The mighty castles in North Wales are among the finest in the world. From mountaintop Welsh castles to the magnificent fortresses of invading English King Edward I, the North Wales castles are an absolute must see if you’re visiting this part of the world. Read on for our indepth guide to the best castles in North Wales.
We’ve compiled a collection of castles in Northern Wales to whet your appetite. We have visited them all, some several times over. We’ve included the most obvious castles North Wales has – the four great castles of Edward I, that comprise Wales’ first UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
You’ll also find relatively unknown Welsh Border castles, one of the oldest castle ruins in Wales built next to an ancient Roman fort, and even some castles to stay in Wales. We’ll also show you the best castles in Mid Wales, including the wonderful Powis Castle and Gardens.
Visiting the castles of Wales is a fantastic way to find out more about Welsh heritage and history, so without further ado, let’s discover some of the best castles in Wales.
- 1 How many castles in Wales are there?
- 2 Why are there so many castles in Wales ?
- 3 CONWY CASTLE
- 4 CAERNARFON CASTLE
- 5 HARLECH CASTLE
- 6 BEAUMARIS CASTLE
- 7 DOLWYDDELAN CASTLE
- 8 DOLBADARN CASTLE
- 9 RHUDDLAN CASTLE
- 10 DINAS BRAN CASTLE
- 11 FLINT CASTLE
- 12 CRICCIETH CASTLE
- 13 CASTELL Y BERE
- 14 BODELWYDDAN CASTLE
- 15 DENBIGH CASTLE
- 16 PENRHYN CASTLE
- 17 POWIS CASTLE
- 18 CHIRK CASTLE
- 19 ABERYSTWYTH CASTLE
- 20 CASTELL DEUDRAETH, PORTMEIRION
- 21 SMALLER CASTLES IN NORTH WALES TO VISIT
How many castles in Wales are there?
According to a Wales tourism marketing campaign back in the 2000s, there are 641 castles in Wales.
Why are there so many castles in Wales ?
Wales was fought over from the time of the Norman Conquest (1066) to the 15th century and the rebellion of Welsh prince Owain Glyndwr. Some castles were built by the Welsh princes, and others were built by Norman lords and, later, English King Edward I to consolidate their hold on the region.
The last independent stronghold of the Welsh princes was the Kingdom of Gwynedd. This encompassed the entire North Wales coast, the Isle of Anglesey and the mountain ranges that make up the modern Snowdonia National Park – considerably more than the modern County of Gwynedd. Edward I conquered the whole of Gwynedd, finally breaking resistance in 1282. His castles, from Flint in the north east to Aberystwyth on the Mid Wales coast, are spread throughout this hostile region.
Conwy Castle is one of the most beautiful castles in Europe. It’s the most majestic castle in Wales, its eight towers on a bluff above the Conwy river and mountains behind one of the most iconic scenes in Wales. It was designed by James of St George, the foremost military architect of the era, and built between 1283 and 1289.
It’s also one of the most complete bastides – fortified towns – in the UK. The old town centre is surrounded by the ¾ mile (1 km) Conwy town walls, extending from the castle around to the quay. The town is among the most beautiful in Wales, and there are enough things to do in Conwy to warrant staying at least a couple of days.
Caernarfon Castle is perhaps the most famous of all Welsh castles, partly because it was the setting for the Investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales in 1969. It’s one of the most formidable and forbidding of Wales castles, dominating the estuary of the river Seiont and guarding the Menai Strait, the body of water separating mainland Wales and the island of Anglesey.
It’s also the most mis-spelt castle in Wales, with some writers referring to it as Carnarvon Castle or Caernarvon Castle. Its name is derived from the Welsh ‘Caer yn Arfon’ – ‘fortress in Arfon’, the area of Gwynedd in which it is located.
From the outside, it’s a mighty castle, with thick, sturdy, impregnable walls, modelled by architect James of St George on the walls of Constantinople. Part of the town’s medieval walls also remain. Inside, the Castle contains the Royal Welch Fusiliers Museum, dedicated to one of the most famous Welsh regiments, and some superb wall walks and tower climbs
Harlech Castle is one of the best places in Wales to visit, especially if you want to get close to the heart and soul of historic Wales. It was built by Edward I between 1282 and 1289, on what was then a sea cliff – the sea has since receded around a mile (1.6 km), and commands incredible panoramic views of the North Wales coast and, when the weather is favourable, the mountains of Snowdonia, including Snowdon itself.
It’s the smallest of the four castles that make up the Gwynedd Castles UNESCO World Heritage Site, built around a single courtyard with four corner towers. It saw plenty of action in its first few centuries. Welsh Prince Owain Glyndwr seized the Castle in 1404 and used it as his campaign headquarters for the following four years. The Castle was besieged during the wars of the Roses, with the Lancastrian garrison force holding out for seven years between 1461 and 1468 – this inspired the song Men of Harlech.
Harlech is an incredibly evocative site, one of the most impressive of all UK castles. There are several other fascinating places to see nearby, from the glorious wide Harlech beach to the stunning Mawddach estuary 10 miles (16 km) down the coast at Barmouth.
By the time Edward I got around to building Beaumaris Castle, the troublesome Welsh had just about bankrupted him. After an uprising by Madog ap Llewelyn in 1295, work finally started on this Castle at the north-east end of the Menai Strait, the opposite end to Caernarfon. Again, master architect James of St George was commissioned to build the Castle, though progress was slow as Edward was continually short of funds. Construction finally ceased around 1330, the Castle unfinished.
Castles in Anglesey are a rare thing indeed – there are only two, the other being its much smaller near-neighbour Castell Aberlleiniog, which has been restored over the last decade or so. Both had views across the Menai Strait to the mountains of Snowdonia. Beaumaris was one of the most advanced medieval castles in technical terms, near-perfect in its concentric design and layout. It was captured by Welsh forces in 1403, and re-taken two years later.
Dolwyddelan Castle was probably built by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth around 1210. It’s on an outcrop of rock high above the Lledr valley, a few miles down the A470 from the popular tourist village of Betws-y-Coed. It guards the Lledr valley route, and there are also paths up to and around the nearest large mountain, Moel Siabod, close by. It was taken by Edward I during his invasion campaign, and the tower we now see may well have been added by his auxiliaries – though the battlements are a result of a 19th century restoration.
The remains of Dolwyddelan are fairly scant – there’s the main tower and the surrounding foundations – but it’s well worth the walk up (tickets from the farmhouse next to the car park) and climbing the tower to a fine lofty vantage point. The views from there are superb, but to really appreciate the setting of Dolwyddelan it’s worth exploring the paths above the village and across the valley, to see it nestling high among the peaks.
The village of Llanberis is one of the best places to visit in North Wales. It’s the natural gateway to Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa in Welsh), the highest mountain in Wales and England, and it’s the departure point for the Snowdon Mountain Railway, the easy way up to the summit. It’s also the location for Dolbadarn Castle, one of the castles of the Welsh princes, which guarded the strategically important Llanberis Pass, the route between the coast, mountains and Conwy Valley.
From across Llyn Padarn, the castle looks like a tiny pepper pot. It’s only when you make the short, steep climb to it that you realise how impressive it is. Only the keep tower, around 50 feet (15 metres) high and some foundations remain, but what an incredible setting it has. The mountains surrounding Snowdon rear up behind it, the most impressive being the red arête ridge of Crib Goch near the top of Llanberis Pass. It’s usually free to enter year -round.
Rhuddlan Castle, the second Edward I castle to be built in Wales, is still an intimidating sight today. It overlooks the River Clwyd, which Edward ha diverted to improve access to and from the sea.
It was the first castle in Wales to be designed by Edward I’s preferred military architect, James of St George. It’s not difficult to see why Edward thought so highly of him – this castle is a seriously imposing piece of work. It’s two miles south of the seaside town of Rhyl, and just off the A55 North Wales Expressway. There are several other North wales attractions very close by – tiny St Asaph Cathedral, Bodelwyddan Castle and the nearby Marble Church, also in Bodelwyddan.
DINAS BRAN CASTLE
The steep climb up to Castell Dinas Bran is one of the most rewarding things to do in Llangollen, a gorgeous little town down below in the Dee Valley in North East Wales. The fairly scant Castle remains sit atop a conical hill overlooking the junction of two valleys, a superb strategic location.
It was a castle of the Welsh Kingdom of Powys Fadog, and believed to be built on the site of an Iron Age hillfort around 1260. It was probably intact for less than 20 years – it was besieged by the English in 1277, and promptly burned down by the fleeing Welsh occupants.
So it has been a romantic ruin for most of its existence. It’s well worth the climb to Dinas Bran for the stupendous views from the summit. The Dee Valley is one of the best places to visit in Wales in autumn, with amazing fall colors and mists lying in the valleys in the early morning.
Flint Castle feels quite forgotten, hidden away behind a housing estate on the vast Dee estuary. Yet it was the very first castle built by Edward I to subjugate the Welsh, begun in 1277, and worth a visit for anyone with an interest in Welsh history.
This part of North East Wales tends to get bypassed by visitors heading for the delights of Snowdonia or the beaches of North Wales, but Flint is worth a short detour. Flint Castle is a very evocative, lonely site, but this is where it all began, several years before Conwy and Caernarfon Castles were built. If you stop by, also take a look at nearby Basingwerk Abbey, one of the best things to do in Flintshire.
Criccieth is one of the most beautiful castles on North Wales, occupying a steep headland between two of the best Llŷn Peninsula beaches. It looks at its most dramatic from Criccieth East beach, especially if you happen to be around for a winter sunset.
Criccieth (sometimes spelt Cricieth by locals) makes for one of the best days out in North Wales. The Castle’s setting is awesome – from the top you can usually make out the formidable, familiar bulk of Harlech Castle a few miles away across Tremadog Bay. The Castle was originally built by Welsh royalty and eventually captured by the English – there is some dispute among historians whether what we see now was built by Welsh or English hands. It’s a great location, in one of the most pleasant North Wales towns.
CASTELL Y BERE
Castell Y Bere was built in the early 13th century by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (Llywelyn the Great) to monitor the Dysynni valley. This is a remote corner of what was the Kingdom of Gwynedd, built on a long, narrow crag in the shadow of one of the best mountains in Wales, Cadair Idris (sometimes spelt Cader Idris).
The castle remained in use until 1294, after the successful suppression of the Welsh by Edward I. The Dysynni Valley is one of the best places to visit in Wales, an isolated, timeless back of beyond area that hasn’t changed in a century. You pass Bird Rock (Craig yr Aderyn) on the way up to Castell y Bere – it’s an almost sheer 700 feet (213 metres) former sea cliff now four miles (6 km) inland, which is still home to many nesting cormorants.
Unfortunately, at the time of writing, Bodelwyddan Castle is closed, indirectly a result of austerity measures, though you can still stay at the Hotel in the grounds of the estate. The present Castle building dates from 1832, and is something of a wild Gothic folly, beautifully restored inside prior to its time as a partner of the National Portrait Gallery in London. The surrounding gardens and parkland are also well worth a look, and hopefully we’ll get the chance to do so at some point in the near future.
Denbigh Castle is one of the most intriguing places in North Wales. It started out as a Welsh castle, but fell into the hands of Edward I’s commander Henry de Lacy in 1282. He continued to add to the Castle right through to his death in 1311. Most of the castles of North wales that we describe, including Denbigh, are Cadw castles, owned and managed by a department in the Welsh Government. They have made enormous improvements to the visitor experience since my first visit around 20 years ago, with far better access, a visitor centre, wall walks and, most recently, the sound of a portcullis clanging shut behind you as you enter via the impressive gatehouse.
Denbigh isn’t one of the obvious places to go in North Wales – it’s well away from the beaten path in tourist terms. Yet there’s a great deal to see there – the town walls, and the remains of three medieval churches – most of which are a very short walk down the hill from the Castle. It’s also close to the Clwydian Range, a series of splendid hills that, together with the Dee Valley around Llangollen, are an official Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
Penrhyn Castle, at Llandygai on the outskirts of the city of Bangor, is a lavish neo-Norman castle with superb gardens and interiors. It was built in the 1820s and 1830s, and unusually for the time was built in a style inspired by the Romanesque rather than Gothic. The main tower doesn’t look too dissimilar to the keep of Rochester Castle in Kent, England.
I’ve always struggled with visiting Penrhyn, as it was built with money gained from a plantation in Jamaica worked by slaves. I’ve also met many locals who refuse to visit Penrhyn because it was the home of Lord Penrhyn, the slate quarry owner who refused to let trade unions into Penrhyn Quarry, triggering the Great Strike of 1900-03. This page on the National Trust website tells the story in depth.
Powis Castle is the finest of the National Trust castles in Wales. It’s located in a beautiful country estate around 2 km west of the Mid Wales border town of Welshpool, and also has one of the best formal gardens in Wales.
It was built by a Welsh prince, Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn, who was loyal to English king Edward I. It’s a distinctive building, a red stone medieval fortress that became one of the finest stately homes in Wales. It’s never fallen into disrepair and ruin – rather it has grown and developed through the centuries. The terraced garden with its unique yew hedges is one of the best Baroque gardens in the UK. The opulent interior of the castle is a must-see, and the Clive Museum contains many artefacts taken from India when it was under British rule.
Chirk Castle is one of several great North Wales places to visit along the English border. It was built during the reign of conquering King Edward I, finally seeing completion in 1310. It was an advanced medieval castle, occupying high ground and able to control both the Dee and Ceiriog valleys.
It was later bought by Sir Thomas Myddelton in 1593, and remains in the family to this day. It metamorphosed over time into a stately home with superb formal gardens, including some fantastic yew hedges. It was lived in continuously for around 700 years, and is one of the most fascinating things to see in Wales.
OK, so Aberystwyth is right in the heart of Mid Wales rather than North Wales. It makes it into this article by default, given the relative dearth of Mid Wales castles, and it’s too far north to be included in our Castles in South Wales feature.
The university and seaside town of Aberystwyth – Aber to everyone in the area – is one of the best places to visit in Mid Wales. Aberystwyth Castle, at the southern end of the seafront, is one of the most underrated castles in Wales. It’s another creation of Edward I and his chief architect James of St George, and was completed in 1289 having earlier been ransacked by the Welsh. The ruins are broadly scattered around the hilltop site, which has great views along the coast. Don’t mistake the magnificent Old College (Yr Hen Goleg) building on the seafront for the castle – it’s a riotous Gothic fantasy, one of the most beautiful buildings in Wales.
CASTELL DEUDRAETH, PORTMEIRION
We did say that you could stay at a Castle in Wales. A visit to the village of Portmeirion is one of the best things to do in North Wales. It’s an exquisite fantasy village above the beautiful Dwyryd estuary, its diverse buildings collected from around the UK and beyond by architect Clough Williams-Ellis. One of the more recent additions to the village is the restored Castell Deudraeth (Welsh for ‘Castle of the Two Beaches’) just before the car park and entrance to the village.
One of the best things to do in Portmeirion is to stay there overnight. After the day visitors have gone, it takes on a magical aura. You can stay in Castell Deudraeth, its older sister Hotel Portmeirion on the riverfront, and most of the buildings in the village. Castell Deudraeth is a luxurious 4-star hotel with an excellent restaurant. The present building dates from the mid-19th century, and is built in mock-Gothic style. It’s close to the site of the original Welsh castle, which was built around 1175.
SMALLER CASTLES IN NORTH WALES TO VISIT
This additional selection of castles is spread across North Wales, and if you happen to be in the vicinity, are all worth investigation.
Castell Tomen Y Mur is a magnificent site, a hilltop Roman fort with sweeping views over the Moelwyn range of Snowdonia to the north and Llyn Trawsfynydd lake, its long-decommissioned nuclear reactor and the Rhinog mountains. The Roman garrison was founded by governor Julius Agricola in AD 78. A motte was later added – believed to be a thousand years or so after the Roman foundation – but little definite is known about this.
Deganwy Castle is a Welsh castle built on hills above the village of the same name, two miles (3 km) south of the seaside resort town of Llandudno. I know it very well from my childhood, when I would regularly climb the Vardre hill where some of the castle walls are built into the rock. The site dates back to the 6th century AD, when it housed the court of king Maelgwn Gwynedd. Several castles were built on the site, straddling the two hills. The site was excavated and restored over several years around a decade ago, and the ruins – though fairly scant – are now much more visible. You can see Conwy Castle, 4 km (2.5 miles) away on the other side of the river, to the south-west.