With Asia being the birthplace of the world’s major religions and the home to some of the oldest cultures, exploring its palaces and castles can be such an adventure.
Each country has its own culture, tradition and history, influencing its architecture and engineering.
So time to call on your magic carpet, or just book your plane tickets, and check out these magical palaces and castles in Asia!
1. Potala Palace (Tibet)
This Asian palace will make you feel like you are on top of the world!
Constructed at an altitude of 3,700 metres at the top of Red Mountain in Lhasa Valley, the Potala Palace in Tibet is considered the world’s highest palace.
The palace was initially commissioned in 641 but was damaged by war. It was rebuilt in the 17th century to be a winter residence for the Dalai Lamas until 1959.
There are two sections: the White Palace, the Dalai Lama’s living quarters, with halls and courtyards and the Red Palace, which is for worship.
It was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994 and is one of the most sacred sanctums of Buddhism. The Potala Palace houses scrolls, murals, statues and tombs of eight Dalai Lamas.
2. The Forbidden City (China)
The Forbidden City is one of the largest palaces in Asia and probably in the world. The whole compound covers an astounding area of 720,000 square metres or 180 acres and 980 buildings.
UNESCO called this the “seat of supreme power” for nearly 500 years of the Ming and Qing Dynasties and was the home to 24 emperors. Ordinary citizens do not have access to the palace, hence its name.
4 gates, 10-metre-high walls and a 52-metre-wide moat helped protect this Imperial Palace. There were even legends about the palace having 9,999.5 rooms. Yes, a half room, to defer to the God of Heaven, who was said to have 10,000 rooms in his palace.
The Forbidden City is listed on the Guinness World Records as the most-visited palace, with 17 million visitors recorded in 2018. There was even a time when they had to limit the visitors to 80,000 per day.
3. Summer Palace (China)
A visit to China’s capital would not be complete without a glimpse of the well-preserved Summer Palace!
First completed in 1750, it was rebuilt in 1886 and renamed the Garden of Health and Harmony or the Summer Palace for their Empress Dowager.
A World Heritage Site since 1998, this Imperial Garden was described by UNESCO to be a “masterpiece of Chinese landscape and garden design.”
This Asian palace has several scenic spots and will take a few hours of walking and exploring. There are the halls and pavilions, the Longevity Hill, the Seventeen-Arch Bridge and Kunming Lake.
Visiting the Summer Palace during winter is also an amazing experience as Kunming Lake turns into an ice wonderland! Channel your inner Elsa as you step onto the frozen lake and do some skating or sledding.
4. Gyeongbokgung Palace (South Korea)
The Gyeongbokgung Palace was built at the heart of Seoul. First completed in 1395, this was then the royal family’s residence and the location of major government offices.
Stroll through the palace gates and grounds, reimagine history at the Throne Hall, and enjoy the picturesque view of the Gyeonghoeru Pavilion. The National Palace Museum and National Folk Museum are also in the vicinity.
Be at the Gwanghwamun gate at 10:00 am or 2:00 pm (except Tuesdays) for the Changing of the Royal Guards Ceremony. Men in royal uniforms and carrying flags, traditional instruments and weapons recreate a time-honoured protocol by marching down the streets to the main palace gate.
And here’s another thing I discovered during a visit to the palace. Palace visitors are given the chance to wear different royal guard uniforms… free of charge!
This costume booth is located right by the main gate and opens about 15 minutes before and after the changing of guards ceremony. They are quite strict about the time and the allowed slots, so make sure not to miss it.
5. Changdeokgung Palace (South Korea)
The Changdeokgung Palace, constructed in 1405, is said to be the most well-preserved of all the Joseon Dynasty palaces.
Changdeokgung became the main palace of the dynasty for 270 years, when all palaces, including Gyeongbokgung, were destroyed during the Japanese invasion. It served as the residence and court of 13 kings.
The palace compound measures 462,000 square metres, with its Rear Garden, or the Secret Garden covering two-thirds of the total area.
Visit the Secret Garden in autumn to enjoy the stunning foliage and colours! 56,000 tree and plant species can be found in the garden, along with lawns, halls, pavilions and a lotus pool.
6. Himeji Castle (Japan)
Located in Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, the Himeji-jo is one of Japan’s 12 remaining original castles and is on the country’s list of National Treasures. This Asian castle was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list in 1993.
This 107-hectare area houses 82 buildings, including the six-storey main keep.
More than 600 years of history are packed within its castle walls. Despite its aesthetic white exterior and wooden interior, it was originally built as a fortification structure in the 1400s.
Schedule your visit during the sakura season to see the blossoms from the 1,000 cherry trees on the castle grounds.
A few minutes from the castle is Koko-en, or the Himeji Castle Garden. It has nine traditional gardens separated by mud walls, designed in various styles from the Edo Period.
7. Matsue Castle (Japan)
Shimane Prefecture’s Matsue Castle is also a National Treasure of Japan and one of its 12 surviving original castles.
Also known as the Plover Castle, it is renowned for its black exterior and pediments, which are likened to the wings of a plover bird.
Head to the top floor for a breathtaking 360-degree view of the town and a glimpse of Lake Shinji.
Visitors can also walk around Jozan Park. It is free of charge and provides access to the castle’s stone walls, moats and even a great spot for cherry blossom viewing.
Three shrines were also built within the castle grounds, and the Kounkaku, a Western-style mansion constructed in 1903 for the Meiji Emperor.
8. Shuri Castle (Japan)
Okinawa’s Shuri Castle is best remembered for its red-coloured main hall.
But more than just an architectural masterpiece, the Shurijo had a more official function, as the Ryukyu Kingdom’s administrative and cultural centre for 450 years.
There are three areas within the castle grounds: the royal residence, an administrative section which includes the Seiden main hall, and an area for ceremonies, rituals and prayers.
This was the fifth time the castle burned down: three times within the Ryukyu Kingdom rule and during World War II. It was opened to the public in 1992 after it was restored.
Plans are being made to reconstruct the Shuri Castle after the fire, with the goal to complete the rebuilt structure by 2026.
9. Bang Pa-In Palace (Thailand)
Bang Pa-In Palace in Ayutthaya, located 60 kilometres north of Bangkok, was the summer retreat place of the royals back in the 17th century.
Buildings in the compound adhere to a mix of Thai, Chinese and European themes. The Thai-styled floating pavilion, Aisawan Thiphya, is located in the middle of the ornamental pond and is called the “Divine Seat of Personal Freedom.”
Only certain areas of the palace are open to the public, while the buildings used by the royals for state events and receptions are restricted.
Thai palaces are very strict about following a dress code. Shorts, skirts and sleeveless tops are not allowed for both men and women.
But in case you’ll come in such attire as I did, you will be asked to rent a scarf or shawl to cover your arms or legs.
10. Grand Palace (Thailand)
The Grand Palace is Bangkok’s main tourist attraction and pilgrimage destination for Buddhists.
The palace was established in 1782 as the residence of Kings Rama I to Rama V of the Rattanakosin Kingdom. It was also the site of the administrative offices of these kingdoms.
The compound is divided into two areas, the royal residence and the temple of the Emerald Buddha.
The Emerald Buddha is the most revered image of Buddha in the country. It is adorned with three costumes depending on the season: summer, rainy and winter.
Several Buddist buildings were constructed, including chapels, pavilions, a library, and the eye-catching golden stupa, which holds relics of the Lord Buddha.
11. Royal Palace (Cambodia)
The Royal Palace is one of Cambodia’s most significant structures and is notable for its gleaming gold, yellow and white motif.
It was first built in 1866 by His Majesty Preah Bat Norodom, the King’s great grandfather.
The palace is the royal residence and houses the most revered symbol in Cambodia, the sacred white elephant.
Other important structures within the complex include the Royal Treasury, the Napoleon III Villa, and the Royal Throne Hall, which has a 59-metre-tall tower and flooring made from 500 solid blocks of silver.
There is also the Silver Pagoda which contains the 17th-century emerald Buddha statue. The statue weighs about 90 kilograms, is made of Baccarat crystal and solid gold and is adorned with 9,584 diamonds.
12. Mandalay Royal Palace (Myanmar)
The Mandalay Royal Palace is one of Myanmar’s most majestic structures, with its distinct reddish-brown teak wood and gold theme. It was built in 1857 to be the royal residence and seat of the government.
It was built at the bottom of Mandalay Hill, which according to legends, was the sacred hill Buddha had put his feet on.
The Mandalay Royal Palace was the last palace established by Burmese royalty as the British troops took over in 1885, turning the palace into Fort Dufferin. But the compound was bombed during World War II and was only rebuilt during the 1990s.
The palace has 48 turrets, 12 gates representing all zodiac signs, 4 bridges corresponding to the 4 weeks per month, and a 64-metre wide and 4.5-metre deep moat.
The complex is also home to audience halls, throne halls, a monastery, a court building, and the prominent 24-metre-high watch tower, topped by a seven-tiered golden Pyatthat roof.
11. Istana Nurul Iman (Brunei)
The palace covers an area of 200,000 square metres, with 1,788 rooms, more than 250 bathrooms, 44 marble staircases, 5 swimming pools, a mosque for up to 1,500 people and a banquet hall enough for 5,000 guests.
Air-conditioned stables for 200 horses and an underground garage for 110 cars are also within the palace. Gold domes and minarets also make this massive structure even more eye-catching.
Not amazed enough yet? 38 kinds of marble were used, along with granite from Shanghai, English glass and Chinese silk. Windows and doors are decorated with tiles made of pure gold. Now that is truly shining, shimmering splendid!
The exterior was designed by Filipino architect Leandro Locsin, while its interior was by Khuan Chew, who worked on the Burj Al Arab in Dubai.
The palace is only open to the public for three days a year. The Sultan, or his wife, may even personally welcome each guest.
14. Pagaruyung Palace (Indonesia)
The Pagaruyung Palace is one of the main tourist attractions in West Sumatra, Indonesia.
The original istana was built during the fourteenth century at the peak of Batu Patah Hill. However, it burned down in 1804. The palace was reconstructed twice, in 1966 and 2007.
The modern-day palace is a faithful reconstruction, with 3 stories, 72 pillars and its trademark dramatic, curved roof.
It was formerly the centre of the Pagaruyung Kingdom. Now, it serves as a museum and a testament to the once majestic state of the Minangkabau people.
15. Hue Imperial City (Vietnam)
A plane or train ride away from Hanoi is what was once the capital of Unified Vietnam, the Hue Imperial City.
Established by the last royal dynasty of the country, it was the country’s geographical centre, as well as the heart of its government, culture and religion from 1802 to 1945 CE.
The citadel was built on top of the Ngu Binh Mountain on the north bank of the Perfume River. A 10-kilometre-high and 21-metre-thick giant wall, called the Imperial Enclosure, surrounds the complex, followed by a trench system and 10 gates.
Some must-see places inside the Imperial Enclosure include the Thai Hoa Palace or the Throne Palace, the Hien Lam Pavillion and the Ngo Mon or the Meridian Gate.
Purple Forbidden City was the innermost area, and only the Kings and royals had access. It is divided into 50 different places, with each segment having a specific purpose for the King’s daily life, work and recreation.
16. Topkapi Palace (Turkey)
Turkey’s Topkapi Palace would probably be one of the palaces in Asia with the most colourful stories within its walls. It served as the official residence and administrative headquarters of the Ottoman Empire sultans for almost four centuries.
The palace complex contains four courtyards, numerous exhibition halls, pavilions, kitchens, barracks, the Imperial Council Chamber, Treasury, and the infamous Harem.
Holding the Guinness World Record as the largest palace harem, it has six floors and 300-plus rooms. It also has nine baths, a hospital, two mosques, laundry facilities, fountains, dormitories and private apartments.
After the Ottoman rule was abolished, the palace was converted into a museum in 1924. Preserved in the palace museum are the Imperial archives and sultanate treasures, including the 86-carat Spoonmaker’s Diamond, one of the largest in the world.
17. Mamure Castle (Turkey)
If you’re looking for a taste of the ancient empires, visit one of Turkey’s best-preserved castles, the Mamure Castle.
While exact details about its inception are still unknown, the castle is believed to be about 1,500 years old, built by the Romans in the 3rd or 4th century.
Structures were reconstructed or added on top of the initial foundation throughout the centuries, with the architecture reflecting the culture that conquered the castle at that time.
This 23,500-square-metre fortification has the Mediterranean sea on one side, a moat surrounding the fortress on the land side, 39 towers, 7 bastions and a 580-metre-long outer wall.
Inside the castle is a road connecting the 39 towers, 3 yards, an outer fortress, ruins of a lighthouse, a mosque, a hamam or Turkish bath, a fountain, cisterns and warehouses.
18. Kiz Kalesi (Turkey)
When we say magical castles in Asia, Kiz Kalesi, or the Maiden’s Castle, should be on the list, despite only having ruins left. This castle was built on a small island 600 metres off the coast of Mersin, a port city in Turkey.
Legend says a fortune-teller told a king that his beloved daughter would die from a snake bite, pushing him to build her a castle on an isolated island for her safety. Tragically, a snake got in through a basket of grapes shipped to the island and killed the girl.
Historically, it was said that the castle used to be a trade base and that it was conquered by the Kingdom of Cyprus in 1361 and then by pirates during the Roman Period.
There were also accounts that the castle on the islet was connected to the land. But a dam broke and flooded the area, submerging the connecting path and isolating the castle.
19. Golestan Palace (Iran)
Be welcomed by diamond, crystal, mirror and ivory pavilions as you enter one of the most lavish palaces in Asia, Iran’s Golestan Palace.
Built by the Qajar family during the 18th century, the Golestan Palace was the royal residence and the seat of the government. It was also the centre for recreation and arts at that time.
The palace compound also houses a garden with lush trees and plants, ornate fountains and mirror-tiled halls. Mosaics, stained glass artworks, and paintings also highlight the impressive architecture of the palace.
Some areas are restricted, but quite a number of buildings are open to the public, including the Mirror Hall, Ivory Hall, Ceremonial Hall, Library, Diamond Hall and the Marble Throne Iwan.
20. Qasr Al-Kharanah (Jordan)
A castle in the middle of nowhere? That’s how we can best describe the Qasr Al-Kharanah.
This is one of the most popular desert castles in Jordan and can be found amid the vast and treeless eastern desert, about an hour away from the city of Amman.
This formidable structure’s beginnings are unclear and had no concrete proof that it was indeed used as a castle or a bastion of defence.
But many believe that it was constructed during the 7th century and was a meeting place by the Umayyads and Bedouin tribes.
While the building is quite imposing, it only covers an area of 35 square metres. The two-storey structure has about 60 rooms, a courtyard, a rainwater pool and stables.
Tours can be arranged to visit the Qasr Al-Kharanah and other desert castles, like the Qasr Amra.
21. Qasr Amra (Jordan)
A ten-minute drive away from the Qasr Al-Kharanah is another well-preserved desert castle, the Qasr Amra.
According to an inscription on the building, it was commissioned some time between 723 and 743 AD.
The domes and triple arches are some of this castle’s distinct features. But what makes the Qasr Amra different from other desert castles? Its ‘remarkably preserved frescoes‘ which got it inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.
The Qasr Amra seemed to have been a place of pleasure and recreation, as the murals showed bathing and hunting scenes, animals, Byzantine-style portraits, and more, including half-naked women, dog races and wrestlers.
The most famous fresco is the Dome of Heaven, painted on a curved surface. The painting depicts a map of the northern hemisphere sky, including zodiac signs.
22. Crac des Chevaliers (Syria)
Syria’s Crac des Chevaliers made headlines recently as this mediaeval castle became embattled during a 21st-century civil war.
Earlier versions of this fortification were built, but this castle was attributed to the Crusaders from the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem. This hilltop castle was constructed from 1142 to 1271 and was considered a major stronghold of the region.
It follows the architecture of a mediaeval castle and is known to be one of the best-preserved Crusader castles through the centuries, earning its inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006.
But the Crac des Chevaliers was taken control of by Syrian rebels in 2011. It was only recovered by the government in 2014. Unfortunately, the walls showed damage from the warfare.
23. Sigiriya Lion Rock (Sri Lanka)
About 3 to 4 hours away from Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, is an ancient castle almost swallowed up by the jungle.
The Sigiriya Lion Rock, as described by records, was a fortress slash pleasure palace constructed from 477 to 485 AD by King Kasyapa. It was built on top of a 200-metre high rock formation as a defence from possible attacks from his brother.
After the king’s rule, it became a Buddhist monastery. Over the years, it was hidden in the forest until it was rediscovered by British historians in the 19th century.
Visitors will need to climb a total of 1,200 steps, divided into phases, to reach the top. The main gateway was shaped into a huge lion, hence its name.
A trip to the Sigiriya Lion Rock will show you well-preserved ancient frescoes, the lion’s paw, and the mirror wall. This wall was so polished that the king could see his reflection on the surface.
Upon entering the lion rock, picturesque landscaped gardens will welcome and amaze you, as the ancient hydraulic system and water pumps still sustain the gardens.
24. Mysore Palace (India)
Mysore Palace in Karnataka, also known as the Amba Vilas Palace, is one of India’s largest and most visited places.
The first Mysore Palace was built in the 14th century. It was damaged and reconstructed several times throughout the centuries. One of the unfortunate incidents that razed the palace was the fire in 1897 that happened during a wedding of a princess.
British architect Henry Irwin designed the palace we see now. This fourth incarnation was completed in 1912.
This Indo-Saracenic version has a three-storey building with square towers and its distinct pink marble domes.
Ornate ceilings, pillars and flooring are testaments to the grandeur of the palace interior. However, photography or videography is prohibited inside the palace, including photos and videos from smartphones.
25. Hawa Mahal (India)
953 windows in one palace? Hawa Mahal in Jaipur made that possible!
The Hawa Mahal was built in 1799 as an extension of the nearby city palace. The palace has honeycomb-shaped lattice windows carved from red and pink sandstone.
Its purpose? So the royal ladies can view the street, especially processions and celebrations, without their faces being seen by the public.
The Hawa Mahal is also known as the Palace of Breeze, as the windows are designed to let the breeze flow through, making it the ideal summer palace.
26. Jal Mahal (India)
Jaipur’s Jal Mahal is also known as the Water Palace, as it seems to be magically floating on water!
Situated in the middle of Man Sagar Lake, it was not really a palace or royal residence. It was originally built as a hunting lodge for Maharaja Madho Singh I.
This ethereal one-storey palace actually has four more levels, submerged underwater! The walls were specially designed to block water from seeping into the palace.
The Jal Mahal is not open to the public, but visitors can look at it from the lake shore. It is one of the most photographed spots in the area, with its pink sandstone walls contrasting and reflecting on the water.
Castles and palaces are often depicted in dreamy fairy tales about kings and queens, princes and princesses. However, in reality, these serve official functions being royal residences or bastions of military and defence.
But nothing is stopping us from weaving tales and legends about these majestic and lavish structures, as the ancient civilizations did!