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 1000 years from 500 to 1500 CE. 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.
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 70-metre-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 favourite royal residences. Today the castle is owned by her heirs, the Archduke and Archduchesses.
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.
Predjama Castle, Slovenia
Speaking of caves, this 13th-century castle is literally built into one. Impossibly constructed on a 122-metre-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 signalled 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 recognisable features, was built. The castle was originally used to defend the western approach to London; kings favoured it because it was near royal hunting grounds, so it was eventually made into a comfortable royal residence.
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 centre 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-storey castle keep is made of wood and white plaster. The grounds of the castle are also gorgeous, with 1000 cherry trees that blossom in spring.
Trakai Island Castle, Lithuania
When Trakai 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 colourful 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.
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 defence 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 harbour 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 prison graffiti.
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.