What is the largest palace in the world?
You might think it should be an easy question – but it’s actually quite complicated. It depends on how you define it.
If you’re talking about the main building plus the ground, then the Palace of Versailles in France takes the title. But if you think the ground need to be enclosed within a wall, then it’s the Summer palace near Beijing in China that takes top spot.
Some people judge it by floor space. In that case, the Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest in Romania is the largest. If you restrict the floor space definition to ‘royal’ sites, then it’s the Royal Palace of Madrid in Spain.
So where does Caserta Palace near Naples in Italy fit into all of this?
It often claims to be the largest palace in the world – but by what definition?
Well, it turns out Caserta Palace is the largest in the world by volume. In other words, taking into account not just the floor space but the height as well.
The history of Caserta Palace
Arriving at Caserta Palace, the volume of the building is not immediately obvious. The facade is large – and prominent because of all the empty space in front of it – but it doesn’t give away the true size hidden behind.
It’s only when you go through the front gates that the scale is revealed. The palace is built like a grid with four outer wings and then two internal wings that cross in the middle, forming four enormous courtyards.
The size is no coincidence. Caserta Palace was built by the Bourbon Kings of Naples in the 18th century. At this point in history, the House of Bourbon – which ruled many of the great European powers over the centuries – had the wealth (and the ego) to build something this grand.
In 1752, construction began on Caserta Palace or King Charles VII of Naples. He had expressly asked for something that was modelled in the Palace of Versailles in France – only bigger!
Visiting the Royal Apartments at Castera Palace
Although the Palace of Versailles was used as inspiration, the general architecture is quite different and, if you looked at it from the outside, you wouldn’t see too much resemblance.
The similarities come in two main ways – the first of them being an interior designed to overwhelm.
To get into the Royal Apartments to see the inside of Caserta Palace, you first have to walk up an enormous flight of steps called the Grand Staircase of Honour. The amount of marble is astonishing, and it has large statues and a painted dome.
Although the staircase is considered to be one of the highlights of Caserta Palace, it is just an appetiser for the rest of the tour. As you go through, room by room, the opulence is disorienting.
There are the enormous antechambers with chandeliers and painted ceilings. You’ll then come through to the Throne Room, long and high, covered in gold, with the throne at the far end.
As you go through bedrooms and other private spaces, the rooms become smaller but no less ornately-decorated – there are gaudy light fittings, paintings, sculptures, stucco and frescoes.
It can take a while to walk through and see the Royal Apartments at Caserta Palace – although not quite as long as I expected. You see, the building has five floors and 1200 rooms! However, the section that is open to the public is only a fraction of that – about one quarter of one floor.
The Park at Caserta Palace
To see Caserta Palace properly, you also need to see the park – and it could easily take longer to explore than the main building. If you thought the palace was large, the park will really impress you with its size.
From the rear of the palace building, the park stretches out into the distance, a long line towards and then up a hill. From the palace to the end of the park is almost three kilometres long!
The first part of Caserta Park consists of large lawns with a thin forest on the edges. Statues are spaced around the edge, half-hidden in the foliage, looking inwards. If you were to venture along one of the paths into the forest, you’ll find a pond or small buildings.
The main element of the park follows the straight line that stretches outwards – a seemingly-limitless water feature. Water flows slowly down the long thin pools until it hits fountains or falls and cascades over into the next.
To explore it, you can walk (or jog) or hire a bicycle. There is also a bus that will take you to the far end (and back), if you prefer.
Is Castera like Versailles?
The park is the other way that Caserta is like Versailles. Because what the Bourbon Kings created here is more than just a royal palace. It’s effectively a new city.
The reason this site was chosen, 30 kilometres inland from Naples was intentional. It was designed to be away from the coast so it could not be attacked from the sea. And it was also to make it peaceful and efficient away from the political strife and chaos of Naples.
Around the palace a city was developed to accommodate the palace’s workers and all the bureaucracy of the government. Other industries were also moved here to give this new city its own economy, to help make it sustainable for the families that would call it home.
And so, much like Versailles, there was a new centre of power in the kingdom with its own army and commercial prospects, easier to defend and easier to rule from. It added yet another layer of grandeur to the palace.
Visiting Caserta Palace
One of the things that surprises me as I explore Caserta is why it is not more famous.
Sure, lots of tourists visit and it can get crowded in busy periods – but you won’t find anything like the queues at the Palace of Versailles. I also get the feeling that an average person may never have even heard of it… and the same can’t be said for its French counterpart.
If you’re planning to visit Caserta Palace, it’s an easy day trip from Naples with a direct train that stops right in front of the main entrance. I would suggest going a little later in the day to avoid the tour groups that tend to come first thing in the morning.
If you would like to skip the line and/or have a guide to tell you all about the palace’s fascinating history, I’ve got a few options for you here:
However you go, give yourself at least a few hours to wander through the Royal Apartments at your own leisure and then explore the park. The largest palace in the world (by volume, remember) deserves at least that!
The Royal Apartments are open from 08:30 - 19:30 with last admission at 19:00.
The park opens at 08:30 all year but closes at different times (with the last admission an hour before closing time).
In January, it closes at 16:00.
In February, it closes at 16:30.
In March, it closes at 17:00.
From April - September, it closes at 19:00.
In October, it closes at 17:30.
In November and December, it closes at 15:30.
You can also get admission for just the park, which is €8 for a regular ticket and €4 for concession.