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European Castles and Palaces

A turreted castle on a craggy cliff, an elegant palace amidst dazzling gardens—these are some of the images most symbolic of Europe’s heritage.

Originally built to protect and defend, later to impress with a show of wealth, castles and palaces today can be enchanting ruins, magnificent museums, or fabulous hotels where you can imagine what it might have been like to live as royalty.

Europe’s oldest palaces are Roman villas. Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily (Italy), is a 4th century B.C. villa decorated with splendid mosaics of hunting scenes, luscious fruits, geometric patterns—and female gymnasts wearing what may be Europe’s earliest bikini! Diocletian’s Palace in Split (Croatia) was built for the emperor’s retirement; Diocletian may have stopped working, but parts of the palace are still going strong today, part of the city’s current architecture.

Classic Castles and Palaces

Germany’s Castle Route, for cyclists and motorists alike, includes over 70 medieval, baroque, and rococo castles and palaces. Historic pageants bring the drama of past eras to life at many sites. Mad King Ludwig was definitely mad for building; his best known project is Neuschwanstein, which inspired Disney’s Magic Kingdom castle.

You can’t travel far in Austria before finding a fairytale castle or spectacular palace, for instance Salzburg’s Hellbrunn Palace with its trick fountains. Vienna’s Schonbrunn Palace, the Hapsburg summer residence, is a stellar example of Baroque architecture. The Venus Trail links castles and medieval towns in Slovenia, Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic.

Castles in Germany

The châteaux of France are world-renowned. Versailles, Louis XIV’s magnificent palace and park, are mind-boggling. The Loire Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is awash in beautiful castles and fascinating history; you can see Leonardo da Vinci’s tomb at Château d’Amboise. The very name Château de Chambord evokes such prestige that its frequent use as a brand name has inspired a temporary exhibit of these items, from coffee pots to curtain rods and belts to boats!

Spain’s treasury of castles harkens to the struggle between Moors and Christians vying to control the rich Iberian Peninsula. 10,000 castles once dotted the landscape; today, thousands still stand, reflecting the contributions of many civilizations to Spanish culture. Palaces range from the Alcázar of Seville, the oldest royal palace in Europe still in use, to Philip II's austere El Escorial and Phillip V's baroque Palacio Real in Madrid.

The castles and palaces of Portugal are magnificent and many. The Border Castles, some as much as 1,000 years old, were largely built as part of Portugal’s dire need over many centuries to defend its territory. Most are classified as national monuments. The Sintra Palaces include the 14th century Palcaio de Sintra, the Portuguese monarchy’s summer residence for centuries. The most romantic palace in all of Portugal, Palácio da Pena, is also in the Sintra region, and is an absolute must-see!

Castles in Every Direction

Hungary has almost 1,000 castles and palaces! After the 13th century Tatar invasions, a massive building program was launched to fortify the country. Almost all of the castles still standing or reconstructed date from that period, including the Royal Palace in Budapest. The Rundale Palace in Latvia, masterpiece of celebrated Italian architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, is known for its opulence and grandeur, and is often compared to its famous sister, the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The astonishing Bled Castle, standing on a rocky edge above Bled Lake is one of Slovenia’s oldest medieval fortresses. Visit Škofja Loka Castle, Renaissance Dobrovo Castle, Brdo Castle, and Grad Castle, one of the largest castles in the country.

In Istanbul (Turkey) revel in the gorgeous tiles of the harem and the fantastically jeweled ornaments and weapons at Topkapi Palace; the crystal staircase and delicate mosaics of the Ottoman Dolmahbaçe Palace will astonish you.

Cyprus houses the Folk Art and the National Struggle Museums in the 19th century Archbishop’s Palace. The crusading Knights of Satin John of Jerusalem held Kolossi Medieval Castle in the 13th century—except for the few years that the Knights Templar held sway!

In Greece visit ancient acropolises and medieval castles, such as hilltop Byzantine fortresses at Platamon and Trikala. The Franks constructed strongholds in the Peloponnese; the Knights Hospitalier built the famous Palace of the Grand Master in medieval Rhodes, and imposing Venetian strongholds still stand in Crete, Corfu, and Nafplion. The 19th century Achilleion Palace in Corfu incarnates the Hapsburg’s passion for Greek mythology.

Castles and palaces blanket the United Kingdom, some in romantic ruins and others in stately condition. The English Heritage interactive map locates them and lists heritage events to enrich your visit. The Wales castle itinerary includes 9 different fortifications in the mountains and along the beautiful Welsh coast. The lush setting of castles in Ireland make a fine backdrop for the dramatic history of warring clans, sieges, and uprisings still remembered today.

Fancy sleeping under a once-royal roof? Consult Historic Hotels of Europe for listings of castles and palaces that are now unique hotels honoring Europe’s heritage.