Forget fairytales, eastern Europe’s castles are the real deal, writes Katie McGonagle
Is it me, or did it just get chilly in here? No? Maybe it’s because one glance at the castle that inspired the home of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and I’ve got shivers down my spine and a sudden desire to invest in garlic and holy water.
Of course Dracula isn’t real, but that doesn’t make this Transylvanian icon any less dramatic. Whether you like your castles dark and mysterious or a little more Disney-esque, eastern Europe has dreaming spires and fortress-like citadels at every turn, each with a fascinating story to tell.
Find out a few of the secrets lurking inside those towers and you could inspire clients to visit them in person – just make sure they’re not easily spooked.
10 of the best castles:
1. Bran Castle, Romania
Some dispute whether this 14th-century fortress was really the model for Stoker’s Transylvanian lair, but there’s no doubt about its connections to Vlad the Impaler and to historic power struggles between the region’s dominant empires.
Fast forward to the 20th century and it became a royal residence and a Second World War hospital, then was taken over by the post-war communist regime before finally being restored and reopened as a museum.
Book it: Insight Vacations’ 17-day Treasures of the Balkans tours eight countries with a stop at Bran Castle. Prices start at £2,735 including flights, B&B accommodation, transfers and sightseeing.
2. Toompea Castle, Tallinn, Estonia
The history of this castle is tied up – according to legend, at least – with the very foundations of this capital city. It dates from the 13th century but has been rebuilt over the years, with the addition of the famous Tall Hermann tower, from which the Estonian flag is flown each day.
It is now home to the national parliament. Free tours are available on Fridays but must be pre-booked.
Book it: SuperBreak offers three nights’ B&B at the four-star Kreutzwald Hotel Tallinn, from £289, departing Gatwick on April 19.
3. Karlstejn Castle, Czech Republic
Expecting to see another Czech castle on this list? While Prague’s most famous monument is undeniably impressive – it’s the largest ancient castle in the world and home to the Bohemian Crown Jewels – your clients almost certainly know about it already.
If you’d rather offer something different, suggest the Gothic castle 20 miles away in Karlstejn. Founded in 1348, it towers above dense forest, with stunning views from its ramparts and historic artworks inside.
Book it: Do Something Different offers a half-day tour with pick-ups from Prague hotels from £32.
4. Trakai Castle, Lithuania
Plenty of castles boast their own estate, but there aren’t many that take up a whole island. Yet this Gothic beauty has an islet all to itself in the heart of Lake Galve, a 30-minute drive from capital Vilnius.
What began as a stronghold to support the neighbouring Trakai Peninsular Castle in the 14th century has been restored and transformed into a museum, even hosting concerts and plays in summer.
Book it: Regent Holidays’ 10-day Lithuania Fly-Drive Holiday from Vilnius starts at £790. The price includes B&B accommodation, car hire and Air Baltic flights.
5. Buda Castle, Budapest, Hungary
Buda Castle has a lot in common with Madonna: like the queen of reinvention, this palace and castle complex has been built and rebuilt several times since its foundation in 1265, after being sacked by the Ottomans, destroyed by 17th-century Christian raiders and left in ruins after a stand-off between Nazi and Soviet forces in 1944.
These days, Castle Hill is a must for any Budapest visitor, housing the National Gallery, Matthias Church and much-photographed Fisherman’s Bastion.
Book it: A half-day Budapest Castle Explorer costs £31 with Attraction World.
6. Peles Castle, Romania
Barely an hour from Dracula’s castle lies a lesser-known – but no less interesting – landmark.
Built in 1874 in the Carpathian Mountains, Peles Castle is a relative newcomer, yet its neo-Renaissance exterior and carefully planned interiors – each room is decorated in a different style, including Turkish, Venetian, Moorish and French – earn it a reputation as Romania’s most beautiful castle.
Book it: Travelcube has a full-day Peles Castle and Wine Tasting Tour departing Bucharest for £150, combining the former royal residence with a tasting and three-course meal at official royal supplier Azuga wine cellars.
7. Bled Castle, Slovenia
If picture-perfect sights top your clients’ holiday wishlist, this fairytale castle overlooking Lake Bled is a sure-fire winner. At more than 1,000 years old, it’s ancient as well as beautiful, offering panoramic views across Bled island, the town and forests of the Gorenjska region.
It can even host weddings in the Knights’ Hall or 12th-century chapel.
Book it: Balkan Holidays offers a week’s half-board in a lake-view room at the Grand Hotel Toplice from £715 in May, including transfers and easyJet flights. Wedding packages start at £3,299.
8. Wawel Royal Castle, Poland
No visit to Krakow would be complete without Wawel Hill and its Royal Castle. Not only was it home to Poland’s royal family for centuries, but it now houses one of the country’s best art museums.
Osprey Holidays reservations consultant Ross Merchant says: “This is the perfect attraction, whatever the weather. Enjoy the castle walls and beautiful location on a sunny day, or enjoy the inspiring exhibits inside when the weather isn’t so appealing.”
Book it: Two nights’ bed and breakfast at the four-star Hotel Unicus starts at £215 with Osprey Holidays, including flights from London.
9. Bratislava Castle, Slovenia
Dominating the skyline above Bratislava’s Old Town, this castle affords sweeping views over the surrounding countryside and Danube River below – after all, that’s why the site was chosen as a military stronghold as long ago as the ninth century – though if visitors can tear themselves away from the scenery, it also houses the Slovak National Museum. The castle is also lit up beautifully at night.
Book it: Three nights’ bed and breakfast at the four-star Lindner Hotel Gallery Central starts at £285 with Fred Holidays, with flights from Stansted or Birmingham.
10. Otocec Castle, Slovenia
This isn’t the most famous on the list, but the chance to stay in a real-life castle doesn’t come along very often. Set on an islet in the middle of the River Krka, this Relais & Chateaux hotel boasts peaceful surroundings and an impressive heritage, with features dating back as far as 1252.
Book it: Kirker Holidays offers three nights’ bed and breakfast from £768. The price includes Stansted-Ljubljana flights, private transfers and the services of a Kirker concierge.
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