13 of Europe's most picturesque castles

The Castle of the Moors, at left, and the Pena Palace in Sintra, Portugal, offer beautiful views of each other.

There are lots of ways to compare castles—by size, by age, by the longest they ever held out against a siege—but for travelers, beauty may be the most important.  

From medieval ruins overlooking the Atlantic to Romanesque spires in the Alps, these scenic fortresses each bring something special to the table, making them the perfect settings for a fairy tale adventure in the Old World. 

1. Castel del Monte

Known for: A unique geometric design

Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II was an avid patron of the 13th-century maths and sciences, so it’s no surprise he built the Castel del Monte as a tribute to geometry. Its 8 walls are laid out in a precise octagon, with an octagonal tower at each of the 8 corners. Each of the castle’s 2 floors has 8 rooms, and an 8-sided courtyard in the center opens to an 8-sided view of the sky.

Spanning more than 750 years of history, the castle would be used as a hunting lodge, a prison, and even a radio navigation beacon during World War II, and it is still in excellent condition today. Its uncanny limestone walls are visible for miles around the Apulian countryside, beckoning visitors to come explore.

Viking Cruises logo

See the Castel del Monte on the Italian Sojourn cruise

Book Viking's Italian Sojourn cruise with the Trani & Castel del Monte shore excursion to discover the "Pearl of Puglia" and much more.

Browse and book the Italian Sojourn cruise

2. Mont-Saint-Michel

Known for: A castle in the sea

It’s not unusual for castles to be defended by a moat or a lake, but Mont-Saint-Michel takes things to the next level. The towering Gothic fortress sits on an island just off the coast of Normandy, and at high tide is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, driving off or drowning any would-be besiegers.

Founded by the bishop of Avranches after a vision of the archangel Michael (hence the name), Mont-Saint-Michel began as an abbey at the island’s rocky peak in the 10th century. The surrounding village and fortifications took shape over the centuries as various rulers took advantage of the terrain. The castle famously repelled all English attacks during the Hundred Years’ War. A site of pilgrimage for more than 1,000 years, millions of modern-day pilgrims continue to visit what the French call La Merveille, crossing the waters to take in the one-of-a-kind landscape.

Member Choice Vacations logo

See Mont-Saint-Michel on the Normandy, Brittany & the Loire Valley tour

Enjoy the sights and sounds of France during this 8-day guided tour from AAA Member Choice Vacations, including an expert-led tour of Mont-Saint-Michel.

Learn more and get an estimate for the Normandy, Brittany & the Loire Valley guided tour

Contact a AAA Travel Advisor

3. Pena Palace

Known for: A colorful mix of styles

Looking down on Lisbon from the Sintra Mountains, the eclectic Pena Palace breaks with most castle conventions. Portuguese king Ferdinand II, known as the “artist king,” built the Romanticist castle in the mid-1800s as a mix of Gothic, Moorish, Romanesque, and Manueline styles in vibrant yellows, blues, and reds. Islamic-inspired horseshoe gates deliver visitors to terraces surrounded by towers of all different heights and covered in a dizzying array of window shapes and crenellations.

The Pena Palace is surrounded by the Pena Park, which is just as eclectic as the castle: American sequoias and Australian ferns grow alongside Chinese ginkgos and Japanese cypresses to create a lush fairy tale forest unlike any other. Visitors can look north to see another fortress, the medieval Castle of the Moors, whose ramparts snake across the mountainside.

Celebrity Cruises logo

See the Pena Palace before the Best of Spain & Portugal cruise

Travel to Lisbon to see the Pena Palace in person, then sail on Celebrity Cruises' Best of Spain and Portugal itinerary to see more of the Iberian Peninsula.

Browse and book the Best of Spain and Portugal cruise

4. Bled Castle

Known for: A dramatic lakeside setting

Slovenia isn’t usually at the front of Americans’ minds when thinking of a European trip, but the stunning scenery of Lake Bled holds its own against anything the big names can offer. The castle’s perch on a cliff 425 feet above the lake provides panoramic views of the lake, its island, the town, and the Julian Alps—including Mount Triglav, the 3-pointed peak and national symbol that adorns Slovenia’s flag.

Hike to the castle for the view and you’ll also find a mix of medieval Romanesque and later Renaissance architecture; don’t miss the frescoes in the chapel. The highlight for most visitors, though, is a visit to the church on the island in the middle of the lake down below. Make your way there via a traditional pletna boat to ring the church’s bell, which legend holds can grant wishes if rung the right way. 

Member Choice Vacations logo

See Lake Bled on the Discover Croatia, Slovenia & the Adriatic Coast tour

Dive into beauty and history as you explore medieval cities, tranquil lakes, stunning coastlines, and quaint villages of the Balkans, including Lake Bled.

Learn more and get an estimate for the Discover Croatia, Slovenia & the Adriatic Coast tour

Contact a AAA Travel Advisor

5. Neuschwanstein Castle

Known for: Inspiring Disney’s castles

This reigning king of fairy tale castles sits at the northern end of the Alps in Bavaria and looks familiar even to those who haven’t seen it before. That’s because Walt Disney drew on its design for both the Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella castles, incorporating its many narrow towers and Romanesque arches into his films and theme parks.

That fairy tale legacy is fitting because King Ludwig II of Bavaria built Neuschwanstein itself in the 1880s as a tribute to medieval Arthurian legend. Meant to recreate the castle of the Knights of the Holy Grail, the interior is ornately decorated with sumptuous scenes from the stories of the knights Parzival and Lohengrin. Ludwig is said to have identified so strongly with the Knights of the Holy Grail that he even planned a ceremonial “knights’ bath” for ritual bathing, though it was never completed.  

Insight Vacations logo

See Neuschwanstein Castle on the Best of Germany guided tour

Insight Vacations' 12-day tour of all things Germany includes a visit to Neuschwanstein Castle with a local expert.

Learn more and get an estimate for the Best of Germany guided tour

Contact a AAA Travel Advisor

6. Kilchurn Castle

Scotland, United Kingdom
Known for: Views of the Scottish Highlands

Clan Campbell, one of the largest and best-known Scottish Highland clans, built Kilchurn Castle in the mid-1400s to guard the northern end of scenic Loch Awe. For the next 150 years, the Glenorchy branch of the Campbells ruled the surrounding area with Kilchurn as the seat of their power. Eventually, they moved to Taymouth Castle, and after an uneventful few centuries, Kilchurn was severely damaged by a lightning strike and abandoned in the late 1700s.

Visitors today can hike around the castle ruins. Though currently closed for conservation, climbing to the top of the castle’s 4-story tower when it’s open provides magnificent views of Loch Awe. If you’re looking for an Instagramable picture, get tips on how to take perfect travel photos, then make your way to the loch’s eastern shore for the ideal vantage point (and maybe even some sheep in the foreground).

Brendan Vacations logo

See Kilchurn Castle on the Self-Drive Scotland Explorer tour

Explore Scotland on a hand-crafted, fully customizable self-drive tour from Brendan Vacations. Your AAA Travel Advisor can plan and book a unique experience, including a sightseeing tour of Kilchurn Castle.

Learn more and get an estimate for the Self-Drive Scotland Explorer tour

Contact a AAA Travel Advisor

7. The Alhambra

Known for: The peak of Moorish architecture

The Alhambra castle complex gets its name from Qalat al-Hamra, Arabic for “the red fortress,” referring to its walls made from iron-rich red clay. Built primarily during the 13th and 14th centuries by the Nasrid dynasty, it sprawls across a plateau above the Andalusian city of Granada and is perhaps the world’s best-preserved example of medieval Islamic architecture.

Horseshoe gates and arches abound, often with seemingly impossibly thin supports. Elaborate outdoor courtyards and gardens, such as the Court of the Lions, are home to clever water features and extremely intricate plaster carvings. Interior rooms feature stalactite-like honeycombs, known as muqarnas, that bridge arches, walls, and ceilings. Rooms called miradors bring the indoors and outdoors together with spectacular views of old town Granada and the snowy Sierra Nevada.

Tauck logo

See the Alhambra on the A Week in Spain tour

Tauck's 7-day A Week in Spain tour includes a guided walking tour of the Alhambra and much more.

Learn more and get an estimate for the A Week in Spain guided tour

Contact a AAA Travel Advisor

8. Hohenwerfen Castle

Known for: Hollywood’s favorite Alpine castle

Fans may recognize this castle as the fictional “Schloss Adler” from either the 1968 war movie Where Eagles Dare or the 2015 TV series The Man in the High Castle, both of which were filmed here in the suitably dramatic Berchtesgaden Alps. The fortress is also visible in 1965’s The Sound of Music, famously shot in and around Salzburg, in the scene where Maria first teaches the von Trapp children to sing Do-Re-Mi.

The castle was built atop a massive rock in 1077 by the prince-bishop of Salzburg, and the castle walls reach up and down at precipitous angles to accommodate a courtyard with marvelous views of the nearby mountains. Visitors can get to the castle on foot or by funicular ride. Attractions include bird-of-prey demonstrations and a falconry museum, as well as reenactors in medieval garb.

Member Choice Vacations logo

See Hohenwerfen Castle during the Exploring the Alpine Countries tour

AAA Member Choice Vacations' Exploring the Alpine Countries guided tour includes a free afternoon in Salzburg where you can book your own excursion to Hohenwerfen Castle. Talk to a AAA Travel Advisor to customize your itinerary.

Learn more and get an estimate for the Exploring the Alpine Countries tour

Contact a AAA Travel Advisor

9. Arundel Castle

England, United Kingdom
Known for: Verdant landscapes around a medieval mound

Arundel Castle owes its existence to William the Conqueror, who invaded England in 1066 and was crowned as its king. William’s supporters built castles around the kingdom to strengthen William’s hold. The Earl of Arundel was one of them and built Arundel Castle in 1068 as a motte castle, a circular keep atop an artificial dirt mound more than 100 feet tall. Later centuries saw the castle expand around the motte, which is still in the castle’s center.

Arundel’s medieval stone architecture has been exquisitely restored and preserved, and the castle fits seamlessly into the rolling green hills of Sussex. Climb the walls to the keep atop the motte for commanding views of the courtyards and countryside, head to the castle gardens to see what’s in season, and then check out the nearby French Gothic Arundel Cathedral. 

Princess Cruises logo

See Arundel Castle before Princess' Ireland and Scotland cruise

Travel to Southampton to see Arundel Castle in person, then sail on Princess' Ireland and Scotland itinerary to see more of the British Isles.

Browse and book the Ireland and Scotland cruise

10. The Three Towers of San Marino

San Marino
Known for: Panoramic views near Rimini

The Italian peninsula was once covered in city-states. San Marino, the world’s oldest and smallest republic, is the sole survivor, perhaps thanks to these 3 fortresses. Its capital city (also called San Marino) sits atop the western slope of the aptly named Monte Titano, and each of its 3 precipitous peaks is home to one of these castles. All 3 are featured on San Marino’s flag.

The 2 open towers offer sweeping views of the landscape off Monte Titano’s steep eastern cliffs, with Rimini and the coast visible on clear days. Guaita is the oldest tower, dating to the 11th century, with a church and outer defensive wall. The 13th-century Cesta sits on a slightly higher peak and features a museum with medieval weaponry. Montale is the smallest and newest tower, and isn’t open to visitors, but its narrow silhouette makes for dramatic pictures. 

Azamara Cruises logo

See the Three Towers on the Italy Intensive Voyage cruise

Book Azamara's Italy Intensive Voyage cruise with the Stunning San Marino shore excursion for a trip to see the Three Towers and more of this tiny republic with a local guide.

Browse and book the Italy Intensive Voyage cruise

11. Dunluce Castle

Northern Ireland, United Kingdom
Known for: Castle ruins right on the Atlantic coast

The ruins of Dunluce Castle, perched on a rocky outcrop above the Atlantic, are a picturesque meeting of land and sea. They’re so picturesque that Dunluce served as the fictional castle Pyke, home of the Greyjoys, on HBO’s Game of Thrones (though with some CGI enhancement). Beneath the castle is the enormous Mermaid’s Cave, which opens directly to the sea.

Dunluce Castle itself is accessible by bridge and is surrounded by steep drops on all sides. It’s had a turbulent history, changing hands between feuding clans at least once, and was partially owned by Winston Churchill at one point. The weather can still be turbulent, and the castle looks especially dramatic when the waves are crashing against the cliffs. On clear days, sunset is a beautiful time to visit. 

Brendan Vacations logo

See Dunluce Castle on the Self-Drive Northern Discovery tour

Explore Ireland on a hand-crafted, fully customizable self-drive tour from Brendan Vacations. Your AAA Travel Advisor can plan and book a unique experience, including a sightseeing tour of Dunluce Castle.

Learn more and get an estimate for the Self-Drive Northern Discovery tour

Contact a AAA Travel Advisor

12. Rosenborg Castle

Known for: Extensive public gardens

No hike is required to visit this castle in the center of Copenhagen, the Danish capital. King Christian IV built the Dutch Renaissance-style castle as a summer house in the 17th century, which is reflected in its luxurious interior and extensive gardens. Tour the interior to see the Marble Room (built in what the castle museum itself describes as “pompous Baroque style”) and the fine tapestries of the Knights’ Hall.

Outside, take in the expansive King’s Gardens by strolling along the tree-lined Knight’s Path and Lady’s Path (Kavalergangen and Damegangen, respectively) to see mulberry, pear, and apple trees, as well as flowers and bronze statues, all with the castle in the background. 

Oceania Cruises logo

See Rosenborg Castle on the Scandinavian Charisma cruise

Book Oceania Cruises' Scandinavian Charisma cruise, which includes a visit to Rosenborg Castle on the Copenhagen leg of the itinerary.

Browse and book the Scandinavian Charisma cruise

13. Chateau de Chenonceau

Known for: Being built on top of a river

Many castles were built beside rivers to ensure an ample supply of water. The Chateau de Chenonceau does them one better by being built directly on top of the river Cher. The castle started out as a tower beside the river, designed by French noblewoman Katherine Briconnet. King Henry II’s mistress Diane de Poitiers expanded it with a bridge across the Cher, and Catherine de Medici added the buildings atop the bridge.

The castle would pass down through many more women, gaining the moniker “the Ladies’ Chateau” thanks to their efforts to expand and renovate it. Today, visitors can stroll through the geometric gardens (one built by Diane, one built by Catherine), see the Renaissance-era furniture, appreciate the chapel’s stained glass, and see why the Chateau de Chenonceau is France’s most-visited chateau after Versailles.

See the Chateau de Chenonceau on the Taste of Bordeaux cruise

Add the optional 2-night Loire Valley land package to this AmaWaterways river cruise to visit the Chateau de Chenonceau as well as the Chateau de Chambord and Chateau de Blois.

Browse and book the Taste of Bordeaux cruise

A AAA travel advisor smiling at her desk

Let a AAA Travel Advisor help you plan your dream European castle vacation

Whether you're customizing an existing tour itinerary to see your favorite castle or planning a bucket-list trip from scratch, a knowledgeable AAA Travel Advisor can handle all the details.

Travel offers & deals

" "

Hot travel deals

Get the latest offers from AAA Travel’s preferred partners.

" "

Travel with AAA

See how we can help you plan, book, and save on your next vacation.

" "

Entertainment savings

Save big with AAA discounts on tickets to your next adventure.

" "

Travel with confidence

Purchase travel insurance with Allianz Global Assistance.

back to top icon