Countries You Probably Didn't Know Still Have a Royal Family
From binge-watching “The Crown" to following every story about Harry and Meghan’s love story, it’s safe to we are all just a little bit fascinated by royalty.
Monarchies feature in fairy tales filled with magic, school history books (the six wives of King Henry VIII anyone?), playing cards and chess games, as well as the backstabbing, plot-thickening twists and turns of “Game of Thrones.”
But while the global media may sometimes make you believe otherwise, the United Kingdom is not the only nation in the world with a monarchy — and royal scandals aren’t limited to storylines on our TV screens.
Here are 15 countries you probably didn’t know have a royal family, plus the best royal-themed attractions to visit in each place. Every sovereign here has a story as intriguing (and sometimes controversial) as the next.
The Wangchuck family has ruled Bhutan since the country was reunified in 1907. The current and fifth Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King), Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, is married to the youngest queen in the world — Jetsun Pena, who is now 29 and took the throne when she was just 21.
Bhutan’s young monarchy is credited with unifying the country, improving international relations, introducing democracy and focusing on the nation’s development. Uniquely, Bhutan measures its success using a Gross National Happiness index that factors in nine people-focused domains, including education, cultural diversity and resilience, community vitality and good governance.
Royal Attractions to Explore in Bhutan
The fort-monastery of Punakha Dzong, aka Palace of Great Happiness, is one of the country’s oldest dzongs (a type of fortress found mostly in Bhutan and Tibetan parts of India). Not only have all of Bhutan’s kings been crowned there, but this is also where the current monarchs' royal wedding — a festive bash that welcomed 50,000 revelers — took place in 2011.
If you’re traveling to Bhutan in October, don’t miss the Royal Highlander Festival, which was set up by the king to celebrate the traditions of the highlands. He is usually in attendance, and has been known to come and greet visiting tourists during the festivities.
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has ruled over Brunei Darussalam since 1967, making him the world’s second-longest-reigning current monarch after the UK’s Queen Elizabeth II. Brunei’s royal institution was established in the 14th century, and the House of Bolkiah has ruled for almost the entirety of the monarchy’s history.
When Brunei gained independence from the British in 1984, the sultan assumed absolute power as both head of state and head of government. Powerful and affluent, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah is one of the richest royals in the world, with a net worth of about $20 billion thanks to Brunei's abundant oil and gas reserves. He's used this immense wealth in part to purchase some 7,000 cars, reportedly the largest collection in the world.
Bolkiah is married to Pengiran Anak Saleha, and has at two separate times had a second wife as well. But he divorced both, stripping them of their titles.
In recent years, Bolkieh has made headlines for establishing cruel and inhumane laws, including stoning LGBTQ people and amputating the hands or feet of convicted thieves.
Royal Attractions to Explore in Brunei
Many people are avoiding visiting Brunei because of its rampant human-rights abuses. But if things do change there, it offers an intriguing mix of royal attractions.
The Istana Nurul Iman is the official residence of the sultan and thought to be the world’s largest palace residence, with 1,800 rooms, 200 bathrooms and a garage of 100 luxury cars — just a selection from the sultan’s collection.
The Museum of Brunei provides plenty of information about the country’s history and monarchy, while the Royal Regalia Museum displays the extravagant opulence of the sultan’s lifestyle.
Cambodia’s current king, Norodom Sihamoni, was born to King Norodom Sihanouk and his 16-year-old seventh wife in 1953.
Sihamoni, appointed Cambodia’s delegate to UNESCO for his devotion to Cambodian culture, actually spent most of his life outside the country. He was schooled in Czechoslovakia, studied filmmaking in North Korea and taught ballet in France. Between 1977 and 1979, he was confined to house arrest in Cambodia during the tyrannical Khmer Rouge regime.
In October 2004, following the surprise abdication of his father, Sihamoni was selected by a nine-member council to be the nation’s next king. Cambodia is one of the few elective monarchies of the world, and the king’s role is largely ceremonial and symbolic.
Unlike many royals on this list, Sihamoni is unmarried and has no kids. His father once stated that his son "loves women as his sisters."
Fun fact: Sihamoni's full title as king is “His Merciful Excellent Majesty Protector, King Norodom Sihamoni, who united the nation, religion, realm, and people of Khmer state, great king who is supported by Buddha and Indra, protector of independence, unification, and peace, King of Cambodia, the Great King in the Kingdom of Cambodia.”
Royal Attractions to Explore in Cambodia
The Royal Palace in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, has been the residence of the Kings of Cambodia since the 1860s. However, many of the buildings have been rebuilt or remodeled, including the impressive Silver Pagoda, so-named for its 5,000 lustrous silver tiles (alas, visitors can see only some of them, as most are covered to keep them preserved).
Japan is the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in the world, dating back to 660 BC, making current Emperor Naruhito the country’s 126th monarch. Naruhito ascended to the throne on May 1, 2019 after his father, Emperor Akihito, abdicated due to advanced age and declining health — a big deal at the time, as there had not been an abdication in the country since 1817.
Emperor Naruhito's personal life has also made the news. In a story that captivated the press, he fell for a commoner and career-driven diplomat, Owada Masaka, who was reluctant to give up her career and rebuffed his proposals twice before saying yes. The couple wed in 1993 and have one daughter, Princess Aiko, born in 2001.
Japan is the only remaining nation to have an emperor as monarch, and as a constitutional monarch, Naruhito does not hold any political power. But he and his family are very much important figures in their country.
Royal Attractions to Explore in Japan
The Imperial Palace and Gardens in Tokyo are a must-visit in Japan’s capital, especially during the picturesque sakura (cherry blossom) season. The Imperial Palace East Garden is open to visitors, but tours of the Imperial Palace’s grounds must be booked in advance.
The tiny European microstate of Liechtenstein was formed in 1719 when the land was bought by the Liechtenstein family in a political move to gain power within the Holy Roman Empire.
However, the princes of Liechtenstein didn’t even visit their principality for the first 100 years of its establishment. Prince Hans-Adams II, the reigning ruler of Liechtenstein since 1989, is the first prince to have actually grown up in the country he rules!
In 2003, a referendum passed to give the constitutional monarch more power, after the prince threatened to move to Austria if he didn’t get his way. Already, the prince was described as Europe’s most powerful monarch, and his further consolidation of control was met with considerable controversy.
Hans-Adams' wife, Countess Marie Aglaë Kinsky von Wchinitz und Tettau, indisputably has one of the coolest titles in royalty: Her Serene Highness The Princess of Liechtenstein. The couple have four children and 15 grandchildren.
Royal Attractions to Explore in Liechtenstein
Vaduz Castle is the private castle residence of the royal family, perched on a hilltop touting scenic views of the lush Alpine countryside. Take a tour of the Prince of Liechtenstein Winery to sample some of the best wine in the Rhine Valley, then hike The Princes’ Way up the 4,600-foot Alp Gaflei to enjoy epic vistas of the Three Sisters Mountains.
Malaysia has a unique way of appointing its monarchs, with nine royal households taking turns to provide a king. The monarch is elected by the Council of Rulers and the selected sovereign reigns for a term of five years. This system is based on the Westminster parliamentary system, and dates back to 1957, when the Federation of Malaya gained independence from the British (although the Malacca Sultanate and Malay states have featured royal families throughout their histories).
In January 2019, the country’s monarchy made global headlines when Malaysian King Sultan Muhammad V unexpectedly abdicated after just two years on the throne, marking the first time in history a monarch had stepped down before completing their five-year term. The unorthodox decision came on the heels of the king’s two-month leave of absence, during which he reportedly married a Russian beauty queen.
Royal scandal, it seems, is a global phenomenon.
The current monarch, Al-Sultan Abdullah of Pahang, has had a promising start as leader, announcing that his intentions were to “reach out to the people, to win their heart, and to learn whatever, or to understand their problems and try to solve their problems.” He has been married to Tunku Hajah Azizah Aminah Maimunah Iskandariah, also well-liked in the country, for 33 years.
Royal Attractions to Explore in Malaysia
Istana Negara in Kuala Lumpur was once the palace of the former kings of Malaysia until a new structure — costing the equivalent of nearly $200 million — opened in the city in 2011.
Today, Istana Negara is a royal museum and the best place to learn about Malaysia’s unique monarchy. The castle features 22 majestic domes, reception rooms adorned in gold leaf, and the private apartments and bedrooms where former rulers lived. The grounds, which encompass a lovely garden, a six-hole golf course and a lake, are also well worth exploring.
Morocco’s historical monarchy extends all the way back to 789 AD, spanning several dynasties up until the current Alaouite dynasty. Reigning monarch King Mohammed VI ascended to the throne in July 1999 after his father’s death.
The King of Morocco has held a lot of power and influence throughout history, but with threats of a revolution in the era of Arab Spring uprisings, King Mohammed VI revised the country’s constitution, strengthened parliament and claimed he would relinquish some power.
Like so many monarchies, this one has also been embroiled in scandal. Global tabloids have speculated feverishly about the king’s wife, Princess Lalla Salma, who hasn’t been seen in public in the last couple years and, it’s speculated, may have divorced the king in private.
When she was nowhere to be seen when Prince Harry and Meghan Markle paid a visit to Morocco in February 2019, the "Daily Express" and "Daily Mail" ran breathless headlines calling her “the missing princess.”
Royal Attractions to Explore in Morocco
In Marrakech, the ruins of El Badi Palace (erected during the Saardian dynasty) can be visited, as can Bahia Palace, the 19th-century residence of Si Ahmed ben Musa, the Grand Vizier of Marrakech. The city’s Saadian Tombs, meanwhile, hold 200 crypts belonging to the Saadian royal family.
Marakkech isn’t the only place where royal history takes center stage; in the city of Rabat, you can visit the mausoleum of the late king Mohammed V.
The Sultan of Oman is the country’s head of state and holds absolute power. The Al Said dynasty has ruled over Oman since the mid-18th century, and the current monarch is Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said. Qaboos rose to power after a palace coup in 1970 in which he overthrew his father, Said bin Taimur.
Sultan Qaboos is the longest-serving leader in the Middle East and the Arab world, but he has no children and has not publicly named an heir. Per the country's constitution, sultans name their successor in a sealed letter to be opened after their death, in order to avoid controversy.
The reign of Qaboos has been a largely successful one; he abolished slavery, built up the country’s infrastructure, and has pushed for diversity and equal rights. Today, Oman is one of the happiest and healthiest countries in the world, as well as one of the safest to visit in the Middle East.
Royal Attractions to Explore in Oman
Although the Sultan’s Palace in Muscat is closed to the public, you can see it from the outside from the harbor and the road, near the new National Museum. The fanciful palace features blue and gold pillars and an avenue of palm trees.
When dictator Francisco Franco named Juan Carlos as his successor, the new king dismantled the Francoist regime and brought democracy to Spain with a new constitution in 1978. King Juan Carlos I later abdicated in 2014, with his son King Felipe VI taking the throne.
King Felipe and his family have a very laidback image. Felipe is known for riding a motorbike, cutting back on royal spending and forbidding members of the royal family from accepting extravagant gifts. He lives in Zarzuela Palace, on the outskirts of Madrid, with his wife, Queen Letizia, and their two daughters.
Royal Attractions to Explore in Spain
You can choose from a multitude of royal attractions from Spain’s rich history, including Granada's Moorish Alhambra palaces, the royal palace of Spain’s Islamic-era Nasrid dynasty and the historic San Lorenzo de El Escorial, home to the Panteón de los Reyes, a Baroque burial vault containing the remains of Spanish kings.
Eswatini (formerly Swaziland)
Mswati III of the House of Dlamini is the King of Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland) and rules with his mother, Queen Mother Ntfombi Tfwala, as an absolute monarch.
Mswati was selected to ascend to the throne in 1986 at the tender age of 18, four years after his father’s death, making him the world’s youngest ruling monarch at the time. (Today, the world’s youngest ruling monarch is King Oyo of Uganda. He is now 27 years old but was crowned at the age of, yes, 3.)
The Eswatini monarchy is known for polygamy and the current king has 15 wives (at least two of whom were appointed by the state) and 35 children.
In a story as old as time, the royal family has been criticized for its lavish spending as much of the country suffers in poverty. King Mswati is thought to be one of the richest monarchs in the world, with a net worth of around $200 million. He has purchased several luxury cars and his own airport, and has an annual household budget of $61 million.
Royal Attractions to Explore in Eswatini
Eswatini’s royal residences are only open to the public during festivities such as Incwala (summer solstice) and Umhlanga Reed Dance, when thousands of bare-breasted virgin girls dance for the king in hopes of becoming his next wife.
In 1980, Sweden changed its laws to become the first in the world to allow female succession. The Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark followed suit, and the UK is in the process of doing the same.
Therefore, King Carl XVI’s eldest daughter, Princess Victoria, is next in line to the throne. (Strangely enough, King Carl himself is roughly 205th in line to the British throne!)
King Carl XVI’s father died suddenly in a plane crash in 1947 when the young prince was only nine months old. This automatically made him heir and he inherited the crown from his grandfather, King Gustaf VI Adolf, in 1973.
Royal Attractions to Explore in Sweden
The royal residence of Drottningholm Palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site dating back to the 17th century. Located on the island of Lovö, around 7 miles west of Stockholm, this is where the Swedish royal family reside today.
The lavish palace is mostly open to visitors year-round, as is a lovely park on its grounds.
Thailand mourned the passing of beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej (also known as King Rama IX) during a year-long grieving period that saw the nation don black and shun celebrations. Then, it was another 18 months before his son, current King of Thailand Vajiralongkorn (also known as King Rama X), was crowned in May 2019. King Vajiralongkorn married his fourth wife, Queen Suthida, the deputy head of his personal security detail, just a few days before his coronation.
Thailand has some of the strictest lèse majesté (“to do wrong to majesty”) laws in the world. It is illegal to defame, insult or threaten the monarchy, including previous monarchs, with punishment of up to 15 years imprisonment.
Royal Attractions to Explore in Thailand
Bangkok’s Grand Palace has been the official residence of the Kings of Siam (and later Thailand) since 1972, and the palace complex is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country. Located on the banks of the Chao Praya River, the palace is easy to spot, as no building in the area is allowed to be taller than the royal residence.
Tonga has a relatively young monarchy, having introduced its constitutional monarchy in 1845.
Current King of Tonga Tupou VI previously had a military career and later went into politics, first as defense minister, then as foreign minister. He was appointed Prime Minister in 2000, but resigned six years later, amid pro-democracy protests to separate politics from the monarchy.
Before ascending to the throne, Tupou VI’s older brother, King George Tupou V, announced the monarchy would relinquish most of its powers, especially in politics.
The king is married to Nanasipau'u Tuku'aho, the daughter of a local high chief, with whom he has three children and two grandchildren.
Royal Attractions to Explore in Tonga
Around Tongatapu, South of Nuku’alofa, between Tofoa and Pe’a, you’ll find the private royal residences of the current King of Tonga, though they are not open to the public.
Instead, explore the archaeological ruins of Mu’a, which date back to 1200 AD and hold the royal stone tombs of Tonga’s ancient Tu’i kings.
OK, so you may have heard of Queen Elizabeth II already, but did you know that this monarch is the head of state of over 16 commonwealth realms? These include Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu, in addition to the United Kingdom.
Queen Elizabeth II also racks up a long list of superlatives, including longest-lived British monarch, longest-reigning British monarch, world’s longest-serving female head of state, world’s oldest living monarch and world’s longest-reigning current monarch. Impressive.
Royal Attractions to Explore in the UK
Within the UK, royal attractions are plentiful and popular. The most well-known are Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, Windsor Castle (the largest and oldest occupied castle in the world, and also the queen’s favorite residence), Westminster Abbey (the setting of every coronation of an English monarch since 1066, plus 16 royal weddings), and the Tower of London.
To beat the tourist hordes, try London’s Clarence House, the official home of Prince Charles, which opens its doors to the public every August.
The pope is the supreme pontiff and worldwide leader of the Catholic Church, but he is also head of state for Vatican City (or Holy See), the smallest country in the world. Officially, Vatican City is a “theocratic absolute elective monarchy,” meaning the Pope is, technically, a monarch.
Popes are elected by the College of Cardinals, a group of top-ranking Catholic officials appointed by the pope himself — mostly ordained bishops. During the Conclave election process, secret votes are held four times a day inside the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. The cardinals are not allowed contact with the outside world until a two-thirds majority for a candidate is reached.
Pope Benedict XVI resigned in 2013, the first pope to do so since Pope Gregory XII in 1415. He is succeeded by Pope Francis, who is the first Jesuit pope and the first pope from the Americas (he is Argentinian).
Royal Attractions to Explore in Vatican City
Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museums are just a few must-visit spots. If you visit the Vatican on a Wednesday, you may be lucky enough to spot the pope himself make an appearance during his weekly audience in Saint Peter’s Square.