The ten 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

Lon-done? Try Windsor and Eton

If London has whet your appetite for all things English, hop on a train and visit Windsor. Less than an hour from central London, this historic city is one of the easiest and most popular day trips for foreign visitors. You can also enjoy a nice stroll to nearby Eton and visit the famous boarding school.

The main attraction is, of course, Windsor Castle. It’s one of the official residences of the Queen and she often spends her weekends here (tough life!). It’s the oldest and largest continually inhabited castle in the world. While there was a castle here as early as 1070, the oldest surviving parts date from the reign of Henry II (reigned 1154-1189). In 1189, Prince (later King) John was besieged here by angry barons who eventually forced him to sign the Magna Carta, the first official limitation on the monarch’s power. King Edward III (reigned 1327-1377) built much of the present structure.

The tours are lots of fun. One of the highlights is St. George’s Chapel, and elaborately Gothic 15th century house of worship that’s the place of rest for ten monarchs. Other stops include Queen Mary’s dollhouse, a lavish art collection with pieces by Holbein and Rubens, the armory, and fine views from atop the battlements. Windsor Castle is one of those rare sights that’s actually better to visit in winter, because that’s when the semi-state rooms are open. Built by George IV in the 1820s as living and social quarters for the royal family, they include elegant furniture and giant oil paintings under elaborately molded plaster ceilings.

Interesting trivia: Windsor Castle is not named after the House of Windsor (the royal family), but in fact the royal family is named after the castle. During World War Two the royals decided their actual name, the House of Saxe Coburg-Gotha, sounded too German and changed it!

After visiting the castle, enjoy a pleasant amble through Windsor Great Park and The Long Walk. This 4,800 acre park used to be hunting grounds for the Saxon kings. The Long Walk runs nearly half a mile from the southern gate of the castle. It used to be a promenade for the aristocratic set. Don’t go here after dark, though, because Herne the Hunter–a mysterious phantom rider who has antlers on his head and leads a pack of spectral hounds–has been known to ride by giving ominous predictions of doom to anyone who sees him.

If you have the time you should also check out Eton, the most elite public (i.e.–private) school in the UK. Eton has been educating future power brokers since it was founded by Henry VI in 1440. A tour gives a glimpse of what it’s like to live the privileged life, with a small teacher/student ratio and more extracurricular activities than you can count. The school is historic and beautiful, with a 15th century chapel and classrooms and serene grounds perfect for lazing about and spending daddy’s money learning. The Museum of Eton life explains what the kids get up to in all these ornate buildings–and one thing they get up to is carving their names everywhere. You’ll see graffiti on some of the walls that’s older than many nations.

While most visitors will only see the castle and Eton, Windsor has a lot more to offer. If the weather is fine, take a boat trip along the River Thames, which flows between Windsor and Eton. You can get some great shots of Windsor Castle from the water. A picnic at Windsor Great Park is also a good way to while away an afternoon. You can also hop on a bus near the castle that takes you to Legoland Windsor with lots of rides and attractions and Miniland, a reproduction of some of the greatest landmarks of the world. You can see Kennedy Space Center, London’s Millennium Bridge, and more. Building all this took nearly 40 million bricks of Lego. That’s some serious dedication!

Windsor and Eton are compact enough that you can easily walk around and see all the highlights in a single long day. If you decide to stay overnight, the Mercure Windsor Castle Hotel on 18 High Street offers sweeping views of the castle. This 16th century coaching inn has lots of historic flair and if you have deep pockets, there’s a good but pricey restaurant that serves English cuisine and high tea. More affordable dining can be had at the Castello Restaurant and Wine Bar at 4 Church Lane. The building dates to 1423. Original oak beams crisscross the walls and ceiling and there doesn’t seem to be a straight line anywhere. For al fresco dining, step out onto the medieval cobblestone lane. Simple, reasonably priced food, big servings, and a medieval setting-you might have to go to Italy to find this combination again.

If you want to do more day trips from London, try Bath, St. Albans, and Canterbury.

Buckingham Palace: more tourists or bake sale?

In a move akin to ordering a bake sale, a parliamentary watchdog has called for more tourist availability to Buckingham Palace … with the money raised used to fix the structure. The famous attraction is said to be “crumbling.” By extending tourist access to more than 60 days a year (in the summer), the Queen’s London residence could be maintained better.

The main objection has been that staying open longer would interfere with official functions – an argument that the watchdog contends isn’t valid, with the White House in Washington, DC and London’s House of Parliament welcoming guests on more days with no discernable problems.

At present, the Royal Household as a $52 million maintenance backlog for Windsor Castle, Clarence House (where Prince Charles lives) and the Palace of Holyrood in Edinburgh. The Royal Household only receives half that amount in government funding. Another $11 million comes from the fees paid by tourists.