When it comes to planning a family vacation, Snow White's castle shouldn't be the only grand palace on your list. 500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up highlights 16 castles and mansions that you can plan a trip around. The six picks below -- filled with fictional and historic princes, scoundrels and leaders -- will stir the imaginations of children of all ages.
What: A Roman Emperor's Fantasy Hideaway
Who: Ages 6 & up
Where: Tivoli, Italy
In the 2nd century AD, globe-trotting Roman emperor Hadrian retired to one of the greatest estates ever built, in the resort town of Tibur (now Tivoli) about 28km (17 miles) east of Rome. Somewhat like that other compulsive collector William Randolph Hearst (see Hearst Castle), Hadrian had filled acre after acre with examples of the architectural wonders he'd encountered on his travels. A patron of the arts, a lover of beauty, and even something of an architect, Hadrian was creating much more than a villa: It was his own Xanadu, a self-contained world for his huge royal entourage and the hundreds of servants and guards they required to protect, feed, and bathe them, and satisfy their libidos.
Born in Spain, Hadrian was named emperor of Rome by his predecessor, Trajan, but even while in Rome, Hadrian preferred to retreat outside the city, accompanied by trusted cronies. Tivoli was ideal because its marble quarries could provide tons of travertine for columns, statues, and terraces, as well as water sources to feed the ornamental pools, fountains, canals, and baths artfully laid out around the grounds. Built for pleasure, the villa was a marvel of landscape design, with cunning perspectives and garden panoramas. Hadrian filled the palaces and temples with sculptures, some of which now rest in the museums of Rome.
In later centuries, barbarians, popes, and cardinals, as well as anyone who needed a slab of marble, carted off much that made the villa so spectacular. Still, enough remains for us to piece together the story. (For a glimpse of what the villa used to be, see the plastic reconstruction at the entrance.) The most outstanding remnant is the Canopus, a re-creation of the Egyptian town of Canope and its famous Temple of the Serapis. In the main residential palace, the rectangular ruins of Piazza d'Oro (The Golden Court) are surrounded by a double portico, and the Sala dei pilastri dorici (Doric Pillared Hall) still has pilasters with Doric bases and capitals holding up a Doric architrave. The ruins of the Baths reveal rectangular rooms with concave walls. Only the north wall remains of the Pecile, or Poikile, which Hadrian discovered in Athens and had reproduced here. Don't miss the Teatro Marittimo, the ruins of a circular maritime theater with a central building ringed by a canal spanned by small swing bridges. It'll take time to wander these vast grounds, but that's the point.
Location: Via di Villa Adriana (tel. 0774-530203).
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What: Prince Hamlet's Come Home
Who: Ages 8 & up
Where: Kronborg, Denmark
Scholars say there really was a Prince Hamlet of Denmark, and there really is a royal palace in Elsinore (Helsingør in Danish) -- the trouble is, that particular Hamlet lived a long time before this palace was built in 1574. Yes, the palace existed when Shakespeare wrote his great tragedy Hamlet, but he certainly never visited it. In typical Shakespeare fashion, he made the whole thing up. All the same, when you walk around the corridors of Kronborg Castle, full of secret passages and casemates, the brooding spirit of the Danish prince is undeniably present. No wonder so many famous productions of Hamlet have been performed here -- the castle is a born stage set. Once the kids have visited Elsinore, Shakespeare's greatest tragedy will be so much more to them than just words on a page.
Here, for example, looking out over the Øserund waters, above the battlements is a waterfront platform, backed by massive bronze guns -- exactly the spot where Hamlet would have seen the ghost of his father. Inside, the Ballroom (the largest hall in northern Europe) could have hosted the court banquet where Hamlet staged a cunning little play to "catch the conscience of the king"; down the corridor the Councillor's Hall is hung with seven rare tapestries, portraits of Danish kings, any of which snooping Polonius could have been hiding behind when Hamlet mistakenly ran him through with his sword.
A 50-minute train ride north from Copenhagen, the town of Helsingør has its own quiet medieval charm, with a handful of 15th-century churches worth a look. Kronborg Castle is less than a kilometer (about half a mile) from the train station, a steeply gabled sandstone pile set on a jutting peninsula guarding the strategic strait between Denmark and its rival Sweden. Cross the moat on a wooden bridge and circle around to the main courtyard, from which you can visit the royal apartments (the Danish Mari-time Museum also occupies some of the castle). Not much of its former splendor remains, but the spare rooms only add to Elsinore's bleak, austere personality. It doesn't matter if Shakespeare ever saw this place -- Kronborg Castle is Hamlet's Elsinore, from the tip of its dreaming spires to the bottom of its dank moat.
What: Going Batty at Count Dracula's Castle
Who: Ages 6 & up
Where: Bran, Romania
His name was Vlad Tepes -- Vlad the Impaler -- but this Romanian prince (1431Â?76) often signed his name "Dracul," or the Devil, no doubt to unnerve his enemies. Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula wasn't really based on Vlad Tepes: No matter how vicious Vlad was, no one ever accused him of being a vampire. Still, the creepy association clings to this castle in the heart of the Carpathian Mountains. This Gothic stronghold on a rocky outcrop in the Romanian village of Bran is full of secret passageways, hidden courtyards, overhanging balconies, and steep stone staircases where -- you never know -- a vampire just might lurk after all.
Bran Castle is a stop on every package tour of Romania, and a cluster of souvenir stands in the village below push the Dracula connection a bit too hard. Historians are quite clear on one point: Vlad Tepes never owned Bran Castle. His grandfather was born here, and Vlad hid out here in 1462 while fleeing the Turks, but only briefly. In those turbulent years, the ruthless warrior Vlad -- a Wallachian king, not a Transylvanian count -- was one of the Hungarian empire's best hopes for driving out the hated Turk invaders; he was a national hero, not a reviled bloodsucker. (All right, Vlad liked to behead mice, was fond of bats, and tortured his prisoners by impaling them on a spear, but nobody's perfect.)
This fortress was a defensive stronghold, not a royal residence, as you can see from its thick double walls and impregnable-looking gate tower. Guarding the strategic pass between Wallachia and Transylvania, it was fortified specifically to protect the trading city of Brasov, 28km (17 miles) northeast, from the Turks. The castle itself, mostly built in the late 14th century, with its white-plastered stone buildings, four fairy-tale turrets, and jaunty red tile roofs looks more Heidi than Dracula, but be wary -- that fountain in the half-timbered inner courtyard leads to an underground labyrinth of secret passages, perfect for clandestine escapes.
Inside, the furnishings reflect another, more recent, resident: the enormously popular Queen Marie of Romania, who made it her summer home from 1920 to 1938. Some of her vast art collection is displayed in the castle's clean and cozy-looking interiors. The most arresting object in the castle to me is the elaborately carved 18th-century bedstead in her bedroom, its wood stained almost black over the centuries -- a bed you can almost imagine Count Dracula occupying.
What: The Forbidden City
Who: Ages 8 & up
Where: Beijing, China
The most spectacular palace in China, Gu Gong (to give it its Chinese name), is truly something to see, an immense layout of red-walled buildings topped with glazed vermilion tile and ringed by a vast moat. It was home to 24 emperors over half a millennium, from 1420 to 1923. Although many parts may be closed when you visit, thanks to a massive renovation lasting through 2020, there's more than enough left to explore. It isn't any one structure you've come to see, it's the scale and harmony of the whole, an irrefutable statement of Chinese imperial might.
An army of workers began construction in 1406, taking only 14 years to complete the complex. Given various ransackings and fires, though, most of what we see today was built in the Qing dynasty (1626Â?1912) rather than the earlier Ming era. Point out to the kids the blue and green tiles trimming several of the up-curled roofs -- the Qings were Manchus, and it's said this color reminded them of their native grasslands.
You enter through the Meridian Gate, but before you go farther, check out the largest gate, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, where Mao Tse Tung made his dramatic announcement founding the People's Republic in October 1949. You can't miss it -- it's the gate with the giant portrait of Mao hanging above the central door, flanked by sonorous inscriptions. The Gate of Supreme Harmony leads into the perfectly symmetrical outer court, with its three grand ceremonial halls, where the emperor conducted official business. Just as Islamic temples always face toward Mecca, in the Imperial City most major halls open to the south, the direction associated with imperial rule.
It's the inner court -- the emperor's private residence -- that makes this truly the Forbidden City, for only the imperial family (which included concubines and as many as 1,500 eunuchs) were allowed here. Three palaces, mirroring the three halls in the outer court, are set in the inner court, and at its rear is a marvelous garden of ancient conifers, rockeries, and pavilions, an oasis largely unchanged since the Ming era.
If you really want the kids to get the point of the Forbidden City, though, go beyond the central axis, where all the tourists mass; explore the quieter maze of pavilions, gardens, courtyards, and theaters on the eastern side. (You have to giggle at the useless over-shoe slippers you're required to buy along with this section's extra admission fee.) The Hall of Clocks (Zhongbiao Guan) is worth tracking down, as is the Zhen Fei Jing (Well of the Pearl Concubine), a narrow hole covered by a large circle of stone. Here, a 25-year-old favorite was stuffed down the well as the imperial family fled the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion; she'd dared to suggest that the emperor stay to face the mobs, since he'd supported the Boxers in the first place. Defying the emperor? Not a good idea.
What: Versailles: Palace of the Sun King
Who: Ages 8 & up
Where: Versailles, France
When your nickname is the Sun King, you need a resplendent palace to live up to your image, and Louis XIV of France sought just that in 1661 when he undertook renovations on his father's hunting lodge at Versailles. It took 50 years, but the end result was a royal residence so fabulous that its very name has become synonymous with luxury living. Yes, it's good to be the king.
Under Louis XIV and his equally extravagant great-grandson Louis XV, Versailles typically hosted some 3,000 courtiers and their retinues at a time. Given the constant entertainment and lavish banquets, few turned down the chance to join the glittering throng -- to gossip, dance, plot, and flirt away while the peasants on their estates sowed the seeds of the Revolution. It all caught up with the next monarchs, well-intentioned but weak Louis XVI and his frivolous queen, Marie Antoinette, who were eating cake at Versailles on October 6, 1789, when they learned that citizen mobs were converging on the palace. Versailles became a museum under Louis-Philippe (1830Â?48) and has remained so ever since.
Visitors can tour the State Apartments, loaded with ornate furniture, paintings, tapestries, vases, chandeliers, and sculpture; it seems as if every inch on every wall has been gilded or plastered in some baroque design. The most dazzling room -- a long arcade called the Hall of Mirrors, with windows along one wall and 357 beveled mirrors along the other -- is where the Treaty of Versailles, officially ending World War I, was signed in 1919. In the Queen's Apartments, Marie Antoinette played the harpsichord for guests; in the Clock Room, 7-year-old Mozart performed for the court; and the gold-and-white Royal Chapel is where Louis XVI married Marie Antoinette in 1770. You won't visit all 700 rooms in the palace, but you'll glimpse a Dangerous Liaisons-type lifestyle of wealth, power, and decadence.
The Gardens of Versailles are the ultimate in French formal garden design, with geometrical flower beds, terraces, pools, topiary, statuary, lakes, and canals. The kids will enjoy these vast gardens even more if you time your visit to coincide with the summer spectacles -- weekend daytime programs where classical music is piped in and all 50 fountains are turned on full blast, or nighttime shows of illuminated fountains, fireworks, and costumed actors portraying Louis XVI and his court. Call 01-30-83-78-88 for information.
A walk across the park will take you to two outlying residences: the pink-and-white-marble Grand Trianon, still used today as a VIP lodging, and the Petit Trianon, where Louis XV held trysts with Mme du Barry. The Queen's Hamlet, nearby, is a rustic set of half-timbered buildings where Marie Antoinette and her chums dressed like shepherdesses and lived "humbly."
What: Topkapi Palace: Relaxing with the Sultans in Istanbul
Who: Ages 8 & up
Where: Istanbul, Turkey
Nothing says "lap of luxury" like magnificent Topkapi Palace, built in the 1450s by Mehmet the Conqueror on Istanbul's best real estate, at the tip of a peninsula commanding the Bosporus Strait. For almost 400 years, Ottoman sultans reigned here over their legendary empire. It's an exotic marvel of brilliant-colored ceramic tiles, inlaid ivory, and ornate friezes and mosaics -- but it's the elements of cruelty, lust, and political intrigue that will fascinate the kids.
As you enter through the Gate of Augustus (aka the Bab-i Hümayün Gate), look up to see where the decapitated heads of uncooperative officials or rebels were displayed as a public warning. The first courtyard, the Court of the Janissaries, is a shady public garden; just inside is the Istanbul Archaeology Museum (a bore for most kids). Only the sultan could pass through the Gate of Salutation, flanked by two octagonal prison towers; after beheadings, the executioner washed the blood off his hands in the fountain to the right.
In the second courtyard, you'll see the enormous Palace Kitchens, where more than 1,000 servants worked day and night to serve 5,000 residents (the palace's amazing porcelain collection is on display here now), and the Imperial Armory, featuring the swords of Mehmet the Conqueror and Süleyman the Magnificent. The sultan's private quarters began past the Gate of Felicity (decapitated heads were impaled above this gate as well). Within that gate, the Palace Clothing Exhibition shows off the sultan's absurdly baggy costumes of silk, brocade, and gold-threaded fabrics, while the Treasury displays the awesome spoils of 400 years of Ottoman rule. In room no. 1, check out the priceless ceremonial thrones; room no. 4 holds the Treasury's pièce de résistance, the famous Topkapi Dagger, as well as the 86-carat Kaşik&dcedil;i Diamond. At the far corner of the third courtyard is the always-crowded Holy Relic Section. It contains the first copy of the Koran, personal belongings of the Prophet Mohammed, and even the staff of Moses.
You'll need a separate admission ticket for a half-hour tour of the Harem (buy them near the Carriage Gate in the second courtyard). It may sound sexy and lurid -- the word harem is Arabic for "forbidden" -- but these living quarters were really a deluxe prison. There are three main sections: the cell-like quarters of the Black Eunuchs, the Harem's guards; the claustrophobic inner courtyard where up to 800 concubines lived in cramped cubicles; and, in stark contrast, the lavish seaview apartments reserved for the sultan, his mother, favorite concubines, and heirs to the throne. And, oh yeah, don't miss the Golden Cage, where brothers of the sultan were kept under house arrest so they wouldn't take over the throne. Those sultans, they took no chances.
Location: At the end of Babuhümayun Cad., Sultanahmet (tel. 0212/512-0480)
Read more about Topkapi Palace
This article is an excerpt from 500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up, available in our Online Bookstore now. Author Holly Hughes has traveled the globe as an editor and writer -- she's the former executive editor of Fodor's Travel Publications, the series editor of Frommer's Irreverent Guides, and author of Frommer's New York City with Kids. She's also written fiction for middle graders and edits the annual Best Food Writing anthology. New York City makes a convenient jumping-off place for her travels with her three children and husband.
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