Castles across the globe are endlessly diverse. Medieval Europe gave birth to stone fortresses and motte and bailey structures. In early modern Japan, on the other hand, ornate timber structures such as the Himeji Castle were constructed.
While castles vary in style from region to region, they largely share a common purpose: to guard lands and people of importance.
Given the significance and fortitude of these structures, countless historic castles still exist around the globe in incredible states of preservation.
Here are 20 of the most beautiful castles to visit in the world.
A fairytale castle built for an introverted and reclusive king, Neuschwanstein Castle is an idyllic mountainous escape. Rather than being a copy of any specific medieval castle, Neuschwanstein combines many different architectural and decorative motifs, culminating in this beautiful, idealistic and extravagant monument to ‘Mad’ King Ludwig.
Today, Neuschwanstein boasts over 1 million visitors a year, making it one of the most heavily visited castles in Europe. It is also one of the most photographed buildings in the world.
The Alcazar of Segovia is an imposing medieval fortress which embodies much of what one would consider to be the ideal vision of a fairytale castle, complete with picturesque turrets and cliff-top location. Having started life as an Arab fort, in the 13th century, the Alcazar of Segovia made the transition from military stronghold to palatial residence and was slowly renovated in a gothic style.
Today, visitors to Alcazar of Segovia can tour this magnificent site and climb into its towers for great views of the town.
Balmoral Castle has been the official Highlands home of the British royal family since the reign of Queen Victoria. Having fallen in love with the Highlands after their first visit in 1842, it was in fact Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who built Balmoral Castle between 1853 and 1856.
Today, parts of Balmoral Castle and its grounds are open to the public, with audio guides available (included in the admission price) detailing the workings of the estate and its history. There are also a series of exhibitions at Balmoral Castle related to the royal family.
Bojnice Castle (Bojnicky zamok) is seen by many as Slovakia’s most romantic castle, with a history dating to the 12th century. The castle has undergone many changes over the centuries. In its present form it is more similar to a French chateaux or Bavaria’s Neuschwanstein than to other Slovak fortresses.
Known to exist since at least 1113, the castle passed through many an aristocratic hand and underwent several changes in style until the 17th century saw it pass into the hands of the Palfi family. It was Count Jan Palfi who, in the late 19th century, renovated the castle in the romantic style seen today. Bojnice Castle has been part of the Slovak National Museum since 1950.
Mont Saint-Michel is an imposing historic village in Normandy, France, which dominates the skyline from its position atop a small rocky island. Joined to the coast via a causeway, Mont Saint-Michel is best known for its Benedictine Abbey and Parish Church.
Today, visitors flock to Mont Saint-Michel to view the remarkable Abbey and Church and to stroll through its ancient streets. Many other sites remain, including the medieval ramparts, the Mont Saint-Michel Museum of History, a Maritime Museum and the 14th century Tiphaine’s house.
Bodiam Castle was built by Sir Edward Dalyngrigge in 1385 and is now a popular tourist attraction operated by the National Trust. The castle itself, of quadrangular design, is characterised by a great moat and courtyard. The living quarters were built into the walls, which surround an open courtyard.
Today, visitors are invited to explore this beatiful castle and its surrounding grounds. Families and school children are also welcome, and there are a wide range of events and activities taking place throughout the year.
Gyantse Dzong or Gyantse Fortress is one of the best preserved dzongs (fortified monasteries) in Tibet, perched high above the town of Gyantse on a huge spur of grey brown rock. Constructed around 1390, the castle we see today guarded the southern approaches to the Tsangpo Valley and Lhasa.
The original fortress, known as Gyel-khar-tse was attributed to Pelkhor-tsen, son of the anti-Buddhist king Langdharma. He probably reigned from 838 to 841 CE. The present walls were supposedly built in 1268.
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.
Himeji Castle’s current main structure dates back to 1609, although a fortification of some form was first built on the site in the 14th century. Himeji is also known as Shirasagi-jō (‘White Heron Castle’), due to its striking white exterior, and was recognised as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993. The castle was passed into the ownership of the state in 1869.
Today, Himeji is of the most popular castles in Japan for tourists and can be visited year-round. Visitors can access the top level of the castle for magnificent views across the city of Himeji from the summit. Himeji is also popular during Japan’s cherry blossom season in spring (mid-April is recognised as the season’s peak), when the many cherry blossom trees around the castle grounds are in full bloom.
Castel del Monte in Italy is a medieval palace originally built as a hunting lodge by the Emperor Frederick II and later used as his seat of power. With its set of perfectly octagonal towers, it was also a great example of symmetry in medieval building. The castle is not only extremely well defended, with thick limestone walls, but it blends the influences of the cultures to which Frederick II had been exposed and had learned about.
Visitors to Castel del Monte can tour its two floors. Much of the original splendour, such as its marble walls, has now disappeared, but traces appear here and there.
Coburg Castle, the former seat of the Dukes of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, is one of Germany’s largest and most impressive surviving medieval fortress complexes. Dominating the town of Coburg in Upper Franconia, it was first mentioned as ‘Koburk’ in a document from 1056 and the self-styled ‘Fränkische Krone’ or Franconian Crown is both a stunning castle as well as being home to one of the most important art and cultural history collections in Germany.
Today, visits to the castle take in centuries’ worth of architecture and meticulous restoration. Highlights include the Heated Stone Chamber, the Memorial Room, the 19th-century Lutherkapelle and the Bear Enclosures. There are works by old German masters Cranach, Dürer, Grünewald and Holbein as well as stunning collections of Venetian glassware and sculptures from prolific 15th and 16th century sculptor and woodcarver Tilman Riemenschneider.
Leeds Castle was originally constructed as a fortification in 1119 by Robert de Crevecoeur, a lord under William the Conqueror. In 1278, Leeds Castle took on a different role, as a royal palace to King Edward I, who expanded it, adding further elements such as an impressive barbican.
Today, Leeds Castle is a leisure facility, housing an aviary and a maze along with a dog collar museum. Guided tours are available for groups and schools and audio tours are also available.
Carcassonne, known as “La Cite” is a fortified town in southern France whose important strategic position between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic led to it being inhabited since before the Ancient Roman era. Throughout its history, Carcassonne has been considered untouchable. Even before its walls were built it was the subject of two failed sieges in the 13th century and, during the Hundred Years’ War, an attack was never even attempted.
There is much to see at Carcassonne, including its incredible double fortified 3 km walls and 52 towers. There are audio guided tours of the majestic citadel and visitors can explore the cathedral, both built by the then ruling Trencavels.
Krak des Chevaliers is a stunning example of Crusader-era military architecture and was the headquarters of the famous Knights Hospitaller during the 12th and 13th centuries.
Built to withstand a siege for up to five years, Krak des Chevaliers stands atop a 650-metre high hill which dominated the route from Antioch to Beirut. It is perhaps the best preserved example of a Crusader fortress in existence today, and is an awe-inspiring example of medieval military architecture.
The Castle of Good Hope (Casteel de Goede Hoop) in Cape Town is the oldest surviving colonial building in South Africa and the current seat of the military in the Cape. It was built by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) between 1666 and 1679 as a maritime replenishment station.
Visitors enter through its large gateway bearing the coat of arms of the United Netherlands, built in 1682 to replace the original sea-facing entrance. Inside, there are a number of exhibitions, including the Castle Military Museum exploring past battles and wars, the William Ferh Collection of period paintings and a replica of the original Castle Forge.
Chapultepec Castle (Castillo de Chapultepec) is an 18th century structure in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park, now containing Mexico’s National History Museum (Museo Nacional de Historia). Original construction of Chapultepec Castle began in 1785, but it was only completed after Mexico achieved independence and later refurbished as the home of Emperor Maximilian of Habsburg in 1864, before becoming the residence of Mexico’s presidents.
Parts of Chapultepec Castle are still dedicated to their time as Emperor Maximilian’s home, however today, most of Chapultepec Castle is dedicated to the National History Museum. Within its twelve halls, Mexico’s National History Museum charts the country’s diverse history, from the Pre-Hispanic era through to Spanish colonialism, Mexico’s revolution and its independence.
Hohensalzburg Fortress, also known as Hohensalzburg Castle, in Salzburg, Austria, is an incredibly well preserved citadel and one of the largest remaining medieval fortresses in central Europe. Hohensalzburg was built in 1077 by Gebhard von Helfenstein, also known as Prince Gebhard I of Helffenstein and Archbishop Gebhard, and was later expanded over the centuries, including by Archbishop Leonhard von Keutschach in the 16th century.
Inside Hohensalzburg Fortress is the Fortress Museum displaying, amongst other things, a collection of ancient weaponry, Roman coins and historic musical instruments. Visitors can also see several state rooms as well as torture chambers. The views from Hohensalzburg Fortress are spectacular and these alone are worth the trip.
Shirvanshahs’ Palace (Palace of the Shirvanshahs) is a 15th century castle and complex in the old city of Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku. Originally constructed by the ruler Shirvanshah Khalilulla I and his son, Faruk, Shirvanshahs’ Palace had both royal and religious significance. However, Shirvanshahs’ Palace is somewhat incomplete as construction was halted in 1501 when Faruk was killed in battle.
Upon first entering Shirvanshahs’ Palace, visitors go into a central courtyard through which they can access the residential parts of the palace. Much of the Shirvanshahs’ Palace is in ruins and other aspects were subject to thorough renovations, not all of them entirely sympathetic. However, Shirvanshahs’ Palace contains many beautiful and authentic structures and inscriptions.
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.
Castel Sant Angelo in Rome was originally constructed as the magnificent Mausoleum of Hadrian, the 14th emperor of Rome from 117AD to 138AD. It is unclearly as to exactly when Castel Sant Angelo was built, but most sources date it to between 123 and 139 AD. A fortress-like structure, successive Roman emperors and other leaders used Castel Sant Angelo for a variety of purposes. It later turned into a medieval stronghold and a prison.
Today, Castel Sant Angelo houses a museum which tells the story of its history, from the Roman remains of the Mausoleum of Hadrian to remnants of the fortified castle, the original prison cells and the papal apartments.