Europe is dotted with castles—you can find them all across the continent. They’re in mountains, on beaches, and even in the middle of urban cities that have grown around these ancient fortresses. Some are in varying degrees of disrepair, but no less beautiful than the ones that have been well preserved.
Everyone’s favorite architectural style, though, is medieval. Think hulking Gothic cathedrals and imposing castle towers—this is the stuff fairytales were made of. For the Dark Ages, these architects and engineers knew what they were doing because some of those buildings still exist today, standing as tall and proud as they would have centuries ago. Here are 10 medieval European castles that merit a trip built around visiting them.
10 Bodiam Castle, England
Nestled in the quaint English countryside of East Sussex is Bodiam Castle. Known for its moat, Bodiam is a classic example of 14th-century English castle. It was built under the command of Richard II in 1385 as a defensive fortress during the Hundred Years’ War.
Although the exterior of the castle and its grounds are beautiful, the interior is virtually nonexistent, having suffered years of neglect, though visitors can enter the castle. Try going on one of the castle’s archaeology walks or archery demonstrations.
9 Bran Castle, Romania
Are you brave enough to visit the real-life lair of Dracula? High up in the mountains of Romania sits Bran Castle, more commonly known as Dracula’s Castle outside Romania. You won’t find any vampires here, though, because the bloodthirsty king that inspired the fictional Dracula was probably never here, and definitely did not live here.
Bran Castle did inspire the castle in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and its strategic position on the medieval border on the kingdoms of Transylvania and Wallachia could very well be where a centuries-old count would settle.
8 Eltz Castle, Germany
You've probably seen photos of Eltz Castle while scrolling through Pinterest boards tagged “wanderlust,” and it’s one of those places that seems to inspire everyone to pack their bags. Eltz Castle is one of those amazing German castles, and perhaps it inspired the Grimm fairytales.
The castle keep dates back as far as the 9th century, but most of the castle we see today was constructed in the 11th century. It was owned by the Eltz family in the 12th century, and their descendants still own the castle today.
7 Alhambra, Spain
Granada's Alhambra is truly one of the most spectacular structures in Spain if not all of Europe. The huge palace had humble beginnings in the 9th century on top of the remains of a Roman fort and didn’t grow to become the sprawling palace it is now until the 13th century when Moorish Muslims expanded it.
The castle’s long history is complicated, having changed hands from Muslim rulers to Christians after the Reconquista, but the palace is unique in that it has architectural styles from both religions in its walls.
6 Château de Pierrefonds, France
Most of France’s most famous châteaus, like Versailles and Chambord, are post-medieval structures, but travelers will have little difficulty in finding equally stunning castles from the Middle Ages.
Northeast of Paris, near Belgium, you’ll find Château de Pierrefonds, a late 14th-century military fortress built by Louis I de Valois. Although it looks more like a vacation home for medieval French royalty, it was an important fort during the Hundred Years’ War. Today, it’s in good condition, though it did undergo a massive renovation in the 19th century.
5 Bojnice Castle, Slovakia
For such a small country, Slovakia is packed with incredible castles spanning thousands of years. Bojnice, just one example of Slovakia’s beautiful castles, might just be its most romantic. Built in the 12th century, Bojnice Castle originally was built in a Gothic style, but has some Renaissance influences due to renovations in the 16th century.
It is one of Slovakia’s most popular tourist destinations and has served as the set for fantasy movies. But the best time to go is during the International Festival of Ghosts and Spirits, which the castle hosts annually.
4 Eilean Donan, Scotland
Almost everyone can recognize Eilean Donan, the iconic Scottish castle in the western Highlands. Famous for appearing in postcards, calendars, and even television and movies, Eilean Donan Castle has a rocky past.
Its earliest fortifications were built in the 13th century to protect the area against Norse invasions and served as a defensive structure for centuries after. However, the castle was effectively destroyed during the Jacobite rising of the 17th century and was only rebuilt in the 20th century. The castle was almost entirely rebuilt, though with close regard to the original structure.
3 Mont Saint-Michel, France
Some photos of Mont Saint-Michel make the island appear to be floating, and while the tiny commune is stunning, it doesn’t quite float. It is, however, anchored just off the coast of Normandy, rising up over the shallow sea like a castle on a cloud.
Mont Saint-Michel has been the site of the monastery of the same name since the 8th century, and its position on the tidal island was ideal—accessible at low tide and defensive at high tide, almost like a natural moat. Today, its 50 residents and thousands of tourists can reach it by bridge.
2 Edinburgh Castle, Scotland
Perhaps one of the world’s most famous castles, Edinburgh Castle is the reason we have Edinburgh city. Perched high above the city on Castle Rock, you can see the castle from almost anywhere below (though touring the castle is highly recommended).
Edinburgh Castle was built on an ancient site, with settlements beginning at least in the Iron Age. The huge, sprawling modern castle was begun in the 12th century, with extensions added on for centuries after. It is one of the most successful defensive structures ever built, having withstood 26 sieges over the years.
1 Fénis Castle, Italy
Italy's Fénis Castle is almost like a set from Game of Thrones brought to life. Its white stone exterior is an obvious contrast to the mountains in the Aosta Valley knoll where it was built, but during the 14th century, it dominated the surrounding area.
Like all medieval castles, the main purpose of Fénis Castle was as a military stronghold, and it began as a smaller fortress in the 13th century. What was then probably just a keep and defensive walls became a collection of towers only a hundred years later, with each generation that owned it adding more for several centuries.