Alcázar of Segovia, Segovia, Spain
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Rising out of rugged rocks with its fairy tale turrets and blue-tiled roof, Alcázar is one of Spain’s most distinctive castles and one of the inspirations for Walt Disney’s Cinderella Castle. Historical record dates back to 1120 when a wooden fort built over the original Roman foundations on the site was recaptured from Muslim forces by Alfonso VI of Léon and Castile. The castle took its current shape during the reign of Alfonso VIII (1155-1214) and now serves as a museum and military archive.
Arundel Castle, West Sussex, England
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The ancestral home of the Dukes of Norfolk for more than 1000 years, Arundel was built by Roger de Montgomery, Earl of Arundel, at the end of the 11th century. The sprawling castle commands beautiful views over the South Downs and the River Arun. It serves as a venue for a range of events such as medieval jousting tournaments, Morris dancing performances, Living History days and meetings of the British Motorcycle Owners Club (Sussex).
Balmoral Castle, Aberdeenshire, Scotland
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The original castle dated back to the 15th century, but Balmoral has been in the hands of the British Royal Family since Prince Albert and Queen Victoria purchased it privately in 1852 – which means the castle is not the property of the Crown but belongs solely to the Queen. Now, the Balmoral Estate covers about 20,000 hectares and is a working property with deer, cattle and crops – there’s even a malt whisky distillery producing the Royal Lochnagar single malt. There are about 150 buildings on the estate. Birkhall, once the Queen Mother’s residence, is now the summer holiday home of Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall. Six other buildings are rented out as holiday cottages.
Bodiam Castle, East Sussex, England
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An impressive moat surrounds Bodiam Castle, built in 1385 by Sir Edward Dalyngrigge to defend the area from French invasion during the 100 Years War. Having fallen into ruin, it was partially restored in the mid-1800s and donated to the National Trust in 1925 by Lord Curzon. Bodiam now hosts, tourists, weddings – and a large roost of Daubenton’s bats inside the crumbling gatehouse. You may recognise it as the Swamp King castle from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Bran Castle, Brasov, Romania
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Bran Castle is often referred to as Dracula’s Castle, although author Bram Stoker never actually saw it. The castle is first mentioned in 1377, when Louis I of Hungary allowed local Saxons to build a stone castle. Bran was a Hungarian royal residence until the 1920 Treaty of Trianon awarded Transylvania to Romania. It then became a Romanian royal residence until the communist regime expelled the royal family in 1948. Following some complicated legal wrangling, Bran Castle was ruled illegally expropriated and in 2006 the property was given to New York architect Dominic von Habsburg, a descendant of the Hungarian royals, who had lived at Bran as a child. He and his sisters opened the castle as the first private museum in Romania in 2009.
Castel del Monte, Apulia, Italy
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The “Castle of the Mountain” is an unusual octagonal 13th century citadel built by Emperor Frederick II on a hill in the wine country of Andria. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996, it appears on the Italian Euro one-cent piece. Castel del Monte variously served as a prison and a refuge for noble families during plague years before it was abandoned to thieves and ruin. Acquired by the Italian state in 1876, it is open to visitors.
Catherine Palace, Pushkin, St Petersburg, Russia
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This Russian Rococo/Baroque confection of a building isn’t technically a castle, as it has no fortification. Catherine Palace was the summer residence of the tsars. Catherine I ordered the pleasure palace built in 1717. Her granddaughter, Empress Elizabeth, found it outdated and stuffy, so had it demolished and replaced with the current flamboyant edifice in 1752. Much of the palace was destroyed during World War II but extensive restoration has been undertaken.
Château de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France
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This glorious château has an arched gallery spanning the width of the River Cher. It was allegedly spared destruction during the French Revolution by then-owner Louise Dupin’s good relationship with local villagers – and the fact it was the only bridge across the Cher for miles – and now, it’s second only to Versailles in annual visitors (1.3 million).
Hampton Court Palace, London, England
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A favourite adviser of the notorious Henry VIII, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey began building his own ostentatious castle in 1515 only to have his king seize it for himself after Wolsey fell from favour in 1529. King George II was the last British royal to live in the palace. It is open to the public and has a diverse program of events, such as the annual Hampton Court Palace Festival, live historical cooking and theatre performances.
Château de Chillon, Veytaux, Switzerland
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Jutting into Lake Geneva, the imposing island fortress of Château de Chillon is rivalled only by the dramatic snow-capped peaks of Dents du Midi standing sentinel beyond. Lord Byron wrote a poem, The Prisoner of Chillon, about the Genevan political activist François de Bonivard who was imprisoned here in 1530. Byron left his own impression on the castle, engraving his name on a wall in the dungeon. The castle is now open to the public and one of the most popular tourist attractions in Switzerland.
Hever Castle, Kent, England
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One of Henry VIII’s most unfortunate wives, Anne Boleyn, spent her early years at the moated 13th century Hever Castle, which was the seat of the Boleyns from 1462 until 1539. American millionaire William Waldorf Astor bought the castle and restored it in 1903 and his family lived there until 1983. Now, it’s open to the public and visitors can explore its rooms full of tapestries, antiques and portraits and see the two prayer books actually written in by Anne Boleyn.
Hochosterwitz Castle, Launsdorf, Austria
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From its superior position atop a 172-metre rock outcrop, Hochosterwitz defenders could see for kilometres around. Access via 14 fortified gates (that had to be tackled one by one) made the castle virtually impregnable – and even if an invader was able to enter, they still had to negotiate the misleading “fool’s stairs” – a second path that led over the rocky western slope of the mountain. In 1576, Baron George Khevenhüller had a marble plaque inscribed stating the castle must remain in the possession of the Khevenhüller family – and so it does. Parts of the castle are open to tourists during the warmer months.
Kylemore Abbey, Connemara, Ireland
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A Benedictine order founded in 1920 now occupies Kylemore Castle but prior to the establishment of the monastery the castle was the private home of surgeon Mitchell Henry who began converting the rather more simple Kylemore Lodge into a castle in 1867. Completed four years later, it had 33 bedrooms, four bathrooms, a smoking room and a library. The nuns, whose original monastery in Ypres, Belgium, was destroyed during WWI, have made the estate largely self-sufficient and the building and its walled garden are open to visitors.
Miramare Castle, Trieste, Italy
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Built in 1860 for the hapless Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian – who later claimed the title Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico and was executed by firing squad – this castle reflects the Archduke’s eclectic artistic interests. The castle retains original furnishings and objects such as a bedroom and office modelled after the cabin and stern room of the frigate Novara, on which Archduke Ferdinand served as Commander in Chief of the Imperial Navy. The seafront park also reflects Ferdinand’s interest in botany, with 22 hectares of rare and exotic gardens.
Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy, France
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Just 600 metres from land, this island commune has been a strategic holding since ancient times thanks to its natural defences. Pilgrims used to walk across the sand at low tide but visitors – or invaders – could find themselves stranded or drowned upon the incoming 14-metre high tide. There’s now a bridge linking Mont Saint-Michel to the mainland. It’s been the seat of the Saint-Michel monastery since the 8th century and at its height was home to more than 1000 people; today, 46 people live in this World Heritage site. Of most interest to under-10s: it served as the inspiration for castle in the movie Tangled.
Neuschwanstein Castle, Bavaria, Germany
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Generally regarded as insane, the King of Bavaria Ludwig II was also notoriously shy. Ascending the throne in 1864, aged 18, with no political experience, he took refuge in a fantasy world. Neuschwanstein was based on his medieval romanticism and admiration for the works of Richard Wagner. He began building the castle in this remote and idyllic part of Bavaria to hide from the world. Shortly after being deposed in 1886, Ludwig died under mysterious circumstances at Lake Starnberg. His palace was immediately opened to the public and was the inspiration for Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle.
Orava Castle, Oravský Podzámok, Slovakia
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Built in the then Kingdom of Hungary in the 13th century, Orava Castle stands on a 112-metre cliff overlooking the Orava River in the village of Oravský Podzámok. It took its current form in 1611 but after a fire in 1800, it was not repaired until 1861. The first museum exhibition took place in 1868 and Orava is now one of the oldest museums in Slovakia.
Peleș Castle, Prahova County, Romania
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Constructed for King Carol I, Peleș Castle is actually a palace. Despite its traditional appearance – a blend of Neo-Renaissance and Gothic Revival – it’s a thoroughly modern building and became the first palace with its own electricity plant. It was seized by the communist regime in 1947 and briefly opened as a museum. In 2006 the Romanian government announced the restitution of the castle to former king Michael I. The royal family now leases the castle to the government. Its lavish 170-plus rooms filled with rich collections of art, furniture, jewellery and historical artefacts are open to the public.
Pena Palace, Sintra, Portugal
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On a clear day, the bright ochre and mustard of Pena Palace’s turrets and towers can been seen from Lisbon. The UNESCO World Heritage listed palace’s origins lie in the Middle Ages. A chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Pena was originally built on the site and became a favourite place of pilgrimage. This eventually grew into a monastery, which was then destroyed (apart from he chapel) by the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. In 1838, King Consort Ferdinand II acquired the site and built a summer palace with the aim of rivalling Neuchwanstein in Bavaria. During the 1910 revolution, the palace was abandoned by the Portuguese nobility as they fled to Brazil. The last queen of Portugal, Amelia, spent her final night in Portugal here before she left for the New World. The palace has been restored to be a 1910 time capsule.
Himeji Castle, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan
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A castle complex made up of 83 buildings, Himeji dates back to 1333, built as a fort then transformed into Himeji Castle a couple of centuries later to serve the shogun during feudal times. It was completely rebuilt in 1609 and became a seat of power for feudal lords. The castle survives largely intact where many of its contemporaries fell to earthquakes and wars. Thanks to its brilliant white façade and resemblance to a bird taking flight, it’s known as White Heron (or Egret) Castle.
Schloss Moritzburg, Saxony, Germany
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On its own artificial island, Schloss Mortizburg is a Baroque palace built by Moritz, Duke of Saxony, as a hunting lodge between 1542 and 1546. The interiors reflect its origins: think walls covered in gilded leather and a collection of 71 sets of red deer antlers including one weighing nearly 20 kilograms and measuring almost two metres across. Prince Ernst Heinrich of Saxony was the last occupant of the castle; he and his sons buried some of their treasure in the palace gardens before they were removed in 1945 by the Soviet administration. Almost all of the items were recovered.
Schwerin Palace, Schwerin, Germany
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Another idyllic palace, this one built in the Romantic Historicism style on an island in the middle of the Schweriner See. The first records of a fort on the island are from 973. The fort became a castle in the 14th century and underwent upgrades under various dukes and grand dukes. Today it houses the Mechlenburg-Vorpommern state parliament and visitors can explore the living quarters and entertaining areas of the grand duke and his wife as well as other rooms replete with artworks, tapestries, porcelain and royal silverware.
Warwick Castle, Warwickshire, England
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William the Conqueror built the original wooden Warwick Castle in 1068. The current castle, situated on a bend of the River Avon and surrounded by lush greenery, was built in stone in the 13th century with various additions made over its long history. It was the seat of many incarnations of the Earls of Warwick until the Greville family, who had owned Warwick Castle for about 375 years, sold it in 1978. Bought by the Tussauds Group, it has since been opened as a tourist attraction.
Windsor Castle, Windsor, England
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Queen Elizabeth II is the owner of Windsor Castle; it’s the longest-occupied palace in Europe and her chosen weekender. Originally built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century, it became a favourite of successive monarchs. Henry VIII used it for his various activities (shooting, wrestling, dancing, romancing – he even built a tennis court). Queen Victoria and Prince Albert made it their principal residence. During Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, it has become a tourist attraction and undergone much restoration – in addition to being a royal residence where 500 people live and work.