Castles reward travelers like no other destination, and there are plenty to check out throughout Europe. Each one allows visitors to step back in time and marvel at the grandeur of medieval architecture, and, perhaps, wince at some of the more unsavory practices of the Middle Ages (torture, serfdom, et al). Here are some of our favorite European castles — but for the record, any castle is sure to provide a fascinating, memorable experience.
Castelo de Sao Jorge
Anyone who has visited Lisbon probably noticed the imposing citadel looming over the city from a nearby hillside. Castelo de Sao Jorge has stood in that spot for more than 800 years, although the Moorish fortress was destroyed by an earthquake that devastated Portugal in 1755 and the subsequent renovations were not completed until the early 20th century. Today, visitors can take a guided tour to learn about the castle’s functions prior to the quake — including prison, theater, and slave-trading outpost — and snap photographs of the stone archways and towers that date back centuries.
Located in the heart of Salzburg, Hellbrunn Palace offers visitors one of the most unique castle tour experiences anywhere. The castle’s architect, Mark Sittich von Hohenems (1574–1619), had what you might call a ‘prankish’ sense of humor. He planted numerous jeux d’eau (or ‘watergames’) throughout the palace grounds that have remained intact to this day; those who set foot on certain cobblestones or floor tiles will activate hidden fountains and receive an unexpected spritz of water. Watergames aside, the palace grounds are a stunning example of Baroque architecture.
Germany’s Neuschwanstein is arguably the most iconic castle in Europe, so it should comes as no surprise that the lavish Bavarian palace receives as many as 6,000 visitors per day. Designed as a fairytale-esque homage to composer Richard Wagner, Neuschwanstein was commissioned by “Mad” King Ludwig II in 1868 and completed in 1886 (seven years after the king’s death). The 30-minute tour offers visitors a fascinating glimpse into the mind of one of history’s most eccentric monarchs. However, European travel guru Rick Steves notes that nearby Hohenschwangau offers “a better glimpse of Ludwig’s life”, thanks to a collection of toys, books, and other personal possessions. Steves says it is also statelier, older, and less crowded on a daily basis. But if you have a day to kill in Bavaria, don’t choose between Neuschwanstein or Hohenschwangau — go see them both.
Located adjacent to what Frommer’s describes as “one of the scariest-looking gorges ever”, Croatia’s Pazin Kastel initially served as a nearly impenetrable stronghold for the Holy Roman Empire when it was built in the late 900s. Today, the castle is home to one of Croatia’s “best ethnographic museums”, and visitors can also marvel at the imposing stone work that has remained eerily well-preserved over the last 1,000+ years.
One of Europe’s oldest castles, Prague Castle was constructed in the 9th century as comfortable living quarters for Bohemian monarchs and has subsequently served as the Czech royal and presidential residence for more than a millennia. The structure, which is designated in the Guinness Book of World Records as the ‘largest ancient castle’, was also home to the first convent in Bohemia. Tourists can visit the 70-square-kilometer compound today, which includes a cathedral, ornate gardens, and several palaces. The Bohemian crown jewels are also kept at Prague Castle — in a hidden room.
For a classic castle experience, Britain’s Warwick Castle has it all – from lavish ballrooms and regal courtyards to smelly dungeons and (now defunct) torture chambers. According to BBC contributor Faye Claridge, visitors should check out the ‘atmospheric ghost tower’, as well as the numerous museums located throughout the castle. However, be warned that Warwick Castle is one of the UK’s top tourist attractions — and weekend crowds are all but guaranteed.
By Brad Nehring