I just love exploring castles. Big ones, small ones, it doesn’t matter much–they all evoke fairy tales and historically inaccurate childhood dreams. The castles I like best all seem to be in Europe (heck yes I’ll take that challenge to see castles outside of Europe and revise this list). So in no apparent order, here are my five favorite castles and the reasons why I love them.
Kronborg, Helsingor, Denmark
This castle makes the list because it is the last one I went to and I had a unique experience there. Located just a quick hour train ride north of Copenhagen, this castle is the most famous in Denmark. Not because it is the most beautiful–we actually passed by a prettier castle on the way to Kronborg (Frederiksborg). Nope, this castle gets its allure because it is the castle Shakespeare wrote about when writing Hamlet. We visited in 2019 and happily stumbled upon ‘Hamlet Live.’ A cast of several characters from the play acted out various scenes from the tragedy. This means that while we wandered around Hamlet’s castle, Hamlet himself was wandering around. It was too cool.
The castle also had other interesting stuff to recommend it. I was able to download the castle’s podcast and use my AirPods to bluetooth a walking tour for B and me. Underneath the castle are creepy underground passages with mood lighting and a giant sculpture of a mythological Dane who will come to life if Denmark gets threatened. The gift shop is quite robust in all things Danish and Shakespearean. All in all, Kronborg easily makes my list of favorite castles.
Neuschwanstein, Hohenschwangau, Germany
This beauty makes this list because it is just that: beautiful. It is so pretty that B and I were at an airport once and saw a lady with a tattoo of it on her calf. Sure, she probably thought her tattoo was Disney’s Cinderella castle, but where do you think Walt got his template? Germany, that’s where. Neuschwanstein is located in Hohenschwangau (gesundheit), a three-hour train ride from Munich in Bavaria.
My favorite part of this castle (besides its looks) is the irony of it. To me, this castle is how every castle is supposed to look. But in reality, it isn’t that old (1880) and was designed by a king who was trying to recreate the glory of romantic knights and maidens. Questionable historic significance aside, Neuschwanstein is a real looker and deserves a spot amongst Europe’s elite castles.
Gravensteen, Ghent, Belgium
Gravensteen castle is probably not on the list of best castles in Europe for most people. But I really enjoyed my time there because of the castle’s mood. We visited in December, so the castle was darkish and drafty and really helped me visualize what it would be like to live in the Middle Ages. This castle is right in downtown Ghent, and has been there since the 1100s. On our tour we climbed up and down stairwells. We saw medieval torture devices from around the time the castle moonlighted as a prison. We saw a kitschy but fun rendition of what a 13th century banquet would look like.
Gravensteen has seen its ups and downs throughout history but is really living its best life now that it has been restored. It is rough around the edges and gritty, much like Ghent itself. If you are tired of stately and elegant castles, give ol’ Gravensteen a go. You won’t be disappointed!
Bran, Bran, Romania
The Bran castle is better known as the Dracula Castle. It doesn’t make a difference that Dracula (aka Vlad the Impaler) never lived there. Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, set his story in Transylvania and the Bran castle fits its description the best. For better or worse, Bran Castle has become Dracula’s hideout. I love that the locals have totally embraced this. If silly tourists (such as me) want to travel halfway across the world to see this place, then by golly, they will sell me a t-shirt with fangs on it.
Bran makes my list of favorite castles because I had to work so hard to get here. Once we made it to Bucharest (not a direct flight from Boise), B and I caught a three-hour train to nearby Brasov. We then haggled with a taxi driver and talked him into being our chauffeur for the day. As he spoke Romanian and we spoke English, this was a bit of a challenge. It all ended well, though and he drove us the 40 minutes to Bran. He then marched us up to the front of the line of tourists and cut in front of everyone to buy our tickets. All in all, it was a memorable experience to see this beautiful castle nestled in the Carpathian mountains.
Wernigerode, Wernigerode Castle
The second German castle makes this list, but this time it is in northern Germany. Kind of in the middle of nowhere, actually. The closest big city is about three hours by train from Leipzig. We happened to be spending Christmas in a tiny town not too far away, so it wasn’t that hard for us to get to. The reason this little castle makes my list is because it was so festive when we visited during Christmas. There was a Christmas market right in the middle of the courtyard! B and I walked through the castle and then ate some ham that had been roasted on a spit.
Wernigerode kind of looks like Neuschwanstein castle (what a compliment!), and it is perched on top of a little hill outside the town of Wernigerode. When we visited we got the feeling that most tourists who visit this place are from Germany, rather than international. You know you’ve stumbled upon gold when the locals want to see it!
This was a list of my five favorite castles in Europe. As you can tell, it isn’t really the castle itself that got them on my list, it is the experiences that I had while visiting. I fully expect this list to change and grow as I see more European gems. How about you? What are your favorite castles? I’d love to see them someday.