Everyone loves a good fairy tale: the action, the adventure, the princesses being rescued from their towers, and the princes and knights in shining armour battling wicked sorcerers, witches and dragons. Sadly (or thankfully, depending on how you look at it) they don’t exist in real life – but you can still visit these stunning castles around the world that have inspired generations of legends, myths and folklore.
Search for ‘fairytale castle’ and top on any list is Neuschwanstein, a 19th-century Romanesque-Revival castle in Germany. Commissioned by Ludwig II of Bavaria, the king wanted to replicate an authentic German knights’ castle from the Middle Ages – and as such, Neuschwanstein features tall thin turrets and a highly stylistic design that oozes romanticism. Adding to the enchanting landscape is the castle’s isolated location deep within the Bavarian Alps, as the surrounding hills turn from a verdant green in summer to a vivid red and gold in autumn and snowy white in winter. The castle’s ethereal beauty was such that it inspired the creation of Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle.
Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland
Sitting on a tiny islet where three sea lochs meet, Scotland’s Eilean Donan would not look out of place in a Game of Thrones episode or a fantasy film. Originally built in the 1200s, it was destroyed and rebuilt several times, into the version that visitors see today. While not entirely medieval-era accurate, the castle recreates notion of life in the Middle Ages, complete with a portcullis, coats of arms, imposing towers, a Banqueting Hall with an oak ceiling and a 15th-century style fireplace. To visit the castle is to be privy to the feudal past of Scotland, rife with clan wars, power struggles and a rich and colourful history.
Predjama Castle, Slovenia
The fictional stone city of Gondor as seen in Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King film has a real life counterpart – Predjama Castle in Slovenia. Built into the face of a 123-metre-high cliff, the 13th-century Gothic structure sits at the mouth of a cavern, with secret passageways that lead into the caves and out onto the top of the cliff. As a fortress, it boasted defensive structures such as holes in the ceiling for pouring pitch onto intruders and even a dungeon. The castle’s most enduring tale is that of Erazem, a Robin Hood-esque baron who was also famous for robbing from the rich to give to the poor. Legend has it that while being pursued by Austrian forces, he holed up in the castle and continued his robbing spree through a secret passage that led outside from behind the rock wall.
Himeji Castle, Japan
Castles are not exclusively European, and in Japan, there’s Himeji Castle. While it doesn’t have turrets, spires or rich and elaborately decorated chambers, Himeji has its own beauty, with curving roofs and whitewashed walls. It is also called the ‘White Heron’, owing to its brilliant white exterior that supposedly resembles a bird taking flight. Steeped in history and local folklore, the castle is the largest in Japan – with a network of 83 buildings – and is surrounded by moats and beautifully-landscaped gardens. One of the most popular legends, albeit a tragic one, is that of Okiku, a servant girl who was wrongfully accused of losing valuable dishes and thrown into a well. It is said that the well is haunted by her spirit, who counts the dishes at night in a morose tone.
Alcazar of Segovia, Spain
Another castle that inspired a Disney version, namely Cinderella’s Castle, the Alcazar of Segovia in Spain has ancient origins, with the site it was built on first housing a Roman fort over a thousand years ago. The castle’s most striking feature is its shape, which resembles a ship’s bow, and its strategic location on top of a hill meant that travelers and dignitaries to the castle would first see its imposing figure looming over them like a behemoth ship sailing on land. Boasting a blend of Moorish architecture, the square-shaped Tower of John II is another sight to behold.