In the past, they have been fortresses standing guard, homes to royalty, and the strongholds of ancient societies. But today, many spectacular castles are open for travelers to explore their fortified outer and inner walls, up and down their winding staircases, and through the grand living and working spaces inside these magnificent structures.
Regardless of whether people call them castles, burgs, Castellanos, or chateaus, these architectural marvels today attract visitors globally. People are curious to glimpse what life was like when royal inhabitants called these beautiful castles their protective homes.
A royal knight built Bodiam, a textbook-style castle with a moat, in 1385. Since then, its nine ancient towers have continually stood guard over the valley between Sussex and Bodiam. Today, visitors to Bodiam enter across a wooden bridge in the place that once held a drawbridge and past the original wooden portcullis in the gatehouse, a rare find in a castle as ancient as Bodiam. Inside, visitors can explore the castle’s Medieval details like the open courtyard and narrow windows perfect for shooting defensive arrows. Still, the ruins only leave clues to Bodiam Castle’s storied past.
This spectacular castle constructed in 1785 overlooks Mexico’s capital city and is the only castle in North America that housed actual royalty at one time. Today, visitors to the Alcazar de Chapultepec, now a national museum, can wander through its hundreds of rooms to explore the extravagant life of its past inhabitants. This location boasts several popular spaces. One of these is the Playroom, where royals used to spend their leisure time playing cards or billiards. Another is the Hall of Gobelins, a gift from Napoleon to the former inhabitant, Maximillian. Visitors can also enjoy the location's gorgeous terrace garden.
This stunning structure began in 1519 as a hunting retreat for King Francois, but it was never completed. With over 400 rooms and designs inspired by the artwork of Leonardo di Vinci, Chambord remains one of the most captivating examples of French Renaissance architecture. From the massive formal French gardens and parklands surrounding the Chateau to the so-called “magic staircase” with its double-helix design, everything in this castle is spectacular.
This chateau’s mistresses played critical roles in the construction and upkeep of Chenonceau since it was built in 1517. French Queen Catherine de Medici was its most famous female resident but it played host and home to many royal family members through the centuries. Visitors can explore this stunning castle that appears to float over the River Cher as its bridged archways span the waterway. Its manicured French gardens and even its history as a military hospital during World War II just add to the beauty of this architectural marvel.
The Medieval Citadel is a well-fortified castle with a 2,500-year history and it has seen Romans, Visigoths, and Crusaders within its walls. Looming over the River Aude, Carcassonne’s massive 1.9-mile walls stretch around the fortress and offer a glimpse into the strength of this castle. Visitors today can walk on the castle walls, explore the ramparts and fortifications as well as many of the inner rooms of the Carcassonne.
Perched high above the city on Castle Rock, the beautiful Edinburg Castle remains one of the most iconic castles with its history as a royal residence to Mary Queen of Scots and King James IV, as a military fortress, and even a prison of war. Visitors have to hike up Castle Hill to enter Edinburg. Upon entering, visitors can explore the castle's military history in the historic prison areas, wander through the gardens and living spaces, and admire Britain's oldest crown jewels, the Honours of Scotland, displayed within the castle. The castle still hosts the annual Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo on the castle grounds drawing massive crowds each year.
In the 13th century, this gorgeous castle became the stronghold for Clan Mackenzie and their cohorts, the MacRaes. However, it has undergone several reconstructions throughout the centuries. Situated on a small island on Loch Alsh, Eilean Donan is now accessible via an arched bridge and visitors here can enjoy the fully renovated castle that had sat in ruins for over 200 years until the MacRae family once again owned the property and worked to bring this Scottish icon back to its former glory.
The Alhambra is a rambling, massive Moorish castle and garden complex that has been home to Spanish royals as well as their conquerors. A fantastic mix of cathedrals, palaces, fountains, and grounds, El Alhambra is an astonishing mix of both Christian and Islamic heritage. The advanced freshwater system put in place centuries ago has provided water to the surrounding Generalife gardens, lovely fountains, and religious ablution pools of the castle, and is only one of the many marvels of this spectacular castle.
King Christian IV built this charming Renaissance castle in Hillerod as a royal residence, nestled on three small islands on Castle Lake. Today, guests can visit the fully restored castle that was nearly completely destroyed by an 1859 fire but rebuilt to its original grandeur. The exquisite formal gardens lead the way into the untypically ornate castle, and the most impressive space in Fredriksborg is the stunning Castle Chapel which is constructed with gold, ebony, and silver altarpiece that was untouched by the devastating fire. Today, the castle also holds one of Denmark’s most important museums on its grounds, providing visitors with a comprehensive history of the Nordic country and its people.
Himeji Castle is an imposing 600-year-old fortress built to protect the city of Kyoto and is still moated today. Over 1,000 cherry trees surround the massive white, traditionally Japanese structure, as well as blossom within the castle's interior courtyards, influencing the nickname of the White Castle through the centuries. Visitors can enter through the Oteman Gate that leads directly to the tertiary bailey known as San-no-maru which is also filled with cherry trees and wide lawn space. Today Himeji Castle even allows visitors to climb to the very top of the castle keep, but beware because, past the sixth level, each successive floor becomes smaller and more challenging.
Neuschwanstein is one of Europe’s most iconic castles. The rocky outcropping site where this spectacular castle sits was home to a castle as early as 1090, but King Ludwig is credited with building the current structure in 1869. With over 200 rooms including the gorgeous Throne Room, white limestone exterior, and multi-spired rooftop, this castle is a bucket list destination for castle-loving travelers. The best photo op of the castle's exterior is from Queen Mary’s Bridge which spans the gorge of the nearby Pollatt River.
The unmatched garden grounds of Versailles make a visit to this French chateau a must-do for any castle lover. But the interior of the Palace is even more stunning than the immaculate, extensive gardens. Built as a hunting estate, Versailles was the seat of the French government during the reign of Louis XVI, and the ornate architecture is most evident in rooms like the bedroom of Marie Antoinette, the Hall of Mirrors, and the opulent Grand Apartments. The nearly 2,000-acre site is home to gardens, stables, royal tennis courts, the Estate of Trianon, and the Palace which houses over 6,000 precious artworks as a 2,300-room museum.
The bright colors of Pena National Palace stand as a reminder of its curator, King Ferdinand II, known as the Artist-King of Portugal. European and Middle Eastern Baroque influenced the castle’s architecture resulting in whimsical turrets colored in bold red and gold that bring out the structure’s Moorish and Gothic roots. A royal summer residence until 1910 when the monarchy was overthrown, this hilltop castle has a completely different vibe than most other European castles.
The current residence of the Czech President, beautiful Prague Castle is the largest ancient castle in the world. Initially constructed in 880 AD, the over 70,000-square-meter castle is home to the St. Vitus Cathedral where kings and queens have been crowned and St. George’s Basilica, the Romanesque church that was founded in 920 although only parts of the original structure have survived.
Relatively small by European castle standards, Vianden Castle sits high above the Our River and remnants of past structures excavated in the current castle’s location indicate that guard towers were in this spot around 275 AD. The current buildings that makeup Schloss Vianden were built between the 11th and 14th centuries and a return to state ownership in 1977 by the Family of the Grand Duke of Luxembourg allowed the castle to be completely renovated after it fell into disrepair. Today, visitors can check out the interesting rooms that make up this historic and beautiful castle like the chapel, the Knight’s Study, and the Arms Hall.
In 2019, the complete restoration of the Shurijo Castle began after burning down for the fourth time since its initial creation around 1400. Built with both Japanese and Chinese construction techniques, this impressive castle was the cultural and political center of the Ryukyu Kingdom for 450 years. Visitors today love to experience the ukeejo ceremony five minutes before the castle opens, just outside of the castle’s Houshinmon Gate. The Japanese castle offers visitors a glimpse into the audience halls, imperial living quarters, and Shurijo’s throne room which has a similar feel to Beijing’s Forbidden City.
Home to Ottoman Empire royalty for 400 years, Topkapi Castle entertained sultans and courtiers in the 14th century when the palace was first built. Today, visitors appreciate the visually stunning design and architecture of Topkapi Palace, resplendent with intricate blue and white tile work in the Harem apartments where the Sultans and their families lived as well as the extravagant gilded Privy Chamber complete with a gurgling fountain. The castle’s Imperial Treasury holds precious antiquities from the ancient Ottomans including an 86-carat diamond and the famous Topkapi Dagger that was the focus of the 1964 movie Topkapi.
This well-known London landmark is actually a cluster of buildings and fortifications that originally held everything from a prison to the Royal Palace. Situated on the Thames River, the Tower today draws in visitors by the thousands to walk through the infamous Tower Prison, to peek at Britain’s Crown Jewels, now stored in England’s most popular castle, and to meet the guardians of the Tower, the four ravens that live on the south lawn of the compound. A fun experience at this massive castle is the “Beefeater” or Yeoman Warder tour that takes guests to the Traitor’s Gate which used to only be accessible by the river.
Established by William the Conqueror in the 11th century, Windsor Castle has been home to over 40 Monarchs and is still occupied by the British Royalty to this day. Guests at Windsor can watch the ceremonial changing of the palace guards as well as tour grand areas of the castle like the historic state apartments. The Grand Reception Room features a priceless malachite urn, presented to Queen Victoria by Tsar Nicholas in the 1930s. A surprising inclusion at the castle is Queen Mary’s Doll House, a fully working toy set complete with electricity, running hot and cold water, and working elevators. The large castle grounds include the beautiful Gothic St. George’s Chapel, built by King Edward IV in 1475, where 11 royal monarchs are buried.
This spectacular green and white Baroque castle was once the home to Catherine the Great and Nicholas I. Today, this lavish palace houses priceless art and artifacts and hints at the opulent lifestyle of Russian royalty; the current building is the fifth and only remaining version of this castle. Interior rooms to visit here include St. George Hall, a large throne room, the Malachite Room, and the Concert Hall.
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