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History and human drama that transpired within the walls, as well as the astounding architecture of so many castles, contribute significantly to the allure. But they are also romantic and somewhat mystical, evoking images of chivalrous knights in gleaming armor and mighty warrior queens from long ago.
“What makes a castle a castle is that it’s both a place to live and a place to defend. It’s like a fort and a mansion all in one. It is hard to make a house that is both comfortable and easy to defend. The clever ways that castle builders found to keep this balance is always interesting.”
Although we typically associate castles with European history, this architectural style can be found in countries as diverse as Japan, India, Morocco, and Mexico.
Many of them are now centers of live history where people can watch jousting and other old ways of fighting, listen to music from the Middle Ages, or watch craftspeople show how they made things and did things every day a thousand years ago.
They also make excellent backdrops for outdoor concerts, films, theatre, and military performances, as well as for filming television programs and movies on location.
Learn more about 21 of the world’s most beautiful castles, fortified homes that are both a visual feast and a journey back in time to the era in which they were built.
Himeji Castle, Japan
Himeji, located 30 minutes west of Osaka and Kobe by bullet train, epitomizes the Japanese feudal citadel.
The elegant whitewashed structure is known as “White Heron Castle” due to its resemblance to a large avian in flight and its status as a national treasure and World Heritage Site in Japan. Himeji, completed at the beginning of the 17th century, offers daily guided excursions in Japanese and English.
Grand Master Palace in Rhodes, Greece
This iconic medieval castle towers over the Aegean island of Rhodes. Originally constructed as a Byzantine citadel, the Knights of St. John transformed it into its current Gothic style when Rhodes served as their headquarters.
Benito Mussolini used the citadel as a summer residence during the brief Italian occupation of the Dodecanese Islands. Permanent archaeological exhibitions showcase antiquities from ancient Greece and the early Christian era.
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Even though many consider this Bavarian masterpiece the quintessential German castle, it was not built until the late 1800s at the request of King Ludwig II.
The Bavarian monarch commissioned his architects to create a structure that reflected both the operas of Richard Wagner and the romantic ideals of the Middle Ages – a castle as magical as Sleeping Beauty’s at Disneyland, but with the snowcapped Alps in the background and the Bavarian plains stretching out beneath.
Neuschwanstein has been featured in many films, including “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and “The Great Escape.”
Alcázar of Segovia, Spain
The Alcázar is one of the most beautiful castles in all of Europe. It is built on a narrow, rocky outcrop that looks out over the fields of Old Castile in the center of Spain.
Although it began as a Roman fort, it evolved into an archetypal medieval castle with a deep moat, drawbridge, round guard towers, a powerful keep, and richly painted royal chambers over hundreds of years.
Before the royal court was relocated to Madrid, Segovia Castle was the home of Queen Isabella and the strong Phillip II.
Pena Palace, Portugal
Another offspring of the Romantic movement that pervaded Europe in the 19th century, Pena sits atop a hill near Sintra, Portugal.
The castle, commissioned by King Ferdinand II on the site of a derelict monastery dedicated to the Virgin of Pena, is a flamboyant amalgamation of various historical styles, including Gothic, Moorish, and Renaissance elements.
The vibrant red-and-yellow color scheme and striking clock tower of Pena’s castle give it a much more playful atmosphere than other European castles.
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Amber Fortress, India
The Amber Fort, constructed by the Mughal ruler of Rajasthan in the early 17th century, sits atop a ridge near Jaipur, its thick walls reflecting in the waters of Maota Lake.
Courtyards flanked by magnificent examples of Rajput architecture, such as the Maharaja’s Apartments, Sukh Niwas (Hall of Pleasure), and Diwan-i-Am (Royal Audience Hall), define the palace complex within the walls.
Although riding an elephant up the steep entrance road was once popular, visitors are now advised to walk or take a 4×4 vehicle.
Ksar of Aït-Ben-Haddou, Morocco
This huge mudbrick building on the edge of the Sahara has been in more than a dozen movies and TV shows, such as “Game of Thrones,” “Gladiator,” and “The Man Who Would Be King.”
The complex consists of a fortified lower settlement along the Asif Ounila River, where people still reside, and a hilltop citadel partially in ruins.
Originally constructed in the 17th century as a stopover for caravans traveling between Marrakech and Sudan, Berber-style guesthouses provide accommodations for visitors to a ksar.
Kalmar Castle, Sweden
In the waning years of the Viking Age, a defensive structure overlooking the Kalmar Strait on the Baltic Sea was the origin of Kalmar Castle.
Four hundred years later, King Gustav and his sons made Kalmar into a beautiful royal home that, thanks to renovations, looks much like it did in 1592.
In addition to exhibitions, children’s activities, and guided excursions, the best-preserved Renaissance castle in Scandinavia hosts special events such as the Van Gogh multimedia exhibition, which runs until November 2019.
Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Puerto Rico
This 16th-century Spanish citadel guards the entrance to San Juan Bay and is one of the most impressive structures in the Caribbean.
The castle has repelled numerous attacks, including incursions by French pirates and an attack by Sir Francis Drake in 1595. During the Spanish-American War, however, after a severe naval bombardment, it surrendered to American forces.
El Morro and adjacent Castillo San Cristóbal (the largest Spanish-built fort in the western hemisphere) have been part of the San Juan National Historic Site since 1962. The “Field of Fire” in front of the castle is extremely popular for picnicking and kite soaring.
Topkapi Sarayi, Turkey
Although it is officially referred to as a palace, Istanbul’s sprawling Topkapi complex has all the characteristics of a classic castle a defensible location, fortified walls, powerful gateways, and a royal residence occupied by Ottoman sultans from the late 15th century, when it was first built, until the mid-19th century.
It became a museum when the Ottoman Empire fell apart after World War I. The Topkapi has large gardens, wall-top walks with views of the Bosphorus, the Ottoman Imperial Harem, where the ruler’s concubines lived, and the Imperial Treasury, which has the famous emerald-encrusted golden dagger that was stolen and then found again in 1964 heist movie “Topkapi.”
Edinburgh Castle, Scotland
Edinburgh Castle, perched on an ancient volcanic outcrop at the end of the Royal Mile, is considered the “most besieged place” in Britain, having endured at least 26 major assaults throughout its 1,100-year history.
Numerous notable Britons, including Mary, Queen of Scots, Oliver Cromwell, and Sir Walter Raleigh, are inextricably linked to the ancient structure.
The oldest crown jewels of the United Kingdom (the Honours of Scotland) are protected within a castle that also serves as an appropriate venue for the annual Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.
Within the ramparts, numerous events are held throughout the year, including concerts, living history reenactments, and weapon displays. Former military mascots are interred in the Dog Cemetery of the castle.
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Schloss Vianden, Luxembourg
Even though the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg isn’t very big, it has a lot of castles. More than 50 are spread out over an area smaller than London’s city area. The most beautiful is Schloss Vianden, in northern Luxembourg and sits high above the Our River.
The castle was constructed between the 11th and 14th centuries on the location of an ancient Roman fortress that defended the empire against barbarian invasion.
Incorporating elements of Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance architecture, it remained in royal hands until 1977, when the Grand Duke gave it to the state. The largest annual celebration in Vianden is an August medieval festival featuring combat knights, troubadours, jugglers, and artisans.
Novgorod Detinets, Russia
The Kremlin in Moscow may be more well-known, but the one in Novgorod is far superior in terms of the medieval atmosphere.
Novgorod, located 200 kilometers (124 miles) south of St. Petersburg, was the capital of a potent Russian republic from the 11th to the 15th centuries when Moscow eventually eclipsed it.
This authority was concentrated within the Kremlin or Detinets, with their fortified walls and towers.
Present-day landmarks include the silver-domed Cathedral of the Holy Wisdom, the Novgorod Museum, and the Millennium of Russia monument.
Château de Chambord, France
This enormous Loire Valley chateau is the best example of the transition from the fortified fortresses of the Middle Ages to the stately homes of the Renaissance.
The enormous structure (440 rooms) was commissioned as a “hunting lodge” by King Francois I in the early 16th century and took 28 years to construct.
However, the moat, corner turrets, and keep are purely decorative. This year, Chambord is commemorating its 500th anniversary with various special events, including an exhibition examining whether Leonardo da Vinci designed the castle’s double helix staircase.
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Shuri-jô Castle, Okinawa
Shuri, a hilltop fortress and palace complex on the Japanese island of Okinawa, is one of the finest Chinese castle buildings.
Shuri developed a warren of imperial living quarters, audience halls, religious shrines, and an extravagant throne room reminiscent of Beijing’s Forbidden City as the royal court of the independent Ryukyu Kingdom for more than 450 years when China was close by and had a lot of impact on the islands.
The compound was significantly repaired following World War II when Shuri was the Imperial Japanese Army’s local headquarters. The castle’s current activities include a morning gate-opening ritual known as Ukejo, bilingual audio tours of the grounds and daily dance performances.
Bodiam Castle, England
England has much larger castles (Windsor) and more historically significant others (Tower of London). None, however, can match the classic form of Bodiam Castle in East Sussex.
It was built in 1385 as the stronghold of a former royal knight and is the embodiment of a medieval fortress, with high crenelated walls supported by nine stubby towers arranged around a square central courtyard and accessible via a wooden walkway (a drawbridge in days gone by) across a large moat.
During the summer, visitors can try archery, dress in ancient clothes, have afternoon tea with cakes and scones, or go on a guided tour. In 1066, the important Battle of Hastings occurred just seven miles away.
Chapultepec Castle, Mexico
The lone royal fortress in the Western hemisphere looms over Mexico City.
In the late 1700s, the castle was built as a summer home for the viceroy of New Spain. Since then, it has had many uses, including as the palace of Emperor Maximillian and as the site of a battle between Mexican troops and American invaders in 1847.
Chapultepec now houses Mexico’s National Museum of History. Castle tours include visits to the royal quarters, which feature the valuable Malachite Room and Maximillian’s colorful bedroom.
Predjama Castle, Slovenia
Predjama is set across a cave beneath a natural rock arch on the side of a vertical cliff, making this Slovenian castle unique.
When built in the 13th century, its elevated setting rendered it virtually impregnable. Attackers repeatedly laid siege to Predjama, but a secret corridor (which remains today) permitted the defenders to come and go as they pleased.
The castle and its park-like grounds, located 62 kilometers (38 miles) from Ljubljana, host the Erasmus Knight’s Tournament, a medieval festival and jousting match held every July.
Castello Aragonese, Italy
The oldest fortress on our list, this island bastion overlooking the Bay of Naples, dates back to the 5th century BC when Greeks invaded the region. Many armies occupied Aragonese, from Roman legionnaires to Napoleon’s forces.
The family of an Italian lawyer who bought the protected island in 1912 and started fixing up the castle’s battlements, churches, convents, crypts, and gardens now owns the castle. Aragonese Castle has views that go across the bay to Mount Vesuvius. It also has outdoor cafes, a bookshop, art shows, and outdoor movies.
Prague Castle, Czech Republic
As the official residence of the president of the Czech Republic, Prague’s formidable citadel is also one of the few castles in the world that still possesses actual political power.
St. Vitus Cathedral, the Old Royal Palace, ten gardens, and a series of 16th-century cottages known as the Golden Lane, which once housed the castle guards, are also located within its expansive confines.
During daylight and evening hours, excursions last approximately three hours.
Krak des Chevaliers, Syria
Krak des Chevaliers remains one of the world’s greatest castles, even though it is currently inaccessible due to the ongoing conflict in Syria. It is the only castle on our list to have endured (and thankfully survived) 21st-century warfare.
The celebrated Krak, constructed by the Knights of St. John in the 12th century, is regarded as the quintessential crusader fortress in the Middle East and one of the finest examples of medieval military architecture.
The structure on a steep hilltop between Homs and the Mediterranean Sea consists of two massive walls separated by a moat. According to the most recent UNESCO report on the castle (2019), restoration and archaeological work have resumed, but the security situation remains precarious.