Around the world, castles tower and loom over small villages and vibrant cities as beacons of history. Whether they are in ruin or full of baroque splendor, every one of them is full of secrets and twisty turns that make them a must on any traveler’s list. Here are my picks for the best castles out there! Consider this the senior superlatives of the travel world!
Best Secret Passage: Castel Sant Angelo in Rome
Ahhh, Roma! So much to do and so much to see! And smack dab in the middle of all of it is the Castel Sant Angelo. At first glance, this squat and round building doesn’t really give off the castle vibes that we have come to expect. Don’t let that fool you! Inside is an amazing spiral of centuries of history. The structure started as Hadrian’s Tomb and morphed into the setting for the Roman soap opera starring that crazy family, The Borgias.
Scandal, corruption and gluttony followed this family everywhere and things became so bad that a secret, elevated passage was installed between The Vatican and the Castel just in case things got a little sketchy. The Pasetto still exists and you can take the tour!
Best Climb To The Top: Odowara Castle in Japan
When our family first moved to Japan for our tour of duty, one of the very first recommendations we got was to go see Odowara Castle. Located outside the greater Tokyo area, Odowara takes on a less touristy feel. Created during the epic Shogun years, the castle serves as one of the premiere museums focused on the Feudal Shogun System. You will get your fill of everything that goes along with the age of the samurai.
As you enter the gates at the bottom, there is so much to explore that you won’t even realize that you are in for quite the uphill climb. The entire property is filled with plenty of displays and distractions that you won’t even feel the climb to the top. And what a payoff! The view from the top of the castle gives you such a view of modern Odowara and a chance for a close up view of the architecture that makes this style so very unique to the land of the rising sun.
Best Shiniest Castle: The Grand Palace in Thailand
The Thai aesthetic is so unique. It invokes such a sense of grandeur and yet ensures you understand that a greater spirit is at work. The epicenter of this ying yang style is most definitely Bangkok. Site after site allows you to find more and more balance in this chaotic city and The Grand Palace is certainly part of that journey. With roofs slathered in shining gold, the entire complex is a narrative of how this royal family balances their power with their people. Don’t miss the elephant platforms that explain how royalty used the gentle giants as transportation.
Best Comeback Story: Malbork Castle in Poland
Tucked neatly into the country just below stunning Gdansk, is this amazing castle that has seen its share of ups and downs. Malbork was just a wooden outpost until the Teutonic Knights got a hold of it and turned it into the brick wonder it is now. Don’t get me wrong. The polish and the Teutonics went back and forth for years, then the Swedes invaded, the Ottomans got in the mix. The country was literally fractioned off for a while and yet, Malbork made it through. Enter Hitler. This castle has changed hands more times than I can count.
So what happens when you visit today? In true Polish fashion, like a phoenix rising out of the literal ashes, Malbork delights. With plenty of architecture, history, mini museums, historical reenactments and more, Malbork is a feast for the traveler. Speaking of feasts, don’t miss The Gothic. This amazing restaurant in the literal basement is out of this world! The menu is based on what would have been available during medieval times and the chef is brilliant.
Best Festival: Edinburgh Castle in Scotland
If you are looking for a party, book your flight to Edinburgh. This seat of Scottish royalty rolls out the red carpet every August for the annual Military Tattoo. Full of pageantry and tradition, the 70 year old tradition celebrates the military and invites commands from all over the world (particularly the Commonwealth) to entertain about 8,800 attendees each night in August. The Tattoo is just one of the festivals that this city hosts so if you don’t make it for this one, never fear, another great experience is right around the corner! When touring the big castle, don’t miss the one o’clock gun salute and the story behind it.
Best Wingman: Stirling Castle in Scotland
Nestled smack dab in the middle of Glasgow and Edinburgh is the small college town of Stirling. Here, tons of Scottish history played out with names like Mary, Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie. While Glasgow and especially Edinburgh give quite the show, steady Stirling has so much to offer. Look for storytellers, music and plenty for the kids to see and do. Lastly, be sure to gaze over your shoulder and see the William Wallace Monument in the distance. Don’t miss the unicorn motif throughout the castle and be on alert for one of the many spirits in residence like The White Lady and The Highlander.
Best Legend: Blarney Castle in Ireland
So, will you do it? Will you kiss the Blarney Stone? More importantly, do you even know WHY you’re kissing the Blarney Stone? In true Irish style, there’s a story! Basically, Cormac McCarthy did not really agree with the terms set forth by the British Crown. He stalled the negotiations with flattering letter after flattering letter and finally the crown exclaimed in frustration that he was full of Blarney! McCarthy, of course credited his flattery skills to kissing the stone. That detail has people climbing to the top of the keep to dip down and kiss the stone to this very day. Today’s Blarney grounds are full of all kinds of fascinating moments. From a Gypsy caravan to a lovely waterfall, Blarney isn’t just full of blarney! Don’t miss the poison gardens on the property. Explore how certain plants were not so medicinal when used by medieval ne’er do wells!
Best Way To Get Lost: The Palace of Knossos in Crete
Waaay back in the times of myth writing, a famous story was crafted. Icarus and his son Daedalus found themselves imprisoned in the great labyrinth. I’ll leave why they wound up there for another time but suffice it to say somebody royal was mad. Icarus was a smarty pants and he spent his time trying to figure how to get out of the never ending maze. Finally, he fashioned wings out of feathers and wax for himself and his son.
They did indeed escape their prison but Daedalus did not heed his father’s advice “don’t fly too close to the sun for the wax will melt and don’t fly too close to the sea for your feather will get wet.” Daedalus plunged into the sea and his father lamented his death. So, why in the world is this myth so important?
Because it all happened right here! You are standing right in the middle of the Palace of the great Minoans which is also that labyrinth that plagued Icarus all those years ago. While the great palace is basically all ruins the visit is well worth your time to learn about how the Minoans influenced so much of this part of the world. You can’t get lost in the labyrinth or face the feared Minotaur but you will enjoy the visit and local town Heraklion.
Best Use of Beer Profits: Ashford Castle in Ireland
If you are looking for super fancy digs, Ashford Castle is just the ticket. Bought by the Guiness family and eventually turned into a five star swanky hotel, you literally can’t get on the grounds without a reservation for an activity. So, what’s the draw? Birds. Ireland’s National School of Falconry provides one of the most unique experiences to participants as guides take you through the breathtaking experience of Falconry. Seriously. Check out their amazing hawk walk experience. Go fly the birds.
Best Magical Moment: Mont Saint Michel in France
As you round the bend on a two lane french road, you get your first glimpse of the Mont’s magic. it rises up from the surrounding farmland like a beacon in the sea. Your mind immediately starts calculating how this wonder was built. The only logical conclusion is to simply say wow! Sacre Bleu! Getting closer only makes it get better. The details start to stand out and the bay’s flats come into view reminding you that not only did they have to get those building materials up but also over the water!
On the island, take in the charming and crowded main lane. Chefs beat eggs to a rhythm, wine is poured in lovely cafes and little tourist shops invite you in. Keep climbing. Things get quieter as they get steeper. Finally, enter the abbey and marvel at the architecture and the peacefulness here at the top.
You are as close as you can be to Michael who crowns the tallest spire. (To get an idea of how big this sculpture must be check out Michael at Castel Sant’ Angelo.) Be prepared for crowds because this is the most visited site in France. I know, you thought it was the Eiffel Tower! I highly suggest taking your time here. Spend the night in a B and B. Explore the ramparts which are very walkable. Wake early to see the stores open and get a famous fluffy omelette. Don’t miss the guided walk around the island at low tide to learn more about how in the world this place was built!
One last secret, Mont Saint Michel has a twin just 200 miles away (as the seagull flies). Mount Saint Micheal is just off the coast in Cornwall and is a quieter visit compared to the razzamatazz of its French brother.