One of the great pleasures of exploring a hilly city is a constantly changing, often surprising, landscape. One minute you are trudging along a crowded sidewalk, huffing and puffing up a big hill, and suddenly you glimpse it between buildings: the Bosphorus. The Acropolis. The Prague Castle. Today’s Photo of the Day from San Francisco reminded me of the moment of magic. From out of the shadows of Russian Hill, Flickr user Nan Palmero shows us the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge and the city spread out before you. It’s a good chance to stop, catch your breath, take a photo and keep on trucking until the next overlook – hopefully with a refreshing beverage nearby too.
Castles originated in Europe over a thousand years ago. These fortresses were one of the original defense systems, and erecting the structures on hills or just beyond moats was a functional choice. Castles were built to house rulers, impose power, and above all, spurn would be attackers. Conforming to these basic principles of utilitarian design, the strongholds now appear solitary, majestic, and frozen in time. The attackers are long gone, and now a steady stream of camera clutching invaders breach the castles daily, ready to inspect the epic grandeur of the past.
While Europe has hundreds of excellent castles, these ten all have design, character, and history that sets them apart. Some occupy the center of bustling cities, while others lurk in forgotten countrysides. Spanning eight countries across Europe, each of these castles has a story to tell.
Prague Castle (above)
Location: Prague, Czech Republic
Nearest airport: Prague Airport
Year originally built: 870
Inhabitants: Kings of Bohemia, Holy Roman Emperors, and presidents of the Czech Republic
Interesting fact: According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Prague castle is the largest castle complex in the world.
Bran “Dracula’s” Castle
Location: Bran, Romania
Nearest airport: Henri Coandă International Airport in Otopeni, Romania near Bucharest
Year originally built: 1212
Inhabitants: Teutonic Knights, Mircea the Elder, Vlad III, and Romanian royalty
Interesting fact: In 2007, the castle was put up for sale for $78 million. It has since been taken off the market.
Location: Schwangau, Germany
Nearest airport: Munich International Airport
Year originally built: construction began in 1869
Inhabitants: King Ludwig II
Interesting fact: This castle has been visited by over 60 million people and is the template for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle.
Location: Maidstone, Kent, England
Nearest airport: Kent International Airport
Year originally built: 1119
Inhabitants: King Edward I, Henry VIII, and other notable British royalty
Interesting fact: Leeds Castle hosts a large garden maze and a dog collar museum.
Location: Windsor, Berkshire, England
Nearest airport: Heathrow Airport
Year originally built: 11th century
Inhabitants: William the Conqueror, Henry I, Edward III, and many other British rulers
Interesting fact: Windsor Castle is the longest-occupied palace in Europe.
Location: Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy, France
Nearest airport: Rennes Britanny Airport
Year originally built: 10th century, though the earliest abbeys in the fort date to the 6th century
Inhabitants: Currently 41 people call the Mont Saint-Michel home, and the structure has been home to monks to over a thousand years.
Interesting fact: The tides around Mont Saint-Michel vary by almost 50 feet, and many people have drowned approaching across the sands.
Château de Chambord
Location: Chambord, Loir-et-Cher, France
Nearest airport: Paris Charles de Gaulle
Year originally built: 1526
Inhabitants: King François I, Louis XIV, and the Ducal family
Interesting fact: Though the original designer of the châteaux is widely disputed, some insist it was Leonardo Da Vinci.
Location: South of Salzburg, Austria
Nearest airport: Salzburg Airport
Year originally built: 1078
Inhabitants: Salzburg rulers and prisoners
Interesting fact: The misty castle served as a prison for hundreds of years.
Location: Budapest, Hungary
Nearest airport: Budapest Airport
Year originally built: 1265
Inhabitants: Hungarian Kings
Interesting fact: You can visit a portion of the 6 mile subterranean labyrinth under Buda Castle.
Location: Granada, Spain
Nearest airport: Federico García Lorca Granada-Jaén Airport
Year originally built: 14th century
Inhabitants: Muslim Emirs from the Nasrid Dynasty and Charles V
Interesting fact: It was in the Alhambra’s Hall of Ambassadors that Columbus made his pitch to sail to the orient by heading west from Spain.
For hundreds of years, Czech Republic was the land of knights and castles, royalty and moats, and drawbridges. Though the country boasts hundreds of castles and palaces across its hills and mountains, several impressive castles are close enough to Prague to be seen within one vacation. Still depicting the spirit of their peak days as royal medieval fortresses, these five castles are worth a closer look.
Founded in the 9th century, the Prague Castle is one of the oldest castles in the region. During its long history, the Castle housed Bohemian Kings, Holy Roman Emperors, and Presidents of Czech Republic. Today, the Prague Castle is said to be the biggest ancient castle, and gleams as the jewel glistening above the Vltava River as the centerpiece of Prague.
What to do: Plan to spend a day to tour the soaring Cathedral, extensive gardens, and regal palaces within the Prague Castle.
Founded in 1348 by Czech King and Roman Emporer Charles IV, this castle sits high on a hill overlooking the sleepy Vltava Moldau River. The town below advances up the hill with quaint shops and Czech-style restaurants, making the trek up toward the Karlštein Castle an experience in itself.
What to do: Plan to take the horse-drawn carriage up the steep grade road, from the only parking at the bottom, and enjoy the old-world feel of the village and castle to the sound of the horses’ clip-clop over cobblestones.
Approaching Křivoklát Castle from the surrounding hills creates a breathtaking experience, every time. Křivoklát looks like the castles born of fairy tales, built in the 12th century and washed a majestic white. Inside, find a Gothic chapel, an extensive library, and a memorable collection of Gothic-era art.
What to do: Take the tour, and see firsthand the notorious dungeons and prison torture instruments.
This middle ages castle of the 12th century sits near the Czech-German border, and was once thought to be the key to the kingdom of Bohemia. Perched high above a dramatic promontory overlooking the Ohře River, the Loket Castle is a sight worth beholding, especially notable for its complete reconstruction by the townspeople of the village of Loket after its ruins during Communism.
What to do: Visit the charming town of Loket during one of their Festivals, and participate in the glimpse into medieval life.
Česky Krumlov Castle
One of the best preserved medieval towns in the world, ranked Number Two by the UNESCO World Heritage list, second only to Venice, Italy. Česky Krumlov, near the Czech-Austrian border, is the second largest castle in the Czech Republic, after the Prague Castle.
What to do: Tour the extensive gardens above the Castle, see a theater production hosted in the gardens amphitheater, or raft down the moat-like Vltava River below.
Czech Republic, home to hundreds of castles and palaces, is truly a fairy tale world to discover.
Jennifer Lyn King, a native of Texas, lives in the Czech Republic, where she writes from her home near Prague. She is the author of The One Year Mini for Busy Women. Read her blog on Red Room. All the photos above are copyright Jennifer Lyn King.