There are few places on Earth that inspire awe quite like a castle does. Aided by folk-lore legends, the imagination runs wild on dramatic tales. The most threadbare ruins encourage us to be storytellers — whether it’s knights at battle, relatives vying for the throne, or supernatural forces. It’s rare for the mind to sit still, but every so often there comes a castle so extraordinary, that the fairy tales write themselves.
Windsor Castle, England (UK)
The British Royal Family have a few official residences, but none more famous than Windsor Castle. Favoured by her late majesty Queen Elizabeth II, this impressive estate is the world’s oldest castle in continual use. To this day, it is a regular host for ceremonial and state occasions. You may recognise it as the location chosen for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s televised wedding in 2018.
The castle was never intended to be a royal residence when it was first constructed in the late 11th century. Instead, William the Conqueror sought it as a fortress so he could spy on the River Thames. But his youngest son — Henry I — had different ideas in mind when he came to the throne in 1110.
In the time since, several monarchs have reinvented the castle to their liking. From a Gothic palace added by Edward I to an apartment play on Versailles, Windsor Castle has undergone quite the transformation. You can feel this varied history as you walk through each room and take in the architecture that borders on eclectic.
Château d’Ussé, France
Anyone unable to resist a castle needs to visit the Loire Valley at least once. This world-famous region has been a favourite amongst royals since the Middle Ages — thanks to its central location and proximity to the Loire River. Whilst we would love to include Château de Chambord on this list, the quintessential Renaissance estate is not technically a castle.
Château d’Ussé, however, has history as a fortress. It was passed around the nobility class before being privately purchased French commander Jean V de Bueil. But it was fairytale author Charles Perrault who put this flamboyant castle on the map by using the estate as inspiration for Sleeping Beauty.
To say that stepping into Château d’Ussé is like unfolding the pages of a storybook is an understatement. Yet between the exotic gardens featuring acclimatised citrus trees and the two cedars of Lebanon to rouge bed chambers, Château d’Ussé is more mature than you may expect. You could say it’s more in-line with how Perrault intended his fairy tales to be read: as opposed to the Disney depictions we cherish today.
Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany
Château d’Ussé created Sleeping Beauty, but Neuschwanstein Castle was what inspired the famous animation. The resemblance between the Bavarian beauty and the 1959 classic is remarkable. Specifically with the tall foundations in the heart of a forest, and pointed rooftops peaking above trees.
It wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to say that Neuschwanstein Castle defined Disney’s Silver Age (1950 to 1967). This awe-inspiring castle is also said to have inspired Cinderella’s castle. Even if you’ve never seen the 1950 animation, you’ll be familiar with Disney’s logo.
Neuschwanstein Castle has well and truly earned its nickname as the quintessential ‘Disney Castle’. But even fairy tales cannot capture the pure magic of seeing this dreamy estate in-person. As one of Europe’s most coveted destinations, Neuschwanstein Castle is crowded all-year-round. Even then, it is near impossible to take a bad photo.
Castel Sant’Angelo, Italy
Less “pretty” and more gritty is Castel Sant’Angelo, which next to Neuschwanstein Castle, seems unlikely to win a beauty contest. It’s silhouette is less cinematic and more cylinder; although it was at one point Rome’s tallest building.
But Castel Sant’Angelo is unusually charming, as it is unusual. You wouldn’t guess at first glance, but this landmark has lived a thousand lives since it was first constructed. What started off as the Mausoleum of Hadrian transformed into a papal fortress, a prison, and most recently a national museum. The “Eternal City” of Rome may be a living museum, but few landmarks have such an intimate connection to the Roman Empire as does the Castel Sant’Angelo.
Castel Sant’Angelo is but a few steps away from the legendary St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City. On occasion, visitors are welcome to travel to and fro countries via the castle’s secret fortified corridor. When the devastating Sack of Rome took place in 1527, Pope Clement VII was able to escape thanks to this route.
Blarney Castle, Ireland
Magical and a little mischievous, Blarney Castle is considered one of Ireland’s greatest treasures for good reason. Its traditional stone façade hides a couple of tricks up its sleeve, including a secluded Badger Cave and a Poison Garden (for educational — not practical — purposes).
The attraction which has made Blarney Castle so recognisable worldwide is of course the Blarney Stone. Whoever kisses the stone receives the “gift of the gab”, meaning the ability to persuade others through speech. It’s hard to say if there’s truth to the claims. Either way, the Blarney Stone has quite the kiss list. At the top of this list is Winston Churchill: whose inspirational speeches were vital in Britain winning the Second World War. Churchill kissed the stone in 1912, so it’s possible.
How the stone came into fruition is up for speculation. Some believe it’s a piece of Scotland’s Stone of Destiny, whilst another tale involves a witch. It’s more fun if you don’t question the logic of it all and embrace the magic.
Check out our 5 Days in Ireland guide for further information on visiting Blarney Castle.
Bran Castle, Romania
It doesn’t matter whether you believe in the supernatural or not. Upon seeing Bran Castle for the first time, you imagine yourself as a Jonathan Harker figure awaiting a chilling fate. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is here to stay.
Further inspection reveals that Vlad the Impaler — the historical inspiration behind Dracula — never actually stepped foot on this estate, let alone lived here. Instead, it was a favoured summer residence of Marie of Romania: the country’s last Queen. Unless vampires are immune to sunshine, it seems unlikely that Dracula could ever live here. At least in the daytime.
But this reality check hasn’t stopped enthusiastic crowds from coming every year — nor has it put an end to vampire stalls right outside, or a raging Halloween party held on the castle grounds every year… Find out more with our spooktacular guide to Bran Castle here.
Predjama Castle, Slovenia
Predjama Castle is one of those rare destinations that seem far too good to be true.
For one, this 600-year-old Medieval castle is built directly into the cliffs. If that itself isn’t impressive enough, this cave castle contains a secret network of tunnels that were frequented by a knight famed in folklore. Just below this unbelievable setting is a colony of bats. All these details tie together so cleverly, that maybe it’s beyond the imagination.
This castle may be somewhat of a hidden gem, but those who know about it seem determined to capture it. The enigma appeared in season three of high fantasy Netflix series The Witcher, and has apparently mesmerised Game of Thrones’ author George R.R. Martin (can fans expect those last two books?).
Once you overlook the torture chamber and host of Medieval weapons, there’s something quite romantic about this setting. Maybe daydreams of a knight in shining armour aren’t so outdated after all. Many couples seem to agree because Predjama Castle is rather popular for exchanging wedding vows.