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Life may not always be a fairy-tale, but these castles sure make it look like one. By definition, a castle can be a fortified building (or multiple buildings) or simply even a large house, so we rounded up some of the world’s most spectacular castles of all sizes and shapes — from traditional medieval structures to some with a surprising history.
Neuschwanstein Castle (Schwangau, Germany)
When Walt Disney set out to sell the concept of Disneyland to investors, he had one overarching vision: a castle, inspired by Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle, that would serve as the amusement park’s centerpiece. After all, the Bavarian landmark, whose name means “New Swan Stone” in German, looks like it could have been ripped out of the pages of a fairytale.
King Ludwig II of Bavaria first envisioned the castle in 1864, to be built above the summer castle he grew up visiting in Hohenschwangau. “This castle will be in every way more beautiful and habitable than Hohenschwangau further down,” he said, adding that its location would be “one of the most beautiful to be found.” But his plan came with an ulterior motive: When he started planning in 1867, Bavaria had lost in the Austro-Prussian War the year prior, so he was plotting a palace where he could still rule.
Construction started in 1869 but took far longer to complete than the three years he imagined. In 1884, Ludwig II moved in, becoming a recluse who didn’t leave the castle. Seven weeks after his 1886 death, the castle opened to the public — and now 1.4 million guests a year visit what is known as the “castle of the fairy-tale king.”
Château de Chambord (Chambord, France)
France’s Château de Chambord comes with a serious mystery: No one knows the architect behind the Renaissance masterpiece. What is known is that it was commissioned by François I in 1519 with influence from Leonardo da Vinci, as evidenced through his notebook sketches. François I heralded the grandiose structure, located in the Sologne marshlands, as more a symbol of his power than an actual residence — it wasn’t until the time of the Sun King, Louis XIV, that construction was officially finished.
Today, the palace sits on 13,500 acres inside a 19.9-mile wall. It’s located within Europe’s largest enclosed park, with stags, wild boar, roe deer, and 150 species of birds surrounding the Cosson River. Since 2017, there are also French formal gardens linking the château to the forests, based on the property's original 18th-century design.
Predjama Castle (Predjama, Slovenia)
Built into a 403-foot-high cliff more than 800 years ago, the 13th-century medieval Predjama Castle was thought to be one of the most protected castles at the time, because of its natural hillside fortification — that is, until a 15th-century attack.
After killing the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III’s kinsman, the robber baron Erazem Leuger retreated into hiding in the castle. Through a secret system of tunnels in the caves behind the castle, he often snuck out to a surrounding town for supplies. But a servant let out his secret and plotted with the emperor’s forces: While Leuger was using the toilet, the servant signaled and a cannon took him out. Now, the world’s largest cave castle — and the adjacent Postojna Cave — is a tourist attraction, also known for its bat colony.
Alcázar de Segovia (Segovia, Spain)
The first mention of Alcázar de Segovia showed up in documents between 1124 and 1139, but there's evidence that its fortification could date back even further — possibly to Roman times. It wasn’t until 1412, however, that Catherine of Lancaster started a renovation and expansion that turned it into an attraction for travelers (even back then).
Throughout its history, the castle, located an hour northwest of Madrid, has held roles as a fort, royal treasury, archive, and armory — and even a state prison. It’s also known for its starring role in movies including Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight (1965) and the 1967 musical Camelot. The castle’s standout feature is the 152-step spiral stairs up the Tower of Juan II.
Bodiam Castle (East Sussex, England)
On the outside, Bodiam Castle looks like a typical medieval moated castle. But on the inside, it has completely fallen to ruins, a remnant of what life was like in the 14th century without any preserved records of how it all came together.
Constructed during a dark period in English history following the 1348 Black Death and amid the upheaval leading to the War of Roses in 1455, the castle was built by Sir Edward Dallingridge and his wife Elizabeth between 1380 and 1385. Having become a Knight of the Shire of Sussex in 1379 and Warden in London in 1392, Dallingridge fared particularly well during this time, with the castle’s courtyard and Great Hall representing a world of glamour.
Hearst Castle (San Simeon, California)
Despite its 165 rooms and 123 acres filled with manicured gardens, terraces, and pools, Hearst Castle still isn’t complete. Media mogul William Randolph Hearst built the retreat, which he called La Cuesta Encantada (“Enchanted Hill” in Spanish), with a 38-bedroom, 68,500-square-foot main home called Casa Grande, surrounded by three guest houses, each with four to eight bedrooms. Its most iconic feature is the 345,000-gallon outdoor Neptune Pool surrounded by statues of Roman gods and goddesses.
Hearst hired Julia Morgan, the first woman to earn an architectural degree at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, to design the ornate castle, but he was forced to abandon the project in 1947 — after 28 years of construction — because of his waning health.
Prague Castle (Prague, Czech Republic)
For wordsmiths, Prague Castle is best known as the site of the origin of the word "defenestration," meaning “to throw something out the window.” The word first came into use in 1619 because of an incident in which two Roman Catholic officials were tossed out of the castle window the year prior. (They survived, thanks to a pile of horse droppings.)
The castle itself has provided much of the Czech capital's storybook appeal since the year 880, rising high across the Charles Bridge as the world’s largest coherent castle complex (more than 750,000 square feet). The area includes the 10th-century Old Royal Palace; Prague’s largest church, St. Vitus Cathedral; and the tiny houses of Golden Lane, where Franz Kafka once lived.
Shurijo Castle (Okinawa, Japan)
If there’s one thing to be said about Shurijo Castle (also known as Shuri) on the Japanese island of Okinawa, it’s that the site is resilient. The center of politics, diplomacy, and culture of the Ryukyu Kingdom — which ruled from 1429 to 1879 — burned down three times during the Ryukyu period, again in World World II, and most recently last October.
Sitting atop a small hill overlooking the Naha neighborhood, the three-story wooden Seiden serves as the main building where the king conducted his business. The Hokuden serves as the administrative building, the Nanden as a reception space, and the Bandokoro as a receiving area surrounding the open-spaced Una with rows of lined tiles called Sen, used for ceremonies.
Pena National Palace (Sintra, Portugal)
At first glance, Pena National Palace looks like it’s been mashed together from sections of different castles. And in a way, that is how the eclectic-looking structure came together. The 19th-century building catered to King Ferdinand II’s whimsical tastes: One part is based on a 16th-century monastery, another is inspired by a medieval fort, and the hilly lands surrounding it recall 18th-century English gardens. Plus, it was painted in wildly different colors with a yellow minaret, a red clock tower, and a long purple wing.
The inside is just as jarring, albeit opulent in every way. Middle Eastern decor mingles with European Baroque designs, creating an overload of styles, but Pena Palace is now seen as one of the greatest examples of the Romantic period’s architecture.
Ksar of Aït-Ben-Haddou (Ouarzazate, Morocco)
Once a popular caravan stop between Marrakech and the Sahara Desert, the fortified earthen buildings of Aït-Ben-Haddou, in Ouarzazate, first appear camouflaged into the foothills of the High Atlas. But then they emerge as a stunning example of Moroccan architecture from the 17th century. Inside the protective walls are buildings of varying sizes and shapes, including mosques and kasbahs, all made of clay brick.
While a handful of families still live inside its walls, the popular tourist site is better known as the filming location of 1962’s Laurence of Arabia and 2000’s Gladiator, as well as several episodes of Game of Thrones.
Boldt Castle (Alexandria Bay, New York)
To express his love for his wife, Waldorf Astoria Hotel proprietor George Boldt decided to build her a castle on the aptly named Heart Island, part of the Thousand Islands between upstate New York and Canada. Construction started in 1900, and the Boldt family spent their summers in the region as a team of 300 worked on the six-floor, 120-room castle for his beloved Louise. He spared no expense, adding underground tunnels, Italian gardens, an alster tower playhouse, and a dove shelter.
But in January 1904, he told the construction team to halt everything: Louise had suddenly died. Devastated, Boldt never returned, leaving the castle unfinished and the island inhibited. It remained that way for 73 years, until the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority took over the property in 1977 and turned Boldt Castle into a tourist destination.
Wawel Royal Castle (Krakow, Poland)
The Wawel Royal Castle sits at the top of Krakow’s Wawel Hill, a site chosen by Mieszko I, who ruled from 960 to 992. From the 14th to 16th centuries, what was once a modest medieval castle turned into a lavish Italian Renaissance palace. Each ruler added his own touch, resulting in the mixed styles seen today.
When Sigismund III Vasa moved his court from Krakow to Warsaw between 1609 and 1611, Wawel hung onto its role as a royal residence, and its church continued to be used for royal happenings. But eventually it fell out of use. By 1796, the castle was used as the Austrian army’s barracks. After a 1930 renovation, however, it became an art museum, which it still is today.
Castillo San Felipe del Morro (San Juan, Puerto Rico)
There’s a reason Castillo San Felipe del Morro, also called El Morro, sits upon a 140-foot-high promontory right at the front of the Bay of San Juan — to defend Puerto Rico’s prime Caribbean location, which has long made the island coveted land. The Spanish started building the fort in 1539 in the shape of a medieval tower; in the 16th and 17th centuries, walls that could survive cannonball attacks were added. Altogether, it took 250 years to build El Morro, but in 1790, it was finally completed as a six-level fortress with the ability to withstand attacks by land and sea.
After the Spanish-American War, the U.S. gained control of the island in 1898. El Morro was actively used as a military installation for both World Wars before becoming part of the U.S. National Park Service in 1961.
Peleş Castle (Sinaia, Romania)
Nearby Bran Castle may have more name recognition as “Dracula’s Castle,” but it’s Peleş Castle, nestled in Sinaia’s Bucegi Mountain foothills, that truly stuns. In fact, the German Neo-Renaissance castle — built by King Carol I in 1873 and opened in 1883 — just might be the definition of opulence.
The 160-room summer home of the royal family was the first European castle with electricity, thanks to its own power plant. Plus, it was built with central heat, central vacuuming, and running hot and cold water. Even the stained-glass roof could open mechanically, and its 60-seat theater showed the country’s first movie in 1906. Among the castle's many other adornments are a music room made of teak, a Turkish Salon with handmade silk embroidered walls, and Austrian hand-painted ceiling frescos.
Le Château Frontenac (Quebec City, Canada)
Inspired by the French Renaissance chateaus in the Loire Valley, Le Château Frontenac was designed by Bruce Price and built by William Van Horne of the Canadian Pacific Railway as a railway hotel to encourage people to travel by train, with turrets perched on the hill overlooking the St. Lawrence River.
Opened in 1893 and now run by Fairmont, the property is known as the world’s most photographed hotel. But it also played a role in major historical events — it was the site of the Quebec Conference in August 1943, where Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill discussed World World II strategy, and the location of the Food and Agriculture Organization’s founding in 1945. And in pop culture, a young Celine Dion snagged a record contract after singing in the ballroom.
Wulff Castle (Viña del Mar, Chile)
After German merchant Gustavo Wulff bought a 13,563-square-foot plot of land at the foot of the Cerro Castillo mountain, he built a rather simple 9,192-square-foot home in the Franco-German style in 1908.
But eight years later, his ambitions changed, and he hired architect Alberto Cruz Montt to turn the home into Wulff Castle. The wood was replaced with stone, towers were constructed, and a glass-bottomed arched bridge was added. After his death in 1946, he left the castle to Esperanza Artaza Matta, who worked with architect José Alcalde to perform even more modifications. The city eventually took over the property in 1959 and designated it a historical monument in 1995.
Montezuma Castle (Camp Verde, Arizona)
Carved into a limestone cliff in central Arizona, the five-story, 20-room adobe structure known as Montezuma Castle was originally thought to be a former home of the Aztec emperor Montezuma. That theory was later dispelled — Montezuma never even visited Arizona.
In truth, the dwelling, likely built between 1100 and 1350, was the impressive work of the Sinagua people, who lived in the region for more than 400 years. Evidence shows that they left the area around 1425, perhaps because of waning resources. But their legacy remains: When President Theodore Roosevelt passed the Antiquities Act in 1906, Montezuma Castle was declared one of the nation’s first national monuments.
Mamure Castle (Mersin, Turkey)
While the exact age of the 252,952-square-foot Mamure Castle is unknown, it stands out as one of the largest and best preserved Turkish castles, earning a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 2012. The moated castle has 39 towers and three yards, one with a single minaret mosque and hamman.
Thought to be built around the 3rd or 4th centuries by the Romans, it was later expanded under the Byzantine Empire. While the castle exchanged hands several times, it was Mahmut of Karaman who named it Mamure, meaning “prosperous,” likely around 1450.
Castillo de Chapultepec (Mexico City, Mexico)
In the U.S. Marines’ “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the “halls of Montezuma” line refers to the Castillo de Chapultepec, located atop a Mexico City hill fortified by the Aztecs. As the only royal castle in the Americas, the building has also been used as a military academy and observatory — and is now Mexico’s Museum of National History.
The castle at Chapultepec, which means “Hill of the Grasshopper” in the Nahuatl language, was finished in 1863 and also set the scene for the Leonardo DiCaprio version of Romeo + Juliet in 1996.
Kasteel de Haar (Utrecht, Netherlands)
Don’t be fooled by the biggest castle in the Netherlands: Kasteel de Haar may look like a prototypical medieval castle, but it was actually built by Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers between 1892 and 1912 on the site of an old castle that had fallen into disrepair from the 13th century.
Once the private residence of the Van Zuylen family, the castle has welcomed distinguished guests including Coco Chanel. Yves Saint Laurent, and Brigitte Bardot. Surrounding the castle are 135 acres of parks, ponds, canals, and gardens, including a Rose Garden and Roman Garden.