From the austere stone strongholds of Britain to the architecturally ornate fortresses of Germany, no two European region’s castles are quite the same.
But the many medieval castles of Europe do largely share a common purpose: they were built to withstand assaults, bombardments and invasions. They were built to last.
Given the significance and fortitude of these structures, countless European castles still stand to this day, towering over the landscapes and localities they were once built to defend.
From Norway’s Akershus Fortress to Albania’s Krujë Castle, here are 15 of the most epic medieval strongholds to visit in Europe.
Occupying a hill site inhabited since before 5000 BC, Spis Castle is said to be Slovakia’s most famous castle ruin and is now among the largest castle complexes on the continent, covering over 4 hectares.
Whilst a 12th century incarnation of Spis Castle collapsed due to tectonic shifts, a second version built in the early 13th century in anticipation of Tatar incursions forms the root of what we see there today. Over the next few hundred years, Hungarian noble families controlled the castle, converting it from a fortress into a palatial home and endowing it with a wealth of architectural influences.
A royal residence, a vital stronghold and an iconic structure, Edinburgh Castle is one of the most famous castles in the world. Archaeologists have found evidence of human settlement on the rock on which the castle sits as early as 900 BC, the late Bronze Age. Over the following centuries, Edinburgh Castle continued to play its role as a crucial defensive structure as well as becoming an integral part of Scotland’s history.
Today, visitors to Edinburgh Castle can explore the castle’s history through a series of guided tours and exhibitions. Amongst its many attractions are the Scottish National War Memorial and National War Museum, the Mons Meg, a giant cannon gifted to James II in 1457 and the Great Hall, built by James VI in 1511. Royal exhibitions include The Honours of Scotland jewels which, along with Scotland’s coronation stone, the Stone of Destiny, can be found in the castle’s Crown Room.
Schwerin Castle is a picturesque palace which seemingly floats upon Schwerin Lake. Whilst it is thought that there was a fort on this location as early as the 10th century, the beginnings of Schwerin Castle date back to 1160, when Henry the Lion built a castle there. It was only from around 1843 that Schwerin Castle began to take the form we see today. Vast renovation of the building took place, with only some of its older parts having been kept.
Schwerin is now both the seat of the local government and an art museum displaying pieces ranging from the ancient to the twentieth century. Some of the most important pieces at Schwerin’s museum are its 17th-century Dutch and Flemish paintings.
The spectacular spired vision of Hohenzollern Castle is a 19th century creation and popular tourist destination. Located 40 miles south of Stuttgart, it is in fact the third castle to be built on this site, the earliest in the 11th century.
The current incarnation of the castle was commissioned by King Frederick William IV of Prussia and completed in 1867. The castle was modelled on similar constructions in England and France in the Gothic Revival style. In 1945 Hohenzollern briefly became the home of the former Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany, son of the last German monarch, Kaiser Wilhelm II.
The 12th century Château de Beynac is a castle situated in the commune of Beynac-et-Cazenac, in the Dordogne département of France.
The castle is one of the best-preserved and best known in the region.This Middle Ages construction, with its austere appearance, is perched on top of a limestone cliff, dominating the town and the north bank of the Dordogne River.
Conwy Castle is the medieval military masterpiece of architect James of St. George. Constructed under the orders of English king Edward I and built between 1283 and 1289, Conwy was one of a ring of strongholds that the monarch commissioned to establish his dominance over Wales. This huge military fortification would later be the subject of a siege by the Welsh and would be garrisoned in several conflicts over the centuries.
With monumental towers and turrets and its position over the Conwy estuary, Conwy Castle stands today as an incredibly picturesque and impressive site. It is one of four welsh castles built by Edward listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Windsor Castle is the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world – home to over 900 years of royal history. Covering an area of approximately 13 acres, it contains a wide range of interesting features. These include the State Apartments, Queen Mary’s dolls house and the beautiful St George’s Chapel. It is also the burial place of 10 monarchs, including Henry VIII and his beloved wife (the one who gave him a son), Jane Seymour.
Today, Windsor Castle remains a favourite home of Queen Elizabeth II, and she spends most of her weekends there. There are numerous exhibitions and tours at Windsor Castle, and a typical visit can easily last 3 hours.
A defence tower was built on the site where Kalmar Castle now stands around 1180. Kalmar Castle went on to play an important role in Swedish history and was the site at which the Union of Kalmar was signed in 1397. In the 16th century Kalmar Castle was expanded and renovated. But after the Treaty of Roskilde in 1658, the castle was no longer needed to protect the old border and it lost its strategic location.
Today, fully restored to its original glory, Kalmar Castle is a popular tourist attraction and is even a wedding venue. The castle displays a variety of exhibits, including permanent exhibits that tell the dramatic history of the castle, but also temporary exhibitions with different themes. there are also interactive touch screens where you find some 400 texts, anecdotes, and stories. The texts are written in Swedish, English and German.
Xativa Castle or Castillo de Xativa in Spain is an imposing twin fortification split into its older part, Castell Menor, and its newer counterpart, Castell Major. Over its long history, it housed Iberians, Romans and Moors, amongst others. Located along the ancient route of the Via Augustus, Xativa Castle is said to be where Hannibal plotted his campaign for the siege of the Roman city of Saguntum.
Despite its Iberian and Roman roots, most of castle walls and towers preserved today are of Islamic or Gothic origin, and highlights include Porta Ferrissa Gate (‘Iron Gate’) which depicts the city’s coat of arms and the Plaza de Armas, the castle’s central courtyard that showcases the features of Islamic and neo-Gothic origins.
Malbork Castle (Zamek w Malborku) is a medieval fortified castle complex enclosed within thick walls in Poland. In 1309, it became the headquarters of the Teutonic Knights, a role which it fulfilled until the demise of the order in the early 15th century. During World War Two, more than half of the castle was destroyed.
Today, the restored Malbork Castle is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a museum featuring medieval works, weaponry and historic displays. Touring this beautiful redbrick building with its magnificent rooms is a great day trip from Gdansk. There is also a great viewing point across the river for you to capture the castle in its full glory.
Akershus Fortress (Akershus Festning) has been a vital stronghold and royal residence in Oslo, Norway, since the 14th century. Over the centuries, different figures put their mark on Akershus Fortress including King Christian, although it would suffer from neglect in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Now fully restored, Akershus Fortress is both a popular tourist attraction and a site used for official government and state functions. The castle boasts everything from the former living quarters of medieval Danish-Norwegian royalty to dank dungeons and also the castle church, now a military church.
Het Steen, previously known as Antwerp Castle, is a Medieval Castle on the Scheldt river located in Antwerp, Beligum. Originally used to control access to the Scheldt River and protect against Viking raids, the site has been in use since at least the 9th or 10th centuries and is considered to be Antwerp’s oldest building.
Much of the castle complex was demolished in the 19th century, leaving little of the original structure surviving today. The most prominent element of the castle to survive is the picturesque entrance gate. In modern times, it served as the city’s maritime museum until 2010 and now the external fortifications can still be viewed from the street by the wider public.
Krujë Castle is located in the north-central Albanian city of Krujë. It was most famously ruled by the Albanian feudal lord Skanderbeg following his 1443 rebellion against the Ottoman Empire. The first construction on the site of Krujë Castle likely dates to the early Middle Ages.
In recent years, the castle has come to house the Skanderbeg Museum, one of the most visited museums in Albania. The castle itself is also depicted on the reverse of the 5000 lekë banknote.
Commanding a strategic crossroads for hundreds of years, Bran Castle in Romania is an impressive medieval fortification and popular tourist attraction. Built on the orders of King Louis I of Hungary, Bran Castle was completed in just a few years around 1377.
Famously known as Dracula’s Castle, Bran in fact has little or no link to any of the legends surrounding the fictional vampire. However the association was born, the myth has superseded the reality, and today as well as exploring the castle’s exterior and stately interior, tourists have to navigate a sea of pointed-toothed merchandise.
Tsarevets Castle in the Bulgarian city of Veliko Tarnovo is a medieval fortress complex. It was once the centre of the Second Bulgarian Empire, which ruled the region between the 12th and 14th centuries AD.
First constructed on the site of an earlier fortress, by the late 12th century Tsarevets Castle had become the headquarters of Bulgarian forces. Today, visitors can tour the castle complex and visit the restored Baldwin’s Tower from where there are great views of the locality. Psychedelic sound and light shows are also held within Tsarevets Castle on certain evenings.