Best Castles to Visit in Europe

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Travel Features >> Best Castles to Visit in Europe

Best Castles to Visit in Europe

April 23, 2011

Castles have always been associated with royalty or fairytales but there is more to them than what meets the eye. For a historian, the allure of a castle lies in exploring the place where celebrated (or not so much so!) monarchs spent their entire lives whereas an architect will surely go weak in the knees by the design and engineering of ‘the days of yore’. An artist is bound to find solace in the paintings or murals that adorn the castle walls and a soldier will perhaps marvel at the warfare used during the bygone era. Legends and mysteries chronicling these majestic establishments is what capture the imagination of a child but when it comes to those bitten by the love bug; it’s the romance that wins hands down.

The castles listed below haven’t just witnessed history being made but it’s the beauty and splendor of these gorgeous structures that makes them worthy of admiration. If you enjoy a history lesson every once in a while or are plain fascinated by all things extravagant, then take a walk inside these castles and prepare yourself to succumb to the charms of the palatial fortifications.

Castle Neuschwanstein, Bavaria, Germany:

When you glance at Castle Neuschwanstein even from a distance, it appears as if you have somehow stepped into your favourite fairytale. The medieval architecture of the castle combined with the surrounding landscape of the Alps and the Hohenschwangau valley gives it an almost dream-like semblance. Situated atop a hill overlooking the Village of Hohenschwangau in Germany, the castle used to be a private sanctuary of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. If you delve deeper into the history of this castle, you’ll come across the life story of a rather eccentric and reclusive King who lived in a realm of make-believe and commissioned the castle only to use it as an escape from the regular world. Perhaps that’s precisely the reason why Disney fashioned the Sleeping Beauty Castle after Neuschwanstein.

It is pretty extraordinary to discover ‘modern facilities’ inside this 19th century wonder, thus echoing the belief that people of earlier centuries were actually armed with quite a few ideas than we like to give them credit for. Every room in the Royal residence had the luxury of hot air central heating and each floor used to get an adequate supply of fresh running water supplied by a nearby spring. In order to carry meals for royalty, a lift was built whereas an electric bell system acted as an intercom for the King to call his aides. Unbelievable as it may be, you’ll find telephones and toilets with automatic flushing system within the castle. The interiors of the castle not only reflect the imaginary world that constantly fed the imagination of the King but also display the characters from the operas of Richard Wagner, of whom the King was a staunch admirer. The walls of the rooms are plastered with sagas of Sigurd, Gudrun, Tristan and Isolde, Parzifal, Lohengrin and Tannhauser, out of which Ludwig II was deeply enchanted by the Lohengrin saga.

The castle also boasts of an inner garden which is sheltered by a walled courtyard, but the most interesting part of this palace is the artificial grotto with coloured lighting and a waterfall. Due to King’s insistence on building a perfect castle, the structure didn’t complete even till the King’s death in 1886. Utilizing the undone rooms on the second floor, the castle gives way to a shop, a cafeteria and a multimedia room. It is almost ironic to see that this personal refuge which was built by the King to get away from people is now visited by thousands of tourists every year.
If you don’t mind losing yourself in an Emperor’s fantasy, a sojourn to Castle Neuschwanstein will leave you delighted!

The Three T’s:
Timings: Open all year round except four days (1st Jan, 24th, 25th and 31st Dec) and can be visited after purchasing tickets from the ticket counter from 8am-5pm in the months of April through September and from 9am-3pm in October to March.
Adults- € 12
Students, senior citizens, disabled, groups of 15 members and German Military and German Alternate servicemen - € 8
Children under 18 years, travel guides and coach drivers -free.
You can purchase tickets from Ticketcenter Hohenschwangau situated in the village below the castle or can reserve them online by paying an additional fee of € 1.80 per person, a day in advance.
Tours: It is mandatory to take a guide along in order to see the castle. There are two kinds of tours available- guided and special tours, the former lasting for around 30 minutes and the latter for an hour. Guided tours are conducted in two languages- English and German. If however, you don’t speak any of these languages, there is a provision for audio guided tours which are available in 13 world languages. Special tours, on the other hand, are those which are organized for private groups only. You can give in writing if you wish to avail a private tour. For a group of six, the cost is €150 and from 7 people onwards, it is charged on a per head basis of €25. These tours are in German and English but if you don’t understand these languages, an interpreter must be brought along.

Malbork Castle, Gdansk, Poland:

Like a lot of structures that were erected during the medieval times, Malbork castle has also suffered at the hands of one monarch after the other. Built in 14th century, this castle was the magnificent property of the Teutonic Knights whose barbaric acts and vindictive crusades resulted in their downfall. As cruel as the tales from the past may seem, this red-brick Gothic castle doesn’t fail to inspire awe in the hearts of anyone venturing inside the castle complex. Known as ‘Marienburg’ or ‘St. Mary’s stronghold’, the fortress was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in the year 1997, thus occupying its rightful place as an important heritage monument of the world.

In the days when the castle was the abode of the Teutonic Knights, it was divided into three parts- the High castle, the Middle castle and the Low castle. The high castle was a monastery where no one except the Knights could set foot in. In the middle castle, the affairs of the state took place and the low castle, also known as the outer bailey used to be the workplace of the peasants. During World War II, half the castle was destroyed. However, it was resurrected in the 1950’s when Polish Tourist and Country Lover Society took the task of returning the castle to its former glory.

Standing on the banks of River Vistula, the view of this castle on the other end makes for a fine spectacle. Reserve at least four hours of your time if you really want the castle to reveal its secrets to you. If you are roaming the empty corridors of the castle or are looking inside the rooms, you will find traces of lifestyle of the Teutonic Knights greeting you every step of the way. The little children of your family can visit the souvenir shop inside the castle where they can get their hands on wooden weapons. The best part of the castle is that you can actually get this castle all for yourself (even if it’s for a little while) by renting the entire castle or a part of it for an occasion.
Whether you have limited time in hand or are in Gdansk for many days, Malbork castle is one of those places that you simply can’t miss out on!

The Three T’s:
Timings: April 15- September 15th (summer season), the interiors can be visited from 9:00am-7:00pm and exteriors from 7:00pm-8:00pm. From October 16th- April 14th (winter season), the interiors can be visited from 10:00am-3.00pm whereas exteriors are opened from 3:00pm-4:00pm. The castle is closed on Mondays, 25th December, 1st January and selected public holidays.
Summer season: Single and Discounted tickets- 39 PLN and 29 PLN. A 3, 4, and 5 person family will have to pay 97 PLN, 126 PLN and 155 PLN respectively.
Winter season: Single and Discounted tickets- 29 PLN and 20 PLN. For a 3, 4, 5 person family, the tickets are priced at 69 PLN, 89 PLN and 109 PLN.
Tours: Night tours in polish and foreign language are available which costs 25 PLN and 15 PLN for a normal and discounted ticket in Polish and 30 PLN and 20 PLN for a normal and discounted ticket in a foreign language.

Prague Castle, Prague, Czech Republic:

Anything which is created in this world is a mirror into the mind or ideas of the person who crafted it and Prague Castle has a similar story to narrate. The reflections of the many Kings who dwelled in the castle in different centuries can still be seen in the architecture of the palace. As the monarchs changed, so did the architecture to suit the tastes of the ruling Kings who called the castle their abode. In the 13th century, when Premyslids resided in the castle, they brought Roman-style to this fabulous fortress while the 14th and 15th century gave way to Gothic and Neo-Gothic style to please the eyes of Charles IV and King Vladislav Jagiello. However, if you will divert your attentions to the 16th and 18th century, you’ll discover that when it came to architecture, Renaissance and Baroque styles ruled the roost.

Even though the castle (along with its architecture) has evolved over the centuries, the fundamental essence of this palace remains the way it always was. During the 16th century, this castle was converted into a centre for art and science as well as a gallery for exquisite collections under the regime of Emperor Rudolph II. However, since 1918, the Prague Castle has been the official residence of the President of Czech Republic. With two prestigious titles – of that of a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as the Guinness Book of World Records for being the largest Castle Complex in the world, the castle is also the place where the Crown Jewels of Czech Republic find themselves at home.

Prague Castle is a fine example of the time when the State and the Church used to “collaborate” with one another to run a country. This is also reiterated in the cathedrals and the buildings situated inside the complex. When you go to the castle you must visit the old Royal Palace with Vladislav Hall, Queen Anne’s Summer Palace, Cathedral of St. Vitus, Basilica of St. George and St. Wenceslas Vineyard. If you are fond of art exhibitions, you’ll find plenty of them in the castle. From the permanent exhibition of the collection of 19th century art displayed in St. George’s Convent to the paintings from the personal collection of Emperor Rudolph II, the exhibitions in the Prague Castle are in abundance. However, if you want to visit the Royal Gardens, South Gardens and the Stag Moat, you’ll have to plan your trip in the summers (April 1st- October 31st) when these attractions are open for all to see. Those of you who are eager to see the state rooms, make sure you come to the castle either on the first Saturday after May 8 or on the first Saturday after October 28 as they are currently used by the President of the country and are open only two days a year. You’ll also find that a number of events usually take place in the castle- from theatre to music concerts and cultural events to exhibitions. However, if there is one thing you don’t want to miss, it definitely is the Changing of the Guard Ceremony which takes place every hour and if you go on noon, you can also catch the Flag ceremony in the First Courtyard.
For those who long to experience the continuation of the legacy of the past monarchs into the contemporary world, a visit to Prague castle is a must!

The Three T’s:

Timings: open daily. The castle can be visited in summer season (April 1 - October 31) from 5.00 - 24.00 and in winter season (November 1 - March 31) from 6.00 - 23.00. Gardens are only open during the summer season. However, historical monuments are open daily (except 24th December) from 9.00 - 17.00 in the summer season and 9.00 - 16.00 in the winter season.
The price of full admission, the family admission and discount for a long visit ticket are - CZK 350, CZK 700 and CZK 175 whereas for a short visit ticket are CZK 250, CZK 500 and CZK 125. Only youth aged 6 – 16, secondary school and university students in full-time study until 26, family (1-5 children at the age of under 16 with max. 2 adults) and seniors past 65 can avail the discounted ticket.
Tours: Guided tours lasting an hour are available in Czech, English, German, French, Spanish, Italian and Russian and are provided by professional castle guides. You can book them in advance by calling the castle administration. Prices will differ for tours.

Alhambra Castle, Granada, Spain:

If you are one of those people who believe that God is in the details, you will love this palace situated in the city of Granada in Spain. Part of its splendor lie in the architecture of the palace complex and the other half can be attributed to its rich history. When the rays of the sun fall directly on the crimson castle, it paints the walls and the towers in a shade of gold, thus creating a breath-taking landscape for all to admire. But there is something unusually romantic about exploring Alhambra when the stars envelop the entire city at night. Moreover, if you visit this fortress when the moon is high in the sky, you’ll be greeted to a beautiful sight where the castle looks as if encrusted with silver.

Alhambra castle is one of the finest examples of Moorish architecture and Andalusian art in Spain, standing tall on a hill of the Al-Sabika. This complex which was erected in the 13th century actually served a threefold purpose of that of a fortress, palace and a small city. However, the first accounts of this castle date back to 9th century, a period believed to be the time when this structure was used solely to fulfill military purposes. The prominence of this castle rose with the establishment of the Royal residence by Mohammed Ben Al-Hamar, the first king of the Nasrid Dynasty.

It is pretty apparent that the complex which was once considered as a “city” has no dearth of places worthy of exploration. There isn’t a single palace or a garden which will satiate your need of discovery as there is plenty to see and even “learn” only if you pay a little attention. However, for the purpose of convenience, it’s best to divide your time between Nasrid Palaces, Charles V Palace and surrounding areas, Towers and Higher Alhambra, Alcazaba and Generalife. These five places and spots together form the complex of the Alhambra Castle, each serving a different purpose and all containing something that is unique to them.

There are around 4 palaces, namely, Charles V Palace, the Royal Palace, Comares Palace and Palace of the Lions, out of which the Charles V Palace is the only structure boasting of renaissance style architecture. But if you think that your great castle adventure ends here, you can’t be more wrong. You must visit the Roman style Baths, the elegant rooms of the Emperor, the Harem of Sultan’s wives, the Daraxa’s Garden, the Tower of the Captive, the Wine Gate……and the list can go on and on.
There are some places which must be experienced at least once in your life time and Alhambra Castle is definitely one of them!

The Three T’s:

Timings: Alhambra can be visited in the morning as well as in the evening from Monday-Sunday. From 15th October-14th March, the morning timings are: 8.30am-6.00pm and evening timings are: 7.30pm-8.30pm. From March 15th-October 14th, the morning timings are: 8.30am-8.00pm and the evening timings are 10:00pm-11:30pm.
The tickets are of 3 types- Daytime visit, Garden visit and Evening or Night time visit which is €12.00, €6.00 and €12.00 respectively. Tickets prices for Senior citizens (aged 65 years and over) and pensioners from the European Union- €6.00, EU students under 30 with valid ID- €9.00 whereas Children under 12 and disabled visitors- free entry.
Tours: The tours of the Alhambra and the Generalife are available in English and Spanish and can be paid for by credit cards. The tours lasts for two and a half hours to three hours and are priced at €46 for adults (12-64), €20 for children (6-11 years), €40 for seniors (over 65 years) and €6 for kids less than 6 years of age.

Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, Scotland:

When you think of Scotland, what is the first thing that enters your mind? Bagpipes? Robert Burns? Loch Ness Monster? Malts and Whiskies? Kilts? Well, there are those and there is the Edinburgh Castle- a structure which is not only synonymous to Scotland but is also the symbol of the rich history of Edinburgh. This castle which was built by David I in 1130, sits like a crown on an extinct volcano overlooking the entire city. Like many beautiful fortresses in the world, Edinburgh Castle also wears the badge of being included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site and rightly so.

The Royal Palace situated inside the castle houses the birth chamber of King James VI of Scotland, Laich Hall, the Crown room and the ‘Honours of the Kingdom’ exhibition whereas the Great Hall was built by King James VI to hold ceremonies and state assemblies. However, at present, a number of costumed performances for the visitors take place inside these halls which are not only interesting to watch but also brings the history of Scotland to life. Your Edinburgh Castle experience won’t be complete until you pay a visit to the oldest building in Edinburgh, St. Margaret’s Chapel. The chapel has survived 800 years of wars and demolitions but still emerged from the battles unwounded. If religion isn’t your most favourite thing and you want a more ‘human’ experience, there are many other attractions for you to enjoy. For all those who find inspiration in the stories of soldiers who laid down their life for their countries should definitely check out the four museums located inside the castle complex which pays tribute to the military history of the country. However, if you want to know how the castle treated its captives in the 18th century, you must see the ‘Prisons of War’ exhibition in the Castle Vaults.

The Edinburgh Castle is the home to the ‘Ancient Honours of Scotland’, namely, the Crown, the Sceptre and the Sword of the State which are kept in the Crown Room and doesn’t fail to captivate the interests of the visitors. When you visit the castle you can also view the Mon’s Meg and the One O’ Clock Gun, the former being Europe’s oldest surviving Cannon while the latter serving as part of a tradition long started in 1861, of being fired everyday at 1:00 pm. One of the most intriguing attractions (besides the treasures) placed in the castle is the popular ‘Stone of Destiny’ which is used in coronations even today. The castle has adjusted itself to the visiting tourists by introducing two restaurants, two gift shops, a book shop and an audio guide pick-up shop to make the tourist experience as comfortable and enjoyable as possible.
You really don’t need a reason to visit Edinburgh Castle- just the fact that it is one of the most recognizable symbols of Edinburgh should suffice!

The Three T’s:

Timings: In summer season (1 Apr - 30 Sep), castle is open from 9:30am-6:00pm whereas in winter season (1 Oct - 31 Mar), the castle is open from 9:30am-5:00pm. It is closed on 25th and 26th December while on 1st January, the castle can be visited from 11:00am-5:00pm.
Adult (16-59): £14.00, Child (5-15 years): £8.20, Concession (aged 60 and above, unemployed): £11.20, Child under 5: free.
Tours: Usually complimentary guided tours are provided in the castle, the price for which is included in admission tickets. But it depends on weather and the availability of staff. You can also purchase audio tours in 6 languages from the castle audio guidebook shop.

Windsor castle, Windsor, England:

Spread over an area of 26 acres, Windsor castle is a product of 900 years of history. This medieval castle which is situated in the county of Berkshire in England was commissioned by William the Conqueror but has been home to a number of monarchs over the period of time. Due to its long and winding past, the structure is proclaimed to be the longest-occupied castle in entire Europe. In the present day, this castle is used as the Official Residence of Queen Elizabeth II and serves as the prime place to host overseas monarchs and Presidents.

A testimony to the finest European craftsmanship, Windsor castle is a popular tourist attraction for anyone visiting Berkshire. There is ample to see and admire inside the castle but those interested in art will particularly enjoy the State Apartments, which contains the works of Rembrandt, Rubens, Canaletto, Van Dyck, Brueghel, Holbein and Gainsborough. A two-hour free self-guided tour can be availed to familiarize oneself with Royal Residence. If you are intrigued by legends and folklore, you can roam around St. George’s Hall. It is believed that King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table once stood right in this place and went to battle after walking through this oak-built hall. St. George’s Chapel also houses 980 custom-made shields of the Garter Knights since the time it was erected. However, if you want to see the final resting place of Henry VIII, Jane Seymour and Charles I, you must visit the St. George’s Chapel located inside the castle. It is one of the finest examples of the gothic architecture and contains the tombs of 10 sovereigns.

Those who are visiting the castle with their families are in for a happy surprise as the most famous Dolls House, known as Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House is bound the catch fancy of your little angel. But if you venture the castle in the months from October through March, you get to visit the private apartments of George IV. But if you want to get a glimpse of the Home Park and the Rose Garden constructed for George IV, you must climb up to the East Terrace which is open to public in the months of August and September. Other highlights of the castle include the Drawing Gallery, the Great Kitchen, the Crimson Drawing Room, the State Dining Room and the Lantern Lobby which can be checked out when inside the castle.
Visit the castle for the sheer love of all things beautiful!

The Three T’s:

Timings: From 01/03/2011 - 31/10/2011, the castle can be visited from 9:45-16:00 (Monday-Sunday) whereas from 01/11/2011 - 28/02/2012, the timings are from 9:45-15:00 (Monday-Sunday). However, castle is closed on 22nd April, 12th-13th June and 25th-26th December.
The tickets are priced at £16.50 for adults, £43.50 for family (2 adults & 3 under 17s), £15.00 for seniors and students, £9.90 for under 17s and free entry for under 5s.
Tours:There are three kinds of tours which are can be taken advantage of- private evening tours, exhibition talk tour, and tour of Great Kitchen to State Apartments. These tours can only be availed by pre-booked groups, so make sure you book well in advance.

Chateau de Versailles, Île-de-France, France:

What is it about castles that they captivate anyone who so much as sees their pictures? Do they remind us of the adventurous tales that were narrated to us when we were young or does their appeal lie in the grandeur and extravagance of their architecture? Perhaps it’s a bit of both (and a lot more!) and that’s exactly what Chateau de Versailles is about. A UNESCO World Heritage Site for 30 years, this palace has captivated travellers from far and wide. Looking at its fine design and sheer size, it’s almost impossible to believe that the castle was once used only as a hunting site for Louis XIII. However, the credit for establishment of the castle as it presently stands is attributed to Louis XIV who transferred the Government to Versailles, thereby expanding this castle.

The palace arrests anyone who sets foot in this beautiful place but it’s the gardens, ponds and the fountains that truly take the breath away. The gardens lie west of the palace and cover an area of 800 hectares. There are around 2, 00,000 trees which finds a place in the garden and 2, 10,000 flowers which are planted annually. If you are an appreciator of art, you’ll find 6300 paintings, 2100 sculptures and 5000 decorative art objects suitable to your taste. Even though the essence of the castle cannot be captured, the expression of grandness certainly can. With 700 rooms, 2153 windows, 352 chimneys, 67 staircases, 15,000 engravings, magnificence has acquired a whole new meaning. Tourists visiting the Chateau can make the most of their castle trip by visiting the Palace, the Gardens, the Grand Trianon and the Marie-Antoinette’s Estate. The castle has been transformed into a Museum of History of France during the 19th century and offers a lot to those who frequent the Chateau only to get a glimpse into the French history.

If you are in the palace, you must visit the Hall of Mirrors, the King’s and Queen’s Grand Apartments, the Chapel and the Opera which will leave you awe-struck and will take your breath away. The best part about the Chateau de Versailles is that the Gardens match the palace in the grandeur and beauty and there is a lot to see when strolling down the Garden of Versailles – from the fountains, the Grand Canal, the Sculptures and Walks to the Groves, the Orangerie and the Water Parterres. Making generous use of pink marble, the Grand Trianon stands with utmost majesty in the castle complex and was Napoleon’s exquisite abode. Some of the attractions situated in the Trianon which mustn’t be missed out are the Empress’s Apartments, the Trianon Gardens and the Grand apartments. However, if Marie-Antoinette’s story is what captures your fancy, then appreciate her love for a simple life by visiting her Estate.
No visit to Versailles can be truly called complete without a trip to the palace and Chateau de Versailles is definitely one of the reasons when you think of castles, you think of Europe!

The Three T’s:
Timings: From April 1st-October 31st (high season), the opening timings for palace is 9:00am-6:30pm, Trianon Palaces and Marie-Antoinette's Estate is 12:00pm-6:30pm, the gardens is 8:00am-8:30pm. The Palace and the Trianon Palaces and Marie-Antoinette’s estate is open every day except Mondays while the gardens are open on all days during high season. From November 1st- March 31st (low season), the opening timings for palace are 9:00am-5:30pm, Trianon Palaces and Marie-Antoinette's Estate is 12:00pm-5:30pm, the gardens are 8:00am-6:00pm. The Palace, the Trianon Palaces and Marie-Antoinette’s estate and the Gardens are open on all days except Mondays.
Except the Gardens, everything else will remain closed on 1st January, 25th December and 1st May.
There are 3 kinds of tickets that can be purchased- the passport: €18, for the Palace: €15 and for Trianon Palaces and Marie-Antoinette's Estate: €10.
Tours: Guided tours for a group of 25 people maximum can be availed on booking and are priced at €365 whereas for school groups and disabled visitors are priced at €75 and €25.

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