Usually built for royalty or nobility, castles are magnificent fortified residences, evoking images of a distant romantic past, legends and fairy tales. You are about to be transported back in time, to a medieval world filled with knights, princesses and legends…
castles in the sky
When it comes to thinking of medieval castles, we think of those built in the Middle Ages, between the year 500 and 1500. Although this period generally refers to Europe, there are also a surprising number of medieval castles in Africa and in Asia. The castles of the Americas, however, are more recent and generally date from the era of European exploration.
Some of Europe’s most famous castles, like Neuschwenstein, were actually built much later in a neo-contemporary style to resemble the castles of old. Dotting the countryside, imposing medieval fortifications, of impressive beauty, are still admirable a millennium later.
Eltz Castle, Germany
Some countries have more than their fair share of magnificent medieval castles, and Germany is one of them. Eltz Castle is one of the finest examples of a German knight’s castle, and has remained in the same family from generation to generation since its construction began in 1157. Surrounded on three sides by a small river, the Eltz Castle’s foundation follows the shape of the 70-meter rock on which it sits, giving some of its interior rooms an odd shape.
Although it was involved in a few small skirmishes, the castle was fortunately never destroyed in battle, so it never had to be rebuilt. Some additions were made over several centuries, with restorations in the 19th and 20th centuries helping to preserve the superb architecture. The castle’s current owner, Dr. Karl Graf von und zu Eltz-Kempenich, restored the castle again between 2009 and 2012. The surrounding nature of Eltz Castle also helps retain its “frozen in time” appearance.
Bran Castle, Romania
This hauntingly beautiful castle, high on its perch, is said to be the inspiration for the castle in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. Built in 1388, the lord of the castle was in charge of collecting money and keeping the Ottoman Empire at bay, with the help of professional soldiers. Inhabited by Transylvanian princes some time later, Bran Castle eventually lost its strategic importance and fell into disrepair at the end of the 19th century.
When Transylvania became part of Romania in 1918, Romania’s last queen, Queen Maria, restored the castle and it became one of her favorite royal residences. Today, the castle belongs to his heirs, the Archduke and the Archduchesses.
Bojnice Castle, Slovakia
It’s hard to say when exactly this lovely Central European castle was built. The first written reference to Bojnice Castle appears in a document from 1113 from Zobor Abbey when it was made of wood. Gradually turned into stone during the 1200s, this medieval castle has belonged to several aristocratic families over the centuries.
The romantic appeal of Bojnice Castle includes its surroundings: under the castle there is a cave and underground lakes, and on its grounds there is a huge 600-year-old linden tree, in whose shadow King Matthias I of the 15th century century would have supped for years.
Predjama Castle, Slovenia
This 13th century castle is literally built in a cave!… and on a 122 meter high cliff. The “cave castle” also drags with it a fascinating legend. In the 14th century, the knight Erazem Lueger of Predjama ran against the emperor who besieged his castle. What the Imperial forces did not know, however, was that the Knight Erazem was using a secret tunnel through the cave to replenish food and supplies. According to legend, he was betrayed by one of his servants, who signaled enemy forces to fire a cannon while Erazem was using the medieval toilet outside the castle, killing him.
Windsor Castle, England
England is the country we most associate with royalty these days, so it’s only fitting that Queen Elizabeth II’s second home outside of London has the distinction of being the oldest and largest. busy castle of the world.
Windsor Castle was built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century, and since then 39 monarchs have called the castle home. The massive round tower – which is one of the most recognizable features of the castle – was built in 1170.
The castle was originally used to prevent western countries from approaching London. The kings favored it, as it was close to the royal hunting grounds, so it was eventually turned into a comfortable royal residence.
Brunnenburg Castle, Italy
This castle has a German name, because it is located in the Italian Alps near the border of Austria. But it also has an Italian name: Fontana Castle. Both names mean “the castle of the fountain”, which refers to a natural water source located nearby.
Built in the 13th century, this magnificent medieval castle located on the top of a mountain was restored at the beginning of the 20th century. In the 1950s, Brunnenburg Palace was home to its most famous owner, the American poet Ezra Pound. His daughter, the poet Mary de Rachewiltz, now 94, still lives there. To this day, the castle and the park are respectively an agricultural museum and a working farm. There is also a cultural center for literature and the arts.
Himeji Castle, Japan
Originally built in the 1400s (although the current structure is more recent), this castle is one of the best preserved in Japan. Also called the White Heron’s Castle for its pale hue and graceful design, it is one of only 12 original castles still standing in the country. The grand complex has over 80 buildings, connected by an ingeniously designed maze of walls, gates and walkways that would surely have baffled any invader. Although the defensive walls are made of stone, the castle’s impressive six-storey keep is made of wood and white plaster. The castle grounds are also beautiful, with a thousand cherry trees blooming in the spring.
Castle in Trakai Island, Lithuania
When Trakai Island Castle was built by the country’s Grand Dukes in the early 15th century, this remarkable red brick structure in the middle of Lac Galvé was only accessible by boat. As the seat of the ruler and therefore the importance of the position it occupied, it had to be defensible – and indeed, it was never conquered.
The Grand Duke also welcomed important visitors to the flourishing city in the great hall of the castle, entirely decorated with stained glass. The castle gradually lost its importance and became a prison which burned down in a fire in the 17th century. Restored in the early 20th century, the castle is now the Trakai History Museum.
Örebro Castle, Sweden
This imposing castle built on an island in the Svartan River in southern Sweden is notable for its massive turrets on each corner. Dating back to the mid-14th century during the reign of King Magnus Eriksson, the exact age of Örebro Castle is not known and, like many medieval castles, it has been enhanced over the centuries.
Besieged nine times and conquered more than once, it has quite a colorful history. As well as being a royal house, Örebro was once home to a rebel leader, whose ghost is said to haunt the halls. The castle also served as a prison, where suspected witches were tortured and executed — so it’s no surprise that spirits supposedly run rampant. Fortunately, Sweden is considered one of the most peaceful countries in the world.
Conwy Castle, Wales
Built in just four years between 1283 and 1287 by the English King Edward 1st, this castle in Wales was originally ‘limed’ so that from a distance it appears sparkling white. The view from the castle is also one of a kind: it overlooks a picturesque harbor and is framed by the romantic Snowdonia mountains.
Surrounded by a stone wall and reinforced by huge round towers, Conwy Castle was actually intended to serve as a defense against the local Welsh people who were unhappy with their occupation by the English.
The Welsh rebelled, and during the uprising poor Edward was trapped in the castle (with a single barrel of wine) from which he never escaped.
Guaita Castle, San Marino
The microstate of San Marino is its own country, but it is completely surrounded by Italy. Guaita Castle overlooks the capital, also called San Marino. It is the oldest and probably the most famous of the “three towers of San Marino”. For this purpose, Guaita is also called the “first tower”, since it dates from the 11th century, although it was rebuilt in the 15th century.
The trio of citadels and a series of walls were used to protect the small town on Mount Titano — and it worked, as San Marino is one of the oldest republics in the world and the only Italian city-state not to not have been incorporated into Italy. Guaita was also later used as a prison — where graffiti of prisoners over 200 years old was recently discovered.
Kasbah of the Oudayas, Morocco
Located in the city of Rabat, at the mouth of the Bou Regreg River leading to the Atlantic Ocean, this 12th-century Moroccan castle housed the sultans who ruled the region. Very well located to defend against invaders or pirates, it offers a magnificent view of the ocean.
The Kasbah of the Oudayas also contains the Bab Oudaia, an intricately carved medieval gateway, and a 12th century mosque. Several centuries later, the kasbah became a refuge for Muslims fleeing Spain, as well as a hiding place for pirates. Today the kasbah contains a museum and the beautiful Andalusian gardens.
Gravensteen Castle, Belgium
A true medieval gem, the exact year of construction of this limestone castle is known thanks to the Latin engraving that adorns its entrance. She proclaims that Count Philippe of Alsace — or as she announces more grandiosely, “Philippe, Count of Flanders and Vermandois, son of Count Théoderique and Sibylla” — built in 1180.
The ‘Castle of the Counts’, located in the city of Ghent, was held by the Counts of Flanders until it later became a courthouse and a prison — complete with dungeons and a torture chamber. Due to its horrible reputation, the ruined castle was nearly razed to the ground in the 19th century. Luckily it was saved by the curators and it reopened as a tourist attraction in 1913.
Kilkenny Castle, Ireland
Many of Ireland‘s castles are in ruins — romantic ruins, but ruins nonetheless. Kilkenny Castle, however, is one of the oldest intact medieval castles in the country. It dates back to the 13th century and was built on the site of an ancient wooden structure built by the legendary ruler Strongbow.
The stone castle then belonged to the Earls of the Butler family for nearly 600 years, home to kings, queens and other colorful characters. Lady Margaret Butler, the grandmother of England’s Queen Anne Boleyn, was born here — and her ghost is said to haunt the castle. The butlers vacated the castle in 1935, leaving it empty until it was handed over to the Irish government in 1967 for the small sum of £50.
Hochosterwitz Castle, Austria
Austria has many majestic medieval castles, but Hochosterwitz Castle sits atop a rocky mountain: a sentinel overlooking the surrounding countryside and distant hills. The castle was first mentioned as early as 860, although much of the current castle dates from the late medieval period.
It attracts attention for its fourteen gates and five drawbridges, which ensured its security and ensured that it was never conquered. It was indeed nearly impossible to reach, as invaders had to traverse its steps before arriving at the main stronghold — not to mention the long, winding climb! It belongs to the same family, the Khevehüllers, since the 16th century.
Mehrangarh Fort, India
Mehrangarh is one of the most imposing hilltop forts in India and dates back to the late medieval period. It is also one of the largest and best preserved, with ramparts towering 122 meters above the city of Jodhpur in northwestern India. The palaces and temples inside are filled with colorful decoration and carved stones.
The Fort was built by a branch of the then-ruling Rajput clan, the Rathores, in the 15th century, and was named Mehrangarh, or ‘sun fort’, as the clan was said to be descended from the sun god Surya. The various rulers who lived there continuously improved the fort for more than 500 years, which is still managed by the current head of the Rathore clan, Maharaja Gaj Singh II.
Topkapi Palace, Turkey
This late medieval fortified palace in Istanbul was built around 1453 for the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Sultans ruled over the Topkapi Palace complex for 400 years, as did the Imperial Treasury and Library, which were also located there.
Inside a massive gate flanked by two towers, courtyards lead to the inner buildings, including the “harem”, the private residences where the sultan’s wives, concubines and children lived. The interior of the castle is richly decorated, using colorful tiles and peaceful gardens. It also occupies a striking position at the tip of a peninsula overlooking the Golden Horn, an entrance to the Bosphorus River.
Alcazar of Segovia, Spain
The ship-like shape of this 13th-century castle in central Spain makes it look like it’s about to take to the skies! Above where two rivers meet, the Alcazar of Segovia was the home of Spanish kings, with many secret passageways leading to the water and other palaces in the city.
This fairy-tale castle, complete with graceful slate spiers, is also said to have been one of the inspirations for Walt Disney World’s Cinderella Castle. The highest point of the real castle, the massive tower of Juan II, is only accessible by a spiral staircase of 152 steps. The interior of the castle is richly decorated, with a multitude of elaborate ceilings, including that of the “pine cone room”, which takes its nickname from the carving adorning its gilded ceiling.
Ksiaz Castle, Poland
This magnificent castle is a mixture of different architectural styles! Built in the 13th century, Ksiaz Castle was extended by the noble Hochberg family some time later. The story of its origins is worthy of a tale: a young prince wandering in the forest felt spellbound when he arrived on the scene. Presenting a black stone he had found there to the king, the latter granted him permission to build the castle, called the “Prince’s Stone”.
Ksiaz Castle was taken over by the Nazis during World War II where they took advantage of a huge system of tunnels built under the castle. Legend has it that somewhere in the caves hides, among other things, the Wałbrzych Golden Train, trains driven by the Nazis transporting stolen goods mainly from Jews. They are just waiting to be found by the many treasure hunters who are still looking for them today.
The Forbidden City, China
It took fourteen years for the Chinese emperor to erect this imposing fortified palace in Beijing, the construction of which began in 1406. A canal had to be built in order to transport the necessary materials. The red and yellow colored buildings, surrounded by a wall and a moat, were well decorated.
It bears the name of forbidden city, because part of the rooms were reserved for none other than the emperor and his family. Other rooms, however, were used for official business.
Despite three buildings struck by lightning, instilling fear in the emperor, the Forbidden City stood firm for 500 years and hosted 24 emperors. It is now a museum.
Citadel of Carcassonne, France
The Cité de Carcassonne in the south of France is definitely more of a city than a castle – as its name suggests. Already occupied before Roman times, it was developed in medieval times, around the 12th century. It is one of the best remaining examples of a medieval fortified town in Europe.
First presided over by the Counts of Carcassonne, the 53-tower castle became a royal fortress in the 13th century. The restoration of the ruined citadel, a Victorian project, saved this major example of medieval architecture.
Almourol Castle, Portugal
Almourol Castle, dubbed the most beautiful castle in central Portugal, was conquered by the Templars during the Christian “reconquest” of the Moors. It was notably rebuilt after they took possession in 1171, as indicated by the date inscribed on the castle door.
Strategically located in the middle of the Tagus River, it is only accessible by boat. The castle and its nine defensive towers maintained an important position on the river during the Middle Ages, until it fell into ruin.
It was rebuilt in the 19th century and in itself embodied the romanticism of the medieval period! Even today, surrounded by small villages, Almourol seems to belong to the past.
Castle of Sully-sur-Loire, France
This romantic French castle seems to float on water! The castle keep was built by the lord of Sully in 1395, to defend the river, but also to organize big parties.
Once connected to the mainland by drawbridges, this medieval castle has a rich history: Joan of Arc stayed there to visit the King of France Charles VII. Although it was damaged during the Second World War and has undergone many modifications over the years, restorations of the Château de Sully-sur-Loire have preserved its medieval splendour.
Cairo Citadel, Egypt
This medieval fortress, also called Citadel of Saladin or Salah El-Din, was built in the 12th century by Saladin, the Sultan of Egypt, to defend against religious soldiers from Europe.
In order to ensure that the location site of his castle was as good as it was said to be, Saladin, according to legend, scattered raw meat all over Cairo. The only place where it was not spoiled at the end of the day was obviously the site of the Citadel.
Although Saladin died before his citadel was completed, subsequent Egyptian rulers ruled the complex for over 800 years. Over the years, the citadel has grown in size and the mosque of Mohammed Ali Pasha is now the number one attraction there.
Alnwick Castle, England
Alnwick Castle was Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter films ! The castle was also used for the television series Downton Abbey .
The castle was built in the mid-1300s by the Lords and Earls of the Percy family, who turned it into a fortress. It now has towers, a curtain wall, gates and battlements as well as stone figures that serve to confuse attackers. Restored in the 18th century, the castle is now home to the 12th Duke and his family, and also sponsors a study abroad program for American students (just to have even more in common with Hogwarts!).
Ribat of Monastir, Tunisia
This Islamic defensive structure was built in 797! Many of the current buildings in the Ribat of Monastir date from the 8th to 10th centuries, with tall towers built centuries later. The ribat, however, was not only used for military purposes or to keep watch over invaders; it also housed prayer rooms for religious and student communities. More than simple lookouts, the towers were used for signaling between ribat. The spiral staircase to climb there has a hundred steps.
Glamis Castle, Scotland
Many of Scotland‘s finest ‘medieval’ castles, such as Eilean Donan and Duart castles, are actually relatively recent reconstructions of original buildings that were in ruins.
In search of authenticity, our Scottish selection fell on the castle of Glamis which has never been in ruins and which has been updated several times. It has been continuously occupied since its construction around 1400, first by the line of Lords Glamis, later by Earls.
Several members of Scottish royalty, including Robert 1st, Mary 1st of Scotland and the family of Queen Elizabeth II, have lived there. Today Glamis Castle is occupied by the 19th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne.
Karlstejn Castle, Czech Republic
The Great Tower of this royal palace offers an impressive view of the city, among the surrounding hills. Built around 1350 by the Holy Roman Emperor, Karlstejn Castle was used by the King as a private royal retreat. It was also used to secure sacred relics and imperial crown jewels.
Like most medieval castles, Karstejn was restored from the 15th century, but still retains its original appearance. The castle passed directly from the crown to the state, without ever having been private property.
Gyantse Dzong, Tibet
This dzong, a kind of fortress, is one of the best preserved in Tibet. Its white buildings, blending into the cliffs, served as the home of government officials as well as religious and cultural leaders.
Although the Gyantse Dzong was built in medieval times — the late 1300s — it was a turning point in the British invasion of Tibet in 1903 and 1904. Eventually defeated, the Tibetans still fought until in the end — that’s why Gyantse is nicknamed the ‘city of heroes’.