Historically, castle towns were designed to keep invaders out—the city walls, moats, and cannon ramparts all constructed to serve as protective barriers. But these days, those same majestic architectural features have proven irresistible to visitors, and now these communities welcome tourists with open arms—and gates (no storming the castle necessary!). We scoured the globe to find the most picturesque fortress towns in the world, places where you're just as likely to want to snap photos of the ramparts as you will street scenes of the locals. Best of all, these are real towns, so when you're finished exploring the castles' interiors, you'll have a reason to stick around and enjoy the royal backdrop while you experience the local culture.
About 470 miles west of Delhi looms what is said to be the
world's only continuously occupied fort town, Jaisalmer, India.
Rajput warriors and Jain merchants founded the so-called Golden
City in 1156 and—unlike many fortress communities—it was never
abandoned. Jaisalmer Fort rises nearly 25 stories off the
flat, seemingly endless floor of the Great Thar Desert in western
Rajasthan. Its 99 bastions were constructed out of yellow
bentonite sandstone—giving it the appearance of a massive,
intricately carved, sand castle. Around the flourishing town,
countless temples and mansions stand out for their Technicolor
red-, indigo-, and yellow-dyed walls typically decorated with
Getting There: A new airport will open near Jaisalmer in December 2011. Until then, you can reach the city via an overnight, 570-mile train journey from Delhi (tickets start at $3 per person, $6 per person for a sleeper-cabin seat), or else you can take a nine-day camel trip from Delhi (aetravel.com, prices vary).
Visiting: Admission is $5.
The unique mix of Islamic minarets, European buttresses,
and pebble-stone mosaic pavements in the ancient city of Rhodes
makes it look like a clash of cultures—A Knight's Tale
meets a 17th-century Turkish village. Indeed, the town is located
at the very heart of the crossroads between the Middle East,
Europe, and Africa, and its varied architecture reflects all of
those influences. Within the city's thick sandstone and limestone
walls, you'll find the Palace of the Grand Masters, built by
crusading knights in the 14th century, alongside a candy-striped
mosque, a Byzantine museum, and a Muslim library—all legacies
from the time of Turkish rule. Today, many of Rhodes's Greek
residents are shopkeepers who sell honey produced by the island's
many beekeepers; others craft necklaces and
souvenirs made from shells cast
Getting There: The medieval town of Rhodes is located at the northern tip of the island of Rhodes—part of the Dodecanese chain. Olympic Airlines and Aegean Airlines both offer flights into the International Airport of Rhodes (prices vary), and five ferry lines connect to the island from the mainland (prices vary).
Visiting: Entry to the town of Rhodes is free; admission to the palace, museum, and other sites vary.
South Korea may not leap to mind as a hotbed of castles,
but in fact the country is flush with fortress towns built to
thwart Japanese pirates. Instead of Braveheart-style
stone fortresses, however, in Korea castles resemble elaborate
pagoda-type buildings, surrounded by thick stone walls. The best
preserved of these is in the town of Naganeupseong, a
three-square-mile gem nestled in a valley beneath some low-lying
mountains near the southwestern city of Suncheon. As remarkable
as it is unpronounceable, Naganeupseong (nagan means
"safe and pleasant" and seong means "castle") was built
in 1397 and still has a couple hundred residents living in its
hub of 30 or so thatched-roof adobe houses. Locals work in
tile-roofed shops linked by pencil-thin stone alleyways, all of
which lead to the town's focal point: the Nakpung-ru Castle. Most
weekends, visitors can catch a changing-of-the-guard ceremony in
front of its pagoda-style entrance, and every October, the town
draws about 200,000 tourists to its Namdo food festival, where
regional favorite dishes, such as sanchae bibimbap (a
bowl of warm rice topped with vegetables), are served and
traditional music is played on the 12-string
Getting There: The town of Naganeupseong is accessible via a 25-minute taxi ride from Suncheon. Expect to pay about $3.50.
Visiting: Admission to the Nakpung-ru Castle is $1.75 for adults.
Even if you've never set foot in Spain, the Alcázar Castle
will likely look familiar to you. It's believed to be the
inspiration for the original Cinderella Castle in Disneyland, in
Anaheim, Calif., and it has appeared in countless postcards and
photos since. The original 14th-century structure was destroyed
by a fire, but its cylindrical turrets, peaked roofs, and soaring
stone walls were faithfully re-created in the 1880s, with
marvelously designed murals inside depicting famous battle
scenes. The Alcázar is surrounded by a deep moat and looms over
the small, hill town of Segovia, which is connected by a
drawbridge. The walled community itself is a faithful re-creation
of the bright side of Middle Ages life, with crafts shops and
beer halls done up in true retro style. Segovia also has an
amazingly well-preserved Roman aqueduct with 166 graceful arches
and the famous Vera Cruz church, which was consecrated in 1208 by
the Knights of Templar to house a relic of the True Cross.
Getting There: The town of Segovia is easily reached via a one-hour-and-45-minute high-speed train ride northwest of Madrid (tickets $11).
Visiting: Admission to the Alcázar Castle is $6 for adults.
Set on the Atlantic Coast of Cape Breton Island in
Nova Scotia, Louisbourg began life peacefully enough in 1713 as a
fishing port. But when the Anglo-French struggle for Canada began
a few years later, the French colonists started building a series
of stone city walls, transforming the sleepy village into a
massive fortress. Today, the entire town is a national historic
site, crawling with visitors, historical reenactors, and—some
say—more than its fair share of resident ghosts. There's a
phantom sea captain who's said to haunt the ramparts that
overlook Louisbourg's pretty harbor; there's the nurse known to
walk among the remains of the old hospital; and there's the
mischief-maker who causes trouble by the fort's coal-fired
hearth, where white-aproned bakers make fresh bread every day for
visitors. Just outside the bastion's walls is the Louisbourg
Playhouse, which presents traditional colonial dance performances
every day during the summer
Getting There: From the mainland, Louisbourg is best reached by car. You cross the Canso Causeway onto Cape Breton Island. Continue on to the city of Sydney. From the NS Highway 125, you take exit 8 onto Route 22 to Louisbourg.
Visiting: The fort is open from mid-May to late October. Admission is $17.60 for adults.
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Matsumoto-jo is a compound set in the shadow
of snow-topped Mt. Hotaka in central Japan. It was built in 1592,
making it the country's oldest surviving wooden castle. The main
tower is surrounded by pagoda-like tiers, which are painted black
and white, and a moat teeming with colorful koi carp. The castle
was built on top of a series of mazelike passageways,
designed to disorient and trap intruders. Visitors today,
however, are welcomed and given tours. Outside the castle walls,
Matsumoto seems designed for pedestrians, with wide, tree-lined
boulevards tracing the breezy Metoba River. You can also explore
the fascinating merchant—or nakamachi—district,
a hub of low-slung, tile-roofed buildings where local
artisans sell crafts and handiwork, such as furniture made
Getting There: The Azusa and Super Azusa express trains run from Tokyo's Shinjuku Station to Matsumoto every half hour. The journey takes about two hours and 40 minutes, and one-way fares cost $79 for non-reserved seats and about $86 for reserved seats. The castle is about a 15-minute walk from Matsumoto train station.
Visiting: Admission to the castle is about $7.80.
Germany's so-called Romantic Road—which slices north to
south through the southern German state of Bavaria—earned its
name for its string of stunning castles . But most of the
region's bastions are stand-alone tourist attractions, not
thriving municipalities. A charming exception is
Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a red-walled town set up on a hill
above the Tauber River. It has all the pastoral views and scenery
of the Romantic Road's other castle stops yet has a strong civic
pulse, too. Walt Disney was so taken by the town, in fact, that
he used it as inspiration for the village in the movie
Pinocchio. An earthquake destroyed the castle's main
tower in 1356, but the town's red-roofed medieval and Renaissance
houses have endured for centuries and were fully restored after
World War II. Visitors can tour the castle's stone
towers—protected beneath covered walkways—and stop by its base,
where crafts shops sell everything from antique clocks to
handmade garden gnomes. Cuisine is celebrated here in a way it
isn't in larger German cities like Frankfurt or Berlin, let alone
in castle canteens elsewhere. You may come here for the shining
armor—but you'll return for the delicious renditions of Bavarian
comfort foods (more spätzle,
Getting There: The closest major tourist city to Rothenburg ob der Tauber is Munich, which sits about 130 miles southeast. Train service runs between the two cities and takes about three hours (tickets from $67). You can also drive: The A7 autobahn runs right past town.
Visiting: Visiting the town is free.
Sintra is like the one-stop shop for castle lovers, with
not one, not two, but three gorgeous castles. This medieval
stronghold town is so beautiful it was called Glorious Eden by
the British poet Lord Byron. The town's focal point, Sintra
National Palace, is distinctive for its whimsical interiors:
columns twisted like barley, an Arab-style courtyard situated
around pretty fountains, and glazed tile work known as azulejos.
Beyond the town's fortress walls—but still within walking
distance—Pena National Palace, with its cupolas, minarets, and
lookout towers in cherry, lemon, and white hues, stands on a
hilltop overlooking a green forest. On another nearby hill, a
once-proud Moorish castle lingers in romantic ruins. In between,
the old town of Sintra has a mix of Gothic, Renaissance, and art
nouveau homes, not to mention many stone-wall shops selling
authentic antiques, wine, and paintings—all of this framed by a
lushly forested seaside national park.
Getting There: Sintra sits about 20 miles northwest of Lisbon. Trains run between the two destinations about every 20 minutes, out of Lisbon's Rossio station, and tickets cost $2.60 each way.
Visiting: Entrance fees to the town's three castles range from $9.50 to $16.20; visiting the ruins is free.
Founded in 1593 as a stronghold of the Venetian Republic,
this UNESCO World Heritage town was built in a unique, 18-sided
octadecagon shape. When viewed from above, the
fortress community looks like a delicately made paper snowflake,
with streets radiating out of the structure like sunbeams. Tucked into a valley with a lagoon running into the
Adriatic Sea, the land surrounding Palmanova yields high-quality
Chardonnay, while the local waters are stocked with mullet, sea
bass, and other delicious fish. In town, look out for the symbol
of a leafy bough, or a frasca, hanging outside of
restaurants to pinpoint ones serving regionally sourced food,
such as the classic Venetian dish baccalà,
made with dry-salted cod. At night, the city's earth-and-stone
defensive works are lit up like a movie set.
Getting There: Palmanova sits between Venice and Trieste in northeastern Italy. It's accessible by car along the A4 and A23 motorways and Highway 352. Venice is 75 miles to the southwest, while Trieste is 34 miles to the southeast. The town also sits close to the Cervignano del Friuli station and is serviced by the Udine railway (prices vary).
Visiting: Admission to the town's three castles is free.
The beauty of Carcassonne is in the details. The
well-restored Romanesque fortress city in southwestern France is
known by the locals simply as La Cit é .
The castle's crenellated walls punctuate the sky, and the double
line of ramparts looks wonderfully forbidding. The cone-shaped,
slate-roofed towers are postcard-perfect. The town's stone
streets have been populated since the fifth century. Carcassonne
sits a mere one-hour drive from the Mediterranean Sea, meaning
it's thousands of miles from Paris in both distance and attitude.
It's an unexpected gastronomic and artistic hotspot, with
restaurants dishing up modern takes on classical French cuisine,
such as cassoulet with partridge, and a neoclassic
Mus é e des Beaux Arts, which stands out
for presenting masterworks by Courbet, Chardin, and Ingres, among
Getting There: Carcassonne is on the main train line linking Toulouse, 50 minutes away (tickets from $20), with Narbonne, 30 minutes away (tickets from $15), and Montpellier, an hour and a half away (tickets from $29). About a dozen trains a day run on this line Also, Ryanair is the only airline that offers flights in and out of Carcassonne’s airport, about three and a half miles outside of town. It has daily flights to and from London's Stansted Airport and Brussels's Charleroi Airport. It also offers flights from Carcassonne to Dublin and Liverpool (prices vary).
Visiting: There is an $11.50 entrance fee for adults to visit the castle. Once inside, you can join a free, optional 45-minute tour of the ramparts; guides speak English (carcassonne.org).
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