Who doesn’t love castles? While you may think all of the best ones are in Europe, we have some surprises for you – the best castles in the world really are scattered all over the globe, reflecting a wide array of aesthetics and historical origins. If you’re a lover of architecture and culture, then settle in for a surprising diversity of castles; these really do tower about the rest.
1: Edinburgh Castle (Edinburgh, Scotland)
We profiled the history-heavy Edinburgh Castle a while back and there’s good reason why it’s one of our picks for best castles in the world: poets wax eloquent about war bands gathering at its heart before sailing into battle; medieval bards tell of the bloody revolt of the Scots reclaiming the fortress in 1314, led by Robert the Bruce; kings and queens took up residence in its expansive halls; sieges ensued outside its impenetrable walls; and royal jewels were hidden in its recesses. If all that wasn’t enough, it now offers high tea and lively concerts. It’s a far cry from the war-mongering of yesteryear, but we’re loving the new chapter.
2: Neuschwanstein Castle (Hohenschwangau, Germany)
We had to include this one in our list of the best castles in the world. There’s hardly a discussion on castles anywhere that doesn’t include a mention of Neuschwanstein (which translates to “New Swan Stone,” by the way, an allusion to German composer Wilhelm Wagner’s operatic character, the Swan Knight). The interesting thing about Neuschwanstein is that it isn’t nearly as old as most battered fortresses; construction began in 1868 at the order of then-King Ludwig II and was completed in 1872. While this opulent retreat in the mountains is its own architectural wonder, what we love most about it is its homage to medieval art, literature, and culture. Ludwig was in love with the Middle Ages (and the century immediately after), fitting early-Renaissance religious and political art throughout the palatial estate. Curiously, however, the castle juxtaposed this artwork with modern technologies, including central air, telephones, and an electric bell system.
3: Mont-Saint-Michel (Normandy, France)
Jutting out into the sea from the north of France, Mont-Saint-Michel is a treasure of Europe – and not just because of its imposing presence above the sandy beaches. It’s actually its own tidal island, serving as a pivotal military and religious outpost throughout the centuries. Development dates back to 460 CE when the first community on the island was founded by an Irish hermit. It wasn’t until the 8th century, however, that it became known as Mont-Saint-Michel, owing to a vision the Bishop of Avranches had from the Archangel Michael, instructing him to build a church on the island. Over subsequent centuries, repeated attacks and sieges forced the Mont-Saint-Michel community to shore up their defenses, resulting in the concentrically ringed walls now seen on the island. Later embellishments, notably those in the 11th century, produced the iconically towered Romanesque abbey that we all know and love. So, Mont-Saint-Michel is not actually a castle – but it sure looks like one.
4: Swallow’s Nest (Gaspra, Ukraine)
Another quirky modern construction, Swallow’s Nest – which butts out over the Black Sea in Ukraine – was built in 1911 with a neo-Gothic aesthetic. Interestingly, it was commissioned by an oil-rich Baltic German named Baron von Steingel whose vision for the edifice more closely aligned with Germany fairytale castles than anything native to Ukraine. Surprisingly small, the castle is only 66 feet long and 33 feet wide – but mighty resilient. It endured the Russian Revolution of 1917 (which had ripple effects in Ukraine) and a seven-point earthquake that split the cliff on which it sits. None of this kept locals from using the building, first as a restaurant and then as a reading club hub. Fortunately, restoration work began in 1968 and has been ongoing since, preserving the structure well enough to keep a restaurant operating within.
5: Gillette Castle (Connecticut, United States)
Seldom do people think of America and envision castles. But that hasn’t stopped some more eccentric (and wealthy) citizens from building their own – like Gillette Castle, for instance. The brainchild of actor William Gillette (famed for playing Sherlock Holmes), Gillette Castle was built between 1914 and 1919 on a 184-acre plot in Lyme, Connecticut. With 24 rooms and a three-story tower, there was really more room than the singleton Gillette really needed, and yet, he made a point to give every corner of the castle a quirky purpose. He installed steampunk-styled doors and door locks; anchored couches and tables on tracks; a series of mirrors that allowed Gillette to see visitors in the great hall from his bedroom; and secret doors and passageways. No sieges or battles here – just the creative quirkiness of a wealthy actor. Following Gillette’s death, the castle and surrounding property were converted to a state park which now features hiking trails, picnic areas, and a museum – in addition to the castle, of course. It’s this unusual history that landed Gillette on our list of the best castles in the world.
6: Potala Palace (Lhasa, Tibet)
Again – not quite a castle, we included it because of its impressive statues and use, at some points in history, as a Tibetan defense. For some 300 years, the Potala Palace served as the winter retreat for Dalai Lamas after the fifth Dalai Lama began its construction in 1645. Set on a steep slope, the structure is both massive and architecturally impressive. The building measures 1,300 feet across, includes 13 stories, and is made of walls as much as 16 feet thick. As you can imagine, it took a while to get all this in place; while Dalai Lamas were able to live in the palace before its completion, the building was not finished until 1690. Equally as impressive as the structure itself is the history of it; housing 100,000 sacred manuscripts and countless invaluable paintings, sculptures, and trinkets, the Potala Palace was its own veritable museum. Unfortunately, the history wrapped up in these pieces was threatened during the Tibetan uprising in 1959, which ended in shelling from the Chinese and led to looting. While restoration efforts began decades later, the government has nonetheless restricted the number of visitors who can see the palace in an effort to reduce wear and tear.
7: Matsumoto Castle (Matsumoto, Japan)
Otherwise known as the “Crow Castle” due to its black exterior, Matsumoto Castle in central Japan is a 16th-century marvel, in part because its original wooden exterior has been preserved. Like several castles on our list, Matsumoto Castle was embellished over centuries; it began as a fort in 1504, but was greatly expanded by 1590, when a moat, gatehouses, three towers, several baileys, and subfloors were all added. Ownership of the castle changed hands a bit following power shifts in Japan, but the property was eventually sold at auction in 1872. It wasn’t long before it was destined for demolition but a few concerned citizens stepped in to save and restore the castle, appealing to the public for financial help. By the mid-1900s, restoration efforts were in full force and continue today, ensuring that earthquake and other natural damage does not cripple the structure.