Knights of the round table, damsels in distress and fire-breathing dragons are back in fashion. Thanks to the Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, the Middle Ages have never been cooler. If you’re an aspiring Knight of the Realm or a Princess in Training, or have kids with a flair for the dramatic, you’ll love these fairytale castles, some of which have been standing tall for over one thousand years.
If this castle looks familiar, it’s because it served as the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle, now immortalized at Disneylands around the world. It was built in the 19th century by king Ludwig II of Bavaria as a private refuge, but the king died shortly after construction was completed, and so the castle instead became an instant tourist attraction. Tour groups can take over the interior in the summer months, so try to get there early, and then spend the remainder of your day enjoying the beautiful scenery and amazing views of the turrets against a blue summer sky. Some of the best views of the castle can be found along the Marienbrücke – a wooden suspension bridge located a short walk away. Pack a picnic!
Hearst Castle, California
Another homage to a bygone era built by a romantically minded millionaire, Hearst Castle is a pastiche of architectural styles from across Europe, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive to visit. The brainchild of the newspaper magnate Randolph Hearst and famed San Francisco architect Julia Morgan, the castle hosted many of Hollywood’ golden era stars for weekend parties, from Jean Harlow and Clark Gable and Winston Churchill and Calvin Coolidge. From the lavish outdoor “Neptune” pool to the Roman mosaiced indoor pool, Hearst’s private library with a Gothic ceiling that dates back to 14th-century Spain to the 16th-century tapestries the line the walls, Hearst Castle is an absolute feast for the senses. Visits are by guided tour only, and each tour takes in only a selection of sites on the huge estate so do your research beforehand to make sure you see the rooms you want to.
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Chateau de Chillon, Switzerland
There are seven pillars of Gothic mould, In Chillon’s dungeons deep and old, wrote the Romantic poet Lord Byron in The Prisoner of Chillon. Visitors to the imposing Chateau sequestered on an island in Lake Geneva can still see the chain and the rut in the ground made by the incessant pacing of François Bonivard, the unfortunate soul whose story made such an impression on Byron 200 years ago. The earliest parts of the Chateau are thought to date back one thousand years, and stepping inside the imposing stone structure you can’t help but be impressed, as Byron himself was, by the thought of the many thousands of people who lived, worked and were imprisoned within its walls over the years. As you explore the dungeons see if you can spot Byron’s name, carved into one of the pillars by the poet himself.
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Alhambra Palace, Spain
Built in the 13th century on the ruins of a 9th-century fortress, itself built on top of even older Roman remains, the Alhambra Palace has seen a whole lot of history. The imposing structure, set on a hill overlooking the Andalusian town of Granada, was home to the Moorish emirs of Granada before being taken over big King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, patrons of Christopher Columbus. After being neglected for hundreds of years and even occupied by squatters, the palace’s ornate, intricate Islamic-style interiors were restored to their original, breathtaking beauty. You can lose hours at this true architectural gem, marveling at star-shaped light wells that bounce beams of sunlight across the walls, or strolling in the peaceful, fragrant gardens. You’ll need at least one whole day to enjoy the site properly, and many people find themselves coming back for more before their trip is over.
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Warwick Castle, England
With haunted towers, grisly tales of jousts between knights and a dungeon to boot, Warwick is a medieval masterpiece with plenty to offer the modern-day visitor. Built by William the Conquerer in 1068, and fortified over the years, the castle was the home of the aristocratic Greville family, the Earls of Warwick, for over 400 years, until the 1970s when it became a tourist attraction. The whole site is set up to keep children entertained, with great storytelling and interactive elements to explain complicated historic events in simple ways. The Horrible Histories maze and castle dungeon are sure-fire winners for young knights in training.
Photographs: Hearst Castle – Evan Meyer/Shutterstock.com