Cool Castles—My 15 Favorite in Europe
By Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination & Europe River Cruise Expert
I have always been fascinated with the castles of Europe. Anne will tell you, we have gone to some unusual lengths to see some, as often they are in the more remote parts of Europe.
So, I thought you might enjoy hearing my thoughts and seeing 47 pictures about what I consider my 15 favorite castles of Europe.
Don’t expect any real rationale for my selections—I have organized them by regions of Europe; there is not one favorite castle over another; and my only rationale is that I liked them—something was cool in my mind.
So, let me defend my thoughts—I’ll tell you a little about them, maybe some history, but the real criteria is why they appeal to me.
Ready for my personal castle tour?—Let’s go!
4 Eastern Europe Castles
There are 2 Romanian Castles, 1 in Bulgaria, and 1 in Slovenia in the Eastern Europe region that rate as my favorites.
In Romania, Braun Castle guards the strategic pass between Transylvania and Wallachia and is renowned as home to Vlad the Impaler, or as most folks want to remember him, as Dracula’s castle. Most of this legend comes from the novel of Dracula, but the castle is supposed to belong to Vlad, although he perhaps spent 2 months at best here. Not really his castle, but it’s good enough for me—it is still a cool castle! We visited on a rainy day and after going in the strong castle doors, to get to the main floors, we had to go up the very tight, windy stairway that spiraled in a spooky fashion. The castle rooms look quite lived in, since they have been remodeled several times, but with passage ways and small connecting rooms, it is a fun visit.
The next castle is the magnificent Peles Castle, the aristocratic home of King Carol I. This Neo-Renaissance castle is stunning place to visit. Located in the Carpathian Mountains, near Sinaia, Romania, we toured it in 2014. It is more a palace than castle, since there are little or no defensive elements, but castles built in the late 1800’s had mostly stopped being stark defensive buildings. The rooms are eloquently decorated and it is huge (160 rooms). You can tour the first and second floors and there is a fee to take pictures. Peles reflects the contrasts of its first inhabitants--King Carol (military arts) and his extensive 4,000 weapon room displays and his wife Queen Elizabeth (arts and culture) with her ornate theater and music rooms. Anne fell in love with this castle/palace. The interesting rooms and gardens make this a fabulous place to visit.
Next is the lonely Danube castle of Baba Vida in Bulgaria. This castle is named after Vida, the daughter of a wealthy Bulgarian boyar. According to the legend, due to the unsuccessful marriages of her two sisters—Kula and Gamza, Vida rejected all proposals for marriage, built the castle and remained in it for the rest of her life as the protector of Vidin. Somehow, knowing the legend, and seeing this small but well-constructed castle, I could easily see it standing in defense of the invading Turks.
Last in this region is my favorite cliff-side castle, Bled Castle in Slovenia, the oldest castle in Slovenia. It is easily one of the most dramatic locations for a castle in the world—the sheer cliffs overlooking Lake Bled (130 meters above the water), in the Julian Alps region, offer an exceptional barrier to help defend this castle. It has a great entrance gate and drawbridge, two courtyards with spectacular views of Bled, the lake and the Julian Alps, a chapel, an interesting museum and a wine cellar.
5 German Castles
There are lot of choices in Germany, but these 5 are my favorites. 3 are stand-alone castles, but 2 just relate to each other and their close location make them a pair I can’t ignore. The stand-alone castles are Berg Eltz, Marksburg and Reichsburg. The two related castles are on the Rhine River Gorge—Burg Katz (cat) and Burg Maus (mouse).
Berg Eltz is a beautifully preserved castle, with towers, half-timbered walls, and it is seemingly in the middle of nowhere—Anne and I hiked in 3 miles from the Mosel River in early March one year to visit. The family who owns this castle still lives here, and has done so for 850 years in their ancestral home. There are 2 places to visit here—the Treasury (pictures allowed) with a great display of precious items and tour of select rooms (no pictures) which takes about an hour or less. 3 families owned this castle and each has built separate wings. The tour includes an entrance way decorated with weapons, various gathering rooms, bedrooms and the kitchen—all very authentic and used by the families for over 33 generations. Perhaps the most famous room of the castle, is the Knight’s room, where the 3 different families met to celebrate and work our any conflicts that might arise. It is famous for the wall decorations, which served as a reminder to the 3 families about cooperation—a jester mask (representing freedom of speech) and a large rose (representing a code of silence—items discussed in the room need to stay there).
Marksburg , overlooking the Rhine River, is a gleaming white castle that should be toured by visitors. Originally named Braubach Castle, after the town, the legend of the castle claims its name was changed to Marksburg following the saving of a beautiful maiden castle resident on her wedding day from the devil by her monk advisor, who had a vision from St. Mark that her intended was the devil. He touched the groom with the holy cross provided by St. Mark, and the ground swallowed up the devil. The grateful owners changed the name to Marksburg to honor the Saint who saved them.
But this is only part of why I like Marksburg. It is a wonderful look at what life was really like to live in a castle. The tour is very good, and you will see the strong defensive positions (military folks will especially appreciate the two well placed cannon batteries), rooms furnished as they were during medieval times, a great armory displaying uniforms of past warriors in mannequins and a medieval torture museum. It is the only castle on the Rhine never to be conquered and destroyed. We visited in 2013.
Reichsburg also deserves a tour. Standing on a hill 300 feet above the town of Cochem, this elaborately restored castle (it was destroyed by the French in 1689) is a fun and interesting visit. Many river cruise companies visit this castle. The original castle, whose first purpose like many others on the rivers of Germany was to collect tolls, was rebuilt from 1868 to 1890. While not authentic, it is still cool—great vistas, interesting rooms, perhaps most importantly, at first glance, it is an impressive structure and I enjoyed visiting it. My favorite rooms were the Dining Hall, the Knight’s Room and the Trophy Room.
The two Rhine River castles, Burg Katz and the smaller Burg Maus got their name from two feuding lords in the late 1300’s. Their different size and proximity makes them a special part of the lore of the over 40 castles in the Rhine River Gorge.
To understand the rivalry of these two castles, many of these castles were constructed on this stretch of the Rhine by competing factions trying to gain more wealth and power. Burg Katz, across the river from Rheinfels castle, was built by to support Rheinfels fortress, while Burg Maus was built by the Electorate of Trier (one of the 7 voters for the selection of the Holy Roman Emperor) near Katz castle to undermine its’ power by also collecting tolls from the river merchants.
Burg Katz was built in 1371 to collect tolls on the Rhine River. By 1770 it was in total decay. It has been restored and now is used for a holiday center for German financial authorities. Burg Katz is closed to the public.
Burg Maus (officially Thurnberg Castle) is much smaller than Burg Katz, but is higher on the hillside and looks like to me, taunting the larger Katz Castle to come and get me. Today it is used as a falcon training center and is open for visits.
Every time I look at these two castles, it is a visible reminder to me of the constant fight for power and wealth of medieval Europe along the Rhine River.
4 Great Britain Castles
I have 4 favorite castles in Great Britain. Perhaps this is the big boy section of castles in my blog—3 of these castles are very large and steeped with history. The other, in Wales, is part of a fortified town and the ruins just look like a castle should look. The big boys are Edinburgh Castle, The Tower of London, and Windsor Castle. The last is the Welsh castle of Conwy.
Edinburgh Castle is the birthplace of the city of Edinburgh about 1,300 years ago. It is part fort and part palace and dominates Edinburgh from its rocky base perch. It is a great place to tour, with the Scottish Crown Jewels on display, the Royal Palace, the Scottish National War Memorial, St. Margret’s Chapel and the National War Museum of Scotland. This is the living symbol of Scotland and is the most important place in Scotland and deserves a visit by all who come to Edinburgh for the first time.
The Tower of London is the most historic castle, palace and prison in England. Located on the Thames River, this 18-acre complex first started with the construction of the White Tower in 1087 by William I (you probably know him best as William the Conqueror from the battle of Hastings that resulted in Norman rule of Britain in 1066). Other famous sites include the Traitor’s Gate, the White Tower Museum, the Execution Site, the display of the Crown Jewels, and the Royal Chapel. Don’t miss a chance to talk with the Beefeaters (their proper title is the Yeoman Warders), who in principal are responsible for looking after any prisoners in the Tower and safeguarding the Crown Jewels, but in practice they act as tour guides and are an attraction themselves.
Windsor Castle is the official home of the Royal Family of England for over 900 years and is stilled used today by the royal family. This large castle complex is an easy day trip from London. Touring the state apartments is fascinating (usually there are 24 rooms on the tour)—the scale and beauty of these 24 rooms is indescribable (sadly no pictures are allowed)! The castle complex has 951 rooms, if you count stairways and corridors, of which 225 are bedrooms. St. George’s Hall is used for State Banquets and can seat 160 guests. Starting with the grand staircase and vestibule, with its excellent collection of armor and weapons, it seems each room get more grand and impressive. There are bedrooms, drawing rooms, dining rooms, and halls adorned with paintings, the finest of furniture and reminders of English power and wealth and victories against rival nations. It is almost overwhelming in its grandeur and beauty.
Conwy Castle, in Wales, was part of the 17 castles Edward I built to subdue Wales in the 13th century. It took 4 years to build (it was started in 1283), had a water gate for resupply to avoid hostile Welsh subjects, and has 8 towers that look just like the castle playing piece of a chess set. Built at the mouth of the Conwy River, on a solid rock foundation, it is one of the best preserved castles in Northern Wales.
2 Southern Europe Castles
I have 2 favorite castles in Southern Europe. One castle is in Spain, and it may be the ultimate hilltop fortress in the world. The other is also on a high ground but in the oldest republic in the world and very small.
In Spain, the mightiest and most interesting castle complex in all of Europe, in my opinion, is the Alhambra—part castle, and part palace set in a stunning high area that defies words. To me, this castle complex in Granada represents to struggle of the Spanish against the Moors—it was the last stronghold of the Moors, who surrendered in 1492. This symbol of the reunification of Spain and the subsequent changes the Spanish made in the Age of Exploration as it rose in power, make this a fascination look back at world history. If I had to pick one place to visit in Spain, it would be the Alhambra.
The defensive area, including the outer walls is known as the Alcazaba.
Inside the walls are the Nazaries Palace, the Moorish palace of outstanding beauty and the Spanish palace of Carlos the V (built after the surrender of the Moors). You can spend many hours touring here, but the Nazaries Palace complex requires special admission and a set time to visit (you might need to make reservations early to see this palace, especially during the summer months and you have a time limit to visit)—there always are lines to see perhaps the most beautify building palace in the world—the intricate geometric patterns and relaxing courtyards with their water features are unlike any other palace in the world!
In tiny micro-state of San Marino, the Cesta Tower, is located on the highest of Mount Titano’s summits (2,477 feet) and is really unique. You can hike up to this tower castle on a steep, winding stone pathway of steps, view the area from it lookouts and visit the Museum of Archaic Arms, which contains about 535 items, such as firearms, bows and arrows and armor in 4 different rooms. San Marino is an enclave—totally surrounded by Italy. It is a fantastic walled city has 3 forts/castles, but Cesta is my favorite of the 3 (you can only visit 2, Guaita Tower, the first fort and Cesta, the second fort). It is almost up in the clouds, looks like a castle/fort, small and has interesting weapons on display—how could I not like it?
My Final Thoughts
Wow—I hope you enjoyed this tour and pictures as much as I enjoyed writing it!
This is an amazing collection of castles but by no means the only one’s worth seeing in Europe. The hardest part of writing this was whittling down to a manageable number. Also, everyone has different tastes, so this may just be a starting place for your exploration. We would be proud to help you see any of these or other European castles.
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HANK is a certified Western European Destination Specialist (DS) who has been traveling to Europe for 48 years. He is also an Accredited Cruise Counselor (ACC), conferred by the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA). This recognized expert in cruise and leisure travel is a retired Army Officer, and taught World Geography for 8 years. He is a `71 graduate of West Point and has earned 2 master’s degrees. His other Certifications:
AmaWaterways River Cruise Specialist
Viking River Cruise Specialist
Scenic River Cruise Specialist
Emerald Waterways Specialist
Avalon Waterways Specialist