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10 Best European Castles You Can Visit

Posted October 4, 2013 by SmarterTravel.com

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Sometimes romantic, sometimes sinister, Europe's best castles evoke a palpable sense of both melancholy and wonder. Their ancient stones brim with mystery and history—but not the stodgy old history of musty textbooks. Castles are the past brought to life, a visceral reminder that quests and battles and chivalry weren't always the exclusive province of fantasy novels. Go medieval on your next trip with a visit to one of these castles where ancient history is alive and well.


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Carreg Cenne Castle, Wales

Never trust any list of Europe's best castles that doesn't include at least one entry from Wales. Owing to its tumultuous history of war and rebellion, the Welsh countryside is home to more castles per square mile than anywhere else in the world. Our favorite is Carreg Cennen, the only ruined stronghold to make this list. Actually, we like that Carreg Cennen has been in a ruinous state since 1462. Perched on a lonely limestone hilltop in Brecon Beacons National Park and often shrouded in mist, Carreg Cennen is easily the most evocative castle in the land. And while it may not be quite as popular as the larger Caerphilly Castle, Carreg Cennen will always be first in our hearts. It's open daily between April and October.


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Hohenwerfen Castle, Austria

Brooding high above Austria's Salzachtal Valley amid the dramatic peaks of the Berchtesgaden Alps, this stronghold has served alternately as a home to kings, archbishops, and prisoners (it was a state prison for a period of time) for more than 900 years. Today, Hohenwerfen Castle is a popular tourist draw and the site of Austria's foremost falconry center, where the royal hunting art is on full display with daily demonstrations.


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Predjama Castle, Slovenia

Predjama Castle is an easy sell to castle lovers. Most famous for being built into the side of a 400-foot cliff, it may also call to mind visions of Tolkien's Helm's Deep. But this real-world stronghold has the requisite dungeons, secret tunnels, and bloody history to make it a must-see on its own merits. Visit Predjama Castle during the annual medieval tournament, held each July, for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.


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Guedelon Castle, France

Who says the age of castles is over? Take a trip back in time at Guedelon Castle in Burgundy, France, where a team of 50 craftspeople and laborers are currently using 13th-century building techniques and technology (think: horses) to construct an authentic castle from scratch, deep within a secluded forest. Visitors are welcomed from mid-March to early November each year. The project has been running since 1997 and hopes to reach completion in the 2020s.


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Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

It might be the most photographed castle in the world, but there's still nothing quite like seeing Germany's fairy-tale castle in person. The brainchild of "Mad King Ludwig" (or, more generously, "The Fairy-Tale King"), Neuschwanstein has influenced everything from Disney attractions (note the similarity to Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty Castle) to books and computer games. Take a tour of the castle grounds, but leave time for an off-site walk along the myriad nearby trails. That's where you'll find the most stunning views for photographs.


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Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland

One of the most iconic castles in Europe, Scotland's Eilean Donan Castle is recognized the world over from its appearances on postcards and in movies like the original Highlander ("There can be only one!"). History buffs will appreciate Eilean Donan's rich past as a key site during the 1719 Jacobite Rising, and all will enjoy the stark beauty of its surroundings, where three great lochs meet at the foot of an impressive mountain range. Today nearly every part of the castle is accessible to the public for tours and exploration.


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Hohenzollern Castle, Germany

This ancestral home to a line of German emperors would fit in with the fantastical fortresses imagined by J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin. At 2,805 feet above sea level, Hohenzollern Castle really is a castle in the clouds. The current fortress is actually the third to be built on the site (the first was destroyed in battle and the second fell into disrepair). Today it is a popular tourist attraction.


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Hunyad Castle, Romania

The imposing Hunyad Castle, which once imprisoned Vlad the Impaler (Bram Stoker's inspiration for Dracula), offers plenty for castle aficionados to sink their teeth into. Marked by myriad towers, multicolored roofs, and exaggerated stone carvings, this Gothic-Renaissance castle was fully and fancifully restored after decades of neglect. What we see today may or may not be authentic (some suggest that modern architects projected their own "wistful interpretations" of a Gothic castle onto the reconstruction), but either way, the end result is memorable.


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Edinburgh Castle, Germany

One of the best examples of a fully restored medieval fortress, Edinburgh Castle towers over Scotland's capital city from atop an extinct volcano called Castle Rock. It was built in the 12th century and has passed hands between the English and the Scots numerous times over the course of its bloody history. Today, it's open to the public year-round for tours and events.


Versailles, France

From its origin as an unassuming hunting lodge to its height as the royal court of France under Louis XIV, the Sun King's Chateau de Versailles is arguably the grandest castle in the world. No visit to Paris is complete without at least a day trip to see the gardens, canals, and gilded halls of Versailles.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title 10 Best European Castles You Can Visit.

Follow Josh Roberts on Google+ or email her at at editor@smartertravel.com.

Hogmanay, Haggis, and Champagne in Edinburgh, Scotland

Posted December 22, 2009 by Jamie Moore

UK-Edinburgh-Hogmanay-DEF So over-the-top are Edinburgh's New Year's Eve celebrations (Hogmanay, pronounced "hog-muh-NAY") that the town sets aside four days each year for carousing. The party starts December 29. Sip a fruity cocktail then hike up a hill for an unsurpassed view of the fireworks. On the 'morrow head to a diner for British comfort food, the perfect post-revelry remedy.

Drink
Amicus Apple: With five Champagne cocktails on the menu, this hip bar is a great place to get the Hogmanay party started. Color-shifting lights electrify the atmosphere; the cocktail menu mixes up traditional and original libations. Try a Parisian Blossom, Champagne with elderflower and peach liquor topped with prossecco. There are also unique Champagne-free cocktails including the Settle Petal martini: cucumber, vanilla sugar, and rose petal liquor.

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Calton Hill: A torch-lit procession to the top of Calton Hill officially kicks off Hogmanay celebrations December 29. Join more than 14,000 people and follow the flames, marching to the beat of bagpipes and drums to witness the burning of a life-sized Viking warship. Two days later you can be part of the midnight countdown crowd, singing a rousing rendition of national poet Robert Burns' Auld Lang Syne. Or, avoid the hordes completely and bring your own blanket and bubbly to the top of Calton Hill for what locals say is the best view of the fireworks.

Eat
Monster Mash: After the revelry there's only one place to go—a restaurant with serious comfort food. This downtown diner's menu is full of traditional British hangover cures like shepherd's pie and baked beans on toast. Check out the bangers and mash section and choose sausage, mashed potatoes, and gravy with a side of mushy peas. Or go Scottish and try MacSween haggis (one for vegetarians, too). The nostalgic fare even includes a few puddings. The favorite? Knickerbocker Glory—a sundae topped with fruit cocktail and cream. Everything is $10 or less.

To search for flights and compare prices to Edinburgh, please use our price-comparison tool.

(Photo: Porter Novelli)

Take a Tour of Edinburgh's Spirited Past

Posted October 8, 2009 by Kate Hamman

Scotland-Edinburgh-Rowan'sClose-DEF As you wander through Edinburgh's cobblestoned streets with its castle looming overhead and gothic architecture at every turn, you may feel the hands of time slip away. The city begs your imagination to run wild with tales of past residents still walking among the living. Fall couldn't be a better time to explore its ghastly past with a haunted tour, a spirited meal, and a devious cocktail.

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Mercat Tours: For more than 20 years, Mercat Tours has communed with Edinburgh's paranormal. If you dare, a guide will take you on a journey along the streets and into the underground of Scotland's most haunted city, while telling tales of murder, hangings, plague, and torture. The Ghosts and Ghouls Tour is one of the more popular, and starts at £8.50 (about $13.70 U.S.; check XE.com for current exchange rates.)

Eat
The Witchery: Near the gates of Edinburgh Castle, you'll find a devilish restaurant of haunting proportions. The Witchery attracts celebrities and locals alike, with its gothic atmosphere, gourmet eats, and impressive wine selection. Though a bit pricier than most meals in the city, you'll find the experience of dining like royalty to be worth every penny. Dinner entrees start at £14.95, and a two-course lunch special for £13.95 can't be beat.

Drink
The Last Drop: If you think this pub's name means that drinks are good to the final swallow, you're only half wrong. The Last Drop takes its name from the last man to publicly hang in Grassmarket, just steps from this site. Rumor has it that the executioner let the condemned man have one final drink in the pub before ending his life. Drop in for an Executioner cocktail, a mix of strong cider and dark ale, and take a gander at the many ropes and relics adorning the walls.

To search for flights and compare prices to Edinburgh, please use our price-comparison tool.

(Photo: Mercat Tours)


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