World's Prettiest Castle Towns

What does a fairy-tale Renaissance palace in Italy have in common with a fortress in South Korea? Both are surrounded by communities that are just as intriguing as the castles themselves. Here we bring you the 10 best town-and-crown day trips in the world.


Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany

Germany's so-called Romantic Road—which slices north to south through the southern German state of Bavaria—earned its name for its string of stunning castles. But most of the region's bastions are stand-alone tourist attractions, not thriving municipalities. A charming exception is Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a red-walled town set up on a hill above the Tauber River. It has all the pastoral views and scenery of the Romantic Road's other castle stops yet has a strong civic pulse, too. Walt Disney was so taken by the town, in fact, that he used it as inspiration for the village in the movie Pinocchio. An earthquake destroyed the castle's main tower in 1356, but the town's red-roofed medieval and Renaissance houses have endured for centuries and were fully restored after World War II. Visitors can tour the castle's stone towers—protected beneath covered walkways—and stop by its base, where crafts shops sell everything from antique clocks to handmade garden gnomes. Cuisine is celebrated here in a way it isn't in largerGerman cities like Frankfurt or Berlin, let alone in castle canteens elsewhere. You may come here for the shining armor—but you'll return for the delicious renditions of Bavarian comfort foods (more spätzle, anyone?).
Getting There:
The closest major tourist city to Rothenburg ob der Tauber is Munich, which sits about 130 miles southeast. Train service runs between the two cities and takes about three hours (tickets from $67). You can also drive: The A7 autobahn runs right past town.
Visiting the town is free.

Sintra, Portugal

Sintra is like the one-stop shop for castle lovers, with not one, not two, but three gorgeous castles. This medieval stronghold town is so beautiful it was called Glorious Eden by the British poet Lord Byron. The town's focal point, Sintra National Palace, is distinctive for its whimsical interiors: columns twisted like barley, an Arab-style courtyard situated around pretty fountains, and glazed tile work known as azulejos. Beyond the town's fortress walls—but still within walking distance—Pena National Palace, with its cupolas, minarets, and lookout towers in cherry, lemon, and white hues, stands on a hilltop overlooking a green forest. On another nearby hill, a once-proud Moorish castle lingers in romantic ruins. In between, the old town of Sintra has a mix of Gothic, Renaissance, and art nouveau homes, not to mention many stone-wall shops selling authentic antiques, wine, and paintings—all of this framed by a lushly forested seaside national park.
Getting There:
Sintra sits about 20 miles northwest of Lisbon. Trains run between the two destinations about every 20 minutes, out of Lisbon's Rossio station, and tickets cost $2.60 each way.
Entrance fees to the town's three castles range from $9.50 to $16.20; visiting the ruins is free.

Palmanova, Italy

Founded in 1593 as a stronghold of the Venetian Republic, this UNESCO World Heritage town was built in a unique, 18-sided octadecagon shape. When viewed from above, the fortress community looks like a delicately made paper snowflake, with streets radiating out of the structure like sunbeams. Tucked into a valley with a lagoon running into the Adriatic Sea, the land surrounding Palmanova yields high-quality Chardonnay, while the local waters are stocked with mullet, sea bass, and other delicious fish. In town, look out for the symbol of a leafy bough, or a frasca, hanging outside of restaurants to pinpoint ones serving regionally sourced food, such as the classic Venetian dish baccalà, made with dry-salted cod. At night, the city's earth-and-stone defensive works are lit up like a movie set.
Getting There:
Palmanova sits between Venice and Trieste in northeastern Italy. It's accessible by car along the A4 and A23 motorways and Highway 352. Venice is 75 miles to the southwest, while Trieste is 34 miles to the southeast. The town also sits close to the Cervignano del Friuli station and is serviced by the Udine railway (prices vary).
Admission to the town's three castles is free.

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