Take a UK holiday without exploring a few of the country’s famous castles, and you’re sure to miss some of Europe’s most romantic sites, steeped in history and rich in cultural and artistic heritage. From large and easy to find, to small and almost forgotten ruins, each of the following castles offer a look behind centuries-old walls, hiding stories of murders, battles, sieges, and invasions.
1. Windsor Castle
The largest inhabited castle in the world, Windsor Castle has provided a home to British royalty since King Henry I began using it in the 11th century. Erected by William the Conqueror, who chose to build in a commanding spot overlooking the Thames, the castle withstood two potentially devastating sieges during the medieval period. Nine hundred years into its history, this giant structure remains the world’s oldest occupied castle, its sprawling grounds providing an idyllic setting for Queen Elizabeth II’s quiet weekends. Focus your visit on the staterooms, which date to the 17th century and reflect Charles II’s attempt to make his home as lavish as Versailles. Don’t miss a tour of St. George’s Chapel, one of the country’s finest examples of medieval architecture.
2. Warwick Castle
Another brainchild of William the Conqueror, Warwick Castle features imposing ramparts and towers looming over impeccably manicured lawns that stretch along the Avon River. Just an hour’s drive from London, the castle serves as a major tourist attraction in the area, famed for its lavish interior and regular medieval reenactments. Until just a few decades ago, this daunting structure served as the official home of Earls of Warwick. At the turn of the 20th century, Frances, Countess of Warwick, drew attention with her extravagant high-society castle parties, which were frequently attended by the likes of Winston Churchill and the future King Edward VII. Add the castle to your UK itinerary to watch reenacted jousting competitions or take part in lavish medieval banquets. Be sure to explore the castle dungeon if you wish to see an example of a medieval gibbet–a grim instrument of public execution.
3. Edinburgh Castle
The star attraction of one of Europe’s most visited urban centers, Edinburgh Castle is a major monument of Scottish heritage, situated on top of a large volcanic rock dominating the city’s skyline. Dating back to the 12th century, the castle sits on a site occupied since the late Bronze Age. The seat of Scottish royalty until the 17th century, the structure now holds the Scottish royal regalia, including the five-centuries-old crown, sword, and scepter used at several coronations of the country’s kings and queens. Guided tours remain the most efficient way to see the interior, offering visitors a chance to learn interesting facts about the castle’s long history and understand the importance of its priceless artifacts.
4. Leeds Castle
Leeds Castle serves as a favorite wedding venue for local couples, who choose it for their big day because of its romantic atmosphere and rich history date back to the 12th century. Include the structure in your UK trip planner to see what made this place Edward I’s favorite residence. Henry VIII made the castle the official home of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and notorious American publisher William Randolph Hearst wanted to live there for a while, until he found out the estate lacked modern bathrooms and electricity. Today, the castle offers a popular day-trip idea from London, featuring a maze grotto, golf course, and perhaps the only museum of dog collars in the world.
5. Tintagel Castle
Allegedly the birthplace of legendary King Arthur, Tintagel Castle sits on a picturesque Cornish peninsula and looks out over the Atlantic Ocean. Richard, Earl of Cornwall, built the structure eight centuries ago to resemble the court believed to have provided a home for King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Although only ruins of the castle walls remain, the legend of Arthur and Camelot remains strong to this day. Hundreds of Arthur enthusiasts visit the site every year, drawn by the mock battles staged here in honor of the mythical king and his noble knights. Take the rugged coastal walk to soak up some of that magic atmosphere undeniably present at this windswept Cornish location.
U.K. History 101
Plan a trip to the UK with a few of the country’s medieval fortifications in mind, and you’re likely to feel like you’ve traveled back in time to visit William the Conqueror, Henry VIII, or King Arthur of Camelot. Though they vary in size and state of preservation, these structures remain important history lessons, offering visitors a chance to learn about the country’s heritage in a fun and informative way.