World's prettiest castles

(Photo: S.Borisov / Shutterstock)

Gone are the days of kings and queens ruling the populace from on high (in most of the world, anyway). But while many monarchs have fallen, their palaces remain as permanent — and beautiful — testaments to their rulers' transient power. From the fairy-tale spires of German castles to the delicate wooden eaves of Japanese feudal strongholds, these royal dwellings have prevailed long after their original residents abandoned them. We've rounded up 10 inspiring castles that captivate travelers with their stunning architecture and fascinating royal histories.

The Alhambra
Granada, Spain


From its perch atop al-Sabika hill in Granada (about 260 miles south of Madrid), the Alhambra served as an ideal military fortress thanks to its isolated location and coveted views of the surrounding area. The palace didn't become a true royal residence until Muhammed I, the first sultan of the Nasrid Dynasty, arrived in the 13th century. As new sultans came and went, the Alhambra continued to grow. Yusuf I built the Justice Tower in 1348 to serve as the castle's grand arched gateway. Yusuf's successor, Muhammed V, commissioned the Patio of the Lions, which is still famed today for its lion-shaped fountain and Islamic architecture. However, Muslim rule in southern Spain faded quickly. In 1492, Sultan Muhammed XII surrendered the Alhambra to Spanish King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor (and Ferdinand and Isabella's grandson), began a renovation of the Alhambra in 1527. But the older designs still shine through, especially in the Hall of the Moors with its carved ceiling and elegant cupola.

(Photo: Yuri Yavnik / Shutterstock)
Matsumoto Castle
Matsumoto, Japan


Built in 1504 during the Sengoku (Japan's civil war period), Matsumoto Castle was originally designed as a small fortress. It wasn't until Japan's unification under the Tokugawa shogunate in the early 17th century that Matsumoto Castle was refashioned into the three-turreted structure we see today. Matsumoto was built to withstand enemy attack, but by the time it was assembled around 1595, Japan's wars were drawing to a close. Matsumoto was never attacked, which is probably why its 95-foot-tall tower is Japan's longest-standing inner tower. Visitors to Matsumoto — which sits about 44 miles southwest of Nagano in central Japan — can marvel at the castle's black walls and swooping, tiered eaves that earned it the nickname Crow Castle (Karasu-jo in Japanese). Plus, a peek out the fifth- or sixth-floor windows affords sweeping vistas of the surrounding mountains. Meanwhile, the landscaped grounds below burst with gorgeous cherry, azalea and wisteria blossoms in the spring.

(Photo: Jose Ignacio Soto /Shutterstock)
Château de Versailles
Versailles, France


When French King Louis XIII originally established Château de Versailles in 1631, it was just a hunting lodge situated about 15 miles west of Paris. It was his son, King Louis XIV, who expanded Versailles into a sprawling palace complex between 1661 and 1710. Each king who lived at Versailles added his own personal touch to the palace. In the 1670s, Louis XIV installed the resplendent Hall of Mirrors, with its intricate glasswork and chandeliers. And in 1774, Louis XVI gave his wife Marie Antoinette an expansive private estate, tucked away in Versailles' lush gardens. The French monarchy remained at Versailles until 1789, when an uprising connected to the French Revolution forced the regents to flee to Paris. In the years that followed the Revolution, Versailles served many purposes, acting as a lavish retreat for Napoleon Bonaparte, a French history museum (opened by King Louis-Philippe in 1837) and the staging ground for the Treaty of Versailles. Today, the palace is one of France's top tourist sites, luring millions of visitors each year.

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