The ten toughest castles in the world

Castles make a pretty backdrop to any vacation. They conjure up images of brave knights and damsels in distress, but the reality was less romantic. Castles were fortifications built to defend important cities, ports, fords, or mountain passes. The best military minds in the world devised ways to destroy them, when they weren’t figuring out better ways to build them. Here are ten castles that proved almost too tough to take. Some took centuries before they fell, or cost the lives of hundreds of attackers. A few never fell at all.

Crac de Chevaliers
One of the best preserved Crusader castles in the Middle East, it protected the pass from the lowlands of Lebanon through the Anti-Lebanon Mountains and into the rich Orontes river valley of Syria. It’s on the Syrian side of the border but its turrets afford fine views of Lebanon. Originally an Arab castle that was taken by the French during the First Crusade in 1099, it became the headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller, a knightly order that protected pilgrims in the Holy Land. They protected themselves too, by strengthening the castle and putting up walls that were up to 100 feet thick. It withstood more than one siege and even the great Saladin couldn’t take it. It eventually fell back into Muslim hands in 1271 but remained the model for castle builders in Europe.

Facing the world’s biggest empire with only a ragtag group of dedicated fighters? Go to the middle of the desert, find a sheer mesa, and hold up in it. That’s what the Sicarii, Jewish resistance fighters, did when they rebelled against the Roman Empire in the first century AD. The location was perfect. The mesa had already been fortified by King Herod as a refuge in case of rebellion, but the Sicarii rebels got it instead. Sheer cliffs rise 300 feet (90 meters) above the desert at their lowest point, and in spots tower up to 1,300 feet (400 meters). The only way up are three winding paths that are exposed to arrows and rocks coming from above. The Romans, in their typical efficiency, built a rampart up the entire way so they could roll up battering rams to breach the walls. The Sicarii committed mass suicide rather than surrender. The Roman camps and walls used to cut Masada off from the rest of the world are still plainly visible.

The Celts in Spain faced the same problem the Sicarii did. How to defeat the Roman Empire? Numancia was one tribe’s answer. This hillfort at the headwaters of the Duero River held out for twenty years until the inevitable end came. The defenders had run out of food and had been reduced to cannibalism. Like the Sicarii, the Celts chose death before dishonor and most of them committed mass suicide in 133 BC. Spain became a Roman province. Today you can see reconstructions of the fort and Roman siege techniques at the site’s musuem.

The samurai were brave warriors ready to face death, but even they must have thought twice about attacking this castle. Completed in 1598, it was the base of operations for Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who made peace between Japan’s many warring factions by beating them into submission. It took 200,000 soldiers more than a year to take this place in 1615, and when you look at this photo of the bare face of the ramparts you can see why. The castle combines form and function and is beautiful as well as impregnable.

Walls of Constantinople
OK, this isn’t technically a castle, but the massive walls of Constantinople (modern Istanbul) protected the capital of Byzantium for more than a thousand years. Byzantium was the eastern half of the Roman Empire and survived long after Rome fell. The Bulgars, Slavs, and Turks all failed to take the massive double land walls and moat. It took the invention of cannon to finally destroy them. The Ottoman Turks under Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453 AD had a giant cannon that could shoot a 1,200 lb. stone ball a mile, backed up by an army that may have numbered as many as 200,000 men. The city still held out two months before falling and becoming the new Ottoman capital.


The Incas were master builders. Unlike most cultures, they didn’t build with regular blocks, but instead used irregularly shaped stones that fit together so precisely that not even a knife can be pushed through the cracks. Believe me, I tried. In the highlands around Cuzco, Peru, they built a series of temples and the giant fortress of Sacsayhuaman to protect them. The fortress has triple walls almost 20 feet (six meters) tall constructed in a jagged outline so the defenders could throw stones and spears at the attacking force from three sides instead of just one. It was finished sometime in the early 1500s, just in time for the Spanish to invade. The conquistadors were only able to take it after a fierce fight and the loss of Francisco Pizarro’s younger brother Juan.


Located smack dab in the middle of the Mediterranean at one of its narrowest points, whoever controlled Malta controlled trade. This, of course, led to lots of wars. Malta changed hands countless times, but one of its biggest battles came in 1565 when the Ottomans tried to take the island from the Knights Hospitaller. The Knights were ready with not just one castle but three. The Ottomans had an estimated 20,000-50,000 troops. Barely 500 knights and 5,600 helpers stood in their path, but they had the castles. The Ottomans landed and started a heavy bombardment with a large number of artillery on the first fort on their list, Fort St. Elmo. The castle was reduced to rubble but its 600 defenders went down fighting. The Turks lost more than 4,000. The attack then focused on Forts St. Angelo and St. Michael, and the Turks ground up their army against the walls. After losing at least a third of their force, they called it a day and retreated. Cannonballs from the bombardment can still be seen in the fields.

Burg Eltz
This castle has the distinction of still being the home of the same family that owned it in the 12th century. Built upon a 70 meter (220 ft.) high crag next to an important trade route, it was perfectly positioned to assert power. A river flows around three sides of the crag, making it almost impossible to take. The castle is an architectural jewel and much of the fifteenth-century interior is preserved. Burg Eltz has one of the best settings of all the castles in this list. The primeval Eltz forest encloses the castle on all sides, and several historic villages are nearby. Because of its commanding position and the political skill of its owners, it was only attacked once. In 1331, Archbishop Baldwin of Luxembourg tried to extend his territory by attacking the castle with catapults and an early cannon. After more than two years of bombardment, the archbishop admitted defeat and went back to Luxembourg.


The high walls that ring this strategic town did what many French castles could not–resist the English throughout the Hundred Years War. The Romans had a fort on this hilltop in 100 BC and some of the original stones can still be seen in the walls. Later it was a stronghold of the Cathars, a Christian sect that was destroyed in a crusade led
by the bloodthirsty Simon de Montfort, who killed anyone who he found in Cathar-controlled territory, whether they were Cathars or not. He’s the origin of the saying, “Kill them all, God will sort them out.” In 1209 he took Carcassonne, but the city stood firm against later sieges, including a long and determined one by the English. Nowadays it’s a perfect view of Gothic spires and imposing medieval walls.

This Northumbrian stronghold is like many of the castles on this list in that the present structure covers up centuries of history. Bamburgh was the capital of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria and there was a castle here from the 6th century AD. It survived a number of sieges and that’s hardly surprising when you see it standing proud on a little peninsula jutting out into the North Sea. A massive gatehouse and walls protect the landward side. In 1095, the owner Robert de Mowbray was captured by the attacking Normans but his wife took over the defense and continued to push back their assaults. She finally gave in when the Normans threatened to blind Robert. The castle fell again in 1464 during the Wars of the Roses when it became the first English castle to surrender because of an artillery bombardment. Modern technology succeeded where generations of swordsmen failed.