There are thousands of castles spread across the continent of Europe, so it helps to narrow things down a bit. Our guide to the most beautiful castles in Europe takes you all over the continent. This list takes you to some of the best castles in the world.
We visit dramatic medieval castles, from North Wales to Poland to the Portugal-Spain border. Our armchair journey also takes you to three of the best cities in Eastern Europe to visit. We also take you to stunning ancient castles in Italy, fantasy castles in Germany, palaces in Spain and a château in the Loire Valley in France.
- 1 PRAGUE CASTLE, CZECH REPUBLIC
- 2 CASTELO DE MARVAO, PORTUGAL
- 3 CONWY CASTLE, WALES
- 4 CHATEAU D’AZAY-LE-RIDEAU, LOIRE VALLEY, FRANCE
- 5 BUDA CASTLE, BUDAPEST, HUNGARY
- 6 EILEAN DONAN CASTLE, SCOTLAND
- 7 ALCAZAR DE LOS REYES CRISTIANOS, CORDOBA, SPAIN
- 8 NEUSCHWANSTEIN CASTLE, BAVARIA, GERMANY
- 9 PREDJAMA CASTLE, SLOVENIA
- 10 CASTELO DE SAO JORGE, LISBON
- 11 CASTLE OF THE TEUTONIC KNIGHTS, MALBORK, POLAND
- 12 CASTELLO ARAGONESE, ISCHIA, ITALY
- 13 CARREG CENNEN CASTLE, CARMARTHENSHIRE, WALES
- 14 TALLINN CITY WALLS AND TOOMPEA CASTLE, ESTONIA
- 15 LEEDS CASTLE, KENT, ENGLAND
- 16 CARCASSONNE, FRANCE
- 17 EGESKOV CASTLE, FUNEN, DENMARK
- 18 SCHWERIN CASTLE, GERMANY
- 19 HOHENSALZBURG, SALZBURG, AUSTRIA
- 20 ALCAZAR, SEGOVIA, SPAIN
- 21 CORVIN CASTLE, HUNEDOARA, ROMANIA
- 22 CASTEL SANT’ ANGELO, ROME, ITALY
PRAGUE CASTLE, CZECH REPUBLIC
One of the best things to do in Prague is to climb the hill from Mala Strana, the Lesser Town, to the Castle District. It is one of the biggest castles in the world, with an astonishing array of buildings inside. Prague Castle is also the official office of the President of the Czech Republic. Previously it was the seat of Bohemian kings and Holy Roman Emperors.
Some of the highlights include the Old Royal Palace, the magnificent St Vitus’ Cathedral and the ancient St George’s Basilica. You could easily spend a full day exploring the whole complex. One of the best Prague Christmas markets is also held in the square outside St George’s Basilica, if you’re there at that time of year.
Getting there: The Prague Castle is a 10-minute uphill walk from Mala Strana. Alternatively, catch the #22 tram from the Malostranske Namesti (Lesser Town Square). This takes you up around the other side of the Castle Hill, with three possible stops for the Castle – Prazský Hrad, Brusnice and Pohořelec.
CASTELO DE MARVAO, PORTUGAL
There are hundreds of beautiful castles in Portugal, but for us, one stands out. Marvao Castle dominates the village of the same name, and a steep mountain in the Serra de Sao Mamede range. For us, it’s one of the best castles in Europe.
Marvao is an isolated village in the north of the Alentejo region, overlooking the Spanish border to the east. From below, it looks impregnable, and indeed it was not captured during the Middle Ages. It’s a massive solid fortress, with origins in the 9th century. Most of what you see today dates from the 13th and 14th centuries.
Getting there: Ideally, you need to drive to get to Marvao. It’s around 10 km from the town of Castelo de Vide Take the N246, then the M1033, which joins the N359. If you’re relying on public transport, one Rede Expressos bus per day runs from Lisbon to Marvao. It stops at Portalegre and Castelo de Vide on the way. If you want to return the same day this gives you about four hours to explore the castle and village.
CONWY CASTLE, WALES
Conwy Castle was one of several built by English King Edward I to keep the Welsh in check. Conwy is one of four – the others being Caernarfon, Beaumaris and Harlech – that make up the Gwynedd Castles UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It was designed and built by the master military architect James of St George between 1283 and 1289. He was also responsible for the other three main North Wales castles.
The Castle dominates the beautiful town of Conwy, which is also surrounded by a circuit of walls also funded by Edward I. Conwy is one of the finest medieval castles in Europe. It has eight towers and is an imposing sight, especially from across the river with the mountains in the distance.
Conwy is also worth visiting for Plas Mawr, the finest 16th century townhouse in Britain, which you can visit on the same ticket as the Castle.
Getting there: Conwy is easy to reach on public transport, with regular buses (5 and X5) between Llandudno and Bangor passing beneath the Castle. Some trains stop at Conwy station, but it’s classed as a minor station so many don’t. You may need to wait at the previous station, Llandudno Junction, for a connection, or you could get a bus from outside the station, or walk.
Otherwise, Conwy is on the A547, which you can reach from either of the main roads in the area, the A55 or A470.
CHATEAU D’AZAY-LE-RIDEAU, LOIRE VALLEY, FRANCE
We had to include one of the châteaux of the Loire in our list, and opted for one of the smaller ones, Azay-le-Rideau.
It is, however, possibly the most beautiful of the Loire Valley chateaux. Azay-le-Rideau was built on the site of an earlier fort between 1518 and 1527 by Gilles Berthelot, who was the King’s Treasurer. It was meant to be a residential castle, in a style influenced by the Italian Renaissance.
The chateau is on a muddy island in the Indre river. So it had to be built like the Venetians built Venice – driving wood into the soil to make the foundations. Berthelot didn’t get to enjoy his island idyll, as he had to flee into exile before it was finished. It was then altered at various times in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Getting there: There are trains every two to three hours from the nearby city of Tours to Azay-le-Rideau. From there it’s a 15-minute walk to the chateau. It’s a similar distance in the opposite direction to Chateau de l’Islette, another stunning chateau possibly built by the same team as Azay-le-Rideau.
BUDA CASTLE, BUDAPEST, HUNGARY
Buda Castle – Budavari Palota in Hungarian – dominates the skyline of Budapest. It’s more of a palace complex, but there are some remnants of the medieval fortress on the site. The Castle has had a turbulent history, with a few rebuilds necessary through the centuries. The most recent of these followed World War II.
One of the best things to do in Budapest is to take the funicular from river level up to the Castle. The gardens, part of which date from the Renaissance era, are stunning. You can tour the Castle interior, and also learn more about this fascinating city at the Budapest History Museum. The Hungarian National Gallery is also housed there.
Castle Hill – Varhegy – is the most beautiful part of Budapest, and the iconic Matthias Church (Matyas templom) and Fishermen’s Bastion are around a ten-minute walk from the Castle.
Getting there: Budapest has great air connections across Europe and the Middle East. There are also direct flights from New York JFK and Toronto, with a Philadelphia route due to be added soon. Within the city, the funicular (Buda Váralagút) or the number 16 bus are the closest public transport links.
EILEAN DONAN CASTLE, SCOTLAND
There are many beautiful Scottish castles, and we’ve opted for one of the most remote. Eilean Donan is one of the most beautiful castles you could ever hope to see.
It’s at the confluence of three sea lochs – Loch Alsh, Loch Duich and Loch Long. The mountainous backdrop is simply breathtaking.
The first castle on the site was built in the 13th century, and the castle you now see is probably the fifth or sixth on the site. It was destroyed in 1719 and was in ruin for almost 200 years, before being restored between 1911 and 1932.
Getting there: Eilean Donan is on the main A87 road, near the village of Dornie. It’s a few miles from Kyle of Lochalsh and the bridge over to the Isle of Skye. The nearest major town is Inverness, 71 miles (115 km) away.
ALCAZAR DE LOS REYES CRISTIANOS, CORDOBA, SPAIN
The Castle of the Christian Monarchs is one of the most popular Cordoba attractions. This castle was originally a Moorish fortress, built during its Islamic heyday. It was then rebuilt by Alfonso XI of Castile in 1328.
The Alcazar’s main purpose was residential, and it later served as home to Ferdinand and Isabella, whose marriage united the Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. Parts of it, including the lovely Hall of Mosaics, were added later.
However, the Cordoba Alcazar is best known for its gorgeous gardens. The best time to visit them – and indeed the rest of the city – is spring. This is when the orange and lemon trees are in bloom and the flower beds are ablaze with colour.
Getting there: The Alcazar is very close to the centre of the city of Cordoba, only a few minutes’ walk from its most impressive sight, the Mezquita. Cordoba has excellent links with the rest of Spain. It’s on the high speed AVE train line between Madrid and Seville, and regular buses link it with the latter.
NEUSCHWANSTEIN CASTLE, BAVARIA, GERMANY
This Bavarian fantasy castle is one of the most popular European destinations for visitors. It’s probably the most famous castle in Germany, and was built in the second half of the 19th century by King Ludwig II of Bavaria.
Ludwig built the castle on the site of an earlier fortress as a retreat, and a homage to his friend and favourite composer, Richard Wagner. It’s a romantic reinterpretation of the Middle Ages, and also known as the Sleeping Beauty Castle. Schloss Neuschwanstein is another inspiration for the fairytale Disneyland castle, and for many it’s one of the most beautiful castles around the world.
Getting there: The nearest train station is at Füssen, just over two hours from Munich. From there a local bus runs to the village of Hohenschwangau, where you buy your Neuschwanstein Castle tickets. You can complete the uphill journey on foot (30-40 minutes) or travel up most of the way by horse-drawn carriage or shuttle bus.
PREDJAMA CASTLE, SLOVENIA
Predjama is one of the ultimate fairytale castles. But unlike Neuschwanstein, this is the real thing. It’s the world’s largest cave castle, built into a mountainside with an escape tunnel through a cave at the back. It’s an absolutely fascinating place. The castle was built in 1570, on the site of an earlier castle which was destroyed by an earthquake.
Predjama is only 9 km from one of the best attractions in Slovenia, the Postojna Caves. The castle is a part of the Postojna Cave Park. Together they make one of the best day trips from Ljubljana, up there with stunning Lake Bled.
Getting there: Postojna is 50 km from Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, and a similar distance from Rijeka in Croatia and Trieste in Italy. The Cave Park is 2 km from Junction 41 of the A1 motorway. If you buy a combined cave and castle ticket you’re entitled to use the free shuttle bus to Predjama. This is available during the main season.
CASTELO DE SAO JORGE, LISBON
The Castelo de Sao Jorge – St George’s Castle – dominates the centre of Lisbon from its hilltop site. A climb up the hill to the Castelo is one of the essential things to do in Lisbon, rewarded with a great view over the city.
It was built almost a thousand years ago, in the 11th century, by the Moors, who built the whole Alfama neighbourhood. You feel like you’re stepping back in time as you climb the steep cobbled streets to the Castle entrance, and it’s a wonderfully atmospheric spot.
Getting there: You can get flights to Lisbon from all over Europe, and there are also some direct flights from North America. The Castle is at the summit of the hill in the Alfama district, and the #12 and #28 trams are the closest pubic transport.
CASTLE OF THE TEUTONIC KNIGHTS, MALBORK, POLAND
Malbork Castle is one of the best things to see in Poland. It is seriously impressive. It is the biggest castle in the world by land area. And it inspires awe: you look at it and think, ”How could anyone ever conquer THAT?”
It is a massive red brick castle complex, founded in the 13th century. It served as the headquarters of the Teutonic Knights (Deutscher Orden) – the town was then known as Marienburg. The Teutonic Knights were ousted by Polish forces in 1457 after they were unable to pay their mercenaries any longer. It was subsequently taken three times by Swedish forces in the 17th century.
Getting there: Malbork is on the Warsaw to Gdańsk train line. It’s one of the best day trips from Warsaw or Gdansk, two hours from the capital and 40 minutes from Gdańsk.
CASTELLO ARAGONESE, ISCHIA, ITALY
Visiting the stunning Castello Aragonese is one of the best things to do on Ischia, an island in the Bay of Naples. It’s a castle and small town on an islet next to the town of Ischia Porto.
The Castello’s history goes back to the 5th century BC, though nothing remains from that period. The site has been occupied by the Romans, Normans, Swabians, Angevins, Aragonese, Spanish and Austrians.
You can visit the whole complex, which includes the fortress, a convent, a prison and some beautiful churches. It’s one of the most scenic castles in Italy, with outstanding views over the Bay of Naples.
Getting there: Ischia is one of the easiest day trips from Naples, with regular ferries from Molo Beverello in Naples to Ischia Porto. It’s about a twenty-minute walk from the harbour to the Castello Aragonese.
CARREG CENNEN CASTLE, CARMARTHENSHIRE, WALES
If you’re wondering which country has the most castles, you may be in for a surprise. Carreg Cennen Castle is one of the best castles in Wales. It’s in the county of Carmarthenshire, in the far west of the Brecon Beacons National Park.
This mountain castle is perched on the top of a sheer limestone cliff, high above the Cennen valley. It was first built by a local Welsh lord around 1197. Carreg Cennen remained in Welsh hands until 1277; they retook in 1282 then lost it to the English in 1283.
You access the Castle via a farm, which has a great café and tea room. It’s a five-minute climb from there to the Castle. Once inside, the views of the surrounding countryside and the Black Mountain ridge are stunning.
Getting there: The nearest town is Llandeilo, 3 miles (5 km) away. This is as close as trains and buses (many start from Swansea) come. You need a car to get you the last few miles, so either drive yourself or book a taxi from Llandeilo – ideally avoiding school run time.
TALLINN CITY WALLS AND TOOMPEA CASTLE, ESTONIA
Tallinn is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe and its Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The City Wall is especially stunning, a circuit of towers and gates dating from the 13th century. Most of this is still intact, and the towers are among the most beautiful features of the city’s gorgeous skyline.
Toompea Castle is next to the city walls. It has been in use since the 9th century, and part of the medieval castle remains. It also houses the Estonian Parliament in a fine pink Baroque building on the site.
Getting there: Tallinn Airport is well served by destinations from all across Europe.
LEEDS CASTLE, KENT, ENGLAND
Leeds Castle is one of the most amazing castles in England. It’s setting is sublime, on an island in a lake formed by the River Len, a few miles from the town of Maidstone.
A castle was on the site as early as the late 11th century, and this was rebuilt. In the late 13th century it was one of King Edward I’s favourite residences. In the 16th century, Henry VIII spent time there and his first wife Catherine of Aragon lived there for some time. Much of what you see today is the result of a 19th century remodelling.
You can stay in Leeds Castle accommodation, which includes the 16th century Maidens Tower and several other historic properties in the grounds.
Getting there: Leeds Castle is one of the best day trips from London, with coach tours departing from London Victoria. If you’re travelling by public transport, regular trains from London Victoria stop at Bearsted, from where there is a coach shuttle service to Leeds Castle between April and September.
The Cité de Carcassonne isn’t just a castle, it’s a citadel. It’s one of the most famous castles in France, yet at one point it had fallen into such a derelict state that the French government planned to demolish it.
Its history goes back to Roman times, but Carcassonne’s walled city was mostly built in the twelfth and 13th centuries. It fell into decline by the 17th century, having been abandoned. It was saved by a public outcry, and restored by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc from the 1850s until his death in 1879. It wasn’t an entirely authentic restoration, but it’s very impressive. The circuit of 53 towers is one of the most iconic sights in France.
Getting there: Carcassonne has excellent transport connections. Its small airport is served by Ryanair flights from several airports in the UK and Ireland. Its train connections are very good, with fast TGV and other SNCF services calling there. It’s easy to reach whichever direction you’re travelling from – whether Paris, Provence, Bordeaux, Toulouse or the Spanish border.
EGESKOV CASTLE, FUNEN, DENMARK
Egeskov is one of the most beautiful castles in Scandinavia. It’s situated in the south of the island of Funen (Fyn in Danish), near the town of Kværndrup. Egeskov is one of the best day trips from Copenhagen, well worth the two-hour journey.
It’s a beautiful late Gothic red brick castle on a lake, on a foundation of wooden pilings. It was completed in 1554, and its interior owes more to Renaissance design. Egeskov is set in a large park which includes some gorgeous gardens, several mazes and a farm. There is also a vintage car museum on the site.
Getting there: The main city on the island of Funen is Odense, and Kværndrup is only 15 km south of there. Egeskov is only 2 km from there, and is reachable on the local 920 bus. Otherwise it’s walkable. Regular trains run from Copenhagen to Odense, where you change for the local train to Kværndrup.
SCHWERIN CASTLE, GERMANY
Schwerin Castle is sometimes called the ‘Neuschwanstein of the North’. There was a medieval castle on the site, but it was completely remodelled in the 19th century by Grand Duke Friedrich of Mecklenburg-Schwerin.
Like Neuschwanstein, it’s a historicist creation, evoking styles of the past. Schwerin was modelled on the vast chateau of Chambord in the Loire Valley, in a Neorenaissance style. It’s now the seat of the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern parliament.
Getting there: Schwerin is capital of the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, in the former GDR. It’s a two-hour train trip from Hamburg, and roughly two and a half hours from Berlin. Schwerin Hauptbahnhof (main station) is around a twenty-minute walk from the Castle.
If you’re on a Baltic cruise, some ships call at Rostock, and Schwerin is well within reach from there.
HOHENSALZBURG, SALZBURG, AUSTRIA
One of the most famous Austrian castles, the Hohensalzburg fortress has stood guard over the city below for 950 years. It’s one of Europe’s most awesome castles, a formidable fortress with solid, thick walls that was never captured.
The Hohensalzburg was begun in 1077, then expanded by Prince-Archbishop Leonhard von Keutschach around the year 1500. It’s a magnificent sight looming above the Baroque towers and spires of the city below. Inside, the highlights are the state apartments on the third floor.
Getting there: Salzburg is accessible by air, with the airport only a few km from the city. It’s also well-served by trains, with regular connections to Vienna and Munich. You can walk up the hill to the Hohensalzburg or catch the Festungsbahn funicular railway up to the castle.
ALCAZAR, SEGOVIA, SPAIN
The Alcazar de Segovia is one of the most beautiful castles in the world. It’s at the end of a narrow V-shaped outcrop of rock, with vertical cliffs each side. The Alcazar is a stunning white building with distinctive grey slate spires. You may well recognise it as one of the main inspirations for Disney castles around the world.
Most of the Alcazar was built between the 13th and 16th centuries, most notably by John II of Castile and Philip II. It served as a fortress and a palatial royal residence. The interior rooms are as impressive as the exterior, with several stunning Halls with ornate Mudejar decoration.
Getting there: Segovia is one of the best day trips from Madrid, and is easily reached from the Spanish capital. You can catch the AVE fast train from Madrid to Segovia, which takes around 30 minutes. The number 11 bus then takes you to the Roman Aqueduct in the centre of the city. Alternatively, you can catch a bus from Madrid to Segovia from the station next to Moncloa Metro station in Madrid.
CORVIN CASTLE, HUNEDOARA, ROMANIA
No list of beautiful castles in Europe would be complete without mention of some castles in Transylvania. But instead of the famed ‘Dracula Castle’ of Bran, we’ve gone for Corvin Castle in Hunedoara, 100 miles (150 km) to the west. It’s known as Castelul Corvinor in Romania, and Vajdahunyadi Var in Hungarian.
Don’t be deterred by the smokestacks on the approach into Hunedoara – this is a stunning castle. The present building dates from the 15th century, but was largely remodelled and embellished in the 19th century. It’s a grand Gothic castle with towers, spires and turrets. It looks especially impressive with its deep moat and elevated bridge leading to the gatehouse. Inside, there are three magnificent marble halls from the 15th century castle.
Getting there: The nearest airport to Hunedoara is Timiṣoara, which is served by flights from several European countries. Budget carriers Wizzair fly from London Luton and Valencia, among others. The onward 100-mile (165 km) journey to Hunedoara takes 4-5 hours by bus or train, but you could drive it in half that time. You’re looking at double both journey times to get there from Bucharest. The other option is by bus or train from Sibiu, which takes 3 to 4 hours.
CASTEL SANT’ ANGELO, ROME, ITALY
It wasn’t built to be a castle, but the Castel Sant’ Angelo in Rome can claim to be the oldest castle in Europe.
Initially it was a grand mausoleum to the Emperor Hadrian, constructed between 135 and 139 AD. It was turned into a fortress and incorporated into the Aurelian Walls around 403, but was sacked by the Goths in 410. It owes its name to a vision of the Archangel Michael on the roof by Pope Gregory I in 590.
This impressive Roman castle has been used as a fortress, prison and papal residence; it is now a museum. Some of the rooms are sumptuously decorated, and there is a vast collection of weapons. The Castel is also one of the best viewpoints in Rome, with a fantastic view over the Rome skyline.
Getting there: Castel Sant’ Angelo is in the centre of Rome, on the bank of the river Tiber. It’s ten minutes’ walk from the Vatican and St Peter’s Square. Buses 23, 34 and 280 stop outside. Otherwise it’s a ten-minute walk from Ottaviano metro station.
David Angel is a British writer and photographer who has been travelling and photographing the world for over 25 years. His work is regularly featured in worldwide media including the BBC, the Guardian, the Times and the Sunday Times. His images are frequently used throughout the world by tourism bodies such as Visit Britain and Visit Wales.