In the United Kingdom and Ireland, history’s not just in the past. Medieval castles loom large today, just as they did centuries ago, keeping the region’s storied history alive, palpable, and always ready to be rediscovered. From well-known legends to local favorites, here’s our list of the area’s most iconic castles.
This castle has had a major facelift since its medieval glory days.
Positioned at the shore of an island where three of Scotland’s biggest lochs meet, it was originally built in the 13th century to protect against Viking raids. But it was completely destroyed in 1719 during the Jacobite Risings, a series of conflicts disputing the British throne. Luckily, it’s since been fully restored according to its original floor plan by an enterprising Lieutenant who bought the whole island in 1911.
Unlike other mighty castles, Stirling is more known for spectacular failures than heroic legends.
It was under siege at least 16 times, and ownership changed hands eight times during the Scottish and English battles of the 13th and 14th centuries. It’s also where John Damian, a bumbling Italian alchemist, tried his hand at flying by jumping from the castle walls wearing wings made of hen feathers. He only broke his leg.
It’s the defining structure of Scotland’s capital, with some seriously ancient history. We’re talking single-digits ancient.
It sits atop Castle Rock, an extinct volcano that has been home to human life since as early as A.D. 2. Today, the castle is home to Scotland’s crown jewels and The Stone of Destiny. Once used to enthrone Scottish kings, this ancient stone was finally returned to Scotland in 1996 after 700 years in London’s Westminster Abbey.
Saint Patrick’s favorite castle is barely standing, but it’s an intriguing sight nonetheless.
Dunservick is one of the oldest castles in Ireland, dating back to the 5th century, and was a spot frequently visited by Ireland’s patron saint. Unfortunately, it was mostly destroyed during conflict in 1641. But the two main façades still stand, rubble and grassy overgrowth in the space between them, serving as an eerie tribute to the castle’s former greatness.
This fortress in the center of Dublin is a perfect symbol of the Republic of Ireland’s hard-won freedom.
It served as headquarters for occupying British forces for hundreds of years, until an Irish Free State was created. Michael Collins, famed rebel and military strategist, formally accepted Dublin Castle back to Irish rule in 1922. Reportedly, Collins was told he was seven minutes late for the handoff proceedings, to which he quipped, “We’ve been waiting over seven hundred years. You can have the extra seven minutes.”
Apparently, the Devil should’ve seen a dentist after creating this historic site.
According to local myth, the rocky grounds were formed by a chunk of stone that the Devil bit out of a nearby mountain. After the demon realized he chipped a tooth in the process, he spit the bite out, creating the Rock of Cashel. Sitting atop the Rock are several structures, like a chapel and a graveyard, that showcase Irish architecture and art.
Want the gift of gab? You’ve got to kiss the castle’s signature stone, but it’s not as easy as it sounds.
First, climb the narrow, winding staircases to the top of the castle. Then, lie on your back, head dangling over the edge of the wall, reaching forward toward the just-out-of-reach stone. Finally, lean in for the big smooch. There’s always friendly castle staff on hand to help, but you’ll certainly be working for the gift of gab you’ll receive.
The Royal family has resided at Windsor, on the outskirts of London, for about 1,000 years—but that wasn’t always public knowledge.
During World War II, the castle served as a secret hideaway for the royals, protecting them from blitz strikes in the city. Windows were blacked out and bedrooms were fortified to keep the royal family safe, and to keep their whereabouts a secret. To maintain the country’s morale, it was widely reported that the family was at Buckingham Palace in central London.
Look past Warwick’s current amusement-park-esque attractions and reenactments. The castle’s wartime remnants are the real draw.
In 1048, William the Conqueror built The Mound, offering a perfect overhead view of invading troops. Centuries-old prisoner graffiti is still visible on the walls of The Gaol, the castle’s original dungeon. And the castle houses the world’s largest functioning siege machine, complete with a catapult.
Ever heard of the leaning tower of Wales? Probably not, but you can find it here.
Legend has it that the castle’s south tower leans due to Oliver Cromwell’s attempts to destroy the castle during the English Civil War. (Though the likely reality is less scandalous: subsidence, a natural phenomenon involving gradual sinking, is probably to blame.) Some Welsh officials even claim that the Caerphilly tower leans twice as much as the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
What do an infamous Nazi commander and a glamorous English queen have in common? They both did time in the Tower’s jail.
The Tower of London was most famously used as a prison, favored by kings and prime ministers for their most high-profile detainees. That included inmates like Henry VIII’s wives Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard in the mid-1500s, soldier and revolutionary Guy Fawkes in 1606, and second-in-command Nazi officer Rudolph Hess in 1941.
Cue the dragons and wizards: According to legend, King Arthur was born here in the 12th century, before being whisked away by Merlin.
It’s also said that Tristan and Isolde kindled their romance here. One medieval writer claimed that the castle was built by giants—and that it disappeared twice a year. One thing is for sure today: Tintagel is present all year round, and its mythic atmosphere is intensified by cliffside steps and dramatic ocean views.