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

Neuschwanstein
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
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.

best castles in europe

Mont Saint-Michel
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.

best castles in europe

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.


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best castles in europe

Hohenwerfen
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.

best castles in europe

Buda Castle
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.

best castles in europe

The Alhambra
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.

Thirteen places in the world to creep you out

Kelly’s post on haunted hotels reminded me of when I was a kid. There was an abandoned house on my grandparents’ street that was too hard to ignore. One Halloween my cousins and I dared each other to run across the front porch and knock on the front door after dark. Imagine my surprise when, instead of my fist meeting the glass of the door’s window as I expected, my fist kept going. There wasn’t any glass. Yep, I screamed and ran like hell. For years, each time I visited my grandparents and passed the house, even after a family moved in and fixed it up, I remembered the delicious feeling of being spooked.

That house was small potatoes compared to the list of 13 of the world’s most creepy places that Ralph Martin at Concierge.com has cooked up. I could almost feel that tickle of a breath on the back of my neck when I read about them. Just look at the photo of Bhangharh, India, a town where people haven’t lived since 1640 because, possibly, a bunch of people who lived there were massacred, and the rest fled never to return. Notice those monkeys? See how they are just sitting there watching the tourists who come by day and leave by night? Images of Hitchcock’s horror flick, “The Birds,” come to mind.

Here are more of the 13.

Then there’s Philadelphia’s Mütter museum, similar to Bangkok’s Museum of Forensic Medicine. There is a vast collection of gross out oddities such as removed tumors and models that show various maladies like just what gangrene does to a person. I’ve smelled it and it’s not pleasant–I can imagine the looks of it. *shudder* Willy wrote a detailed post on the museum with links to photos back in March. And for more forensic medicine gross outs, here’s another post from Willy on Thailand’s Siriraj Museum–there are 10 museums that make up this one to make sure you really lose your appetite.

In Mexico City’s Sonora Witch Craft Market, a happy Buddha sits in the midst of dressed up skeletons. Here you can get your fortune told and advice on how to turn your luck around. Before you leave you can pick up the ingredients for all your potion needs.

Easter Island off Chile’s coast is where huge heads carved from volcanic rock reside. You can wander among them and wonder how exactly they got where they are located and what happened to the people who made them centuries ago. No one really knows. Creatures from outer space, perhaps, came to help out with their UFOs? That’s one theory.

If you’re interested in traveling the path of a voodoo queen who put a curse on a place, head to the Manachc Swamp in Louisiana. Every once in awhile a dead body turns up here. There are torchlight night tours if the boat tour by day doesn’t give you enough chills.

Leif has also written about the Bran Castle in Romania. Bram Stoker modeled the castle in Dracula after this one. Look for the engraving of Vlad Dracula having dinner while surrounded by people he has impaled on stakes. Yum.

Gaad! was my impression when I saw the photo of the Catacombs in Paris. Walls of skulls and bones are hard to forget. Going here will make you feel like you’ve stepped into an Ann Rice novel. She’s used it as a setting for some of her stories.

To see the rest of the list, head to the article at Concierge.com. Here you’ll find the specifics about how to contact each place and lovely tidbits about what makes these spots unique. And, if you want 13 MORE places for Halloween, check out these. These aren’t the naturally creepy places, however, but ones created by humans to be perfect for Halloween frights and chills.

My Bloody Romania: The real Dracula’s Castle

Dateline: Dracula’s Castle, Romania

Wake up people, Leif’s Un-Authorized, Tell-All, Myth-Busting, Ass-Kicking, Hyphenation-Extravaganza is about to begin.

I’m about to provide you with priceless information that will make you a star at your pub’s next video trivia game and possibly get you laid – or at least second base out in the alley – depending on how much beer your victorious answer earns your team.

There are three sites in Romania that are billed as ‘Dracula’s Castle’ in the interest of selling more undead-themed t-shirts and coffee mugs, but only one of them is where Vlad ‘?epe??’ Dracula actually lived, passing his time scaring the living crap out of Turkish invaders during his reign as Prince of Wallachia.

Below are three pictures: ‘Dracula castles’ located at the Tihu?a (Borga) Pass, Bran and Poienari. Can you pick out the real Dracula’s castle?

1.

2.

3.

Let’s get the no-brainer one out of the way first.

Picture Number 1, The ‘castle’ at the Tihuţa Pass, is nothing more than a tourist trap hotel, built in the early 1980s, to siphon just a few more dollars out of die-hard fans of the fictional Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, retracing the journey taken by protagonist Jonathan Harker. Never mind that the building is only 20 years old, it’s unlikely that non-fictional Vlad Ţepeş ever set foot in this region, as it’s clear on the other side of Transylvania, practically in Moldavia, hundreds of kilometers away from Wallachia where he ruled.

Picture Number 2, Bran Castle, is a more realistic option, what with the fairytale turrets, dramatic setting and the fact that it was actually standing when Vlad Ţepeş was beating a hasty retreat through the Transylvanian countryside, but this was not Dracula’s home. It was built by Braşov Saxons in 1382. Ţepeş may have spent the night here after being chased out of his real pad by really pissed off Turks in 1462. More recently, it was home to Queen Marie from 1920 on and a summer chillout out zone for King Michael before the Communists removed him in 1947. In 2006, as part of a program to return property grabbed by the Communists, ownership of the castle was returned to its rightful heir: Dominic Habsburg, the grandson of Queen Marie, now a New York-based architect who immediately decided to cash out and sell the place. After Romania failed to get the funds together for a first-option offer, Habsburg placed the castle for sale to all comers. The castle was still on the market at the time of writing.

Picture Number 3, Poienari Citadel, is obviously the real home of Vlad Ţepeş, built by miserable, soon to be skewed, Turkish prisoners in 1459. Ţepeş had barely gotten comfortable before he was driven off by Turkish reinforcements in 1462. A large part of the structure fell down the mountain in 1888. What remains is a rather small cluster of head-high ruins, somewhat disappointing on their own, but enriched by the mountaintop setting and the 1,480 spirit-sapping stairs one needs to endure to access the site, which must have been a real bitch for those Turks to climb back when it was just a dirt path while loaded down with stones, bricks and buckets of mortar.

I’d been to Poienari Citadel once before during my LP research trip, but it was March. The mountain was somewhat fogged in and covered in snow, so my pictures didn’t nearly capture the essence of the place.

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After tutting at yet another unsightly pile of rubbish left by previous visitors at the base of the hill (via purchases made at nearby refreshments stands whose proprietors seemed perfectly content to let the garbage their dealings generated pile up to the heavens), the Little Vampire and I got started slowly plodding up the hill. Both of us being wretchedly out of shape, we rested often, while keeping our eyes on an idiotic family ahead of us that had opted to bring their dog on the trip, who was scampering around in the brush, causing dozens of mini-avalanches that bounced debris down the hill all around us.

Once at the citadel, we lingered, taking in the expansive view, snapping numerous gratuitous pictures of my butt and contemplating which hole was probably Vlad’s toilet. Though it’s awfully pretty on a clear day, there’s really not much else to do.

The walk down was no easier, quadriceps burning and nearing the failure point much of the way. Gingerly easing our spasming legs back into the car, we headed a few minutes up the road to the Lake Vidraru Dam, a worthwhile stop if you’re passing by if only to get a vertigo-inducing look over the side and, if you’re none too comfortable with heights like I am, maybe gauge how far vomit can fall before vaporizing.

Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, co-authored the current edition of Lonely Planet’s Romania and Moldova. Visit his personal blog, Killing Batteries, for more Romania trivia, hastily researched history and pictures ostensibly of tourist sites that happen to feature his tushie.