Explore Europe's Most Magnificent Castles

From beheadings to extravagant parties, castles around the world have been used for a variety of purposes. They were built as defensive fortresses to protect against invaders and as a launching ground for battles. At the same time, castles also served as a symbol of prestige.

Kings, queens and monarchs turned their castles into palaces and spent generously to add to the grandeur of their homes. Castles are romantic because they "take you back in your imagination," said author and illustrator A.G. Smith, who has authored several books on castles.

If you're dreaming of traveling back in time and planning a trip to Europe, here is a list of the Top 10 most lavish castles in Europe that are rich in history and architectural elegance, and which you should be sure not to miss. Whether it be dark dungeons or lofty towers, these castles stand out from their counterparts in their magnificence and opulence.

Windsor Castle – Windsor, England


Towering over the suburban, quiet city of Windsor, the 900-year-old sprawling structure holds the title of the largest and oldest inhabited castle in the world. Its official resident, the queen of England, has hosted an array of famous names, including Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. It's also one of the most visited castles in Europe. William the Conqueror built the castle in 1066 to protect the western borders of London after he invaded England. It was expanded by later monarchs and served as a royal palace, burial ground and even a prison for a brief time in the mid-1600s. It was Charles II who added grandeur to the castle. In the 1670s, he employed numerous wood-carvers and architects to deck the interior with art and murals. A fire destroyed part of the 12-acre castle in 1992, after which the government spent five years and $59.2 million to undertake one of the largest historic restoration projects.

Warwick Castle – Warwick, England


Long before William the Conqueror began construction on another medieval fort in the city of Warwick, the daughter of Alfred the Great ordered walls to be built to protect the city in 914. This was the beginning of the Warwick Castle, which, in 1068 was expanded by William the Conqueror for defensive purposes. Since then, it has been home to Richard de Beauchamp, Joan of Arc's inquisitor, and Richard Neville, the 16th earl of Warwick, among other famous names. It was the de Beauchamps that turned the castle into their palace and added the castle's lofty towers and dark dungeons. It is the last remaining pre-Civil War castle. Even King Henry VI was imprisoned at a tower here. In 1978, the Warwick Castle was sold to the Tussauds group, and visitors today can get a virtual tour of British history, from the scenes of Warwick in 1471 to Victorian gardens to wax statues of Neville preparing to fight.

Neuschwanstein – Bavaria, Germany


Nestled between snow-capped mountains, this Bavarian castle is famous for its breathtaking surroundings and beautiful interior. "King Ludwig spent lavish amounts of money on these castles. This is what you think of when you think of Cinderella castle," Smith said. It certainly fulfills its original goal, to offer refuge from the public. King Ludwig II, also known as the "mad Bavarian king," built the castle in 1868 to do just that after he left the throne. The interior reflects this idea of a retreat. Filled with political and religious symbols and images of medieval legends, the castle transforms the visitor to the life of a lone king retiring into his worldly haven. However, the exterior is far from subdued. With its ornate towers and expansive walls, Neuschwanstein has been dubbed by The New York Times as "the most fantastic castle in the world." Disney certainly thought so. It modeled its "Sleeping Beauty" castle after this famous retreat.

Leeds Castle – Kent, England


The 900-year-old castle is perched on an island in River Len, and the isolation only serves to magnify its splendor. "It really does take your breath away," said TravelandLeisure.com's executive editor Rich Beattie. "That's one place where it is really easy to imagine yourself as English royalty coming in and soaking up the regalness of the atmosphere." Dubbed one of the most romantic European castles by the Travel Channel and New York Times, the picturesque 500-acre property not only houses family treasures, it also provides a window into ninth century architecture. The fact that Leeds Castle was part of a queen's dowry between 1278 to 1522, including Queen Isabella and Anne of Bohemia, earned it the moniker of "Ladies' Castle." It was under the patronage of six medieval queens, including Catherine of Argon, wife of Henry VIII. The king visited the castle frequently and spent lavishly on the fort, turning it into a royal palace complete with elaborate banquet halls and well-manicured gardens. The green lawns where the kings and queens once romanced have been converted into golf courses.

Edinburgh Castle – Edinburgh, Scotland


Built on a volcanic rock, the Edinburgh castle is one of Scotland's most important and historical forts that has stood through numerous battles, invasions and sieges. Historians believe people lived on the rock where the castle now stands as early as 850 B.C. The fort was begun in the 12th century, but it was not until the 15th and 16th centuries that its most ornate structures were created. It now houses Scottish crown jewels and the Stone of Destiny, on which the early Scottish kings were crowned. With its breathtaking views of Edinburgh, elaborate statues and fountains, the castle is a popular destination for tourists to Scotland. The castles are not just popular for their rich history, but also for the beauty of the views that can be seen from the fort, Smith said.

Prague Castle – Prague, Czech Republic


Among the red-roofed buildings of Prague stands the city's grandest structure and one of the largest castles in the world, the Prague Castle. The fort dates back to 880 when Czech Prince Borivoj ordered its construction. In the 10th century, the castle served as the epicenter of not only heads of state, but also the bishop of Prague. The first convent in Bohemia was established at the castle. While the castle was built principally for defense, its architecture is a symbol of the Renaissance movement's impact on Bohemian architecture. The crown jewels are kept in the Prague Castle along with other art and Christian treasures. With its churches, palaces, towers and gardens, the Prague Castle embodies various artistic styles, from Romanesque to Gothic to Renaissance.

Buda Castle – Budapest, Hungary

Mirrored perfectly in the Danube River, the 13th century Buda Castle is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that exudes the magnificence of the Hungarian kings. The castle was transformed from a fort into a grand palace by the Renaissance king Matthias. The Baroque-style castle was destroyed in 1686 and then in World War II, but was later rebuilt on an even grander scale, complete with an extravagant ballroom, a large dome and lavish interior spaces. UNESCO dubs it among the "world's outstanding urban landscapes."

Mont Saint Michel – Tanis, France


This Gothic French castle stands on its own -- in both grandeur and landscape. Located on the Gulf of Saint-Malo, the rocky, cone-shaped island castle is most famous for its Benedictine Abbey and unique Gothic architecture. The castle's origins as a church date back to 709, but it was French king Philip Augustus who sought to replace the Romanesque architecture with the Gothic style in the 13th century. Wars led the castle's residents to fortify it over time. The abbey, located 240 feet above sea level, has served numerous purposes -- its strong fortification provided resistance against the English in the Hundred Years' Wars, then served as prison walls in the French Revolution and presently serve as a historical monument. Mont Saint Michel is another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The castle still has a very medieval feel to it, said TravelandLeisure.com's Beattie. When the tide goes far out, visitors can actually wander around on the seafloor but when the tide comes in, one has to swim to return to the castle, he added.

Segovia – Spain


The historic city of Segovia near Madrid features the Alcazar Castle, encapsulated within fortified walls and 86 towers dating back to the 11th century. The castle was built in the 14th century and boasts a tower more than 345 feet high and topped by a cupola or a dome. Like many other castles, the fort was built for defense, with walls encapsulating the main structure. Historians believe the fortress was expanded by Alfonso VI after he captured the town of Segovia. His descendants, notably Alfonso X, expanded the castle to make it his private residence, decking the halls with art and grandeur.

Harlech Castle - Wales, England


Part of the "iron ring" of forts spread along the coast of Wales, the Harlech Castle sits atop a rugged rock, seemingly protecting the city much as it did when it was created. English monarch Edward I built the massive structure in the late 13th century for defense. "Harlech Castle is a perfect example of a castle as a fortification building. Up on a rock overlooking the ocean, it provides a fantastic sighting," Smith said. The strength of the castle is evident in its lofty stone towers and large gates. A large waterway that connected the castle to the sea is also a spectacular sight.