They feature some of the most stunning architectural designs ever created. Whether built as a royal fortress to guard against invading armies or as an opulent playground of the ultra-wealthy, castles provide a fascinating link to the past with no shortage of hidden secrets.
7. Leap Castle (Ireland)
For a small nation on the western fringe of Europe, Ireland punches well above its weight. From literary heavyweights such as James Joyce and Oscar Wilde to unrivaled scenic beauty, the Emerald Isle is an enchanted land like no other. It’s also overflowing with haunted sites — and Leap Castle may very well be the spookiest.
Built in the 13th century in County Offaly on the same grounds once used for Celtic pagan rituals, Leap has a long-standing tragic and violent history. The copious amount of spilled crimson includes the murder of a priest in what’s known as the “The Bloody Chapel.” Additionally, the property features a small dungeon, where hundreds of skeletal remains were discovered during renovations in the 1920s.
The castle has served as the ancestral home to several notorious Anglo-Irish families and is currently owned by Sean Ryan, an Irish musician who provides tours of his infamous estate. Regarding the living dead allegedly haunting these halls, “The Red Lady” is said to be one of the more frequent apparitions, appearing in a red dress while clutching a dagger.
6. Poenari Castle (Romania)
Sitting high atop a rocky cliff overlooking the Arges River in central Romania, Poenari Castle is not easy to find. Visitors must climb 1,462 stairs to summit the medieval ruins as well as avoid getting mauled by brown bears roaming the Southern Carpathian Mountains. The region is also prone to earthquakes. However, those surviving the harrowing journey are rewarded with having walked in the same footsteps as Vlad the Impaler.
Best known as the inspiration of Bram Stoker’s gothic novel, Dracula, Vlad III (aka Vlad Dracula) was an actual prince who ruled the province of Wallachia in the 15th century. Although Transylvania’s Bran Castle is touted as ‘Dracula’s Castle’ — don’t be fooled — it’s not. But to be fair, the touristy hotspot is far more accessible, bear-less, and offers a well-stocked bounty of souvenirs.
Poenari was first erected in the early 1300s but later became rundown and abandoned. After recognizing its potential, Vlad ordered his enemies to have the citadel repaired, transforming it into one of his primary residences. When Turkish forces attacked the fortress in 1462, Vlad escaped through a secret passageway leading north through the mountains.
Unfortunately, remnants of the castle walls and towers are all that remain today. According to Romania Tourism, the historic landmark is currently under repair but scheduled to re-open in 2022.
5. Tokat Castle (Turkey)
The popularity of vampiric-themed books, TV shows, and movies continues to captivate audiences worldwide. Fittingly, the original fang banger lands on our list once again — this time with Tokat Castle in Turkey.
The fortress towers above the ancient city of Tokat, and situated in the mid-Black Sea region of Anatolia. Archaeologists recently excavated a secret tunnel, storage rooms, a military shelter, and two dungeons at the site.
Before he became Vlad the Impaler, the young prince was simply known as the son of Vlad II, the Voivoid (ruler) of Wallachia. The elder Vlad also belonged to the Order of the Dragon, a knightly order dedicated to defending Christianity against the Muslim-controlled Ottoman Empire. The designation earned him the surname, Dracul, derived from the old Romanian word for dragon — but would eventually carry a much darker connotation.
While accompanying their father on a diplomatic mission in 1442, the pre-teen Vlad and his younger brother, Radu, were taken hostage by the Ottoman Sultan, Murad II. The boys would spend the next seven years in captivity, ensuring that Vlad II wouldn’t interfere in the ongoing Ottoman conflicts throughout the region. After being released, Vlad-the-future-impaler spent most of his adult life exacting revenge with sadistic bloodlust on all those who had wronged him.
4. Eilean Donan (Scotland)
Although best known for tartan kilts, single malt whisky, and burly men tossing heavy objects for no apparent reason, Scotland is equally rich in breathtaking castles. Such is the case of Eilean Donan, an iconic medieval fortress set on a small tidal island deep in the Scottish Highlands.
The remote Eilean (“isle” in Scottish Gaelic) was named after Donnán of Eigg, a Celtic saint, and martyr. Although details are a bit sketchy, he is believed to have established a church in the 7th century on the wee patch of land surrounded by three sea lochs. Viking raiders would later wreak havoc in the region, necessitating the island’s first permanent fortification at the start of the 13th century.
The castle became a stronghold of the Clan Mackenzie and their pugnacious allies, Clan MacRae. Despite its natural defences, Eilean Donan has attracted considerable warfare and strife, strongly influenced by the vagaries of Scottish feudal history. Over the centuries, it has been built and rebuilt at least four times.
The most recent permutation was undertaken by British Army Lieutenant Colonel John MacRae-Gilstrap (a descendant of the former inhabitants), who bought the ruins in 1911. He then spent the next 20 years creating a spectacular, medieval manor, replete with an imposing portcullis, ramparts, murder holes, and an arched, grey stone bridge that connects the castle to the mainland.
Not surprisingly, the structure is probably the most photographed castle in Scotland and featured in movies such as The Wicker Man, Highlander, and The World Is Not Enough.
3. Predjama Castle (Slovenia)
It’s hailed as ‘the world’s largest cave castle’ — a remarkable display of man’s creativity and resourcefulness merged with nature’s rock landscape. Predjama Castle has carved a unique niche with a history that boasts heroic knights, a labyrinth of secret tunnels, and even a colony of bats residing year-round.
Nestled in the idyllic Slovenian village of Predjama, this medieval marvel sits five miles from the world-famous Postojna Cave, home of the mysterious subterranean creatures called “baby dragons.” The fortification has long been associated with the legend of Erazem Leung, a 15th-century knight and Slovenia’s version of Robin Hood.
As the beloved burgrave (castle ruler), Erazem frequently rebelled against neighboring fiefdoms’ autocracy and corruption. In 1483, he found himself in dire straits after killing a Viennese noble, who just happened to be related to Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III. Erasmus then fled back home, where he took refuge in the hidden passageways. But in the end, the popular bandit was killed by cannon fire while on the toilet (insert crappy pun here).
2. Hearst Castle (USA)
The opening scene of Citizen Kane reveals a derelict, hilltop mansion, where the film’s protagonist, Charles Foster Kane, utters the word ‘Rosebud’ and then abruptly dies. Starring Orson Welles (who also directed, produced, and co-wrote the masterpiece), the movie employs a non-linear narrative to examine the life of a powerful, enigmatic figure while unraveling the mystery behind his final breath.
While “Kane” is a fictitious character, the story is based on billionaire tycoon William Randolph Hearst. His longtime friend, Irish writer George Bernard Shaw, once described Hearst’s extravagant seaside manor as “what God would have built if he had had the money.”
Construction of Hearst Castle began in 1919 on 250,000 acres of land in San Simeon, California. Although never fully completed because of Hearst’s constant revisions, the Spanish Colonial design comprises 165 rooms and 123 acres of gardens, terraces, swimming pools, and walkways. Originally intended as a family residence for Hearst, his wife Millicent, and their five sons, the real-life Xanadu featured its own airstrip and once held the world’s largest private zoo.
Hearst furnished the decadent retreat with art, antiques, and entire rooms he purchased from historic palaces of Europe. The media mogul frequently hosted lavish parties attended by Hollywood elite such as Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Buster Keaton, Jean Harlow, and Clark Gable. Despite Prohibition, guests would typically convene for cocktails in the Assembly Room, where a secret door next to the fireplace allowed Hearst to disappear with his mistress, Marion Davies.
In the late 1950s, the castle and most of its contents were transferred to the guardianship of the California State Parks Department. The estate now operates as the Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument, attracting nearly a million visitors annually.
1. Tower of London (England)
Clever and resolute, ravens provide winged guardianship, dutifully keeping a beady eye on one of England’s most hallowed landmarks. As a testament to their legacy, it’s been said, ‘If the ravens leave the Tower, the Kingdom will fail.’
With origins dating back more than 900 years, the Tower of London owns the distinction of having served as both a royal palace and an infamous prison. Furthermore, ghost sightings, priceless treasure, and villainous tales of murder all contribute to a tangled web of intrigue.
The Tower was conceived by William the Conqueror, who, after defeating Anglo-Saxon forces in the 11th century, then set his sights on erecting a massive stone fortress on the north bank of the River Thames. The compound would gradually expand through the centuries, encompassing several buildings set within two concentric rings of defensive walls and a moat. Since 1661, it’s also been home to a unique collection of 23,578 rare gems and ceremonial regalia — better known as the Crown Jewels.
The Tower’s long list of famous prisoners covers a wide swath of British subjects, ranging from the Kray twins to three unlucky wives of Henry III. But nothing compares to the skullduggery surrounding the disappearance of two adolescent princes in 1483.
Following the mysterious death of their father, King Edward IV, the siblings were lodged in the Tower by their paternal uncle and regent, the Duke of Gloucester. But before the young monarch could be crowned Edward V, he and his brother were declared illegitimate, allowing Gloucester to claim the throne as Richard III. Meanwhile, the boys were never seen alive again, and their ghosts have purportedly never left the building — just ask the ravens.