European Castles, Palaces and Fortresses, Oh My!

Life is a trip, traveling is living twice.

Omar Khayyam

Alhambra, Spain

Originally constructed on the remains of Roman fortifications in 889, the Alhambra remains one of the most interesting and gorgeous fortresses in Europe. After its construction it was largely ignored and underwent renovations in the 14 century to add the palace and intricate details we see today. In 1333, Yusuf I, the Sultan of Granada, converted the Alhambra into the royal palace. In the 15th century, the palace became home to the court of Ferdinand and Isabella. In the 16th century, renaissance-style details were added and slight alterations were made over the centuries to better suit the aesthetic of those in power.

Today, you can tour the majority of the palace and the gardens outdoors. However, don’t miss the spectacular views you get from the castle and the castle itself from the town. The red color of the stone gives the Alhambra a unique appearance you just don’t see anywhere else. Tickets sell our early, so plan your trip well in advance. Yes, the site does get crowded during tourist season, but the Alhambra is truly a unique work of architecture with so much vibrant culture oozing from its walls as well as a fascinating history that you don’t want to miss this!

Neuschwanstein, Germany

When you think of a romantic castle, you’re probably thinking about Neuschwanstein. Built high atop a hill in Bavaria, Germany, this castle was commissioned by King Ludwig II during the 19th century and was paid for entirely by his personal wealth instead of using public funding. It served as the home for the king until his death in 1886. It opened to the public shortly after his death and has remained that way ever since. It did have a sordid past as a Nazi storehouse for stolen art and was almost purposefully bombed to prevent the artwork from falling into Allied hands, but the idea never turned to action.

While most people know that this castle served as the inspiration for Cinderella’s castle, it also appears in several films including Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Great Escape, and inspired the castle in the Pokemon movie Lucario and the Mystery of Mew. Since its opening in the late 19th century, over 61 million people have visited and sometimes over 6,000 people cross its threshold each day. That being said, buy your tickets well in advance and maybe plan to visit during the off season.

Edinburgh Castle, Scotland

Edinburgh Castle might be one of the most well-known castles/fortresses in the world, but it’s also one of the most interesting. The site has been occupied since the 2nd century giving it one of the longest histories of any castle. The castle was built in the 12th century (maybe earlier) as the seat of power for King David I and remained a royal residence until the 1600s. As its residential role waned, it became a military barracks and served as one of the most important strongholds in all of Scotland.

Okay, that’s neat, but what makes it so interesting? It’s the most besieged castle in history. During the span of 1100 years the castle was attacked 26 times and was involved in the Wars of Scottish independence and the Jacobite rising in 1745. Today you can tour most of the castle and even see buildings from the 12 century. I won’t spoil the stories you’ll hear about the haunted areas and the epic battles on guided tours, but you need to get yourself there to enjoy them asap.

Mont Saint Michel, France

Venture over to Normandy, France. From there you’ll have venture a bit farther (approximately 0.6 miles) off the coast to visit Mont Saint Michel, a commune that is home to a world-famous abbey and tons of history. While it’s not technically a castle or a fortress, the island itself is a natural defense as the surrounding land is flooded by the tides. The island remained unconquered during the Hundred Year’s War where a tiny garrison drove off or drowned their attackers. Louis XI took notice of the island’s natural defenses and turned the island’s existing abbey into a prison.

Even before the Hundred Year’s War the island was involved in conflict. During the 6-7th centuries the Gallo-Romans lost control of the island to the Franks who then gave control to the Vikings. Normandy eventually gained control over the island and further conflict had the island transfer hands. Today you don’t have to worry about Vikings or Bretons, just the tide. There is a pedestrian bridge you can use to safely traverse the spans between the land and the island. For more dramatic views, try to place your visit so you can see both high and low tides.

Pena Palace, Portugal

Need to spend some time along the Portuguese riviera? Don’t we all? Pena Palace sits atop one of the highest points above the valley below and overlooks the water in all of its colorful splendor. Is that a dramatic explanation? Yep, but Pena Palace deserves it, especially since it’s one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal.

Pena Palace began its existence as a small chapel built on the hill. King Manuel I built a monastery on the spot several years after his father visited and felt extremely moved by the experience. After being struck by lightning and then suffering damage during an earthquake in 1775, the site (with the exception of the chapel) was severely damaged. After several decades of neglect, King Ferdinand II commissioned a palace to be constructed on the site and ownership fell to several kings after his death. The palace was purchased by the government in the late 19th century and turned into a museum. Now, it’s one of Portugal’s most visited monuments!

Spiš Castle, Slovakia

The ruins of Spiš Castle form one of the largest castle sites found in Central Europe. This castle was built on top of the ruins of another castle in the 12th century and quickly rose to become a force in politics, economics, culture, and administration in the area. The castle itself went through several building phases and ultimately doubled in size from its original design.

Abandoned in the 18th century as it was deemed too uncomfortable to live in (I find it hard to believe living in a literal castle makes life “hard” but who am I to judge) and Spiš Castle fell into disrepair and later was destroyed by fire. There are 3 theories here as to why the fire started (I love a good mystery). 1. It was struck by lighting. 2. The owners secretly tried to burn it down to lower their taxes. 3. A moonshining operation went badly wrong and a fire broke out. All are plausible. Who knows what really happened? Today you can tour the ruins and learn about the archaeological excavations that uncovered some of the castle’s past in detail!

Kremlin Citadel, Russia

The Moscow Kremlin is a fortified complex overlooking the Moskva River in the heart of Moscow. Of all the kremlins in Russia, the Moscow complex is the most famous and houses 4 cathedrals and 5 palaces and is enclosed by the wall and towers. The occupation of the site began around the 2nd century BCE by the Finno-Ugric peoples and by the 11th century it was gaining importance with the East Slavs. The Vyatich tribe built the first known fortified structure on the site which grew until it was destroyed by the Mongols in 1237 and rebuilt in 1339.

Once rebuilt, it became the seat of power for Grand Dukes and eventually Tsars where it underwent remodeling and growth once again. Catherine the Great even had a residence built there during the 18th century. Over the different periods, the Imperial, Soviet, and beyond there were great periods of construction to bring the kremlin into modern times and to expand wherever was thought to be needed. Today, you can tour the Moscow Kremlin and explore its growth and expansion throughout history and view the Armory Chamber, Tsar Cannon and Bell, and even Russian wood sculptures and carvings.


4 thoughts on “European Castles, Palaces and Fortresses, Oh My!

  1. Exceptional presentation; with enticingly beautiful photographs and historical background. I have visited several of the castles, and Emma makes them all the more enjoyable. Did you know that Mad King Ludwig insisted on dining alone; to the unprecedented lengths of having the table lowered to the room below, to be laden with food; and then hoisted back up to Ludwig’s dining room?


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