For most of us commoners, visiting a castle is the closest we’ll ever get to living like a king or queen (and maybe that’s a good thing — it’s hard enough to keep an ordinary house clean, much less a palace with hundreds of rooms!). If you’re looking to tour a royal residence on your next trip, check out our list of the world’s top 10 coolest castles. Some have great historical significance, like the citadel in Syria that played a crucial role in the Crusades, while others made our list for their amazing architecture or over-the-top opulence.
Alnwick Castle, Alnwick, England
Home to the Earls and Dukes of Northumberland for 700 years, Alnwick Castle (pronounced “Annick”) is one of England’s largest inhabited castles. If it looks familiar, you may have seen it on the big screen — it’s appeared in a number of films, including “Elizabeth” and the first two Harry Potter movies. (Remember the scene where Harry first learns to fly a broom?) Visitors can tour a number of elegant state rooms — don’t miss the enormous library — as well as several museums housed in the castle’s towers. The beautiful gardens next door were planted over the past decade under the direction of the current Duchess of Northumberland.
Hearst Castle, California
In 1919, newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst decided that the tent accommodations at his ranch in San Simeon, Calif., were no longer comfortable enough for his tastes. He told the architect Julia Morgan, “We are tired of camping out in the open at the ranch in San Simeon and I would like to build a little something.” Over the next 28 years, that “little something” grew into Hearst Castle, a sprawling 127-acre estate featuring three guesthouses, multiple pools, a zoo, expansive gardens and terraces, and even an airport. The architecture of the 38-bedroom main house, Casa Grande, was inspired by a Spanish cathedral.
Pena Palace, Sintra, Portugal
Portugal’s Palacio Nacional de Pena may be one of the world’s most colorful castles, with walls and turrets decked out in vibrant shades of yellow and red. The Bavarian-style palace dates back to 1840, when Ferdinand of Saxe Coburg-Gotha (the husband of Queen Maria II) commissioned a Prussian architect to design a royal residence on this dramatic hilltop site. Visitors can walk or take a carriage up to the palace from the park below.
Rock of Cashel, Cashel, Ireland
Standing on the same site where St. Patrick is said to have baptized King Aengus of Munster in the fifth century, the Rock of Cashel is one of Ireland’s most beautiful and historic castles. Also known as “Cashel of the Kings,” the Rock of Cashel was once the seat of the High Kings of Munster until the site was turned over to the Catholic Church in 1101. The Rock’s oldest structure is its distinctive and well-preserved round tower; other buildings include a 12th-century Romanesque chapel and the large St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Within walking distance are the ruins of Hore Abbey (a great place to snap photos of the Rock) and a graveyard with a number of historic high crosses.
Crac des Chevaliers (Qal’at al-Hosn), Homs, Syria
During the Crusades of the 11th to 13th centuries, the massive towers and ramparts of Syria’s Crac des Chevaliers were the site of many fierce battles and sieges. The fortress was the most important stronghold along the Homs Gap, the passageway linking Syria with the Mediterranean, and it was held by the Christian Knights Hospitaller for more than a century before being captured by Sultan Baibars in 1271. The enormous castle has 13 towers, and could hold nearly 5,000 soldiers and their provisions for as long as five years in a siege. Today it’s one of only a few places where visitors can see frescoes from the time of the Crusades.
Chateau de Chambord, Chambord, France
Chateau de Chambord, the largest chateau in France’s Loire Valley, is a study in both grandeur and excess. It took nearly 30 years to construct the building, which features 440 rooms, 365 fireplaces, 84 staircases and a 1,200-horse stable — but the king who built it, Francois I, spent only about six weeks here (on a series of brief hunting trips). Leonardo da Vinci is said to have designed the chateau’s innovative double helix staircase, in which two sets of steps spiral up to the higher floors without ever meeting each other. (Rumor has it that the king’s mistresses would use one staircase while the queen would use the other.)
Kasbahs at Ait Ben Haddou, Ouarzazate, Morocco
Hidden away in the arid foothills of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains is Ait Ben Haddou, an ancient fortified city (or “ksar”) made of adobe, mud plaster and stone. The kasbahs and earthen houses of the city have been featured in many films, including “Gladiator” and “Lawrence of Arabia.” Southern Morocco’s ruling families used to live in these and other nearby kasbahs, which are located along an ancient trade route leading to the Western Sahara. Today, fewer than 10 families reside in the ancient city (most have relocated to the “new town” nearby). If you visit, don’t be surprised if you’re invited into one of the families’ homes to share a spot of traditional mint tea.
Chateau de Chillon, Montreux, Switzerland
Its weathered stone walls, tumultuous history and exquisite location on Lake Geneva have made Chateau de Chillon an icon of Europe’s Romantic movement. After visiting the castle in 1816, Lord Byron was inspired to write the poem “The Prisoner of Chillon” about the travails of a man who was held as a prisoner here back in the 16th century. Walking through the castle’s gloomy underground rooms, visitors can imagine for themselves what a prison sentence here would have been like. Other, cheerier highlights can be found aboveground, including several magnificent great halls and a lovely 14th-century chapel.
Himeji Castle, Himeji, Japan
Himeji Castle, Japan’s best-preserved feudal fortress, dates back to the 14th century (though it didn’t take on its current form until the early 1600’s). It’s also known as “White Heron Castle” because of the color of its walls, which are covered in a white plaster that helps protect the wooden building from fire. One of Himeji’s most famous features is the maze of paths and gates leading to the main building. The labyrinth was designed to confuse and delay attacking warriors, but as the castle has never been attacked, this defensive strategy has gone untested (except perhaps by visitors, who do sometimes get lost as they approach the castle). Himeji is at its loveliest — but also most crowded — during the spring cherry blossom season.
Neuschwanstein Castle, Hohenschwangau, Germany
Germany’s spectacular Neuschwanstein Castle tops our list for its fairy-tale architecture and its breathtaking location in the Bavarian Alps. It was built under the aegis of King Ludwig II, an eccentric and exacting man who closely oversaw the construction of his fantasy castle (the ornate woodcarvings in his bedroom alone took four and a half years to complete). Ludwig was also a great fan of Wagner; the castle’s name means “New Swan Stone Castle” and is taken from the Swan Knight, a character in one of Wagner’s operas. The king was accused of insanity and removed from the throne in 1886, leaving many of the castle’s rooms unfinished.