Some castles in Italy are fortified but stately residences clinging to rocky outcroppings that loom over fishing boats bobbing in the aquamarine bays of the Mediterranean Sea. Others are ancient, windowless defenses built to keep an eye over once-vast inland territories.
What they share is a sense of living history that can anchor fantastic day trips from Rome, Florence and Venice. Or they’re worth planning an entire trip around.
Despite the variety available in Italy, Americans who daydream about castles probably think first of Britain or Germany. There are more than enough castles in Italy to satisfy any traveler with a taste for medieval architecture.
To help fix the mistake, here’s a quick look at some of the coolest:
Andrea Doria, Portovenere
The Liguria region in the northwest, home to Genoa and the famous colorful towns of Cinque Terre, has some of the most spectacular castles in the country. One of the most famous is Andrea Doria, which shares a name with the Italian ocean liner than that sank in 1956. Now used for weddings and other functions, the castle hovers over the tiny village of Portovenere with a magnificent view of St. Peter’s Church.
Odescalchi, Lake Bracciano
Just a few miles north of Rome, this 15th-century castle with rounded turrets and high stone walls served as the home for two families that sent popes to the Vatican, the Borgias and the Orsini. Lately, it has become famous for hosting celebrity weddings, including Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. Besides a penchant for bling, the castle also boasts Renaissance frescoes and period furnishings in its cavernous halls, plus and manicured gardens throughout the grounds.
Castello Brown, Portofino
The Italian castle with an English name, Castello Brown was built in the 16th century on the site of a Roman watchtower. It was in ruins when a British diplomat restored it in the 1800s, and now visitors can take in a beautiful view of the boats of the international jet-set that fill the Portofino bay. When a posh wedding isn’t taking place here, you can walk through the lush gardens that cover the hills around the castle, stopping to relax under a pergola amid the rose bushes.
Scaligero, Lake Garda
Not far from Venice, Lake Garda is ringed by a handful of castles built by the Scaligero lords of Verona. The most impressive, in Sirmione, features well-preserved towers and crenelated walls that dominate the entrance to town, and passing through its gate is the only way to access the village by land. The fairytale setting sometimes is called the Sinking Castle, but that’s a misnomer. It was actually built into the lake as a fortified port, with high walls that rise straight from the glacial-blue water, making it appear flooded from above.
Rocca Maggiore, Assisi
Since it’s in the hometown of St. Francis of Assisi, the Rocca Maggiore often gets overlooked even though it’s perched on a promontory above. But once you make a pass through the saint’s cathedral, head uphill for commanding views of the Umbrian countryside. For centuries used as a defensive citadel, the muscular fortress was built starting in the 1100s. Visitors nowadays can wander through its claustrophobic passageways and see recreations of medieval life in several halls.
This 12th century castle may be in ruins, but it still has a working drawbridge and panoramic views of Lake Como, in the Lombardy region. What mostly remains up a steep hill from Varenna are a walled enclosure built around a square tower and haunting sculptures of shrouded figures. One thing that also sets it apart is a falconry show.
Fortress of San Nicola, Tremiti Islands
This fortress in the Tremiti Islands off the coast of Puglia, or the heel of the Italian boot, seems as if it were carved from the sun-bleached limestone cliff it sits upon. The contrasting aquamarine sea below helps make this castle one of the most beautiful scenes in all of Italy. It’s well off the beaten path, but the castle and idyllic island of San Nicola are easily reachable by ferry from the mainland.
Naturally, once you get there, the castle is a sliver of the bounty that awaits. Take the time to visit AAA Exclusive Vacations to see how counselors can help you plan a trip to see castles in Italy.
What is your favorite Italian castle? Tell us in the comments below.