The 30 Most Gorgeous Medieval Castles in the World
You’re about to be transported back in time, to a world filled with knights, princesses, legendary lore, and lots of inspiration for your daydreams.
Castles in the sky
Castles conjure up images of a romantic medieval past, the stuff of legends and fairy tales. But what exactly makes a castle, well, a castle? Usually built for royalty or nobility, castles are magnificent residences that are fortified, so they can be defended if attacked. Tall towers allow for lookouts, moats and drawbridges make it hard to get in, and battlements have gaps for shooting through.
When we think of medieval castles, we’re thinking of ones built during the Middles Ages, which lasted roughly 1,000 years from 500 to 1500 AD. Although that period usually refers to Europe, there are a surprising number of medieval castles in Africa and Asia, as well. Castles in the Americas, though, usually date from after the age of European exploration, which came later. In addition, some of the most famous castles in Europe, such as Neuschwenstein, were actually built much later in a revival style to look like the castles of yore. Dotting the countryside, true medieval fortifications like the ones on this list are often imposing yet have an awe-inspiring beauty we still admire a millennium later. For more gorgeous spots around the world, check out these other enchanting places that look straight out of a fairy tale.
Eltz Castle, Germany
Some countries have more than their fair share of gorgeous medieval castles, and Germany is one of them. Eltz Castle is one of the finest examples of a German knights’ castle, and it has remained in the same family since its construction began in 1157. Surrounded on three sides by a small river, Eltz Castle’s foundation follows the shape of the 230-foot-high rock it sits on—which makes some of its interior rooms oddly shaped.
Although it was involved in some small skirmishes, the castle was luckily never destroyed in battle, so it never had to be rebuilt. But additions were made over several centuries, with restorations in the 19th and 20th centuries helping to preserve the stunning architecture. The present owner of the castle, Dr. Karl Graf von und zu Eltz-Kempenich, restored the castle again between 2009 and 2012. Eltz Castle’s surrounding nature reserve also helps maintain its “frozen in time” appearance.
Bran Castle, Romania
This hauntingly beautiful castle set high on its perch is said to be the inspiration for the castle in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (although Vlad the Impaler, the supposed inspiration for Dracula himself, was never the lord of Bran). Built-in 1388, the castle’s lord was in charge of collecting tariffs and keeping the Ottoman Empire at bay with the help of professional soldiers. Later inhabited by Transylvanian princes, Bran Castle eventually became less strategically important and fell into disrepair in the late 19th century. But after Transylvania became part of Romania in 1918, the last queen of Romania, Queen Maria, restored the castle, and it became one of her favorite royal residences. Today the castle is owned by her heirs, the Archduke and Archduchesses. Bran Castle is also one of the spookiest places in the world.
Bojnice Castle, Slovakia
It’s hard to say when exactly this lovely central European castle was originally built, but the first written reference to Bojnice Castle appears in an 1113 document from Zobor Abbey when it was made of wood. Gradually converted to stone by the 1200s, this medieval castle passed through several aristocratic families over the centuries. Bojnice Castle’s romantic appeal includes its surroundings: Under the castle, there’s a cave and subterranean lakes, and on its grounds is a huge 600-year-old lime tree, in whose shade the 15th-century King Matthias I is said to have held dinner parties. Wish you could stay in a castle? You can! Check out these 10 gorgeous castles that are available on Airbnb.
Predjama Castle, Slovenia
Speaking of caves, this 13th-century castle is literally built into one. Impossibly constructed on a 400-foot-high cliff face, the “cave castle” has a fascinating legend attached to it. In the 14th century, the knight Erazem Lueger of Predjama ran afoul of the emperor, who besieged the impregnable castle for more than a year. What the imperial forces didn’t know, though, was that Erazem used a secret tunnel through the cave to replenish food and supplies. As the story goes, he was betrayed by one of his servants, who signaled to enemy forces to fire a cannon while the knight was using a medieval toilet on the outside edge of the castle, killing him.
Windsor Castle, England
England is the country we most associate with royalty today, so it’s fitting that Queen Elizabeth II’s weekend home outside of London holds the distinction of being the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world. Windsor Castle was built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century, and since then, 39 monarchs have called the castle home. In 1170, the massive Round Tower, which is one of the castle’s most recognizable features, was built. The castle was originally used to defend the western approach to London; kings favored it because it was near royal hunting grounds, so it was eventually made into a comfortable royal residence. Another one of Queen Elizabeth’s castles actually looks just like any other grandma’s house.
Brunnenburg Castle, Italy
Although this castle bears a German name because it’s located in the Italian Alps near the border of Austria, it has an Italian one, too: Castle Fontana. Both mean “Fountain Castle,” after a nearby natural spring. Constructed in the 13th century, this breathtaking medieval castle on a mountain perch was restored in the early 20th. In the 1950s, Brunnenburg Castle hosted its most famous guest, the American poet Ezra Pound; his 94-year-old daughter, the poet Mary de Rachewiltz, still lives there. Today, the castle and grounds are an agricultural museum and working farm, as well as a cultural center for literature and the arts.
Himeji Castle, Japan
Originally built in the 1400s (although the present structure dates from a bit later), this castle is one of the best-preserved in Japan. Also called the White Heron Castle for its pale hue and graceful design, it is one of only 12 “original castles” that remain in the country. The large complex has more than 80 buildings, connected by an ingeniously designed maze of walls, gates, and walkways that no doubt would have confused any invader. Although the defensive walls were stone, the impressive six-story castle keep is made of wood and white plaster. The grounds of the castle are also gorgeous, with 1,000 cherry trees that blossom in spring. Here’s how to visit Japan’s most beautiful landmarks virtually, including Himeji Castle.
Trakai Island Castle, Lithuania
When Trakai Island Castle was built by the country’s grand dukes in the early 15th century, this striking red-brick structure in the middle of Lake Galvé was accessible only by boat. As the seat of the ruler, the castle held an important position, so had to be defensible—and indeed, it was never conquered. The grand duke also hosted important visitors to the thriving city in the castle’s Great Hall, which was decorated with stained-glass windows. Eventually, though, the castle lost prominence, became a prison, and it was burned in a fire in the 17th century. Restored in the early 20th century, the castle is now the Trakai History Museum.
Örebro Castle, Sweden
This imposing castle built on an island in the River Svartan in southern Sweden stands out for its massive turrets in each corner. Dating from around the mid–14th century during the reign of King Magnus Eriksson, Örebro Castle‘s exact age isn’t known, and like many medieval castles, it was added onto over the centuries. Under siege nine times and conquered more than once, it has quite a colorful history. Aside from being the home of kings, Örebro once housed a rebel leader, whose ghost is said to haunt the halls, and served as a prison, where suspected witches were tortured and executed—so it’s not surprising that spirits are supposedly running rampant in the place. Normally, though, Sweden is considered one of the most peaceful countries in the world.
Conwy Castle, Wales
It was built in just four years between 1283 and 1287 by the English King Edward I, this castle in Wales was originally “limed,” so it would appear shining white from a distance. Surrounded by a stone wall and strengthened with huge round towers, Conwy Castle was actually meant to act as a defense against the local Welsh people, who weren’t too happy about their occupation by the English. They were so unhappy, in fact, that they rebelled, and during the uprising, poor Edward was trapped in the castle with only one barrel of wine; he never stayed there again. But the castle’s setting is also picturesque; it overlooks a quaint harbor and is framed by the romantically named Snowdonia Mountains in the background.
Guaita Castle, San Marino
The microstate of San Marino is its own country, but it’s completely surrounded by Italy. Keeping watch over its capital, also called San Marino, is Guaita Castle, one of the “three towers of San Marino,” the oldest and arguably the most famous. Guaita is also called the “First Tower,” and it dates back to the 11th century, although it was rebuilt in the 15th. The trio of citadels and a series of walls were used to protect the tiny city on Mount Titano—and it worked, as San Marino is one of the world’s oldest republics and the last remaining Italian city-state that was not incorporated into Italy itself. Guaita was also later used as a prison—and still contains some recently uncovered, 200-year-old prisoner graffiti. San Marino is one of the 15 tiny countries you never knew existed.
Kasbah of the Udayas, Morocco
Situated in the city of Rabat at the mouth of the Bou Regreg River leading to the Atlantic Ocean, this 12th-century Moroccan castle, or “kasbah,” was home to the sultans who ruled the area. Perfectly situated to defend against invaders or pirates, it commands a gorgeous view over the ocean beyond. The Kasbah of the Udayas also contains the intricately carved medieval gateway called Bab Oudaia and a 12th-century mosque. Several centuries later, the kasbah became a refuge for Muslims fleeing Spain, as well as a hideout for pirates. Today, the kasbah contains a museum and the lovely Andalusian gardens.
Gravensteen Castle, Belgium
A true medieval gem, this limestone castle’s exact date is known by the Latin inscription on the entrance, which proclaims that Count Philip of Alsace—or as the inscription most grandly announces, “Philip, Count of Flanders and of Vermandois, son of Count Theoderic and Sibylla”—built it in 1180. The “Castle of the Counts,” located in the city of Ghent, was held by the counts of Flanders until it later became a courthouse and prison—complete with dungeons and a torture chamber. Because of its horrid reputation, the crumbling castle was almost razed in the 19th century, but it was saved by preservationists and reopened as a tourist attraction in 1913. Belgium also has some abandoned churches that are eerily gorgeous.
Kilkenny Castle, Ireland
Many of Ireland’s castles are in ruins—romantic ruins, but ruins nonetheless. Kilkenny Castle, however, is one of the oldest intact medieval castles in the country. It dates back to the 13th century and was constructed on the site of a previous wooden structure built by the legendary ruler Strongbow. The stone castle was later owned by the earls of the Butler family for nearly 600 years, hosting kings, queens, and other colorful characters. Lady Margaret Butler, the grandmother of English queen Anne Boleyn, was born here, and her ghost is said to haunt the castle. The Butlers left the castle in 1935, leaving it to stand empty until handing it over to the Irish government in 1967 for the small price of 50 pounds. Check out these 15 fairy-tale Irish castles you can actually stay in.
Hochosterwitz Castle, Austria
Austria has many majestic medieval castles, but Hochosterwitz Castle holds a striking position atop a rocky mount, standing sentinel over the surrounding countryside and the hills beyond. The castle was first mentioned in the year 860, although much of the current castle dates from the late medieval period. Noted for its 14 castle gates and five drawbridges invaders would have to breach before getting to the main stronghold—not to mention the long climb up a series of switchbacks—the castle was nearly impossible to reach, and it was never conquered. It’s been owned by the same family, the Khevehüllers, since the 16th century.
Mehrangarh Fort, India
One of the most imposing “hill forts” in India from the late medieval period, Mehrangarh Fort is also one of the largest and best-preserved, with ramparts towering 400 feet above the city of Jodhpur in northwest India. The interior palaces and temples are filled with colorful decoration and intricate stonework. Built by a branch of the ruling Rajput clan called the Rathores in the 15th century, the fort was named Mehrangarh, or “fort of the sun,” because the clan was said to have descended from the sun god Surya. The various rulers who lived there continually added to the complex for more than 500 years and the fort is still run by the current head of the Rathore clan, Maharaja Gaj Singh II. Speaking of India, the Taj Mahal is one of the world’s greatest landmarks you can virtually tour right now.
Topkapi Palace, Turkey
This late-medieval walled palace in Istanbul was built around 1453 for the sultan of the Ottoman Empire. The sultans ruled from the Topkapi Palace complex for 400 years, and the imperial treasury and library were also housed here. Inside a massive gate flanked by two tours, courtyards lead to the inner buildings, including “the harem,” the private residences where the sultan’s wives, concubines, and children lived. The interior of the castle is richly decorated, with colorful tiles and peaceful gardens. It also holds a striking position at the tip of a peninsula overlooking the Golden Horn, an inlet of the Bosphorus River.
Alcázar de Segovia, Spain
The boat-like shape of this 13th-century castle in central Spain makes it look like it’s about to sail off into the sky. Sticking out above the meeting of two rivers, Alcázar de Segovia was the home of Spanish kings, complete with secret passageways leading to the water and to other palaces in the city. This fairy-tale castle, with its graceful slate spires, is also said to have been one of the inspirations for Walt Disney World’s Cinderella Castle. The real castle’s highest point, the massive Tower of Juan II, can only be reached by a 152-step spiral staircase. The interior of the castle is ornately decorated, with elaborate ceilings including that of the “Pine Cone Room,” which gets its nickname from its carved, gold-colored ceiling. You’ll also find some of the world’s most beautiful cities in Spain.
Ksiaz Castle, Poland
This stunning castle looks like a mash-up of different styles—and that’s because it is. Built in the 13th century, Ksiaz Castle was expanded later by the noble Hochberg family. The story of the castle’s origins is the stuff of fairy tales: A young prince wandering in the forest had an “enchanted feeling” when coming upon the site and presented a black rock he had found there to the king, who granted him permission to build the castle, called the “Prince’s Stone.”
But perhaps one of the most bizarre legends attached to this medieval castle has a more modern history. Ksiaz Castle was taken over by the Nazis during World War II, and they had a huge system of tunnels built underneath the castle. Legend has it that somewhere in the caverns, there are hidden Nazi “gold trains” filled with stolen loot, just waiting to be found by the many treasure hunters who still go looking for it today.
The Forbidden City, China
This giant, walled palace in Beijing was constructed by the Chinese emperor for 14 years, starting in 1406. He even had to have a canal rebuilt in order to use it to transport all the necessary materials. The complex was called “forbidden” because the innermost area was solely for the emperor and his family—no one else was allowed; other parts of it, however, were used for official business. The colorful red and yellow buildings were richly decorated and surrounded by a wall and moat. According to legend, soon after completion, three of the buildings were struck by lightning, striking fear in the emperor. But the Forbidden City survived through 500 years and 24 emperors, and it is now a museum. It’s also one of the most beautiful man-made structures in the world.
Citadel of Carcassonne, France
One of the best remaining examples of a medieval fortified town in Europe, Carcassonne in southern France is more of a city than a castle—and, in fact, it is called La Cité de Carcassonne. Looking like something out of Game of Thrones, the site was occupied since before Roman times but expanded in the medieval period, around the 12th century. The castle (or “chateau”) inside the city sits within two sets of walls containing 53 towers. Presided over first by the Counts of Carcassonne, it became a royal fortress in the 13th century. The crumbling citadel was another Victorian restoration project that saved an important example of medieval architecture. Here are some castles that actually appeared in Games of Thrones.
Almourol Castle, Portugal
Called the most beautiful castle in central Portugal, Almourol Castle was conquered by the Knights Templar as part of the Christian “Reconquest” from the Moors. We know it was reconstructed after the group took it over in 1171, the date inscribed on the castle door. Spectacularly situated in the middle of the Tagus River, it can be reached only by boat. The castle, with its nine circular defensive towers, maintained an important position on the river throughout the Middle Ages, but it eventually fell into disrepair. Reconstructed in the 19th century, Almourol seemed to embody all the romanticism of the medieval period. Even today, surrounded only by small towns and villages, Almourol seems like something out of the past. Portugal also has one of the best secret island escapes around the world.
Chateau de Sully-sur-Loire, France
This romantic French castle seems to float on water. Although many of the chateaus in the Loire River Valley date from the later Renaissance period, Chateau de Sully-sur-Loire is actually medieval. The castle keep was built by the Lord of Sully in 1395, as a defense of the river but also so he could hold elaborate parties. Originally connected to the mainland with drawbridges, this medieval castle has a storied past: Joan of Arc even stayed here to visit with the French King Charles VII. Although it has undergone modifications over the years and was damaged in World War II, the castle has been restored to all its medieval glory.
Cairo Citadel, Egypt
Also called the Citadel of Saladin or Salah El-Din, this medieval fortress of towers and walls was built in the 12th century by Saladin, the sultan of Egypt, as a defense against religious soldiers from Europe called Crusaders. While the site was known for its cool breezes, Saladin reportedly wanted to make sure it was as good as everyone said before building his castle. One legend says he hung up raw meat all around Cairo, but the only place it didn’t spoil within a day was the future site of the Citadel. Although he died before it was completed, subsequent leaders of Egypt ruled from the complex for more than 800 years. During its history, the citadel was added to, and the Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha is now the most eye-catching aspect of the structure. Check out these gorgeous travel photos from around the world, including Egypt.
Alnwick Castle, England
When Hollywood decides to use a fairy-tale-like castle to represent a school for witches and wizards, you know it has to have some real-life magic, too. Alnwick Castle was featured as Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter films; it was also used in Downton Abbey. The present castle was built in the mid-1300s by the lords and earls of the Percy family, who turned it into a stronghold with towers, a curtain wall, gates, and battlements complete with stone figures to confuse attackers. Restored in the 18th century, the castle is now home to the 12th Duke and his family, and also hosts a study-abroad program for American students—so maybe it has even more in common with Hogwarts than we thought.
Monastir’s Ribat, Tunisia
This Islamic defensive structure looks like it’s always been there—and it practically has. First built in 797, many of the current buildings of Monastir’s Ribat date from the eighth to tenth centuries, with the tall towers built centuries later. But the ribat was not just for military purposes or keeping watch for invaders; it also contained prayer rooms for the religious communities, students, and scholars who lived at and visited the fort. The towers were used as lookouts, of course, but also for signaling from one ribat to another. It wasn’t an easy job to get up there, though, as the spiral staircase has 100 steps. Tunisia is also one of the places to check out if you’re a Star Wars super fan—here’s why.
Glamis Castle, Scotland
Several of Scotland’s best “medieval” castles, such as Eilean Donan and Duart castles, are actually relatively recent reconstructions of original buildings that were completely in ruins. In striving for authenticity, what counts as a truly medieval castle? Our Scottish pick is Glamis Castle, which, although it has been updated, was never ruined. Glamis has been continually occupied since the present castle was built around 1400 by an unbroken line of the Lords Glamis, later styled as earls. The castle has a vivid history, with connections to Scottish royalty including Robert the Bruce, Mary Queen of Scots, and the Queen Mother (Queen Elizabeth II’s mother), who lived here. Queen Elizabeth’s sister, Margaret, was also born in the castle. Today, Glamis is occupied by the 19th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne.
Karlstejn Castle, Czech Republic
The Great Tower of this royal palace is an awe-inspiring sight among the rolling hills that surround it and the little town below. Built around 1350 by the Holy Roman Emperor, Karlstejn Castle was used by the king to secure his most prized collections, including holy relics and the Imperial Crown Jewels; it was also his private royal retreat. Like most other medieval castles, Karstejn was added to, starting in the 15th century, but it maintains its original style, thanks to later restorations that got rid of the trimmings and changed it back to its original appearance. Never owned privately, it passed from the crown to the state. The Czech Republic is also home to one of the most underrated cities in Europe—and it’s not Prague.
Gyantse Dzong, Tibet
This impressive castle-like structure is one of the best-preserved dzongs (a sort of fortress/monastery) in Tibet, where government officials as well as religious and cultural leaders lived. The Gyantse Dzong was built in the late 1300s, its white buildings blending into the cliffs and its red-topped roofs catching the eye. Although the dzong was built in the medieval period, its most notable point in history was during the British invasion of Tibet in 1903 and 1904. The dzong and the city were eventually overcome, but the Tibetans put up quite a fight—which is why Gyzntse is known as the “Hero City.”
Vianden Castle, Luxembourg
It’s been called one of the most beautiful castles in the world, peeking out from the surrounding hills. Constructed over the course of 300 years, from the 11th through 14th centuries, Vianden Castle was the residence of the Counts of Vianden, who held great power in the area due to their connections with German and French royalty. But unfortunately, in the 19th century, Vianden was sold to an unscrupulous businessman, who sold everything in it until the castle became dilapidated. In the 20th century, though, it passed to the state, which restored it to its former beauty. These abandoned castles around the world weren’t quite as lucky.