Castles, forts, strongholds or whatever you want to call them, are some of the world’s most astonishing works of architecture. Some have been home to famous royalty. Some are settings for great works of literature. Some have inspired fairy tales. Others served as set for blockbuster movies. Here are 10 castles we think you should visit.
Alnwick Castle, England
Movie buffs take note because this private residence in the lush Northumberland countryside was used as a filming location for Harry Potter and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Built during the Norman period and owned by the same family for over 700 years, today Alnwick Castle is the second-biggest inhabited castle in the United Kingdom. Visit the opulent Renaissance-style state rooms, admire paintings by Old Masters and browse archaeological treasures. Or journey back to a bygone era by dressing up as a knight or princess, playing medieval games and stepping into a mystical dragon’s lair.
Bran Castle, Romania
If you are looking for something spooky then check out Dracula’s Castle. Perched on an outcrop in Transylvania’s Carpathian Mountains, its turreted towers break through the trees just as Bram Stoker described them in his novel. Vlad the Impaler, a real-life Dracula and another inspiration for Stoker, was held captive here in 1400s. Walking between rooms connected by underground tunnels and climbing up to the towers, it’s easy to appreciate why it influenced one of the most famous vampire stories. There’s over 50 rooms to see at Bran Castle, each decorated to the taste of former resident Queen Maria of Romania.
Castle of Astypalaia, Greece
Your reward for hiking to a hilltop above a coastal village on the island of Astypalaia is the gorgeous Venetian-style Castle of Astypalaia. A noble Venetian family who once ruled the island placed the castle strategically on the hill to ward off pirate attacks from the Byzantines and Turks. Today, the black stone structure is a powerful image high above the typically Greek whitewashed houses of the town below. Spend time looking for the memorial stones engraved with the names and emblems of the Venetian rulers. You’ll want to come for the panoramic views of the blue-green Aegean Sea, too.
Conwy Castle, Wales
On an island blessed with a legacy of stunning medieval landmarks, this 13th-century fortification is arguably Britain’s finest. One of several Welsh castles commissioned by King Edward I, Conwy Castle stands over the River Conwy with eight enormous towers and two monumental barbicans. The views over the Irish Sea and mountainous landscapes of North Wales from the battlements are nothing but exquisite. Keep an eye open for the slightly unnerving sculpture of the head of Edward I, found hanging above a courtyard. Around 0.75 miles (1.2 kilometers) of defensive walls encircle the medieval town of Conwy and link to the castle.
Matsumoto Castle, Japan
Constructed in 1504, Matsumoto Castle is among Japan’s oldest castles and looks more like a pagoda or temple than the former home of feudal lords. The black and white multitier exterior stands elegantly against the dramatic backdrop of the Japanese Alps. It is possible to climb up through each level and visit rooms with exhibitions of everything from animal bones to armory and pottery. Be sure to check out the unbeatable scenery from the tsukimi yagura (moon-viewing platform). Also striking are the spring-blooming cherry blossom trees that add color to the castle gardens.
Mehrangarh Fort, India
During his travels through India, Rudyard Kipling described Mehrangarh Fort as "a palace that might have been built by titans and colored by the morning sun." It doesn’t take long to understand his sentiments upon seeing a colossal sandstone fort set high above the blue city of Jodhpur. This 500-year-old fortress was founded by a Rajput king and its imposing bastions and battlements shelter a collection of beautiful courtyards and palaces. They offer a glimpse into the luxurious lifestyles of the maharajas and maharanis that have lived here.
Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany
When Disney needed some inspiration for the Cinderella’s Castle at their Florida and Tokyo resorts they turned to this masterpiece by the eccentric King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Everything about Neuschwanstein Castle conjures up the image of a fairy tale. There’s the clifftop location, the multiple turreted towers, the soaring spires and the backdrop of forested mountains. The interior isn’t outshone by the spectacular façade, either. Ludwig decorated each room to represent the medieval folklore told in the works of Richard Wagner.
Palacio Nacional de Pena, Portugal
Arguably one of the world’s most colorful castles stands high up on a rock in Portugal’s Sintra-Cascais Natural Park. The Romantic-style Pena Palace oozes exuberance and is a mishmash of architectural styles such as neo-Gothic, neo-Manueline and neo-Renaissance. Its blue, red, yellow, multicolored façade is stunning against the park’s greenery. The design was the dream of King Ferdinand II, who remodeled the buildings of a 16th-century monastery. Encompassing the palace is an equally extravagant garden filled with plants and trees from around the world.
Predjamski Castle, Slovenia
Fancy visiting a castle embedded into the side of a cliff? You can do just that in the small Slovenian town of Predjama. Predjamski Castle dates back around 800 years, although had to be rebuilt in 1570 after being destroyed by an earthquake. It was once the home of a 15th-century knight called Erazem of Predjama, who fought with the Habsburgs and started expeditions from secret tunnels within the fortress. The castle’s torture chamber and weapon’s room provides a snapshot of medieval life. Behind the castle is a huge cave, where evidence of Stone Age and Roman occupation have been found.
Swallow’s Nest, Crimea
Despite not being a castle in the traditional sense of protecting its residents, the sheer audacity of placing this neo-Gothic landmark on a cliff overlooking the Crimean Sea makes it worthy of mention. The battlements, towers and spires are the stuff of a fairy tale and the surrounding balconies extend over the cliff itself. A great way to get here is to catch a ferry from Yalta and watch as it appears as you cruise around the headland. Stick around for sunset and you’ll be forgiven for thinking that you’ve been transported to a far-flung mystical land.