“Once upon a time...” is really the only way to begin a fairy tale, and what better place to kick off the story than a beautiful castle — one with imposing walls, elaborate moats, and maybe even a princess at the top of a tower, looking far into the distance? Fortunately, castles exist not just in fairy tales, but also in the real world — and many incredible palaces are open to visitors today. Some served as military fortresses, constructed to withstand an enemy’s siege. Others were designed to flaunt a royal family’s wealth and power. And at least a handful were created simply at the whims of an eccentric king.
From England to Romania, and Australia to Syria, here are 16 of the most glorious castles around the world — the perfect places to start your own fairy tale adventure.
Windsor Castle, England
Windsor may be the best-known castle in the world for one reason: It’s an official residence of Elizabeth II, the Queen of England (and collector of fancy hats and Corgis). The largest and longest-occupied palace in Europe, Windsor was built by the modestly named William the Conqueror in the 11th century, after the Normans rolled in and invaded England. Successive royals built additions over the centuries (including a 15th-century Gothic chapel) and Windsor remains one of the most luxurious and regal residences on the planet. The castle is open to visitors year-round — changing of the guard takes place between 11 and 11:30 a.m.
Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany
Even if you’ve never been to Bavaria, this castle might look familiar. It’s possible you were royalty in a past life, but more likely, you’ve seen a Disney movie or visited one of the Disney theme parks. Walt Disney took one look at Neuschwanstein and made it the model for the Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland. The real deal is tucked near the Austrian border and was built by King Ludwig II as an homage to his friend, composer Richard Wagner. Its elaborate architecture is a Romanticist fantasy of turrets and grand rooms painted with fantastic murals. (Tragically, the king died under mysterious circumstances before seeing it completed.) Today, Neuschwanstein is one of Europe’s most popular tourist attractions, with almost 1.5 million visitors arriving each year for a 35-minute guided tour.
Citadel of Aleppo, Syria
Considered to be one the oldest and largest castles in the world, Aleppo’s medieval fortress stands on a hill that was used as a ceremonial site approximately 5,000 years ago. The fortifications protected nobility from crusader attacks during the 12th century, and the site evolved into a palatial city of elegant residences, hammams, military installations, and mosques. Though heavily damaged by attacks over the years (including during the current civil war), the mighty citadel continues to stand and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Kryal Castle, Australia
Castles aren’t typically associated with Australia — it’s a relatively new nation, after all. But in the foothills of Mount Warrenheip, outside of Ballarat, stands a fully fledged (albeit newly constructed) replica of a proper medieval fortress. Businessman Keith Ryal made a fortune in modern-day body armor (every castle needs a few suits of armor) and started construction on Kryal Castle in 1972. There’s a maze, a moat with drawbridge, archery lessons, jesters, and jousters. Wannabe royalty can even hold a wedding and spend the night in one of the Castle Suites. Looking for thrills and chills? Brave a visit to the Torture Museum and the Dungeon of Doom.
Fortress Hohensalzburg, Austria
With its dreamy Renaissance and Baroque architecture, meandering river, and stunning views of the snow-covered Alps, Salzburg would be a beautiful city — even without its crown jewel. But this castle looming over the skyline takes things over the top. Built in 1077 by Archbishop Gebhard, the compound is one of the best-preserved castles in central Europe. Visitors can access it via a scenic funicular cable car ride. Don’t miss the Golden Chamber, where the ceiling is adorned with an azure background and gold stars, simulating a twinkling night sky.
Palacio de Aguas Corrientes, Argentina
What would fairy tales be without splendid baths? In Buenos Aires, the “Palace of Running Waters” occupies an entire city block, a French Renaissance masterpiece boasting 300,000 colored terra cotta tiles and lushly landscaped gardens. Completed in 1894, its ornate façade is adorned with 14 coats of arms honoring the 14 (at the time) provinces of Argentina.
Bran Castle, Romania
This Transylvanian castle is thought to be the home of author Bram Stoker’s most famous fictional character, Count Dracula. (Stoker actually never knew of the castle, though his inspiration for the character, Vlad the Impaler, did live in nearby Wallachia.) The imposing stone structure was erected in the 14th century as protection for Transylvania’s German colonists and played an important military role in the Middle Ages. Today it’s a museum which you will definitely vant to put on your bucket list.
Doge Palace, Italy
Six hundred and seventy years before the internet was overrun with doge memes of a talking Shiba, this dreamy pink palace was constructed as the residence for the Doge, ruler of the Republic of Venice. Overlooking the city’s famed Grand Canal, the sprawling structure is a textbook example of Venetian Gothic architecture. Cross over the Bridge of Sighs and don’t miss the Chamber of the Great Council, which features the longest canvas painting in the world. Can’t get to Venice? The Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, the Montauk Club in Brooklyn, and the Davenport Hotel in Spokane have all borrowed many of the palace’s distinctive architectural elements.
Citadel of Qaitbay, Egypt
The Lighthouse of Alexandria — one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World — once stood on the eastern point of the Pharos Island in Alexandria’s harbor, before it was destroyed by multiple earthquakes. The Citadel of Qaitbay now stands on the same site, constructed in the 15th century by Circassian Mamluk Sultan Al-Ashraf Qaitbay to defend against Turkish invaders. After falling into disrepair, it was restored in the 20th century and is now a must-see maritime museum.
Matsue Castle, Japan
One of Japan’s great lake castles, Matsue is a prime example of Edo architecture and one of the few classic castles remaining in their original wooden structure. The national treasure has survived earthquakes, fires, and floods. Dating from 1611, the imposing fortress was built by Horio Yoshiharu, a feudal lord. A boat excursion around the moat is a great way for visitors today to take in the castle’s enduring grandeur, and the top story provides lovely views.
Hearst Castle, United States
Between 1919 and 1947, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst built a palace fit for American royalty. Overlooking California’s Central Coast in San Simeon, the twin-towered Gothic estate was named La Cuesta Encantada (“the enchanted hill”). Encompassing 90,000 square feet, the National Historic Landmark is now known by the name of its famous original owner. While the main building and the guesthouses are sublime, the real draws are the elaborately landscaped gardens and sumptuous, over-the-top Roman pool.
Castillo de Olvera, Spain
Presiding over a sea of sugar-cube white houses, the castle at Olvera, in Spain’s southern province of Cadiz, was built in the 12th century as a Moorish fortress to defend the Emirate of Granada. After its capture by Christian crusaders, the massive castle was rebuilt, but many elements of the original design remain. Since Olivera is a small and (relatively) untouristed town in Andalucia, you can explore inside its walls to your heart’s content — though you’ll want to be sure to step outside to savor the breathtaking views of the city below.
Château de Chillon, Switzerland
Occupying a small island on Lake Geneva, this beauty can be accessed by boat or footbridge, and offers postcard-perfect views of the Dents du Midi mountain range in its background. The most-visited historical site in Switzerland, the castle dates to at least 1150, although archaeologists found that Bronze Age peoples operated on the island much earlier. The impressive carved dungeons of Chillon were immortalized by the famed poet Lord Byron in his ode The Prisoner of Chillon.
Aït Benhaddou, Morocco
Technically, this UNESCO World Heritage site in the High Atlas mountain range of southern Morocco is a ksar (fortified village) — not a castle. However, the red clay towers and lush palms rising from the desert give it a dreamy, fairy tale quality that deserves it a spot on this list. Originally constructed on an ancient caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakech, today the ksar is a popular film set and has appeared in Laurence of Arabia, Gladiator, and, most recently, Game of Thrones.
Pena Palace, Portugal
An hour outside Lisbon, the Cultural Landscape of Sintra (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) comprises a number of castles and palaces, but Pena Palace is perhaps the most famous. Instantly recognizable by its colorful red and yellow towers overseeing the surrounding area and out to the sea, the palace is a popular cover photo for many guidebooks.
Construction began in the Middle Ages — a report that the Virgin Mary had appeared on the hill prompted the addition of a chapel. King Ferdinand purchased the monastery and surrounding holdings, and the castle as it appears today was completed in 1854. It’s a fantasy of graceful arches, intricate marble carvings, and dazzling tile mosaics, combining architectural elements from many styles. Don’t miss a walk around the walls to admire the lush gardens.
Château de Chenonceau, France
Versailles may be its best known, but la belle France has many other palaces that are straight out of a storybook. One of the prettiest is Chenonceau, in the heart of the Loire Valley. This 16th-century fantasy is built over the River Cher on the site of a former mill. Gleaming white turrets and towers house a truly spectacular collection of art, and the elaborately designed formal gardens outside are especially enchanting.