Lee & I have traveled Europe extensively and would like to share a list of the best castles we have visited. We look forward to future travels on the continent to widen the list, but here it is for now. As a side note, understand that the separation of castles from palaces is arbitrary and fuzzy. We are basically defining a castle as a "highly fortified" royal or official residence. My next list, Great Palaces of Europe will look at other regal dwellings, usually without extensive fortifications.
1. Neuschwanstein Castle, Bavaria, Germany
Neuschwanstein, the elaborate fantasy of “Mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria, is the quintessential fairy tale castle. High on a hill above his boyhood home, Ludwig began this most extravagant project in 1869 and it was still not completed when he died, under mysterious circumstances, in 1886. This castle, however, remains his crowning achievement. It was used as a model for Cinderella’s castle in Disneyland.
Take the shuttle from the base of the entire Konigschlossen complex to Marienbrucke (Mary’s Bridge) which offers a spectacular view of the castle and makes the visitor wonder how the castle was ever constructed (“How could so many materials be brought to such a location?”). From the bridge, it is a mostly downhill walk to the castle itself. A strict schedule of timed tours is adhered to, so pay attention to the tickets which are purchased at the base of the complex. Guides are extremely knowledgeable and informative. Ludwig had a certain flair, even if his decorating is a bit bizarre. Especially noteworthy are his bedroom (the intricate woodwork took a team of craftsmen several years to complete), the Throne Room (with no throne because it was never finished), and the Theater/Music Room, designed for Arts’ performances. Note also the man-made cave next to his bedroom. Keep in mind that the tour requires the climbing of an incredible number of stairs and is not for the faint of heart.
2. Alhambra, Granada, Spain
The Alhambra, a Moorish palace located in the city of Granada, Spain, is probably one of the most exquisite buildings in the world. The walls, doors, and archways are delicately sculpted with what looks like Arabic writing and intricate detail. No wonder it is the #1 tourist attraction in all of Spain. Of special note are the Palacio de Nazaries, the Salon of the Ambassadors, and the Patio of the Lions. All are carefully and lovingly crafted to blend in with the entire structure. The Alcazaba (the fortress) certainly looks formidable with its thick walls and many towers, which also provide great views of the city and the surrounding landscape. Note that the Palace of Charles V is noticeably not Moorish, evidence that the complex was built over many years.
Be sure to visit the Generalife Gardens, which exemplify how the moors incorporated gardens with flowers, shade from trees and shrubs, and water in the form of pools and fountains to create an extremely pleasant environment and a refuge from the hustle and bustle as well as the summer heat.
3. El Alcazar, Segovia, Spain
The Alcazar is a Cinderella-like castle with many turrets and towers, in a glorious setting on the western edge of town, high on a promontory overlooking open plains. It is Moorish in design with some beautiful rooms as well as some militarily strategic areas. Ascend the hazardous stairs of the tower for a sweeping view of the town and especially its cathedral.
4. Leeds Castle, England
A popular excursion from London takes the visitor to Leeds Castle, certainly one of the most beautiful castles in all of Europe. It is a classic, Medieval castle, complete with moat. It is incredibly romantic and picturesque, with its varied-colored bricks and pleasant, spotless grounds. The interior is meticulously decorated with extravagant arrangements of fresh flowers, as well as period furniture.
5. Prague Castle, Prague, Czech Republic
The western part of the city, known as the Castle District (Hradcany) contains Prague most visited attraction, Prague Castle (Prazsky Hrad), which is, in reality, a complex of buildings surrounded by walls. Important stops in the castle complex are St Vitus Cathedral, a 14th century Gothic structure which is notable for its stained glass windows and the tomb of Saint (King) Wenceslas, the patron saint of the Czech Republic, the Basilica of St George, which is even older (12th century), and Golden Lane (Zlata Ulika) which is a narrow alley lined with tiny homes (tradesmen’s quarters) which are built into the castle walls. An obligatory stop along the lane is at the Kafka House (#22), where the author lived and wrote.
6. Tower of London, London, England
The most visited attraction in the city is the Tower of London, which has an extremely storied history. The Tower of London, located on the north bank of the Thames, near London’s Financial District, has been a home to England’s monarchs, a weapons storage facility, a treasury (it still holds the Crown Jewels), and, most famously, a prison. Many an enemy of the state met his or her end, frequently by beheading, within the confines of the Tower. The visitor is escorted though the complex by a resident “beefeater”, dressed in a uniform which is reminiscent of Tudor England.
Must sees on the visit include the White Tower, the dominant structure within the complex, which dates back to the 11th century, the Jewel House, which houses the British Crown Jewels, Traitor’s Gate, the entryway for prisoners arriving from Westminster Hall, and the Bloody Tower, so-named since it was the residence of Edward IV’s two sons whose bones were later found nearby, after their uncle, Richard III, ascended the throne. One of the cells, the cell of “little ease” was so small (4 ft x 4 ft) that prisoners could not fully stand up, nor lie straight out. Imagine how uncomfortable it was!
7. Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, Scotland
Edinburgh Castle sits prominently at one end of the Royal Mile, the main street of Medieval Edinburgh. It is incredibly imposing, high on a hill and surrounded by steep cliffs on all sides except the visitor entrance. Yet this model of castle architecture has been taken at least three times in its history, two by siege and one by stealth. Parts of the castle (the Chapel, for instance) date back to the 1100’s although most of it was destroyed by Robert the Bruce in the 1300’s, then rebuilt. The Scottish Crown Jewels, the oldest in Europe, are on display here. The Great Hall is especially impressive, as are the Royal Apartments.
8. Warwick Castle, Warwick, England
In the vicinity of Oxford, England, is another of England’s remarkable castles. Warwick Castle is another classic castle, very large, formidable, high on a hill — a true fortress. The interior of the castle is elegantly displayed, with wax figures representing residents and visitors, and realistic scenes in the rooms, as they were in 1898. The settings are very impressive, with great attention to detail, such as, running water in the bath, the lighting of a cigarette lighter, etc. In the great hall, there is a fantastic display of medieval armor and weaponry, and the furniture throughout the castle is extraordinary. The castle grounds are also meticulous and provide a wonderful experience.
9. Tre Castelli, San Marino
San Marino is the oldest and smallest Republic in the world. It is located to the northeast of Rome, near the Adriatic coast, and is entirely surrounded by Italy. The town of San Marino is a Medieval gem of a city, heavily fortified by its Tre Castelli (Three castles) and made more impregnable because of its setting, at the very top of Mount Titiano. The narrow, cobblestone streets and incredibly well-preserved and well-maintained buildings make it an utter pleasure to experience. It is almost “Disney-esque” in its perfection. The only drawbacks are the steep streets and stairs which seem to head only upward. There are numerous shops and restaurants in this principality totally geared for tourism. Walk the walls from castle to castle for stupendous views of the surrounding countryside.
10. Buda Castle, Budapest, Hungary
The most interesting section of Budapest for tourists is the Castle District (in the hills of Buda). The funicular from the foot of Castle Hill is rather expensive, but worth it to avoid the steep climb (walking back down is not difficult). Buda Castle, which sits ominously above the river is interesting and has beautiful grounds with many flowers and statues. Castle Square and the region around it are great to explore on foot. Check the crafts and vendors in the area just across the square from the castle (there are many Hungarian crafts at reasonable prices). Beyond this area is the Fisherman’s Bastion, which abuts St Matthias’ Church and the equestrian statue of St Stephen. The Fisherman’s Bastion is an elevated walkway with conical towers (there is a charge to walk the walls), which affords a beautiful, panoramic view of the Danube, the city of Pest, and the countryside beyond. There is also a great view from here of the Hungarian Parliament complex.
11. Hohensalzburg, Salzburg, Austria
The white fortress of Hohensalzburg dominates the skyline of this picturesque town, presiding over the Old Town with its many church spires, squares, and visions of Mozart and the Sound of Music.
12. Wawel Castle, Krakow, Poland
The Wawel dominates the upper part of the Old Town. It is really composed of two buildings, Wawel Castle and the Cathedral.
13. Hohenschwangau, Bavaria, Germany
Guidebooks usually advise tourists to first visit Hohenschwangau, Ludwig’s home as a child, to set the stage for an understanding of Neuschwanstein, but a little pre-trip research is all that’s necessary to appreciate the reasons for Ludwig’s escape from reality and the rationale for his extravagances. Add to the mix his obsession with Richard Wagner and his operas, and all becomes plain. So the savvy tourist can dispense with Hohenschwangau and cut to the chase, although its yellow color and prominent location make it an imposing sight.
14. Alcazar, Seville, Spain
Seville’s Alcazar (castle) is a Moorish palace still used by Spain’s monarch when visiting the city. The architecture is distinctive, especially the extensive use of ceramic tiles, while the gardens are beautiful and tranquil, with pools and shade for refuge during the summer months.
15. Bratislava Castle, Bratislava, Slovakia
Bratislava’s Castle, the obligatory hilltop structure, is a considerable climb (hundreds of stairs) from the Old Town. Its unusual orange color makes it distinctively noticeable.
16. Cesky Krumlov Castle, Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic
The imposing Castle and its neighboring Chateau occupy a ridge to the north of the Old Town center. They are visible from almost everywhere in the charming community.
17. Alcazar, Toledo, Spain
The Toledo Alcazar sits at the highest point of the city, with a commanding view of the countryside. Many of its displays and rooms focus on the siege of the castle during Spain’s Civil War in 1936. The residents resisted for many, many days. There is also a military museum which possesses many types of weaponry as well as miniature battle scenes and uniforms.
18. Chateau Ducal, Caen, France
The city of Caen makes a good base for the exploration of the Normandy Beaches area. It also possesses one notable sight, the Chateau Ducal, the castle-palace of William the Conqueror, which was constructed around 1060 AD.
19. Alcazar, Cordoba, Spain
The Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos boasts formidable walls and several interesting towers. The gardens are lovely and, because of their abundant use of water, are particularly refreshing during the oppressive heat of summer.
20. Rocca Albornoziana, Spoleto, Italy
Spoleto’s Castle, although a dull, gray color, nevertheless dominates the skyline of this Umbrian Hill Town. The interior contains numerous interesting frescoes.