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World's greatest palaces

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, United Kingdom
Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, United KingdomGetty
/ Source: Forbes

To quote Mel Brooks, it's good to be the king. Or a duke, prince, nawab, Graf or tsarina, for that matter. And real estate is a big part of the reason.

Regardless of the continent, civilization or era, one common rule seems to apply: The higher up the food chain one gets, the bigger their digs. And since kings occupy the very highest rungs, it only makes sense that they live in the very biggest homes.

Although there are few monarchies left these days, and almost none that hold more than titular power, the world is still scattered with their royal palaces. Thanks to war, revolution and social change, many of these have become museums, monuments or even grand hotels; but their size and grandeur remains undiminished. To many people, however, they are symbols of oppression, physical proof of the greed and vanity of kings, paid for by an overtaxed populace who more often than not lived in squalor. To others, these palaces are the embodiment of majesty, a manifestation of a nation's glory and a mirror of its magnificence.

But to most of us, they are just tourist attractions.

And yet, it is practically impossible for anyone finding themselves admiring the Crystal Staircase in Istanbul's Dolmabahçe Palace or wandering through the State Rooms in Buckingham Palace to not briefly fantasize what it would be like to actually live there. How would it feel to be not only the owner of this vast palace but, essentially, of the whole country--a person with the wealth and power to command armies, control lives, alter history?

While many people may actually find such a daydream daunting or distasteful, the world is full of people who, consciously or subconsciously, dedicate their lives to making it a reality. The world's richest people frequently build themselves oversized homes that reflect not only their net worth but also their egos. Often they will even build homes that rival, if not surpass, that of the king. Sometimes, that can backfire, though. Nicholas Fouquet, Louis XIV's finance minister, built himself a château at Vaux-le-vicomte that outshone the Sun King's own residence. In retaliation, Louis sent Fouquet to prison and commenced building a new palace at Versailles, using many of the same architects and designers, that has become synonymous with royal ostentation.

On a lesser scale, aspirational members of any affluent society will attempt to incorporate regal design cues in their own homes. Take a tour of any upscale suburb around the world, and it is not difficult to notice the many mansions that incorporate elements of royal design. A neo-Palladian façade here, a classical pediment there, size no object.

Moreover, from casinos to coffee shops, business owners employ the word "palace" to dignify their establishments. Similarly, public structures around the world, such as Grand Central Station in New York City and Harrods department store in London, echo the enormity of scale and design that made the palace distinctive. And the first thing most revolutionaries do following a successful coup, more than not in the name of the "people," is to move right into the recently vacated royal residence. In short, the desire to be king--or to at least enjoy the trappings--is universal and touches upon a very human need to elevate oneself above the common herd.

"In the history of architecture, the princely or communal palace was the major building form," says George Gorse, professor of art history at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. "To paraphrase Machiavelli, the palace was 'the state within the state'--a center of family power and patronage. The palace represented the hierarchy of building types through the Renaissance and Baroque periods," he continues.

To preserve as much of the world's royal past as possible, the Paris, France-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has designated many international palaces World Heritage Sites, immune from development or destruction, such as Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna. In other cases, such as Rambagh Palace in Jaipur, the ruling family has agreed to make the palace available to the public as a hotel, so that everyone can live like a maharajah, if only for a weekend. At Blenheim Palace in Britain, even though the Duke of Marlborough still lives there, it is possible to rent out certain rooms for special events.

So, whether you are closet monarchist, an architecture buff or just want to feel like a king or queen for the day, has compiled a list of the World's Greatest Palaces. Many of them, such as Buckingham Palace and Versailles, are famous. Others, like Lhasa's Potala Palace or Palace Hotel do Buçaco in Buçaco, Portugal, are less known. All are quite beautiful, rich in history and detail and very, very expensive to heat. But best of all, if you plan ahead accordingly, they are all open to the public. You'll leave with no doubt that it is, in fact, very, very good to be the king.