The world’s most beautiful fairytale castles

Exploring breathtaking palaces and fortresses from a bygone world

by Dolores O'Donoghue
Words Dolores O’Donoghue

Folklore and fairy-tales allow us to explore to the furthest reaches of our imaginations with some of the most romantic and delightful stories ever told. However, at the core of these wonderful stories there is always a touch of reality, whether it is in the moral of the story or the trials and triumphs of the characters or the majestic castles with dreamy towers, lofty spires and high walls.

Throughout the Middle Ages, European nobility constructed enormous, ostentatious fortified structures all over the continent. For approximately 900 years, the rich and paranoid built castles as places to provide them with protection, as homes for high living and as a base to raid their neighbours. Travel back in time and discover some of these unique and magnificent castles with wonderful stories about their kings, queens, wars and nations.

Eltz Castle

Wierschem, Germany

Tucked into the hills above the Moselle River, Eltz Castle is one of the most romantic medieval castles in Germany. It was built to protect trade routes in the twelfth century. It was originally split into three parts and occupied by three branches of the same family. In 1815 the whole castle came into the possession of one branch of the family, whose descendants still live in private quarters within the castle; other sections are open to the public.

The current owner is Dr Karl Graf zu Eltz, whose family has owned the castle for over eight and a half centuries. Noted for its treasury of money, the castle is awash with gold, silver and porcelain artefacts fit for nobility. From1965 to 1992, an engraving of Eltz Castle was used on the German 500 Deutschmark note.

Pena Palace

Sintra, Portugal

The palace started as a pilgrimage site in the Middle Ages when a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Pena was built. In 1503, King Manuel I constructed a monastery on the site; it was donated to the Order of Saint Jerome. The monastery fell into ruin following the earthquake of 1755.

The present-day palace was commissioned in 1838 by King Consort Ferdinand II, who set about restoring the ruins and converting it into a new summer residence for the royal family. A German amateur architect named Von Eschwege created a fascinating mixture of revival styles, with neo-Manueline, Oriental, Renaissance and even Egyptian motifs.

The last queen of Portugal, Queen Amélia, spent her last night at the palace before leaving the country in exile. In 1910 it became a national museum.

Le Mont Saint-Michel

Normandy, France

Not actually a castle, but nonetheless a location where romance and magic abound. An enchanting island topped by a gravity-defying medieval monastery, Le Mont-Saint-Michel has been a pilgrimage destination for centuries. The iconic abbey is also the starting point for the Mont Saint-Michel Way route on the Camino de Santiago. The original site was founded by an Irish hermit, but it was in the eighth century that the gothic-style Benedictine abbey was built. During the Reformation the abbey was closed and converted into a prison, and all religious practices were banned. Influential figures, including Victor Hugo, launched a campaign to restore what was seen as a national architectural treasure. The prison was closed in 1863 and the mount declared a historic monument in 1874. In 1966, friars and sisters from Les Fraternités Monastiques de Jérusalem moved back to the island. Approximately 2.5 million people visit annually.

Bojnice Castle

Bojnice, Slovakia

Bojnice Castle dates back to 1113. The original fortress was wooden with thick walls and a moat, but it was gradually rebuilt in stone. In the fifteenth century it was owned by King Matthias Corvinus; in the sixteenth century it be-came the seat of local nobility and underwent major reconstruction to become a Renaissance castle.

It then came into the ownership of the Pálffys, a Hungarian noble family. Count Ján Pálffy (1829–1908), the last noble owner of the castle, renovated it in the style of the French castles of the Loire valley. After his death, his heirs sold it to Czech entrepreneur Jan Antonín Baťa, but shortly afterwards it was confiscated by the Czechoslovak government. BojniceCastle is now part of the Slovak National Museum.

Hohenwerfen Castle

Werfen, Austria

Surrounded by the Berchtesgaden Alps, Hohenwerfen Castle sits atop a limestone rock more than 2,000 feet above sea level. 

It was built as a fortress in 1077 by Archbishop Gebhard of Salzburg, and over the years it has been extensively developed. It was only in the fifteenth century that Hohenwerfen reached its current scale.

In the early 1500s rioting miners and farmers, dissatisfied with social conditions, approached Salzburg. Hohenwerfen stood between them and the city, so they burned most of the castle to the ground. Those who rioted were forced to help rebuild it in the 1560s. It was later used as a prison, and as a military fortress during the Nazi era.

Currently, the castle functions as a museum. It has featured in many movies, including The Sound of Music, where it can be seen in the background of the ‘Do-Re-Mi’ picnic scene.

Bran Castle

Brașov, Romania

It is best known as ‘Dracula’s Castle’, even though Vlad Tepes, the putative inspiration for Dracula, never lived there. The castle still attracts many literature fans and curious visitors from all over the world.

First used in 1378 in defence against the Ottoman Empire, it later became a customs post on the mountain pass between Transylvania and Wallachia.

In 1920, the castle became a royal residence and was the favourite retreat of Queen Marie, who ordered extensive renovations. It was inherited by her daughter, Princess Ileana, who ran a hospital there during World War II, but it was later seized by the communist regime, which expelled the royal family in 1948.

In 2005, the Romanian government passed a law allowing restitution claims on properties illegally expropriated, and ownership was passed to Dominic von Habsburg, the son of Princess Ileana.

Loreto Island

Lake Iseo, Province of Brescia, Italy

The decadent castle island of Loreto, seemingly floating in Lombardy’s Lake Iseo, had humble beginnings. It started in the fifth century as a monastery and at the end of the fifteenth century a cloister was built for the Sisters of Santa Chiara (Order of Poor Clares), a monastic religious order for women in the Franciscan tradition. The Order left the island in 1580.

Loreto island changed owners several times, but then in 1900 it was purchased by a Royal Navy captain, Vincenzo Richeri. In 1910 he built a neo-gothic castle on the island, around which he created a garden full of conifers, a small port and two light towers. It is now privately owned and cannot be visited – just admired from the water.

Alcázar of Segovia

Segovia, Spain

The alcázar was originally built as a fortress during the Roman era but has served as a royal palace, a state prison and a military academy. It is now a breathtaking museum. 

Around 1120, Alfonso VIII and his wife, Eleanor of England, made this alcázar their principal residence, and much work was carried out to erect the stone fortification that we see today. It was the location for the crowning of Queen Isabella I in 1474.

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