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.
Historically, castle towns were designed to keep invaders out—the city walls, moats, and cannon ramparts all constructed to serve as protective barriers. But these days, those same majestic architectural features have proven irresistible to visitors, and now these communities welcome tourists with open arms—and gates (no storming the castle necessary!). We scoured the globe to find the most picturesque fortress towns in the world, places where you're just as likely to want to snap photos of the ramparts as you will street scenes of the locals. Best of all, these are real towns, so when you're finished exploring the castles' interiors, you'll have a reason to stick around and enjoy the royal backdrop while you experience the local culture.
About 470 miles west of Delhi looms what is said to be the world's only continuously occupied fort town, Jaisalmer, India. Rajput warriors and Jain merchants founded the so-called Golden City in 1156 and—unlike many fortress communities—it was never abandoned. Jaisalmer Fort rises nearly 25 stories off the flat, seemingly endless floor of the Great Thar Desert in western Rajasthan. Its 99 bastions were constructed out of yellow bentonite sandstone—giving it the appearance of a massive, intricately carved, sand castle. Around the flourishing town, countless temples and mansions stand out for their Technicolor red-, indigo-, and yellow-dyed walls typically decorated with lace-like carvings.
Getting There: A new airport will open near Jaisalmer in December 2011. Until then, you can reach the city via an overnight, 570-mile train journey from Delhi (tickets start at $3 per person, $6 per person for a sleeper-cabin seat), or else you can take a nine-day camel trip from Delhi (aetravel.com, prices vary).
Visiting: Admission is $5.
The unique mix of Islamic minarets, European buttresses, and pebble-stone mosaic pavements in the ancient city of Rhodes makes it look like a clash of cultures—A Knight's Tale meets a 17th-century Turkish village. Indeed, the town is located at the very heart of the crossroads between the Middle East, Europe, and Africa, and its varied architecture reflects all of those influences. Within the city's thick sandstone and limestone walls, you'll find the Palace of the Grand Masters, built by crusading knights in the 14th century, alongside a candy-striped mosque, a Byzantine museum, and a Muslim library—all legacies from the time of Turkish rule. Today, many of Rhodes's Greek residents are shopkeepers who sell honey produced by the island's many beekeepers; others craft necklaces and souvenirs made from shells cast ashore.
Getting There: The medieval town of Rhodes is located at the northern tip of the island of Rhodes—part of the Dodecanese chain. Olympic Airlines and Aegean Airlines both offer flights into the International Airport of Rhodes (prices vary), and five ferry lines connect to the island from the mainland (prices vary).
Visiting: Entry to the town of Rhodes is free; admission to the palace, museum, and other sites vary.
Naganeupseong, South Korea
South Korea may not leap to mind as a hotbed of castles, but in fact the country is flush with fortress towns built to thwart Japanese pirates. Instead of Braveheart-style stone fortresses, however, in Korea castles resemble elaborate pagoda-type buildings, surrounded by thick stone walls. The best preserved of these is in the town of Naganeupseong, a three-square-mile gem nestled in a valley beneath some low-lying mountains near the southwestern city of Suncheon. As remarkable as it is unpronounceable, Naganeupseong (nagan means "safe and pleasant"and seong means "castle") was built in 1397 and still has a couple hundred residents living in its hub of 30 or so thatched-roof adobe houses. Locals work in tile-roofed shops linked by pencil-thin stone alleyways, all of which lead to the town's focal point: the Nakpung-ru Castle. Most weekends, visitors can catch a changing-of-the-guard ceremony in front of its pagoda-style entrance, and every October, the town draws about 200,000 tourists to its Namdo food festival, where regional favorite dishes, such as sanchae bibimbap (a bowl of warm rice topped with vegetables), are served and traditional music is played on the 12-string gayageum.
Getting There: The town of Naganeupseong is accessible via a 25-minute taxi ride from Suncheon. Expect to pay about $3.50.
Visiting: Admission to the Nakpung-ru Castle is $1.75 for adults.