Castles dot Croatia's landscape like so much fairytale flotsam, rising majestically to overlook valleys and towns. Though a number of these former fortresses have fallen into disrepair, many have been restored and offer visitors a chance to glimpse noble life from centuries past. Some of the castles offer straightforward tours of their interior, while others have created museums and visitor centers to bolster the experience. Still others have been converted into luxury hotels and high-end restaurants. We've combed through Croatia's interior to bring you its 5 most stunning castles.
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Despite being the administrative capital of Croatia's northern Istria region, Pazin is nonetheless a relatively small town of 5,000 people, and home to one of Croatia's most remarkable and best-preserved medieval castles, Pazin Kastel. The castle was first mentioned in historic documents in 938 A.D., and due to the town's turbulent history, fell under the control of various conquerors, including the Austrian Habsburgs in 1374 and the government of Venice in 1508.
Over the centuries, the castle has served as a government center, a prison, a defense fortress and a setting for public festivals. Today, the castle also houses the Ethnographic Museum of Istria, which showcases 3 floors worth of displays that include Istrian bells, barrels, farm tools, musical instruments and clothing. While the castle itself is a point of interest, its location perched above the Pazin Pit -- an enormous, 426-foot-deep gorge cut by the Pazinčica River -- draws scores of travelers hoping to witness and photograph the dramatic views below.
The shining star in the Baroque town of Varazdin (coined "Little Vienna") is its sprawling white castle, Stari Grad. This medieval fortress was first built in the 12th century, and modified with additions such as rounded towers during the 14th to 16th centuries, when it was eventually transformed into a Renaissance-style fortress. Throughout its history, a number of aristocratic families owned the castle, including the Vitovec family, the Counts of Celje and Baron Ivan Ungnad.
Varazdin's Stari Grad is one of northeastern Croatia's most popular tourist attractions; the well-preserved castle also houses the town's historical museum, which displays furniture, weapons and paintings. Today, Stari Grad castle enjoys the status of a UNESCO protected site. Try to plan a trip to Varazdin at the end of August, when the town hosts the Špancir Fest, a 10-day festival during which the town is flooded with street performers, musicians and artists.
After 4 years of restoration work, the Veliki Tabor castle in Zagorje, a region north of Zagreb, Croatia, reopened to the public in 2011, so visitors can fully enjoy the fortress's eclectic mix of architectural styles, including late-Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque. Construction of the castle first began in the 12th century, when a 5-cornered tower was built, and continued through the centuries, particularly in the 15th and 16th centuries, when it fell under the ownership of the noble Rattkay family, and a series of round towers were constructed.
Other noteworthy features of the castle include a 102-foot-deep well, a wine cellar with a winepress and a great hall whose walls are decorated with weapons. A chapel also exists on the property that allegedly houses the skull of the doomed Veronika of Desinić, a woman who was drowned in the 15th century after a doomed love affair with the son of a count. As well as touring the castle, visitors can also explore a small museum that opened after the renovations. Exhibitions include collections of swords and armor, paintings and pottery.
One of the northern Croatia's premier attractions, Trakošćan Castle's exterior is truly breathtaking -- carefully maintained stone walls rise to the heavens, topped with red-tile-capped roofs and turrets. To add to the fairytale spectacle, there's even a drawbridge. The castle was built in the 13th century, and according to legend, was named after a fortification that had stood in the same spot during antiquity. Still, the castle's origins remain fuzzy, and its first known owners were the Counts of Celje in the 14th century.
The castle underwent a series of renovations over the centuries, but gained its current, neo-Gothic style in the 19th century when it was owned by Count Juraj V. Drašković. A tour of the castle will take visitors past restored 19th-century furnishings bearing the castle's coat of arms, as well as centuries-old weapons, tapestries and portraits in the knight's room, hunting room and music salon.
Courtesy of Hotel Dvorac Bezanec
If you're longing to play out fairytale castle fantasies in Croatia, get thee to Castle Bezanec -- the only castle on our list that now serves as a high-end hotel. Built at the end of the 17th-century and upgraded dramatically during the 19th century to the masterpiece of classicism that it is today, Castle Bezanac rises above the village of Valentinovo.
Visitors approach Bezanec via a 300-foot-long, tree-lined drive, at the end of which rise the castle's looming clock tower and triangular gables. The property rests upon a hilltop overlooking a verdant valley, and the castle grounds include a small park filled with gingko and basswood trees. You don't need to be a guest at the castle to enjoy the lavish decor and many antiquities, like furnishings and art, which fill the castle's halls and loggias. Bezanec is a tourist attraction in its own right, and fortuitously happens to house a restaurant specializing in traditional Croatian cuisine made with locally sourced ingredients. Try the štrukli, a type of cheese strudel, or the gibanica, a walnut, cheese and poppy pie.