Originating in 9th-century Europe, castles evoke images of royalty, wealth, and stunning design. Medieval castles were more than just symbols of prosperity and power, though. They were also fortified residences and self-sufficient complexes, and visiting them gives us insight into medieval societies and ways of life. Some castles are famous for their exceptional design or historical value, while others are lesser-known for residing off the beaten path. Be sure to include at least one of the world's most magnificent castles on your next vacation.
Deep in the Austrian woodlands, Hohenwerfen Castle sits perched on a 500 foot-high rock. Breathtaking views of market town Werfen below and the surrounding Berchtesgaden Alps make this palace a must-see if you're in or near Salzburg. The 11th-century castle has a fascinating history, having served as a prison, royal hunting base, police academy, and military stronghold in WWII. Tour the restored castle and museum, then stop by the Falconry Center for a flight demonstration.
The Alcazar de Segovia gets all the glory, but it isn't the only magnificent palace in the province of Segovia. Castillo de Coca lies on the wooded flatlands near the rivers Voltoya and Eresma. It's a perfect example of the Mudejar style, which uses Moorish Islamic design elements combined with Gothic architecture. Lines of brickwork and mortar create geometric borders and patterns, while polygonal turrets and battlements give the castle its unique form. Book a tour to walk the historic grounds and enjoy the views.
If Neuschwanstein Castle looks familiar, that's because the breathtaking palace inspired the castle from Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty. The Romantic-era design combines several lavish styles, including Romanesque, Gothic, and Byzantine elements. You can only enter Neuschwanstein Castle as part of a 35-minute guided tour, so remember to buy your tickets in the village below. Neuschwanstein is a breathtaking sight from the base of the Alpine foothills or nearby Marienbrücke. High above Pollät Gorge, the sleek suspension bridge affords some of the best photo opportunities.
Mont-Saint-Michel abbey's familiar silhouette has awed Christian pilgrims and visitors for over 1,000 years. Majestically rising from the horizon, the ancient structure didn't need a moat or high ground to keep it safe. Incoming high tides surround the walled town and cut it off from the mainland twice a day. Walk the cobblestoned main street, a gauntlet of tourist shops and merchants, up to the Gothic and Romanesque abbey. Enjoy a peaceful moment in the beautiful cloisters and expansive views of the bay.
Ashford Castle in West Ireland isn't just a magnificently-preserved estate. The 800-year old Medieval and Victorian palace, once home to the Guinness family, now operates as a five-star luxury hotel. The property resides on 350 acres of wooded land near Lough Corrib, Ireland's second-largest lake. One night could set you back some serious cash, or you can admire the castle and grounds on a visit. Cruise the restored gardens and relax by the fountain, or enjoy panoramic views of the landscape from the terraces.
Whether you're a fan of the film Bram Stoker's Dracula or medieval architecture, Bran castle is a wondrous sight in the hills of The Piatra Craiului Mountains. There isn't much evidence which links the notorious vampire to the estate, but that doesn't make it any less impressive and intimidating. Red rooftops rise out of the forest to give strategic views of the surrounding landscapes. Inside, narrow passages and dark hallways lend substance to the castle's mysterious vibe.
South of the High Atlas mountains in Ouarzazate Province, the jaw-dropping, earthen form of Ksar Aït-Ben-Haddou emerges from the landscape. You might recall the fortified city's silhouette from the films Gladiator or The Mummy. The ksar's sculpted walls and angled towers blend into the red clay landscapes, the decorated facade reminiscent of Pre-Saharan earthen architecture. Take the footbridge from the modern village to the old ksar to experience both sides of this ancient town.
Himeji Castle is an outstanding example of Japanese castle architecture. Known locally as White Heron Castle, the elegant structure extends into the sky like a bird gracefully taking flight. Himeji castle is significant for several reasons. Not only is the structure original, but its 80 buildings and winding paths have also survived several wars, natural disasters, and fires since 1609. Walk along the labyrinthine ramparts or head for the Sannomaru, a cherry tree-lined park perfect for photographs.
The Czech Republic is home to thousands of spectacular castles and chateaux. If you have trouble deciding which to visit, put Hluboká Castle on your itinerary. Located just outside of České Budějovice, the structure's Romantic style is reminiscent of England's marvelous Windsor Castle. Admire the castle's neo-Gothic design and cream-colored exterior before touring a selection of preserved rooms. Exhibits include masterful paintings, beautiful chandeliers, and Delft china. Finish your visit with a relaxing stroll through the gorgeous English-style gardens.
Windsor Castle is the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world, open year-round to visitors. It's been home to British monarchs since the 11th century, from Henry I to Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth II. Explore the State Apartments to see where The Royal Family holds ceremonies, then have tea and cake in Edward III's medieval Undercroft. The Precincts Tour, a 30-minute examination of the castle's 1,000-year history and gorgeous exterior construction, is free.