1. Neuschwanstein, Germany
Commissioned by ‘Mad King Ludwig’ in the 19th century, it is widely accepted to have inspired Disneyland’s famous fairytale castle. Ludwig was a colourful character. Also known as ‘the Swan King’, his ultimate fantasy castle Neuschwanstein (which means ‘new swan stone’) is crammed with swan motifs and icons. As a boy, he had grown up in a castle known as ‘high region of the swan’, situated next to Swan Lake, so his obsession with the regal bird is hardly surprising (if not all together sane).
Neuschwanstein became inexorably entangled with the mad king’s fate. The sprawling Romanesque Revival palace was intended as a refuge for the reclusive king, but opened to a steady flow of tourists following his death in 1886. (More than 1.3m people now visit annually.)
The fantastical design was meant as a reflection of the musical mythology of Richard Wagner, with whose operas Ludwig was disproportionately enamoured. Though Ludwig wrote to Wagner in 1868 that the castle was “a worthy temple for the divine friend who has brought salvation and true blessing to the world”, the composer died before ever setting foot in it. Wagner’s death greatly affected Ludwig, who had enjoyed a series of close relationships with men after he called off his one and only engagement in 1867.
In the end, the Swan King only lived in the castle for 172 days, before he died in mysterious circumstances soon after being declared mad. (A strong swimmer, he appeared to have drowned in waist-deep water.) Neuschwanstein is impressive enough without having such dramatic legend woven into its walls, but the history enriches a visit here. Walk or take a horse and cart up the winding entrance road that climbs to the castle, and be sure to admire the surrounding Alpine valleys as well as the opulent building itself.
2. Bran Castle, Romania
This famous fortress in Transylvania is renowned for its supposed former owner, lending it the nickname ‘Dracula’s Castle’.
Connections between the vampire of Bram Stoker’s story and Romanian ruler Vlad The Impaler appear to be mostly founded in the cool-sounding name (Dracula means son of Dracul, Vlad’s dad was known as Vlad II Dracul), as opposed to any blood drinking or bat action, however. Bummer.
3. Pena Palace, Portugal
Probably Europe’s most colourful castle, this Romantacist palace sits atop a hill above the town of Sintra. Painted a jovial yellow and red, it was completed in 1854 after 12 years of construction. It’s now a national monument after being bought up by the Portuguese state; the last queen of Portugal, Amelia, spent her final night here before being exiled in 1910.
4. Crac des Chevaliers, Syria
Though we wouldn’t recommend a holiday to Syria any day soon, the country is home to what Lawrence of Arabia hailed as “perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world”. Indeed, this Crusader castle is one of the best-kept medieval fortresses on Earth. First settled by Kurds in the 11th century, it was later handed to the Knights Hospitaller, a military order charged with the defence of the Holy Land. It sits at the crest of a 650ft hill.
5. Predjama Castle, Slovenia
Props go to Predjama Castle for being built in a cave mouth. How’d they manage that? The Gothic-style fortifications were built under a natural rocky arch, situated 100m up a cliff face to make attacks that bit more difficult. Nowadays, you can explore the cave below the castle and even Ezram’s Passage, a 37m-long secret shaft that allowed supplies to come through in times of siege. To access it, you’ll need decent climbing skills and equipment.