Castles represent the ideal vacation destination, simply because everyone can find something to love about them. They are usually historical hot spots – touchstones where we can connect with the real-life men and women that led nations, produced famous art, fought battles, and inspired legends. They are feats of architectural genius, wealth, and human will, and they can be works of art in and of themselves. And if none of that interests you, well, they’re still pretty darn impressive to look at. So if you’re planning a vacation anywhere in the world, consider one of these: ten of the world’s most famous castles.
10. Bran Castle
Bran Castle is simultaneously the most obscure and most famous castle on this list – at least in the eyes of pop culture. Commonly called Castle Dracula, Bran was built roughly 600 years ago between Wallachia and Transylvania in modern day Romania. At one point the castle would host the medieval ruler who would inspire the horror legend known around the world today. Romania’s tourist industry makes good use of that legend – many of Bran’s special events happen on and around Halloween, and you can find a renaissance-faire-style theme park behind the castle, where family-friendly vampires play the role traditionally filled by the black knight. Bran is open to the public year-round and can be explored individually or as part of a guided tour. Though this castle is rather out of the way, relatively speaking, it’s a star facet of Romania’s tourist industry, so they make it easy to find transportation and lodging.
9. Le Chateau Frontenac
Le Chateau Frontenac is the only castle on this list you can sleep in. Well, legally. In fact, Frontenac is a Fairmont luxury hotel in the heart of Quebec, Canada. It was designed and built for purposes of luxury roughly a century ago, but it has seen its fair share of modern history: Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt met here to discuss strategy in 1943, and Alfred Hitchcock filmed scenes at the hotel for I Confess about ten years later. Frontenac offers everything you would expect from a high-end luxury resort, plus the sensation of living in a castle (if only temporarily). It’s the closest thing most of us are going to get to being royalty.
8. Hearst Castle
Who says you need to go to Europe to see a castle? William Randolph Hearst, a newspaper magnate, approached architects in 1915 to build “a bungalow” on a hill in central California, about 250 miles from Los Angeles. Construction began in 1919 and technically did not stop until 1947 – and only because Hearst fell ill. All said and done, Hearst’s castle had more than fifty bedrooms, more than sixty bathrooms, multiple tennis courts, a movie theater, the world’s largest private zoo, and an airfield. It even features a front from an actual Roman temple, deconstructed in Europe and reconstructed on site. Hearst Castle was built by what could be considered American royalty, and hosted equally prestigious guests from Charlie Chaplin to Winston Churchill.
7. The Palace of the Grand Masters of the Knights of Rhodes
Let’s just call it The Palace of the Grand Masters. The original palace was built sometime in the 14th century, but was subsequently destroyed in 1856 when ammunition stored in nearby cellars exploded. The palace of today is actually a pseudo-medieval reconstruction built during the Italian occupation of Rhodes starting in 1912. Still, with upwards of 150 rooms and a full collection of Greek and Roman antiques, today’s Palace of the Grand Masters warrants a visit if you happen to be in Rhodes.
6. Matsumoto Castle
Also known as “Crow Castle” thanks to its stark black walls, Matsumoto Castle is unique on this list for being largely constructed of wood. In fact, Matsumoto’s castle is considered a “national treasure” of Japan as its oldest surviving wooden castle. The original keep and inner walls – built 508 years ago – still remain. There are events at the castle year round, but the best time may be in middle to late April when Matsumoto’s cherry blossoms are in bloom: toward sunset they illuminate the trees and guests are allowed into the castle’s interior garden for free. Be sure to set aside time to visit the castle during the day too, though – the moat is teeming with colorful carp and the view of the surrounding countryside and distant mountains from the castle’s narrow windows is not to be missed.
5. Alcazar Castle
Alcazar may be the most visually familiar castle on this list: rumor has it that the design for Cinderella’s Castle in Anaheim California’s Disneyland was based on this ancient Spanish fortress. It’s difficult to pin down when, exactly, the castle was built: there’s some evidence that the site was originally a Roman fort, but at some point the occupying Arab forces constructed their own fortification over top it. Alcazar as we know it today was first mentioned in 1120, making it more than 900 years old. It has since played a major role in Spanish history, notably housing Isabella I before she was crowned queen, and has served as a prison, academy, and of course as a luxurious palace. Alcazar and the nearby town of Segovia recreate the positive aspects of life in the Middle Ages, and will prove fascinating to history buffs and medieval enthusiasts.
4. Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle is without a doubt the gem of Scotland: despite its storied past and incredible age, it still looms large over the city of Edinburgh. The first thing you’ll notice about this castle is that it sits upon a tremendous rocky hill appropriately called Castle Rock, which is in fact the plug of an extinct volcano. There are records indicating that people were living at Castle Rock as early as the second century, but the first documented evidence of a castle proper suggests it existed as early as 1093 – making it some 920 years old. Given that it watches over the Scottish capital, this castle has seen its fair share of action and history, from siege to occupation and everything in between. Edinburgh’s Castle is more than a fortress – it’s a universally-recognized symbol of Scotland.
3. Neuschwanstein Castle
Neuschwanstein is a 120 year old luxury palace built over the ruins of a much older castle on a hill overlooking Bavaria, Germany. This place would be worth visiting if only for the vantage point – it commands a remarkable view of two lakes, two other castles, multiple towns and localities, a reservoir, and lush green mountains giving way to rolling hills from more than 3,000 feet up. The castle itself is no less impressive, as it was specifically designed as an ode to kings and queens and idealized medieval life. Despite its sprawling size, Neuschwanstein only had space for the king’s private rooms and lodging for his servants – in fact, the notoriously private Ludwig II was only able to live in his secluded retreat for 172 days before his death. Less than six weeks later, Neuschwanstein Castle opened its doors to paying visitors.
2. Windsor Castle
Windsor Castle is one of the most prestigious structures in the world and, at nearly 950 years old, is one of the oldest castles on this list. It is the largest occupied castle in the world, and the longest-occupied palace in Europe. In fact, this castle is an official residence of The Queen of England even today: it operates as a weekend home and is used for formal duties such as the Easter Court in March and April. Visitors are welcome in certain parts of the castle year-round but certain events, such as the famous Changing the Guard, only happen when The Queen is in residence.
1. Chateau de Versailles
The palace of Versailles rests in the modern day edge of Paris, and remains a hotspot of European history even today. The palace we can visit now was actually constructed across four major “building campaigns,” but the original began as a hunting lodge built in 1624, which would serve as the core of the budding palace as the years progressed. In the end, Versailles boasts almost 30,000 assorted works of art across 2,300 rooms, in addition to the breathtaking gardens and opulent splendor of the architecture itself. Visiting Versailles could easily become a vacation in and of itself: fully experiencing any one of the palace’s spectacles could easily consume an entire day.