- Modern-day Drottningholm Palace was built in the 17th century
- The Palace, the Chinese Pavilion, and the Drottningholm Theatre are inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List
- The baroque gardens at Drottningholm are unmatched in Sweden
- Drottningholm Palace is the permanent residence of the Swedish Royal Couple
Even before you set a foot on the land belonging to Drottningholm Palace (Drottningholms slott), it is obvious that this place is in no way usual. The permanent residence of the Swedish Royal Couple has been shaped by centuries of royal traditions, modelled by the hands of the foremost architects who have ever left their mark in Sweden, and influenced by design and art movements from all around the world.
The story of Drottningholm Palace began as early as the late 1500s when King Johan III (John III) decided to build a palace for his dear wife Queen Katarina Jagellonika. In the decades following the construction of the original stone house, a number of eminent individuals occupied its premises.
Queen Christina – the first-ever reigning queen of Sweden – resided at Drottningholm at a certain period and so did the Swedish statesman, military man and member of the Privy Council Count Magnus Gabriel de la Gardie who also owned the unique Karlberg Palace (Karlbergs slott).
In 1661, the palace returned to royal hands with Queen Hedvig Eleonora’s purchase of Drottningholm Palace from de la Gardie and his wife. However, the property burned down only months later and the queen got a chance to rebuild the residence essentially from scratch.
At the time, Hedvig Eleonora served as the regent of Sweden during her son Karl XI’s infancy. It was, therefore, almost an obligation for her to reside in a monumental residence adhering to the highest standards that would be located within a reasonable distance from the nation’s capital.
This used to be the unwritten rule for the leaders of Europe’s most powerful states and Sweden was certainly one of them during the era following the signature of the Peace of Westphalia which concluded the Thirty Years’ War in 1648.
Nicodemus Tessin the Elder was the architect approached by the queen and tasked with the creation of a new royal residence that would be respected and admired by allies and enemies alike for centuries to come.
It seems that Tessin was enthusiastic about this grand plan as he managed to put his vision to work as early as 1662 which is impressive considering that the former palace burned down during the last days of the previous year.
At the same time as the architect designed the main building, he worked on the impressive baroque garden inspired by French ideals observable at historic sites from the same period such as the Palace of Versailles.
These ideals were strict, built around the concepts of discipline, symmetry, and perfection. The gardens were created as a tribute to human creativity and skills in contrast to later movements observable in other parts of the estate where nature, its landscape and natural features were elevated.
The baroque garden at Drottningholm Palace is formed by several parts. Closest to the palace, you would find the ‘Broderiparterren’ with numerous sculptures predominantly created by the renowned Nordic sculptor Adriaen de Vries.
During Hedvig Eleonora’s time at Drottningholm, the gardens were enchanted by a collection of 28 bronze sculptures, many of which were brought to Sweden as war trophies from Prague and Frederiksborg in Denmark among other places.
Today, the original works are displayed in the nearby museum dedicated to de Vries’s work while the sculptures standing in the gardens are contemporary replicas of these.
Continental Europe of the 17th century might have been a great source of inspiration when it came to style, however not all of the elements were suitable for the Swedish conditions. The architects were either unaware of this or simply did not bother trying to solve these issues and as a result, plants that have always had troubles growing in the colder Swedish climate have had to be replaced many times over the course of the centuries.
As of today, some of the plants at ‘Broderiparterren’ have been replaced by more suitable alternatives and the combination of thujas, extensive lawns, gravel, crushed brick, and dark hyperite not only seems to work aesthetically but also prosper well in the given climate.
Behind ‘Broderiparterren,’ you would find the ‘Vattenparterren’ with a total of 10 fountains accompanied by fourteen water cascades, seven on each side of the central path stretching through the gardens designed by the father-son duo of Nicodemus Tessin the Elder and the Younger.
Sometimes, it is hard to predict how things will unfold and even harder to know when to give up on a dream. The fountains and water cascades at Drottningholm Palace illustrate this better than most other places.
While the composition of water attractions was designed by architect Tessin in the 1600s and the original attempt to create the cascades demolished in 1822, it was not before the 1960s that the entire composition was successfully brought to life.
Not even with the assistance of the experienced French fountain designer Louis de Cussy did the architect manage to make his creation work. The two masters of their craft created large ponds north of the gardens that worked as water reservoirs.
The water was then transported through a system of interconnected hollowed wooden logs to the fountains and cascades located around 1,500 metres away. The fall height of over 12 metres proved to be insufficient to produce enough pressure and hence, only some of the fountains in the gardens worked as intended.
Perhaps the most notable of all fountains at Drottningholm is the one standing in the middle of the garden easily visible from all its parts. It features one of de Vries’s foremost works, the sculpture of ‘Hercules Slaying the Hydra.’
At the terrace bordered by Tessin’s water cascades, you would find two pairs of bosquets which are also typical of prominent gardens from the period as proved by the likes of the gardens surrounding the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna or the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris.
An elegant terrace can be found on the other side of Drottningholm Palace as well. The little garden visible from the lakeside was reconstructed following the designs preserved from the first half of the 18th century. While it is not accessible to the public, you can see it perfectly from both its sides.
The ideals of beauty started changing around the middle of the century and modern ideas soon started affecting the neighbourhood of the palace at Drottningholm. New influences were not coming from the continent, though. This time, it was the English whose design of green areas caught on.
Parks in the English style were in many ways the exact opposite of the French gardens. Instead of carefully planted alleys, bosquets and symmetrical paths, the new parks elevated features of the natural landscape such as hills and valleys. Fountains were replaced by lakes and ponds and flower beds by extensive lawns and meadows.
The origins of the new architectural movements, on the other hand, were far more exotic. Thanks to the growing trade with the Orient and China, in particular, the Chinese style quickly became a symbol of power and wealth in Europe just like formerly unknown fruits from America had a century earlier.
Already King Adolf Fredrik (Adolf Frederick) was aware of this trend and had a new Chinese Pavilion built for his spouse in a remote part of the gardens at Drottningholm. Queen Lovisa Ulrika (Louisa Ulrika) appreciated the gift she received on the occasion of her 33rd birthday and so, the original wooden structure was later replaced by a permanent building in the 1760s. The pavilion remains to be one of Europe’s foremost examples of rococo interiors and chinoiserie.
The queen later tasked the architect of the Chinese Pavilion, Carl Fredrik Adelcrantz, with planting a chestnut alley – yet another example of the new norms – in its neighbourhood.
Perhaps the biggest enthusiast of the English-style parks and Chinese architecture among the royals was Adolf Fredrik’s successor, Gustav III. It is clear from his signature creation, the Haga Park (Hagaparken), that he was fond of these modern movements and he did not let Drottningholm fall behind.
In 1780, he assigned Fredrik Magnus Piper, the architect of the Haga Park, to create a new English-style park north of the existing baroque gardens. The new extension consisted of two ponds interconnected by water canals, extensive paths and lawns, islets, pretty bridges, and carefully designed tree alleys and groves that would direct the attention of visitors to the nicest views.
Having explored the exquisite gardens thoroughly, it is time to have a look inside. Tessin the Elder and his fellow architects, who have participated in designing the palace and its individual parts over the centuries, have certainly proven their worth.
The main staircase that welcomes you to the palace and is likely to make your jaw drop is one of Tessin’s foremost creations and also a renowned example of early baroque in Sweden. Another noteworthy part of Drottningholm Palace created by Tessin is Hedvig Eleonora’s State Bedchamber which you will get to see if you decide to take a tour of the palace.
While it was the original owner of the modern-day palace, Queen Hedvig Eleonora with her collection of hundreds of paintings, who started the tradition of displaying art at Drottningholm, the era of Lovisa Ulrika can be seen as the cultural golden age of Drottningholm.
During her time, the interior was renovated in the popular rococo style inspired by monumental French palaces and castles. Moreover, she turned Drottningholm into a scientific centre, too, and you might be surprised to learn that even renowned scientists including Carl von Linné, whose statue you can admire at Humlegården, used to work here.
Probably the most famous creation from the era of Queen Lovisa Ulrika, who received the palace as a wedding gift when she married then Crown Prince Adolf Fredrik, in 1744, is her library designed by Jean Eric Rehn which belongs to the prettiest rooms in Sweden and is also accessible to visitors.
Another one of the nearly 200 rooms forming the palace which caught my interest is the State Hall, also known as Contemporary Hall. In this room, you will find portraits of many European leaders from the era of Oscar I thanks to what the history of the 19th-century Europe literally comes to life in this hall.
Drottningholm Palace and its gardens are complemented by a number of other venues turning the complex into a place one essentially never needs to leave.
In the northern part of the palace, you would find Drottningholm Palace Chapel (Drottningholms slottskyrka) whose construction was led by Nicodemus Tessin the Younger following the drawings of his father. The inner parts of the chapel were created by architect Carl Hårleman and completed in 1730, though it was not inaugurated before 1746. Drottningholm Palace Chapel has been in use ever since and today, public masses are held there on every month’s last Sunday.
Apart from that, the chapel is a popular place for weddings and baptism ceremonies. Even some members of the Royal Family have decided to hold their ceremonies at the Royal Chapel.
Entertainment at Drottningholm is taken care of by the Drottningholm Palace Theatre (Drottningholms slottsteater) which, together with the palace itself and the Chinese Pavilion, is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1991.
Coming back to the golden age of culture at Drottningholm during the era of Lovisa Ulrika, the theatre was also built for the queen in 1766. Today, it is one of the world’s most well-preserved theatres from the era and the only one from the 18th century which still regularly utilises original stage machinery in performances.
Interestingly, the life at the theatre was vivid during the time of Lovisa Ulrika and later Gustav III. However, after the assassination of the ‘Theatre King,’ Drottningholm Theatre was closed for more than a century, which is likely why around thirty complete stage sets have been preserved from the 18th century.
The unique stage machinery, which is still operated by hand, includes clouds, wind, waves, thunder, and other components which you can now get to see during one of the performances from the modern productions of the 17th- and 18th-century operas played during summer months.
The Drottningholm Theatre Orchestra also regularly performs works of great composers including Haydn, Handel, and Mozart on historic instruments.
Just like at the Royal Palace in the city centre of Stockholm, the safety of the king is ensured by the traditional Royal Guard at Drottningholm Palace, too. The Guard consisting of around 25 men has been guarding the estate ever since the Royal Couple moved there in 1981.
By now, you might feel like there is too much to see at Drottningholm Palace. Worry not! You can always grab a cup of traditionally strong coffee, something nice to eat, or a typical Swedish dessert at Karamellan, the ‘schweizeri’ from the early 1900s standing right next to the palace.
You can choose to sit outside in the beautiful natural environment with stunning views of the palace or in the New Orangery which was completed as recently as 2017.
If you prefer, there is always the option to sit on one of the plentiful benches surrounding the ponds in the English park from the era of Gustav III or lie down directly on the lawns and have a unique picnic at a place which, according to UNESCO, is ‘of outstanding universal value to humanity, representing the best examples of the world’s cultural and natural heritage.’