Formidable stone bulwarks and soaring medieval keeps, romantic palaces and regal mansion homes that ooze with opulence from every nook and cranny; the castles of the world are so varied in their appearance and character that finding the best ones can be a daunting task for any traveler. Amidst the web of England's old hilltop rises, France's majestic country châteaux, Germany's sprawling gothic palaces, Canada's revival-style hotels and America's high-society retreats, there's an endless map of them to explore.
Here's a list of ten of the world's best castles, sorted by the cost of flying from Boston, with the most accessible first and the more expensive, far-flung castles last.
Unexpected finds: castle ruins in upstate New York. However, the decaying stone and brick skeleton on Pollepel Island, located on the Hudson River between Beacon and Cold Spring, is just as mysterious and storied as the ones in the hills of Scotland. Frank Bannerman built his castle on a piece of land devoid of life and energy except for patchy foliage and swirling whispers of ghosts. He housed ammunition and military surplus in this elaborate fortress and studded its towers with cannons. It was the Gilded Age – one could do things like that, if they had the money. That was a century ago, and all that remains is a brick and mortar shell, sunken bridges and some hiking trails. Tours are available from the Bannerman Castle Trust, the current proprietors of the land, with passenger ferries departing from Beacon, NY, and kayaking tours to the castle leaving from both Beacon and Cold Spring.
Perched on a hill above Toronto's north end, Casa Loma – Hill House in Spanish – was the fulfillment of a childhood fantasy for the wealthy Canadian financier Henry Pellatt. He built his castle in flamboyant Gothic Revival style in 1911, encouraging his architects to indulge their imaginations – the resulting structure encompassed 98 rooms, vertiginous towers, winding secret passageways, an 800-foot tunnel built for horses and five acres of gardens. A decade after its completion, however, depression hit Canada and Pellatt was forced to auction off his possessions, including his castle. It went through a series of incarnations – including as a lively nightspot for affluent Americans during Prohibition – before becoming a tourist attraction in 1937, and later, a popular filming location for films like X-Men, Strange Brew, Chicago, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and many more.
Canada's answer to Bavarian Neuschwanstein remains one of the most dramatic sights in all of Quebec City. It towers high above the town, a dominating mix of gothic turrets, fairy-tale spires and dramatic buildings. Since its construction in the late 19th century, Chateau Frontenac has stayed true to its purpose, serving travelers to Quebec with luxurious accommodation in the heart of town. In the process the building has gained National Historic status, appeared in Hitchcock movies and is widely known as the most photographed hotel on the planet!
Famously the point where Guglielmo Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless signal in 1901, the hill has a much greater significance for St. John's inhabitants: It was the first point of sea-facing fortification from the earliest times and defended the city throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The formidable keep at its top is something of a monument to St. John's enduring character, while the Signal Hill Tattoo reenactments are a veritable "must-see."
Sprawled over more than 8,000 square metres on the Santa Lucia Mountains, midway between the cities of San Francisco and LA, this great complex of Mediterranean Revival architecture, Romanesque pools, neo-classical halls and majestic living spaces offers visitors a glimpse of 1950s American high society as well as an unadulterated panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean. It was once the home of William Randolph Hearst, who subsequently bequeathed the castle to the State of California, opening up the grounds and grand upper rooms to tour groups and guests from across the globe.}
The coal-baron owner of Craigdarroch Castle, Robert Dunsmuir, had a son named James who grew up to become British Columbia's Lieutenant Governor. James Dunsmuir followed in his father's taste for castle building, constructing a second Scottish Baronial structure on the outskirts of Victoria, which he called Hatley Park. James chose to surround the 40-room mansion with a series of colorful and intricate gardens, drawing on renowned landscape architects to realize his vision. The result was a gorgeous estate, inhabited by the Dunsmuir family until 1939, when it was purchased by the Government of Canada. The government used it for naval training for several decades before transforming it again into a public university in 1995. It has featured in several movies, including as the X-Mansion in the X-Men film franchise.
The 13th-century King John's Castle has recently undergone extensive renovations in order to provide a comprehensive cultural and learning experience for tourists and locals alike. A visitors' center offers an interactive experience which both kids and adults will appreciate: Touch screen displays, costumes and live historical re-enactments are just some of the ways in which the history and lore of this famous castle are brought to life. The castle overlooks Limerick city center – a city which, similar to the castle, has had a troubled past but is currently experiencing an immense cultural revival – and boasts views of Ireland's iconic River Shannon.
One of the most-visited sites in southern Ireland is also one of the country's most pristine examples of medieval fortification. Standing stark and formidable in the heart of the Blarney grounds, the great Muskerry keep and adjoining towers shoulder their way above the oak tree canopy, casting their shadow over the mysterious rock formations of the Druid's Circle and Witch's Cave. But Blarney's real pull comes from its uppermost bulwark, where the legendary Blarney Stone now hangs awkwardly some distance from the ground. Don't leave without giving it a kiss, for it's said the stone endows those who do with the gift of the gab!
Situated right in the heart of central Romania, the Fagaras fortress in the town of the same name represents one of Eastern Europe's largest and best-preserved feudal Castle complexes. Unquestionably the most-visited site in the medieval old town of the city, the castle was once the kingpin of regional power. Throughout the 17th century, the citadel was expanded continuously, reflecting the growing wealth of a center that exercised control over much of Transylvania and central Romania.
Hailed as the Key to England for its supremely powerful position perched out on the tip of the County of Kent, Dover Castle is a real beauty to behold. Sweeping views across the English Channel provide the backdrop for one of the country's largest central keeps, while winding walls weave their way in sections around the coastal hills. On-site there's also an old Roman lighthouse and a complex of World War II tunnels, where the British admiralty prepared for the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940.
When first-time visitors behold Windsor Castle from the pathway of the Long Walk, they are often stunned to silence by its grandiosity, size and sheer imposing presence. This is the most regal castle in the country, famed for its connection to monarch after monarch over the centuries. Inside, the great royal palace of Windsor is a rich tapestry of baroque styles and classical furnishings, built original by Henry VIII, it's since been augmented and added to by countless kings and queens, from George III to Victoria herself; definitely worth the visit!
From the 1000-year-old Ethelfleda's Mound fortification stone at the heart of Warwick's old grounds, to the iconic Caesar's Tower on the outer wall, the fortifications here represent some of England's most quintessential castle architecture. As a whole, Warwick is regarded as one of the finest examples of 14th century fortification, with a range of towers, portcullises and bulwarks typical of the period. Visitors here today will enjoy regular re-enactment events and encompassing tours that take guests deep into the gruesome dungeons of the castle's bowels.
By anyone's standards Conwy Castle remains one of Wales' best-preserved medieval defence systems. But not only is it startlingly pristine for its 1000-year-age, hailed by UNESCO as one of the 14th century's best-preserved relics, it's also dauntingly huge. Eight great towers lurch their way overhead as visitors pass below its outer walls, while inside, the thick bulwarks of the heavily-fortified inner ward highlight just how hard this nut would have been to crack. Conwy is also one of the most historically loaded of Welsh castles, and has passed through the hands of English kings and Welsh rebels alike over the years.
Once a bastion of English defense in the north, the original structures of Durham Castle were first erected at the command of William the Conqueror in the late 11th century. These quickly developed into a complex of stone fortifications and formidable battlements, with the great hexagonal keep on the crest of the hill coming to dominate the old town centre. Today, the site enjoys UNESCO status and is famed for its fantastic level of preservation, long history and undeniable architectural beauty.
In the verdant lands of northern Hampshire, the 5,000 acre estate of Highclere Castle is perhaps most famed for its prominent role in Masterpiece Theatre's hit period drama Downton Abbey. But visitors here are treated to much more than just a filming location, because Highclere is also widely regarded as one of the most pristine examples of the English Jacobethan style, with an exterior façade complete with all the opulent additions of Renaissance Revivalism and a sprawling interior of regal halls and lounges.
Hailed as one of the most romantic sights to behold the world over, the spires and turrets of Bavaria's iconic Neuschwanstein Castle have soared above the village of Hohenschwangau since they were first raised by the idealistic Ludwig II in 1892. For historians and artists the dramatic building has become synonymous with the Romantic movement of middle Europe, and it's easy to see why. Those who behold the great panoramas of the Alpsee valley, or just the dramatic white walls of Neuschwanstein itself can often be whisked away into the fairytale world of a Wagnerian opera or a Disneyland of wizards, kings and mysterious legends that rarely fails to enrapture.
The historical origins of Edinburgh's formidable Castle on the rock are shrouded in mystery; it's mentioned sporadically in the epic poems of the 6th century, popping up in the regional annals occasionally, before finally coming to the fore of Scottish history when Edinburgh established itself as the seat of monarchic power in the 12th century. Today visitors can wander up to the castle at the end of the Royal Mile, pass through the Portcullis Gate amidst the honorific statues of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace, and tour the various fortifications that have stood here for so many centuries.
Situated right in the heart of Cardiff city center, this sprawling fortification and regal manor house is one of the most defining monuments of Wales' capital city. Inside the newer outer walls, the original Norman keep and moat can be seen towards the northern end, while subsequent additions in the 15th, 16th and later 18th century, gave rise to the larger lodging rooms that now cluster around the west and south gates. Today, daily tours take visitors through the regal rooms of the Victorian manor house, across the original lines of the Roman fort, and into the ruined Norman keep of the 11th century.
Since its construction in the late Renaissance, the Chateau et Jardins de Villandry has seen some towering figures of European history pass through its elegant hallways. Once the home of France's formidable Le Breton family, the property passed into the hands of Napoleon himself after 1789, finally becoming the property of the emperor's own brother Jerome. But historical luminaries aside, the real pull of the Chateau et Jardins de Villandry is its sprawling grounds; a patchwork of labyrinthine mazes and blooming flower gardens that seemingly go on forever!
Nestled amidst the verdant hills of Baden-Württemberg and crowning the great old town of medieval Heidelberg, this sprawling German schloss is another of the country's most remarkable romantic sights. Today visitors are invited to wander amidst the endless ruins and pretty gardens that lay between the bulwarks, surveying the old keep and scaling the parapets that overlook the city. Inside, great collections of German art and treasures from Heidelberg's golden age remain, while some of the ruined sections of the original outer fortifications are strewn across the grounds, remnants from when the castle was destroyed by a lightning-bolt in 1764.