Despite our wildest dreams, it’s safe to say none of us will be living in a medieval castle anytime soon. However, you can visit one.
Many of the world's greatest medieval castles open their doors to the public. Some of these spectacular structures are said to be haunted by the ghosts of their past owners. Others bear the battle scars of ancient war. A few are even inhabited by descendants of the original founding family. They all deserve a spot on your next globetrotting expedition. Here are eight of the best medieval castles to stop by on your next trip.
Hohensalzburg Castle, one of the largest in Europe, was first built by an Archbishop who staunchly apposed King Henry IV of the Germans—the king who would eventually be excommunicated a total of five times by three different popes. As such an outspoken dissident, the Archbishop wisely built his castle with strong military defenses in mind. But a strong castle does not mean an ugly one, despite many other examples.
The Hohensalzburg Castle became a tourist attraction as early as the 1890s, thanks to a newly opened railway station and its beautiful design. Thanks to its long history as a tourist attraction, Hohensalzburg Castle remains one of the best preserved medieval castles in the world.
Its attraction includes furniture, interior decorations, and instruments that originated as early as the 15th century. Most notable among these items is the Salzburg Bull, an early mechanical organ that remains in use today, over 600 years after its creation.
Visitors will also get to spend time in the Golden Hall, which connects state apartments on the third floor. Look up to see gold buttons adorning the ceiling, mimicking stars in the sky.
Eilean Donan is one of the most famous castles in Scotland. The picturesque castle sits on a small tidal island where Loch Duich, Loch Long and Loch Alsh meet in the Western Highlands of Scotland. It’s believed that a small monastery named for Donnan Eigg was established on the isle in the 6th or 7th century. The island still takes its name from Donnan Eigg, who was a Celtic saint.
The castle that stands today was built sometime in the 13th century, when it and the land surrounding belonged to the Mackenzies, a powerful family in the Western Highlands. Later, during the Jacobite rebellion, the original castle was destroyed. Luckily, a drawing of the castle had been made before its ruin, allowing its restoration in the early 20th century.
Along with the castle’s restoration, a footbridge to the island and a memorial to locals who died during the First World War was built. Eilean Donan was opened to the public in 1955, and became one of Scotland’s most popular attractions. Today, the castle is a national icon, often appearing on packaging for shortbread, whiskey, and other products.
Château de Chambord
The Château de Chambord arose at the very end of what we consider the medieval era. Thanks to its period-defying construction, the architecture is a blend of classic medieval forms and traditional French Renaissance structures. Construction started in 1519; the château was originally built to serve as a hunting lodge for King Francis I of France. From its very first years, the château remained largely neglected. This trend continued after the French Revolution, when its furnishings were sold off and many of the wood panelings in the building burnt by locals.
Restoration work was finally undertaken after World War II. Today, the château’s claim to fame are its beautiful buildings, lovely gardens, double helix staircase, and the elaborate decorations on its roof. Located two hours outside of Paris, the Château de Chambord is one of France’s most visited tourist sites.
For our next castle, we leave the European continent and travel to medieval Japan. Built in the early 1300s under the ruler Akamatsu Norimura, Himeji Castle is located on a hill towering over Himeji, Hyogo, Japan. It was under construction for nearly 300 years, and remained continuously in use until 1868. Originally merely a fort, by the time of Himeji Castle’s completion, it included 83 buildings, a highly advanced defense system, and three moats.
Abandoned in 1871, the castle nearly faced demolition. Luckily, it was instead bought by a local resident for 23 yen—the equivalent of about $2,000 today. Although the new owner wanted to tear down the castle and develop the land, it became clear that doing so would cost far more than it would make. And so, the building remains standing.
That is despite a number of rather extreme circumstances. Himeji saw extensive bombing during World War II, and its surrounding city was seriously damaged after a massive earthquake in 1995. In 1993, Himeji was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Often called the White Egret or White Heron Castle for its beautiful white exterior, the Himeji Castle remains one of the most striking sights in the world—especially after the restoration undergone in 2015 which restored its roofs to a pristine white.
Alcázar of Segovia
In a country filled with beautiful castles, the Alcázar of Segovia stands out thanks to its strange shape—it comes to a point like the bow of a ship. Initially built as a fortress, the Alcázar has since served as a royal palace, a state prison, a Royal Artillery College and a military academy. Strangely, no one knows exactly when the structure was first built: A reference to the Alcázar exists from 1120, but many believe that its first iteration was built before that time.
The word alcázar itself points to the castle’s origins. An alcázar is a Moorish castle, meaning a castle built in Spain or Portugal between the eighth and 15th centuries, during Muslim rule of the Iberian peninsula. Although built during as early as the eighth century, it was not fully developed until it became the favorite residence of Alfonso VIII in the late 12th century.
As new kings took to the Alcázar, they added new wings, resulting in an awe-inspiringly large castle today. Some claim that Disney took inspiration from the sprawling castle to create the iconic Cinderella Castle, but that honor is usually and more correctly given to Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle. Regardless, visitors have much to see and be inspired by, from the Hall of Kings to the art and stained glass windows.
Krak des Chevaliers
In Syria, you’ll find one of the most important and well-preserved medieval castles in the world. The Krak des Chevaliers’ history is intimately connected with that of the Crusades: It served as a fort to protect Tripoli, which was founded after the First Crusade. Over the next few centuries, Krak des Chevaliers served as a hospital, a garrison, and home to both conquerors and conquered.
Despite its tumultuous past, the castle’s eight-plus meter thick walls have never truly been breached. During its peak years from the 11th century to the end of the 13th century, it could house up to 2,000 knights at one time. Located in Tartus, Syria, the castle is now a recognized UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although nearby shelling during the Syrian Civil War led to fears that the castle would be severely damaged, the Krak remains open to the public.
Nestled comfortably between Koblenz and Trier in Germany is the striking Eltz Castle. This castle, unlike any on this list and many in the world, is still owned by a branch of the family that originally built it. In fact, the Count and Countess Eltz still live in one portion of the castle, 33 generations later, leaving the remaining two thirds open to the public. Construction on the castle began in the early ninth century, the height of elaborate castle construction. The castle features eight beautiful towers, adorned in red and white trim, arising from the surrounding forest.
Today, visitors have the opportunity to see the original furnishings, while experiencing the natural beauty around it. A number of oddities remain in the castle, including a Goddess of Hunting mechanical toy which was used as part of a drinking game in the 1600s. They knew how to party in ye olden days. Whether you visit to soak up the scenery or learn about Germany in the medieval ages, Eltz Castle is a must-see.
Widely known for its association with the British royal family, Windsor Castle was originally built in the 11th century after the Norman invasion of England by William the Conqueror. Henry I, son of William, was the first king to use Windsor as a residence—it has been in continuous use by the monarch since, making Windsor the longest occupied royal residency in Europe.
Upon visiting Windsor, you’ll find the glorious Crimson Drawing Room, St. George’s Chapel (resting place of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour), and one of the grandest collections of art in the country.
Related: London’s Ancient Outcast Graveyard
Despite many tumultuous years—the rise and fall of numerous dynasties, two world wars, a severe fire in 1992—Windsor retains its status as the most iconic medieval castle of England to this day.