The ten best castles in Europe

best castles in europe

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.

best castles in Europe

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.

castles in europe

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.

best castles in europe

Leeds 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.

best castles in europe

Windsor Castle
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.

best castles in europe

Mont Saint-Michel
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.

best castles in europe

Château de Chambord
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.


best castles in europe

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.

best castles in europe

Buda Castle
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.

best castles in europe

The Alhambra
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.

Travel diary: How I found acceptance in a Spanish hospital

spanish granadaAvid travelers wear the title of “wanderer” like a badge of honor.

I know I do – I never completely related to my peers in my small Nebraska hometown. My brain was always dreaming, always scheming for ways to create the life I wanted – and that didn’t include Nebraska.

I fell in love with Spain as a teen – the architecture and culture drew me in with its passionate allure and never let go. It seemed only natural that I’d spend a semester studying there.

I sent for my student visa, packed my bags and traveled to the Alhambra-lined horizon of Granada, Spain, in early 2004.

“You’re living with Senora Cordon,” the director told me as we arrived one rainy January night. My host mother — a plump Spanish woman with perfectly-coifed blond hair and dozens of leopard-print scarves – was genuinely interested in my well-being. So far, so good.

My elation soon turned into a routine of class, class and more class. The school, an offshoot of the Universidad de Granada, was filled with American students — not exactly the multicultural experience I envisioned.

[Photo: Flickr/*CezCze* (off-line)]
I started to feel isolated — I wasn’t connecting with fellow students, a problem I chalked up to being shy. Many of my classmates partied nightly; I opted for shopping at El Corte Ingles.

I was unhappy – sad that my experience wasn’t turning into the supreme adventure I envisioned, sad that I was wasting the opportunity.

Sad until I woke up one morning with a decision: I had to make the most of my time in Spain and find a way to connect with the country. I soon happened on a volunteer opportunity with Hospital Materno Infantil Virgen de las Nieves, a dusty and run-down hospital perched high above Granada.

The hospital treated children with cancer and it was our job to entertain them. Each Tuesday I made the 30-minute walk and took the elevator up several floors until I was greeted by young laughter. Language barriers kept us from fluently communicating, but tea sets and toy trucks had a way of bridging the gap.

The young faces were familiar each week – until my final visit. A new boy, tiny and timid, stood out.

I felt an immediate connection to him and we spent much of the hour-long session coloring. Afterward, I walked into the hallway as he followed. His parents were in the hallway and I immediately recognized them as Gitanos, or Gypsies with Romani ancestry. Gitanos are generally not well liked, thanks to their lingering reputation as pickpockets – so that explained some of his playroom apprehension.

He walked over and whispered something to his parents and they looked at me with wide-eyes and shy smiles. I returned the smile and their appreciation.

Walking home that night I realized something: We’re all searching for acceptance, no matter what language we speak or customs we follow. I found acceptance from that small family.

Do I feel completely accepted now?

No, but that’s why I travel: I end up finding a piece of myself in each place I visit.

Paradores: the historic luxury hotels of Spain

Spain, spain, extremadura, Extremadura
Spain is known for its rich history, fine art, and excellent cuisine. By staying at a government-owned Parador, you can get all three right in your hotel.

Just look at this shot by Michael Stallbaum . This castle in Zafra, Extremadura, dates to 1437 and was once home to a duke. It’s the sort of place where you’d expect to pay a few euros, get your ticket stamped, and line up for the guided tour. Actually it’s a hotel with luxurious rooms, a restaurant, a garden, and a pool! It stands in the center of a beautiful and old town and right next to a sumptuous Renaissance church.

The Paradores of Spain offer luxury accommodation in some of Spain’s most historic and popular cities, many of which, like Cáceres and Mérida, are World Heritage Sites. In Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest, there are seven. Besides Zafra, there are Paradores in Guadalupe (in a 15th century hospital), Jarandilla (15th century castle), Plasencia (15th century convent), and Trujillo (16th century convent), Mérida and Cáceres.

When I visited Mérida with my family, we stayed at a Parador housed in an 18th century convent. A lofty chapel is now a lounge and activities room, and an interior courtyard has columns from Roman times. I’m not sure what conditions were like for the nuns two hundred years ago, but our room had comfortable beds and all the usual amenities. The staff were very friendly and helpful. Don’t worry if your Spanish isn’t up to snuff; Paradores always have people on staff who can speak English and other languages.

The popular destination Cáceres has one of Spain’s older Paradores, a 14th century palace built atop Arab foundations. Much of the interior is original, including the grand mantelpiece in the lounge. It’s currently being refurbished and will reopen April 15.

While I’ve concentrated on the Paradores of Extremadura here, you can find more all over the country. Probably the best and certainly the most popular is the one in Granada, housed in a 15th century convent on the site of the famous Alhambra. This Moorish palace is one of the architectural wonders of the world with its quiet gardens, burbling fountains, and intricately carved marble. The best time to go is on the full moon, when the marble glows with an ethereal light. Book WAY in advance for this one.

Another plus with staying in a Parador is that most have excellent restaurants. There’s usually a formal restaurant and a bar that serves light meals and tapas. They tend to attract a lot of the local population, which is always a good sign.

Guys, a word of warning. My girlfriend took me to the Parador in Sigüenza. Now anybody who follows my work knows I’m a sucker for castles, and the combination of staying in a 12th century castle and a bottle of fine Spanish wine made me pop the question. I think it was a plot.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Exploring Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest


Photo of the Day (3.14.09)

Seeing as I’m in Nicaragua right now, I find it only appropriate to offer an image from this wonderfully hospitable country. I mentioned in my first dispatch that Nicaragua is clearly a developing country and poverty runs rampant right next to 5 star hotels. It’s an unfortunate thing, and it’s something that not just one person with a thinning wallet can do about it. Walking along the dirt road scattered with ramshackle huts on my way to Playa Amarilla with surfboard in hand, I was hit with the reality that the people here just trying to survive and have no luxury like I do of surfing at the break that is just steps away. How could they afford the surfboard anyway? If there’s one thing I intend to do before I leave, it’s to give back a little piece of heaven to these poor neighbors in one way or another.

This photograph depicts three young boys who were gracious enough to pose for ourmanwhere in the colonial town of Granada on Calle Arsenal. Ourmanwhere, a self-proclaimed “serial overseas volunteer” currently based in Cameroon, also has some pretty captivating photographs from Vietnam, Thailand, the UK, and Europe.

If you have some great travel shots you’d like to share, be sure to upload them to the Gadling pool on Flickr. We might just pick one as our Photo of the Day!

Photo of the Day 7-30-08

The green first drew me to this photo and then the concept. This is a photograph turned into an artist’s statement of sorts. Adam Baker, AlphaTangoBravo calls this shot he took in Granada, Nicaragua this past June “Dos Partes.”

Even if Baker hadn’t divided this into two color schemes, there would have been two images. The men on the scooter (?) and the woman walking–blurred and in focus. The color division creates a surreal quality and an odd depth of field. Is the man in the front glancing at the woman and she at him?

Also, the building’s walls in need of repair are a contrast to the ornate details or the door frame. That’s another way to look at two parts. Robust and crumbling. Possibilities or dreams gone by. I’ve just finished reading Pico Iyer’s Sun After Dark, Flights into the Foreign, so perhaps I’m feeling a bit fanciful myself.

If you have a shot to share, send it our way at Gadling’s Flickr Photo Pool and it might be picked for a Photo of the Day.