Casinos typically conjure images of flashing lights and wailing slot machines, but not all of them fit that Las Vegas stereotype. Before the advent of tacky casino complexes, smoke-filled sportsbooks, and price-gouging buffets, gambling was a hobby reserved for society’s upper-crust (the only ones with money to waste), and it took place in some fancy decor. From a German casino that inspired and financially drained one of Russia’s most famous authors to the oldest casino in the world in Venice, these following classy establishments are more than just relics of the past with strict dress codes; they offer an authentic old-world experiences that really transport you back in time — while taking all of your hard-earned money on a roll of the dice.
1. Casino di Venezia, Italy
No European casino tour is complete without a visit to the oldest casino in the world. Casino di Venezia, located right on the Grand Canal in Venice, opened in 1638 and still welcomes gamblers today. Originally, the building served as a theater called Theatre Saint Moses, which had a wing for gambling during intermission. This small wing, however, was a catalyst for the advent of casinos in Venice, and by 1744 there were over 120 of them around the city. During its long lifespan, the building also functioned as a home for Italian royalty, and even a getaway for composer Richard Wagner in the mid-19th century.
The casino was designed with a classic Italian look, with mirrors by Murano glassmakers, embellished pillars, felt ropes for handrails, and a private garden overlooking the canal. It’s also used as a venue for the Venice Film Festival. The building is immense, with vast spaces for slot machines, poker, roulette, and other table games, as well as rooms designated for dining and entertainment. As a nod to Wagner, there’s the Wagner Restaurant serving classic Italian fare. A free boat shuttle service is also available to ferry guests to the casino from all over the city.
2. Casino de Monte-Carlo, Monaco
In part thanks to the casino’s appearance in the Never Say Never, Casino Royale, and GoldenEye Bond films, Casino de Monte-Carlo is unquestionably the most famous casino in Europe. Opening in the 1850s to generate income for Monaco’s royal Grimaldi family, the Beaux-Arts style building is defined by its gilded ceilings, crystal chandeliers, frescoes, and tapestries.
In keeping with its stylish interior and highbrow reputation, the Casino de Monte-Carlo isn’t exactly a low-limit gambling establishment. You don’t have to be a Saudi prince or hedge fund manager to play here — although you probably do to afford Monaco’s astronomical yacht docking fees — but you do need to adhere to a dress code, pay a modest 10-Euro fee, and behave respectably.
Even if you’re not a gambler, the casino is open to groups and tours every day from 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM. A simple stroll through the gaming rooms will be enough to make you feel like part of Monaco’s high society, and, if you don’t want to go in, the lineup of exotic cars parked outside radiates enough razzle dazzle for everyone to get their fill.
3. The Ritz Club, London
The title of Europe’s most exclusive casino probably belongs to London’s Ritz Club. This members-only casino is located in the basement and former ballroom of The Ritz Hotel. Inside, you’ll find a gaming salon furnished with rich tapestries, red carpets, chairs with crushed velvet cushions, and ornate domed ceilings. There are also more intimate private rooms for especially high rollers — though pretty much everyone at this casino is a high roller.
The club dates back to 1909 and has gone through several iterations, but has served as a casino since 1977. To join the club, you must submit an application form and be recommended by an existing member. Given that the club has been frequented by celebrities like Johnny Depp, Dame Shirley Bassey, and Kerry Packer, membership isn’t easy to obtain. The dress code is strict: Men are required to wear a jacket and collared shirt at all times.
4. Casino Wiesbaden, Germany
Germans may be stereotyped as a sensible kind of people, but even the most practical spender can get sucked into spending some dough when a gambling establishment has the charms of the neoclassical Casino Wiesbaden. First established in 1771, Casino Wiesbaden is now located in the wine parlor of the Kurhaus spa house — the social center of old Wiesbaden. Like Monte Carlo, visitors will be immediately stricken by its crystal chandeliers, as well as its cherry woodwork and intimate, refined atmosphere. Renowned Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky fell victim to the casino in 1865, when he gambled away all his belongings there, and was inspired to write his famous novel The Gambler. You can even see the roulette wheel where he lost all of his roubles, carefully preserved in a glass case at the casino’s entrance.
Men are asked to dress in a shirt and jacket. Jeans are unacceptable, though trousers can be rented from the cloakroom for a fee. There are two bars in the casino if you don’t feel like following in Dostoevsky’s footsteps (or in case you already have).
5. Casino de Spa, Belgium
Spa, Belgium, is the perfect place to gamble. The town is not only the home of one of the world’s oldest casinos, but is also Belgium’s premier relaxation destination. Filled with restorative cold springs, Spa has been a vacation destination for the wealthy since the 14th century. Even the term “spa,” which has become ubiquitous, derives from the name of this town.
The Casino de Spa is actually connected to the famous cold springs, making it easy for visitors to take a dip after they’ve lost their shirt at the craps table. Built in 1763, the casino was a focal point of Spa’s society until 1789, when the Liege Revolution, Prohibition, and a devastating fire led to its decline. The building has since been reconstructed, and restored to its original splendor. The casino features a ballroom, cultural center, theater, and several restaurants, including La Brasserie du Casino, with panoramic views of the city.