Castles. The word conjures images of kings, queens and Knights of the Round Table. These enduring stone structures are often shrouded in legends and myths as elusive as the mists that rise from their moats. During the Middle Ages, castles served as fortresses; during the Renaissance and Reformation, they housed royals and painters, artisans and playwrights. Today, castles serve as testimony to centuries past, offering visitors a glimpse into what life must have been like for the lords and ladies of the manor. Here, we present our choices of the best castles Europe has to offer.
Castelo de Sao Jorge
Set high on a cliff overlooking the ocean, Portugal's Castelo de Sao Jorge (originally called Lisbon Castle) played a significant role in the country's history. King Joao the First named the fortress for himself during the 14th century, but by the time of the Spanish occupation the site had fallen into ruin. The castle housed a barracks, a prison, and even part of the Elmina slave fort before it was nearly destroyed by a 1755 earthquake. At the beginning of the 20th century, however, members of the Portuguese government rediscovered the castle, named it an historic landmark, and launched an extensive renovation. The towers, gates and archways that stand today make for a magnificent destination for tourists and locals alike.
Prague, Czech Republic
Throughout history, Prague Castle provided a political and spiritual center for a country struggling toward unification. From its construction during the ninth century to its final renovation in the 1700s, this castle evolved from a simple fortress to the site of important governmental negotiations. The changing of the guard every hour on the hour and the flag ceremony everyday at noon add to the majestic ambiance of this Eastern European gem. Guided tours are offered in six languages: Czech, English, German, Italian, Spanish and Russian.
Isle of Arran, Scotland
The site on which Brodick Castle sits dates back to the time of the Vikings when the castle was a fortress to protect lands controlled by the English Dukes of Hamilton. Over the centuries, various family members built and expanded the fortress until it became a private residence; it remained private until 1957 when the last Hamilton heir moved out. Some of the paintings, furniture, porcelain and silver date back to the 1600s, and the magnificent drawing room and walled garden (built in 1710) are astounding. Be sure to see the woodland garden's internationally acclaimed rhododendron collection.
Loire Valley, France
With meticulously manicured grounds, the Chambord Castle is one of the most beautiful sites to visit in Europe. Built in 1547, Chambord was home to French king Louis XIV and inspiration to painter Leonardo di Vinci and writer Moliere. Nearly 2000 men worked to build the awe-inspiring structure, which includes 440 rooms, 365 fireplaces, 84 staircases and stables to accommodate 1200 horses. One of the highlights inside is a double spiral staircase that allows two people to go up or down without crossing each other. This is one site certain to leave visitors astounded.
Near Munich, Germany
Built in 1869, the Neuschwanstein Castle is one of the most famous Bavarian castles in Europe. In an attempt to replicate medieval architecture, workers constructed elaborate towers and spires throughout the castle. These structures still stand today and offer incredible views of the Pollat River Gorge. American visitors to Neuschwanstein may experience a bit of d��j�� vu; Disney's landmark Sleeping Beauty castle is modeled after this Bavarian masterpiece.
Built in 1068, Lincoln Castle is a site of great historic significance. It was once home to William the Conqueror and is one of only two castles in England originally built on two mottes; the mottes are enclosed by walls that include a square tower (on the smaller one) and an observatory that was built during the 19th century. From 1787 to 1878, Lincoln Castle served as the Lincolnshire's prison. Workers fashioned coffin-like pews in the chapel to remind prisoners that they wouldn't make it out of the castle alive.
Built in the 15th century, Glamis Castle has long been the subject of mysterious myths and heart-stopping ghost stories; it even has a reputation for being the most haunted castle in Scotland. Rumor has it that many important men were murdered here, including Macbeth's Duncan and King Malcom II. The breathtaking grounds and countryside belie the castle's chilling reputation, however, though locals warn that a visit after sunset is safe only for the very brave.
Mont Saint Michel
Near Normandy, France
This castle, built high on a rocky peak overlooking the bay, is one of medieval architecture's greatest achievements. Originally an abbey and destination for Christian pilgrimages, Mont Saint Michel has become a treasure to France. Centered between Normandy and Brittany, Mont Saint Michel combines history and romance to provide everything from ancient stone streets to romantic sunsets. It's also in a great location. The D-Day beaches lie only 100 kilometers away, and a short journey east will provide a peek at the breathtaking Norman countryside.
Originally the residence of Lord Konrad Dippel von Frankenstein during the 1500s, Frankenstein Castle's myths and legends overshadow its actual history. Legend has it that von Frankenstein exchanged his soul for the secrets to eternal life. He was allegedly found dead in his laboratory, foaming at the mouth and surrounded by various body parts he had stolen from area cemeteries. Whether truth or fiction, many people believe that writer Mary Shelley heard this tale during a trip to Germany in 1814 and used it (and the castle) as the inspiration for her famous novel.
The English call Leeds Castle "the loveliest castle in the world," and for good reason. Built in 857, the castle has been home to such English royalty as Edward I, Henry V and Henry VIII. Inside, visitors can see centuries-old paintings, tapestries and furniture. Outside, the grounds are often shrouded in a morning mist, which, as the day goes on, lifts to reveal exquisite gardens, vineyards and even a golf course. An aviary, set in a walled garden and overlooking the lake, houses a variety of birds, including parrots, parakeets and softbills. But the most elegant activity at Leeds Castle is the black-tie dinner in the Henry VIII Banqueting Hall, served by a butler and footmen. It's an experience fit for a king.