At least once in our lives we’ve twirled in a glittery dress and tiara, or tussled with fire-breathing dragons from a crenulated tower. Indoctrinated by bedtime stories of our youth, we’d close our eyes and wonder where those horse-drawn carriages went when they turned right at happily-ever-after. Now all grown up, we can still dream a little thanks to storybook abodes that really do exist, especially in Europe where hundreds of well-preserved castles dot enchanted landscapes. Here are ten that live up to our fairytale fantasies.
Neuschwanstein Castle, Bavaria, Germany
Long before it helped to inspire Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland, Neuschwanstein was a refuge for Germany’s King Ludwig II of Bavaria who spent much of his kingdom’s fortune building castles. Neuschwanstein is the most popular, welcoming more than 1 million visitors per year. Only 14 of the castle’s planned 200 rooms were finished, and they’re impressive with opulent gold leaf, ornate woodcarving, and vibrant murals that reveal a mad king’s obsession with the myths and legends of composer Richard Wagner's operas.
Bran Castle, Braşov, Romania
The power of myth lives at this fog-cloaked castle erroneously believed to be the home in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The author never visited this fortress, commonly known as Dracula's Castle and guarded by a ring of mountains in Transylvania, but the site still lures literature fans and the goose bump crowd to its dimly lit corridors for tours and an annual Halloween party.
Chambord Castle, Loir-et-Cher, France
A stunning example of French Renaissance grandeur, Chambord Castle is the largest in the château-speckled Loire Valley. Built by Francis I in 1519 as a hunting lodge for the royal court, the symmetrical stronghold was rarely lived-in. There are one hundred rooms (of 440) open to the public and dozens of staircases, including a double helix rumored to have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci. The surrounding 21-square-mile park entertains with hiking and biking trails, boat rentals, and a guided 4x4 tour to a normally off-limits nature preserve.
Moszna Castle, Poland
The former residence of the Tiele-Winckler family was originally designed in Baroque style in the 17th century, but the later addition of a neo-Gothic and neo-Renaissance wing brought Hogwarts appeal to the castle, especially at night when its 99 Rapunzel-worthy towers and glowing windows shimmer in the outdoor reflecting pool. After World War II, it was a seat of the Soviet Army, but nowadays the art exhibits and chamber music concerts lure visitors to the 365 room castle, and the surrounding parkland is popular with picnicking families.
Leeds Castle, Kent, England
Situated on two islands in the middle of a lake, Leeds Castle is grand, romantic, and as close as you can get to a real "a once upon a time" experience. It was built during the reign of Henry I and has served as a royal residence for most of its 900-year history—including to six medieval queens, earning a reputation as a “Ladies Castle.” The 500-acre estate only opened to visitors in 1974 and now hosts year-round cultural events, with three restaurants, a bed-and-breakfast, a yew tree maze, and falconry demonstrations.
Prague Castle, Prague, Czech Republic
Like a fairytale village plucked right out of central casting, Prague Castle is actually a complex of gardens, courtyards, lanes, and historic buildings, including the gothic St. Vitus Cathedral where Czech kings and queens were crowned. This site is one of the largest castle complexes in the world at 753,473 square feet (sports fans, that’s about seven football fields), and since the ninth century, when Prince Bořivoj established a fortification here, it has been the seat of monarchs and the official residence of the head of state.
Pena Palace, Sintra, Portugal
Portugal’s fanciful Pena Palace glows red and yellow above the town of Sintra and can be seen from Lisbon on a clear day. The UNESCO World Heritage site dates to the Middle Ages when Our Lady of Pena chapel was built here. Eventually transformed into a royal palace by King Ferdinand II in the mid 1800s, the dizzying amalgam of Gothic, Manueline, and Moorish architecture is unique in southern Europe. No wonder the father of fairytales himself Hans Christian Andersen declared it the "most beautiful place in Portugal."
Bojnice Castle, Bojnice, Slovakia
The most visited castle in Slovakia is a setting perfect for daydreams. Built as a wooden fort in the 12th century, the castle changed hands many times but attained its current good looks in the late 1800s from the last private owner, Count János Ferenc Pálffy, who admired the majestic castles of the Loire Valley. Sadly he died before renovations were complete. His collection of paintings and other treasures are exhibited inside. Night tours by candlelight are especially popular at Bojnice Castle, as is the annual International Festival of Ghosts and Spooks held at the end of April.
Segovia Fortress, Segovia, Spain
Like most Spanish castles, Segovia was built for defense, but little of the original structure remains, and its soaring round towers above the confluence of two rivers now lean more fairytale than fortress. The imposing stone edifice has seen many incarnations including as a royal palace (Queen Isabella I was crowned here in 1474), a state prison, a military academy, and its current role as a splendid museum of gilded halls, exceptional paintings and furniture, and armory. It’s even been a Hollywood set as the home of Sir Lancelot in the 1967 film "Camelot."
Buda Castle, Budapest, Hungary
Time, history, numerous invasions, and prevailing architectural styles have shaped Budapest’s Castle District, since its original founding by King Béla IV in the 13th century. Stretching across a limestone plateau above the Danube River, the district’s cobblestone lanes lead to Trinity Square and Matthias Church, while inside Buda Castle, aka the Royal Palace, is the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum. From the white stone towers of the Fisherman’s Bastion, the views of the Chain Bridge and the city are dreamy.
Kimberley Lovato is a freelance journalist and author based in San Francisco who spends most days planning trips to faraway lands and dreaming of happily ever after. Follow her @kimberleylovato and on her website.