Imagine a castle: it probably looks a lot like Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle, the turreted inspiration for Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle.
Each year, more than 1.5 million travelers are inspired to make the steep walk or catch a horse-drawn carriage to reach this castle perched on a rocky outcropping in the Bavarian countryside.
“People have always been interested in celebrities and powerful people and their homes,” says Cordula Mauss, PR officer for the Bavarian Administration of State-Owned Palaces. “Immediately after the death of Ludwig II in 1886, the first tourists came and wanted to see what their king had built as his private residence.”
While castles, palaces, and châteaux naturally pique such curiosity, not all have Neuschwanstein’s European fairy-tale looks. Some of the world’s most-visited castles, found across Asia, feature red exteriors, pagodas, and gates.
Consider Bangkok’s gold-spired Grand Palace, where Thai kings lived for 150 years, and where 8 million annual visitors now traipse through ornate rooms, manicured gardens, and temples, including one that houses a revered Buddha carved from a single block of jade.
Other longtime royal residences have been repurposed as museums. St. Petersburg’s riverfront Winter Palace, for instance, is the sixth-most-visited castle, thanks to the appeal of masterworks by Titian and da Vinci along with lavish restored interiors, where Catherine the Great once held court.
America’s closest approximation is California’s Hearst Castle, though it fell short of our top 20 list with only 750,000 annual visitors. And while Windsor Castle squeaked in at No. 19, Buckingham Palace didn’t make the grade (567,613 annual visitors), nor did Romania’s Bran Castle (542,000) or a single Irish castle. Ireland’s most visited, Blarney Castle, welcomed 365,000 in 2013.
That said, there can be a downside to having too many visitors—these are delicate, historic structures that have existed for hundreds of years, and some, like Neuschwanstein, limit the daily entries. But it’s hard to stem curiosity when it comes to the lives of the blue-blooded.
As Mauss puts it: “Who didn’t want to be a prince or a princess or at least a knight when he or she was a child?”
The Methodology: To tally up the world’s most-visited castles, we gathered the most recent data supplied by the attractions themselves or from government agencies, industry reports, and reputable media outlets. In most cases, it was 2013 data.
Annual Visitors: 15,340,000
Each day, tens of thousands of visitors pour through the Forbidden City to see the 178-acre walled compound that once shielded the Imperial Palace from public view—while housing Chinese emperors and their extensive entourages. (To handle the volume, the government has started requiring advance ticket sales during festivals and holidays and prohibiting annual ticket holders from visiting during peak seasons.) Bright red buildings topped with golden pagodas exemplify traditional Chinese architecture, while the Palace Museum showcases art, furniture, and calligraphy.
Annual Visitors: 9,334,0000
The largest and most famous museum in the world—displaying masterpieces like La Gioconda (the Mona Lisa) and the Winged Victory of Samothrace—got its start as a palace. The U-shaped Louvre housed generations of French kings and emperors beginning in the 12th century, and the remnants of the original fortress that occupied the site (built for King Philippe II in 1190) can be seen in the basement of the museum. The building was extended and renovated many times. Head to the decorative arts wing for a glimpse of Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie’s opulent state apartments, built between 1854 and 1861.
Annual Visitors: 8,000,000
Royal offices are still used within the Grand Palace, and state visits and royal ceremonies like the Royal Birthday Anniversary of the current King Bhumibol Adulyadej are held there each year. This was also the official residence of Thai kings from 1782 to 1925 and counts numerous buildings, halls, and pavilions set around open lawns and manicured gardens. The palace’s Temple of the Emerald Buddha is considered one of the most sacred sites in Thailand. Its Buddha was carved from a single block of jade, and his garments, made of pure gold, are changed in a royal ceremony three times a year to reflect the Thai seasons.
Annual Visitors: 7,527,122
When Louis XIV built Versailles in the late 1600s, it became the envy of other European monarchs in Europe, and the opulent estate retains an unmistakable allure. Versailles gets seven times the visitors of any other château in France (apart from the Louvre); it helps that it’s easily accessible from Paris. No other palace in the world can match the grandeur of Versailles’s Hall of Mirrors, dripping with chandeliers, and Marie Antoinette’s bedroom, decorated with hand-stitched flowers. The vast grounds are free most days and an attraction in themselves, with 50 water fountains, a parterre (formal garden), a grand canal, and other sites like the Grand Trianon, built for Louis XIV as a refuge from court life, and Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon.
Annual Visitors: 3,335,000
With a lovely setting overlooking the Bosporus and Sea of Marmara, Topkapi Palace was the royal residence for about 400 years until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s. The sultan lived with his wives, concubines, mother, and children in the harem, under the fierce protection of eunuchs. Look for the Privy Chamber of Murat III, with its indoor pool, gilded fireplace, and walls decorated with blue, white, and coral Iznik tiles from the 16th century. The Palace Kitchens reopened in September 2014, displaying fine china and large cookware. And the complex also includes courtyards, gazebos, gardens, and the Imperial Treasury. An emerald-and diamond-studded bow and quivers sent by Sultan Mahmud I to the ruler of Persia is just one example of the lavish gifts on view.
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