10 Real-Life Fairy Tale Castles

Fantasy in reality

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Castles are often romanticized in fairy tales. They are homes for royal protagonists and settings for drama and romance. In reality, many castles were built more for fortification and functionality than for beauty.

That changed, however, as advancements in weapons and warfare made thick castle walls obsolete. So, during the Renaissance, builders focused on beauty instead of protection. The results were castles that would be right at home -- in fact, they'd be the home -- in the pages of a fantasy.

The following 10 castles all pass that fairy tale test. Some fit the part because of their architecture, others because of their history. You can visit them all to soak in the magic.

Belem Tower, Lisbon

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The Torre de Belem, Belem Tower, sits on the bank of the Tagus River in Lisbon. The bastion and 100-foot-tall tower are made from local limestone, and the structure's interior is characterized by ribbed vaulting, which defines the "Manueline" architectural style that was popular in Portugal in the 16th century.

The tower is considered a gateway to Lisbon and a symbol of the legendary explorers, like Vasco de Gama, who made Portugal one of the world’s most powerful empires in the 16th century. Together with the nearby Jeronimos (Hieronymites) Monastery, which also commemorates Portugal's prolific sailors, the tower is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visitors must cross a small bridge to reach the tower, which often appears to be floating on the river.

Bobolice Castle, Poland

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Built in the 1300s, Bobolice Castle now stands in its namesake village. It was originally part of a network of fortifications that protected Poland's border in the 14th century. The cylindrical towers give the structure a fairy-tale appearance, but the real story of Bobolice is more interesting.

The castle changed hands numerous times, and a treasure was reportedly found in the cellars and tunnels under the castle in the 19th century. The history of Bobolice has inspired legends and stories about hidden gold, star-crossed lovers and the ghosts of past inhabitants (who allegedly still haunt the halls and towers). The castle opened to the public after renovations in 2011, and the property now has a hotel, restaurant and various sites for private events.

Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

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Built in the latter half of the 19th century, this castle is one of the best remaining examples of the Romanesque Revival style. Neuschwanstein has a real connection to the world of fairy tales: It was reportedly the inspiration for Disney's Sleeping Beauty Castle.

Despite the "Sleeping Beauty" connection, the real history of Neuschwanstein Castle is not very fairy tale-like. The castle was commissioned by the intensely private Bavarian king Ludwig II — a place where he hoped to hide from public life. Ironically, the castle was not fully completed until after his death and Ludwig spent only a handful of nights on the property. His estate opened it to the public not long after he died. Today, more than 1 million tourists make the trek to the Hohenschwangau Valley each year to visit the castle.

Burg Eltz, Germany

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Burg Eltz, or Eltz Castle in English, is located in Germany not far from the city of Trier. Originally constructed sometime in the 12th century, portions may date to a time several hundred years earlier. The castle has been added to and renovated over the centuries, but one thing remains the same: The descendants of the Eltz family, the same one that originally built the castle, still own and live on the property.

Portions of the castle are open the the public. The Moselle River Valley, where the structure is located, is known for its scenery, and the castle, which features 100-foot towers, is visually stunning. The interior, which can be viewed as part of a tour, contains artifacts from the last 800 years.

St. Michael's Mount, England

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St. Michael's Mount is an island in Cornwall, England, connected to the mainland by a granite causeway that is passable during mid and low tide. Because of this, some visitors travel by boat to get there. The earliest buildings on the island date to the 1100s, and the current residents, from the Saint Aubyn family, have lived there since the 17th century. Today, St. Michael's and its castle, which is overseen by the National Trust, are open to the public.

Perhaps because of its unusual appearance, the castle and island are the setting for numerous legends. Seafarers have told stories about mermaids luring them to the island and spoken of seeing apparitions of St. Michael (the patron saint of fishermen). Some myths even suggest that the giant in the Cornish fairy tale Jack the Giant Killer made his home on the island before he was slain.

Alcázar of Segovia, Spain

Photo: Fernando García/Wikimedia Commons

Alcázars are fortifications and palaces built during Moorish rule on the Iberian Peninsula. The Alcázar of Segovia is one of the most visually stunning of these structures. The castle was featured in the 1960s musical "Camelot" and is said to have also inspired the design of Disney's Cinderella castle.

This Alcázar, which sits on a rock above a river valley, is shaped like the bow of a ship. Its circular towers make it seem like a fitting royal residence. Rulers, including Queen Isabella I, had traditionally lived there, but the royal court eventually moved to Madrid, and the Alcázar was converted into a prison. Two centuries later, in 1762, it became a military academy. Today, the castle is open to the public.

Château de Chenonceau, France

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The Chateau de Chenonceau is not the kind of towering structure usually associated with fairy tale palaces, but it's quite stunning to behold. The castle sits over the River Cher, a tributary of the Loire River. Arches allow the water to pass underneath the structure. The architecture is a mixture of late Gothic and early Renaissance design, and the elaborate gardens outside the castle draw more visitors than any other gardens in France save for those at Versailles.

The interior of Chenonceau matches the exterior and gardens in terms of how elaborate it is. The colorful decorations, period furnishings and detailed paintings have all been carefully preserved. Tours are available every day.

Doune Castle, Scotland

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You've seen Doune Castle before, even if you've never set foot in Perthshire, Scotland, where the structure has stood since the start of the 15th century. The castle replaced an even older building that dated back several hundred years earlier. The exterior of Doune is somewhat weathered, but the interior halls have been well preserved.

Where have you seen Doune before? The castle was used extensively during the filming of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." Different parts of the property were used for different fictional castles in the famous comedy film. More recently, the castle was used as Winterfell in HBO's "Game of Thrones" and as a set for the time travel series "Outlander." Despite not having an ornate, Disney-worthy appearance, Doune Castle has certainly played a major role when it comes to medieval fantasy.

Matsumoto Castle, Japan

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Matsumoto Castle, built in the 16th century, is in Nagano Prefecture. It's unique in that it was built on a plain instead of in the surrounding mountains. A series of moats, gates and a towering keep were used to provide protection. This design now serves to create an attractive landscape that makes this one of the most popular castles in Japan.

Matsumoto stands out because its wooden interior remains largely intact. (Many other castles have been rebuilt or reinforced with ferro-cement.) Visitors can climb to the sixth floor of the keep for views of the surroundings. The outer gardens feature cherry blossom trees that flower in the springtime, and the grounds also play host to torchlight "Takigi Noh" plays and traditional Taiko drum festivals.

Swallow's Nest, Ukraine

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The Swallow's Nest was designed specifically to catch visitors' attention with its fairy tale appearance. The small, neo-Gothic decorative castle sits on a 130-foot Black Sea cliff in a resort town near Yalta on the Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. The building is only 60 feet by 33 feet. It was built in the early 20th century to replace a wooden building that had previously sat on the edge of the cliff.

The castle is a tourist attraction, and is open daily. The small rooms feature rotating exhibits. The Nest is right outside of Gaspra, a resort town that was once popular with the likes of Leo Tolstoy (who lived there in 1901).