10 World-Famous Castles With Fascinating Histories
Every castle has a story to tell, but some landmarks possess a more colourful past than others. Strange architecture, flamboyant owners and freaky legends—these infamous properties are truly one-of-a-kind.
The World’s Most Famous Castles
Bran, Transylvania, Romania
Along with Romania’s Hunyad Castle and Poenari Castle, Bran Castle is often associated with the fictional tale of Count Dracula. Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia—otherwise known as Vlad III Dracula, or Vlad the Impaler—is thought to be the real life inspiration for the titular monster in Bram Stoker’s best-selling 1897 novel, Dracula. Legend states that during his lifetime, the real Vlad III was imprisoned in Bran Castle briefly in 1462. Dracula fans flock to Bran Castle and other Romanian sites to walk in the fabled footsteps of the fictional Count as well as the notorious real-life Prince.
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Tower of London
One of England’s most famous castles, the notorious Tower of London boasts a chilling history of imprisonment, torture and death. In the 1070s, England’s new king William the Conqueror had a vision to create an imposing royal residence, fortress and prison on the north bank of the River Thames. The resulting Tower of London with its central White Tower, surrounding buildings and battlements struck fear and submission into the hearts of its citizens. Individuals deemed guilty of crimes—both real and imagined—were locked up and made to endure cruel punishment. Bloody executions by beheading and suspicious murders within its walls added to the Tower’s frightening reputation. By the 19th century, the Tower’s gruesome past was put to rest and the property opened to the curious public. The Tower of London, with its shocking history, royal connections and Crown Jewels, is now one of England’s most popular tourist attractions. It’s estimated that over two million people visit each year.
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Welcome to Europe’s best-preserved renaissance water castle. Built in the middle of a lake in 1554, the famous castle’s original purpose was to keep enemies at bay. With its surrounding moat, drawbridge and battlements, Egeskov Castle was a difficult fortress to crack. Secret staircases, scalding holes, artillery ports and arrow slits allowed the castle’s inhabitants to defend their property under cover. Today, Egeskov Castle is a peaceful destination. The grounds play host to mazes, extravagant gardens and a wealth of museums including collections devoted to vintage motorbikes and cars. And kids of all ages will fall in love with Titania’s Palace, arguably the most impressive dollhouse in the world. Handmade in Ireland, the intricate mini castle features 18 elaborate rooms filled with handcrafted mahogany furniture and 3,000 tiny works of art.
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Neuschwanstein Castle is a romantic escape straight out of a fairy tale. Impossibly picturesque, the castle was commissioned by Ludwig II, the King of Bavaria, as his personal retreat in 1869. Ludwig II was a shy yet eccentric constitutional monarch. Despite holding no real powers, Ludwig II clung to a romantic view of what a king should be. He fantasized about living as a recluse in a grand mountaintop palace surrounded by inspirational art and stunning architecture. As a result, Neuschwanstein Castle was born. In 1886, ‘The Fairy Tale King’ drowned mysteriously, but his famous castle lives on in the hearts of the millions of admirers who visit each year. One such fan, Walt Disney, was so enamoured with Neuschwanstein Castle that it’s believed that he modeled Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle on its magnificent design.
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San Simeon, California, USA
Looking out to the Pacific Ocean, Hearst Castle has a star-studded history. Built by publishing czar William Randolph Hearst and architect Julia Morgan, the immense grounds and castle took almost 30 years (1919 to 1947) to complete. Formally named ‘the Enchanted Hill,’ Hearst’s complex included 165 rooms, indoor and outdoor pools, an airstrip, a zoo, a movie theatre, and tennis courts. Home to a priceless collection of European art and antiques, Hearst’s grand masterpiece quickly became a magnet for the rich and famous. Invitations to stay at the castle were highly prized. Hollywood stars, world leaders and VIPs of the day including Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, Winston Churchill, Howard Hughes, and Amelia Earhart were among Hearst’s A-list visitors. Today, Hearst Castle is a State Historical Monument and is open for public tours.
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Perched precariously on a steep cliff overlooking the Black Sea, the Swallow’s Nest was commissioned in 1911 by German oil magnate, Baron von Steingel. Tiny and compact at only 20 metres long and 10 metres wide, the Swallow’s Nest was originally built as a token of love. According to local legend, a smitten von Steingel had the mini Neo-Gothic castle created for his rumoured mistress, a ballerina. More than a hundred years later, the ‘Castle of Love’ with its sweeping view of the sea, manages to fire the imagination.
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Famous castles are typically found atop mountains or beside lakes—it’s not often that you discover one tucked into the mouth of a cave. Predjama Castle in southwestern Slovenia offers such an incredible sight. For more than 700 years, a castle has been peering out from this tight, high cavern. The first fortress, partially hidden in the cave’s entrance, survived for several centuries until it was destroyed in a fierce battle. It’s not surprising that this prime piece of real estate with its nearly impenetrable cave didn’t remain undeveloped for long. The renaissance-style castle seen today was constructed in 1583. After centuries of conflict, Predjama Castle has a much calmer existence today as a tourist attraction.
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1000 Islands, New York, USA
Love and loss heavily influenced the creation of Boldt Castle. In 1900, George C. Boldt, the millionaire proprietor of Manhattan’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, hired more than 300 workers to build a six storey, 120-room castle on scenic Heart Island. Boldt wanted to showcase his love for his wife Louise with this extravagant, private residence built in her honour. Equipped with Italian gardens, a drawbridge, tunnels, numerous towers and a powerhouse, Boldt Castle mixed old world architecture with modern conveniences. But in 1904 before the castle was completed, Louise died suddenly. Bolt, overwhelmed by his loss, ordered all construction to cease. The millionaire never returned to his St. Lawrence River getaway and Boldt Castle was left unfinished and abandoned. In 1977, the Thousand Island Bridge Authority purchased the property, began an on-going restoration scheme and opened Heart Island to the public. Canadian and U.S. boat tours bring visitors to Heart Island and Boldt Castle from May through to October.
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Most famous castles boast impressive security features—think moats, drawbridges, lakeside locations. But here’s a medieval castle that took defence to a whole new level. Hochosterwitz Castle has the rare distinction that it was never invaded. The secret to its security success? In 1570, the steep pathway winding upwards to the castle’s entrance was fitted with 14 treacherous gates. Each elaborate gate presented a unique—and dangerous—obstacle to its intruders: drawbridges, concealed spikes, hidden archers, fire torch slots, even chutes that would spew boiling hot oil. Legend states that would-be invaders only got as far as gate four, and the massive castle was never compromised. Today, tourists are welcome to visit Hochosterwitz Castle during the summer months.
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Other famous castles may be more extravagant, or in better shape, but Urquhart Castle is notorious for its history and a particularly elusive neighbour. Built in the 13th century on the banks of Loch Ness, the highland castle spent 500 years deeply embroiled in several bloody battles. Up until the 17th century, Urquhart was a medieval stronghold. Its formidable tower, lakeside location and size—it was once one of Scotland’s largest castles—made it an appealing target for both English and Scottish forces. After centuries of turmoil, Urquhart was finally abandoned in 1692. Fearing that enemies would seize Urquhart, fleeing soldiers blew up part of the castle to render it uninhabitable. What remains today is a beautiful ruin with a picture postcard vantage point of Loch Ness and the mysterious sea monster that’s said to lurk beneath its dark waters.
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