You can even book a stay in an 800-year-old castle!
Beyond the tourist-soaked Versailles and Buckingham Palace, Europe is home to many spectacular-yet-comparatively unknown palaces and castles. They may not be embedded on the tourist trail, but each of these ancient structures is impressive and intriguing. From the pink German palace stained by scandal to the eerie Transylvanian castle built for a strongman, the remote Irish castle forged on blood, and the 500-year-old Italian palace that’s become a fashion showstopper, here are 10 of Europe’s most underappreciated castles and palaces.
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WHERE: Dusseldorf, Germany
Most European castles have reserved, classical exteriors, dominated by graystone facades. Then there’s Schloss Benrath in Dusseldorf, the flamingo pink masterpiece or monstrosity, depending on your taste. If the design of this 18th-century palace appears outrageous, wait until you hear the story of the man it was built for.
Lustful affairs, assassination plots, illegitimate children, and bizarre political moves—if Prince Charles Theodore lived today his constant controversies would dominate news cycles. He did, at least, leave behind this UNESCO-listed palace, which is a popular tourist attraction, photoshoot location, and wedding venue thanks to its gaudy Baroque architecture and rare color scheme. Visitors can venture inside or explore its enormous, lush, and meticulously-maintained grounds.
WHERE: Sinaia, Romania
About 13 miles west of Peles Castle, across the Transylvanian mountains, is the mythical home of the world’s most famous vampire. While Bran Castle’s links to Dracula are fictional, Peles is forever connected to a very real and very intimidating man. Set amid verdant forest in a delightful Alpine setting, Peles Castle was built over more than 40 years from the late 1870s as a getaway for Romania’s King Carol I. He led the country back to independence after long periods of foreign occupation.
Peles Castle was completed in 1914, the same year he died. So Carol I never properly savored the extraordinary mountain views, dark wood interior, cavernous armory, or majestic banquet rooms of this German New Renaissance-style building. Fortunately for visitors, all of this is on display during daily tours of this complex, about 90 minutes by train north of the Romanian capital of Bucharest. That spectacular rail journey is worth the trip alone.
WHERE: Perth, Scotland
Despite being central to the history of Scotland, Scone Palace is overshadowed in two major ways. Firstly, this 12th-century castle is dwarfed in famed by tourist magnet Edinburgh Castle. Secondly, the city in which it is based, Perth, is largely ignored by tourists in favor of nearby Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Yet Scone is drenched in history and easily accessible, with daily tours by a knowledgeable guide allowing visitors access to most of its halls, banquet rooms, and suites. Outside, in the palace’s sprawling gardens, is a replica of the Stone of Destiny. From the 13th to the 17th centuries, on this very spot, the original stone was where many British kings were coronated.
WHERE: Milan, Italy
Capital of Italy for many centuries and long home to some of the country’s most powerful dynasties, Milan has an unusually high number of ancient palaces. Many of these palazzos, as they are known locally, are not as hulking as Buckingham or Edinburgh castles, but are equally decadent.
That includes the elegant 16th-century Morando Palace, in downtown Milan, which was owned by a succession of elite Milanese families before being turned into an art gallery and museum. Now it is the venue for the city’s biggest public collection of fashion and costumes. Visitors can admire the ostentatious interior while perusing more than 5,000 pieces of historic clothing and costumes.
La Tour-de-Peilz Castle
WHERE: Montreux, Switzerland
Few castles in Europe own a more striking location than La Tour-de-Peilz Castle, which overlooks the pristine Lake Geneva in the shadows of the snow-draped Swiss Alps. With its whitewashed walls, terracotta tiled roof, and lofty tower, this castle for more than 700 years has been a symbol of Montreux, the small Swiss city famous for its annual jazz festival.
In its past lives, it was a fortress, a customs building, and a military lookout post across the lake. Nowadays it is the venue for a unique attraction, the Swiss Museum of Games. This surprisingly large museum traces the history of the human fascination with games. It exhibits thousands of card, board, and strategy games from centuries past up to recent decades, and which have been sourced from every single continent. There are also several spaces where visitors can try ancient games.
WHERE: Cong, Ireland
Tourists flock to the giant Irish castles of Kilkenny, Dublin, and Cashel, but when night falls they must leave. Not so at the magnificent Ashford Castle, which is widely considered one of Ireland’s most luxurious hotels. As well as getting the rare opportunity to stay in a sumptuous castle, which recently underwent a $75 million restoration, guests also get access to some unique activities.
They can choose from falconry, archery, fishing, kayaking, zip-lining, horse riding, clay target shooting, and hiking through the dense forest that encircles this 800-year-old castle, perched on the edge of beautiful Lake Corrib. Once owned by the family behind Ireland’s famous Guinness beer, this 350-acre estate for centuries previous to that was a stronghold for wealthy dynasties that fought bloody turf wars across the country.
WHERE: Antwerp, Belgium
Despite being more picturesque and authentic than Brussels, Belgium’s second-most-populous city, Antwerp, exists in the shadow of the European Union and national capital. Antwerp’s architecture is magnificent, from its array of heritage-listed buildings to the many avant-garde modern buildings that line its waterfront.
The oldest building along this same harbor is an 800-year-old medieval castle that once helped protect the city and is now a fine tourist attraction. Called Het Steen, this heavily-fortified structure is the last remaining piece of the old walled city of Antwerp. It is now more splendid than ever thanks to an extensive renovation, completed last year, which has refreshed its interior and exterior and improved facilities for tourists, including a Visitor’s Centre.
St James’ Palace
WHERE: London, England
Perhaps no city in the world has as many famous palaces as London. Two of the city’s key attractions are Buckingham Palace, which has been the official residence of Britain’s Royal family for almost 200 years, and nearby Kensington Palace, the long-time home of Princess Diana.
Just east of Buckingham Palace is the far smaller yet nonetheless impressive St. James’ Palace. This red brick, Tudor-style building, which dates back nearly 500 years, accommodates visiting dignitaries and hosts many Royal functions, particularly charity events.
WHERE: Paris, France
Despite being an undeniably gorgeous building, Luxembourg Palace can easily be missed by tourists enamored by its world-famous neighbors. Because alongside this 400-year-old marvel is the extraordinary Pantheon mausoleum and the impossibly-photogenic grounds of the renowned Sorbonne University.
Surrounded by the stunning Luxembourg Gardens, which are one of Paris’ shadiest and most peaceful green spaces, this colossal palace holds some remarkable tales. It began as a royal residence, became a giant prison, and was even used as a barracks by the Nazis during WWII. Now it is home to the French Senate. While the building is not open to tourists, its gardens are.
WHERE: Bologna, Italy
Italy is so laden with incredible cities and historic sites that many significant places fly under the radar. The stately metropolis of Bologna, for example, would be a renowned tourist attraction if not for having to compete for attention with the likes of Venice, Rome, Milan, and Florence.
The old town of Bologna is as pretty as any urban area in the country, thanks to sterling architecture like the Archiginnasio Palace. Built in the 1560s, this palace is centered around a dramatic courtyard surrounded by arcades decorated with intricate murals and exquisite stonework. Visitors can wander most of its hallways and inspect its exquisite library.