship and wealth. The mansion -- and its three spacious adjacent "cottages" -- served as Hearst's playground, where he entertained numerous members of the Hollywood elite, among other guests. The state of California now owns the property, and visitors to San Simeon can take daily tours. "Cottage & Kitchen" tours cover Hearst's two outdoor swimming pools, tickets to Hearst Castle Theater and a viewing of Hearst's enormous wine cellar. Visitors can also learn about the mélange of architecture styles the mansion features, including Spanish, Italian, Moorish and French detailing. And art history buffs will want to check out the Hearst Castle's collection of fine art, which includes Antonio Canova's The Three Graces statue and a marble sarcophagus depicting the nine muses that dates back to the 3rd century A.D.
When King Rama I seized power of Siam in 1782, he set to work building a palace in central Bangkok that would serve as the official residence of Chakri Dynasty kings. Although the current King Rama IX no longer lives here (and all government offices moved elsewhere after the Siamese Revolution of 1932), the Grand Palace still stands as one of Bangkok's most visited -- and most picturesque -- landmarks. Visitors to the Grand Palace can snap photos of the glittering gold spires and other impressive gilded structures. Perhaps the most remarkable feature is Wat Phra Kaew, or the Emerald Buddha Temple, which is named for the green Buddha statue on top of its gold altar (though the Buddha is actually made of jadeite, not emeralds). Further along, visitors will see Rama I's library with its mother-of-pearl doors and the Buddhist texts within. And throughout the tour, you'll notice an eclectic mix of architecture and building techniques, including Asian styles like Ayutthaya, Sri Lankan and Thai, as well as Western influences from England, Italy and France.
Château de Chambord
The elaborate Château de Chambord, located in the French countryside about 111 miles south of Paris, was never designed for sensible living. The heating and upkeep of the castle alone was so arduous that the French royal family only spent summers and short retreats here; the structure and grounds were used mainly for hunting and entertainment purposes. What Château de Chambord lacks in practicality, though, it makes up for in stunning architecture. King François I began building the Château in 1519; the palace features a magnificent -- and baffling -- double spiral staircase, which allows one person to ascend and another to descend without meeting each other on the way. (Some speculate that the Château and its staircase were designed by Leonardo da Vinci, who was under the king's patronage at the time). Outside, Château de Chambord's roof is a marvel in itself, with intricate turrets and cupolas reminiscent of an Italian city skyline. While visitors today can behold Château de Chambord's architectural wonders, textile lovers might be disappointed; all of the palace's original furniture was stolen during the French Revolution.
Although built in the Norman style (a combination of Romanesque and Gothic architecture from the 12th century), Washington D.C.'s Smithsonian Castle was finished as recently as 1855. The sandstone building became the foundation of the Smithsonian Institution's museums, of which there are now 20 around D.C. and in New York (including the National Zoo). But back in 1855, the castle stood alone on a plot of downtown D.C. earth that was to become the National Mall. The castle's east wing housed Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian, along with his wife and three daughters. And since none of the Smithsonian museums had been constructed yet, the Smithsonian's collections also called the castle home. It wasn't until 1881, with the erection of the U.S. National Museum (now called the Arts and Industries Building) next-door, that the Smithsonian's arts and sciences collections began to expand. Today, the castle accommodates the Smithsonian Institution's administrative offices -- but the castle's bureaucratic status doesn't make it any less beautiful. Those traveling to Washington, D.C. can admire the Smithsonian Castle's red towers, turrets and arches from the National Mall. Venture inside to see the castle's tall windows and skylights in action, flooding the lecture halls and galleries with ample natural light.
[In Pictures: World's Prettiest Castles]
-- Risa Seidman