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Photo by Ninetails/Shutterstock
The Netherlands may be better known for its windmills than its castles, but Muiden Castle rivals any of those seen in neighboring Germany.
Indulge your medieval castle fantasies in Europe.
From the mighty feudal strongholds of Scotland to Germany’s fairy-tale-like creations, thousands of castles dating from the Middle Ages still dot the European continent. Some are atmospheric ruins attesting to their once-great power, others have been beautifully preserved over the centuries. Here’s how to visit 12 of Europe’s most impressive medieval castles.
Muiden, The Netherlands
Located nine miles southeast of Amsterdam, this formidable 13th-century castle looms over the mouth of the Vecht River, where its fantastical round towers, dungeon, armory, and knights’ hall can be explored independently (with the help of an English-language audio guide or downloadable app). It’s especially entertaining for kids, as they can dress up like knights, practice jousting, and, from April through October, watch a falconry display of birds of prey.
How to Visit Muiderslot: Public buses operate from Amsterdam to Muiden, though you’ll have to change at several points. If you’re visiting from April through October, hop the daily ferry from Amsterdam’s IJBurg marina and sail to the castle via IJmeer lake. Or rent a bike: An easy, scenic, signposted bike route to the castle from the city takes about 45 minutes. muiderslot.nl
Fans of Highlander or James Bond’s The World Is Not Enough will likely recognize this picturesque Scottish Highlands castle, set on a small islet encircled by three sea lochs and accessible only by a stone footbridge. First built in the 13th century, Eilean Donan served variously as a fortress, residence, and garrison during its long history before being almost entirely destroyed during the Jacobite rising of 1719. It lay in ruins for nearly 200 years until 1911, when a decades-long reconstruction began. Today, the castle, which can be visited with an audio guide, is largely a re-creation of what it looked like in the 18th century, complete with rich Jacobite-era decor, weapons, and artifacts.
How to Visit Eilean Donan: Note that Eilean Donan is closed in January. From Inverness, about two hours away, day tours and public buses offer direct access to the castle. eileandonancastle.com
Often referred to as “Dracula’s Castle,” this 57-room medieval fortress is said to be the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s mythical count, based on the ruthless, real-life, 15th-century ruler Vlad the Impaler. Although it’s unlikely that Vlad ever visited the castle, it’s easy to see how the legend stuck, especially during the atmospheric annual, late-night Halloween party. Perched on a steep cliff deep in the Carpathian Mountains of rural Transylvania, the striking red-turreted castle is awash with Gothic details; on a audio-guided tour, seek out the hidden winding staircases, underground passages, and chambers packed with medieval weapons and armor. But it was also home to Queen Marie of Romania from 1920 to 1938; she modernized the 14th-century castle, adding an elevator, and created a sprawling English garden replete with a teahouse.
How to Visit Bran Castle: A bus from the city of Brasov, 18 miles away, runs regularly during the high season; Brasov is about three hours by train from Bucharest. bran-castle.com
Owned by the same family since it was built nearly 900 years ago, the beautifully preserved Burg Eltz—with eight soaring turreted towers, oriel windows, gables, and half-timber frames—looks straight out of a fairy tale. It juts out from a 230-foot-tall rock, surrounded by forest, deep in an isolated side valley of the Moselle River. A required 40-minute guided tour, in English, leads you through period rooms decorated with original 15th-century murals, tapestries, and furnishings, and vaulted halls lined with medieval armor and weaponry. The treasury, filled with precious gold and silver historical artifacts, can be visited independently.
How to Visit Burg Eltz: The castle is open from April to November. A seasonal Burgenbus (castle bus) departs from several area train stations on weekends and holidays; the closest is Hatzenport, about a 20-minute ride. Hatzenport is less than 1.5 hours by train from Cologne (with a change of trains in Koblenz). There are also multiple hikes to the castle from nearby towns; the most popular is from Moselkern (under 2.5 hours by train from Cologne), a moderately challenging 45-minute climb. burg-eltz.de
This 12th-century fortress may not rank among the prettiest of France’s many castles, but its towering position, atop a sheer, 500-foot limestone cliff above the Dordogne River, certainly stands out (don’t miss the views from atop the battlements). A double crenellated wall and twin moat protected Château de Beynac during the 100 Years War, and indeed it’s one of the best-preserved in southwest France’s Dordogne Valley. Pick up the audio tour and wander the austere, sparsely furnished rooms of the fortification, including the ancient keep, 13th-century kitchens, and the oratory, lined with 15th-century frescoes. Later rooms date from the 17th century and are decorated with ornate tapestries from the period.
How to Visit Château de Beynac: You’ll need a car to get here; there’s parking next to the castle or it’s a 15-minute walk up from the pretty village of Beynac-et-Cazenac, about a 2.5-hour drive east from Bordeaux. chateau-beynac.com
If you want to see where Portugal began, head to the Castle of Guimarães, the birthplace of the nation’s first king, Afonso Henriques, in 1109. Perched on a hill above the northern Portuguese city of Guimarães, Portugal’s first capital, the mighty Romanesque fortress dates back to the 10th century and, over hundreds of years, its blocky crenellated towers have defended the nation against Moorish, Norse, and Spanish invaders. In the 16th century, it fell into disuse and was used primarily as a prison; it was classified as a national monument in 1881 and later restored. There’s not much left inside the walls, but the nominal entrance fee gets you access to the ramparts and the central keep’s permanent exhibition about the history of Guimarães and its castle.
How to Visit Castle of Guimarães: It’s about a 10-minute stroll up to the castle from Guimarães, which can be reached in about 1.5 hours by train from Porto. There’s also a car park directly behind the castle. pdmas.guimaraes.pt
Český Krumlov, Czech Republic
For this epic castle, set on a promontory high above the Vltava River in South Bohemia, you’ll want to wear your walking shoes: It’s about a 15-minute uphill walk from the town of Český Krumlov and there are some 40 palaces and buildings, five palace courtyards, and a 17-acre park to explore. The UNESCO World Heritage site dates from the 13th to the 18th centuries and features a mishmash of Gothic, Renaissance, and baroque architectural styles. There are two main guided tours to the interiors (required for access): One concentrates on the original castle interiors from the Renaissance and baroque periods and includes the ornate rococo Chapel of St. George; the second focuses on the history of the noble Schwarzenberg family, the former owners of the castle. Highlights include the intricately painted, six-story belfry—climb its 162 steps for panoramic views—and for kids, the bear moat, an enclosure home to a family of four playful bears. Access to the gardens and the bear moat is free.
How to Visit Český Krumlov Castle: The castle is open from April to October. Located near the Austrian border, Český Krumlov is a three-hour bus ride from Prague; from the town, the castle is accessible by foot, taxi, or car. castle.ckrumlov.cz
Gazing at this vast, imposing stone fortress—one of four Welsh strongholds Edward I of England constructed during his conquest of Wales—it’s hard to believe that it was built in just four years, between 1283 and 1287. With eight massive round towers, it sits on a promontory above the walled town of Conwy in North Wales, strategically overlooking two rivers and the harbor. Much of the interior is roofless, but the medieval royal apartments, which include the king’s chamber and a small chapel, are well-preserved. No tours are offered, but signage posted throughout provides historical information. Clamber around the battlements and climb the spiral staircases to the top of the towers for impressive views of the surrounding mountains of Snowdonia.
How to Visit Conwy Castle: The castle can be reached along the 870-mile-long Wales Coast Path walking trail; for the less intrepid, the closest major city is Liverpool, less than two hours by train or car. The castle is about a half-mile from the Conwy train station or there’s on-site parking. cadw.gov.wales
The 12th-century Rochester Castle, located in the county of Kent in southeast England, is very much a ruin, having withstood multiple sieges during its long history. Though the original 113-foot-high keep still stands, the rest of its vast interior is roofless. Pick up an audio tour for context, then roam atop the ancient battlements, which offer lovely views of the cobbled streets of Rochester and the Medway River below; parts of the crenellated curtain wall surrounding the castle date back even earlier, to the late 11th century.
Also known by a much longer name—The Castle of the Teutonic Order in Malbork—this is the largest brick fortress complex in the world, sprawling across 52 acres along the banks of the Nogat River in northern Poland. (Catch the highlights with an audio guide or, in the summer months, English-language guided tours.) Construction began in 1309, with a high castle and chapel fortified by moats and several defensive walls. In the 14th century, a low castle was added, along with several outbuildings. The entire complex was virtually destroyed during heavy fighting in World War II; painstakingly rebuilt to its former glory, it’s now a museum and UNESCO World Heritage site. The castle’s collections of amber, original 14th- and 15th-century furnishings, and medieval tombstones are nearly as splendid as its architectural details: towering arched ceilings, colorful frescoes, intricate tilework, and stained glass.
How to Visit Malbork Castle: Malbork is a quick 30-minute train ride from Gdansk or around 2.5 hours from Warsaw; from the station, it’s about a 15-minute walk (or quicker taxi ride) to the castle. zamek.malbork.pl
This castle on the outskirts of Dublin was in the same family, the Talbots, for nearly 800 years (it’s now owned by a local tourism company). Initial construction began in the 12th century with many expansions throughout its history—including a seamless addition of two towers in 1765; the three-story main tower is original. Inside, the richly appointed rooms are decorated in a range of period styles; most impressive is the Gothic Great Hall, featuring soaring vaulted ceilings and walls lined with stern-faced portraits of Talbot descendants. The storybook setting, on 260 acres of parkland, features 5,000 plant varieties and a butterfly house. Guided tours of the house (required) take place daily.
How to Visit Malahide Castle: The castle is a 25-minute drive from Dublin’s city center (there are also train and bus connections) or 10 minutes from Dublin airport. malahidecastleandgardens.ie
A popular day trip from nearby Salzburg, this 11th-century stone fortress ticks all the boxes when it comes to medieval grandeur. There’s the dramatic setting, 500 feet up on a rocky perch (a funicular will save you the climb) overlooking the Salzach Valley and surrounded by towering peaks of the Tennen mountain range. The castle itself, which dates from 1077 (though it’s seen additions throughout the centuries), also looks the part, with multiple towers, magnificent wood-beamed state rooms, a grand frescoed knights’ hall, a hidden stone staircase, an arsenal, a dungeon, and even a torture chamber. Self-guided audio tours are available, and there’s one tailored to kids. The castle is also home to the State Falconry Center, with daily demonstrations of indigenous birds of prey.
How to Visit Burg Hohenwerfen: The castle is open from April to November. There are direct trains from Salzburg to Werfen (lasting about 45 minutes); it’s a 20-minute walk to the castle’s funicular from the station. If you are driving from Salzburg, 25 miles away, there is an on-site parking lot, although note that it’s about a one-mile walk to the castle from there. salzburg-burgen.at
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