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Here be dragons: 10 classic castles you can visit

There’s something about ancient forts and castles that stirs our imagination, transporting us back to more heroic times.

The launch of House of the Dragons, the prequel to streaming mega-hit Game of Thrones has renewed interest in historic fortresses including some that that have provided backdrops to the televisual feasts.

With that in mind, Sue Williams lays siege to ten of the world’s most compelling castles.

Medieval city wall built in the Romanesque style, Avila in Spain

One of the most stunning is at Ávila, which has the most complete fortified complex in Spain standing high on a hillside. Towering walls built between the 11th and 14th Centuries stretch for 2,500 metres around the town, studded by 90 fortified towers. Inside, there are churches, Gothic palaces and the 12th Century cathedral. If the townsfolk decided to slam shut the gates, even Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons might have trouble getting inside.


On a lofty hilltop, and encircled by 12th Century fortress walls, Óbidos is one of the most lovingly preserved Medieval towns in Portugal. The best vantage point to explore its many charms are on those walls, walking across the tops for splendid views of the cobbled streets, painted houses, churches and tiny shops. The town is traditionally known as the Town of the Queens, since many queens of Portugal used to regularly visit. None, happily, was as vicious as Cersei Lannister.


The fortress outside the western walls of the city, it will be immediately recognisable as a stand-in for GoT’s King’s Landing. It’s a stunning feat of engineering as it took just three months to build. It was important for rejecting advances from Venice which wanted to take it – but those 12-metre thick walls were simply impenetrable. Its beauty lies mostly in its location, right on the coast, and these days it provides the stunning backdrop for the cliff-diving world series.


The city of Ait-Ben-Haddou in Morocco is an ancient, mostly abandoned fortification noted for its clay architecture. In addition to being used by Game of Thrones as a stand-in for Yunkai and Pentos, the town has seen the filming of Prince of Persia (2010)Babel (2006), Kingdom of Heaven (2005), Gladiator (2000), The Mummy (1999), Jesus of Nazareth (1977), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and many notable titles.

Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Audience) at the Red Fort in New Delhi, India.

Built of burnished red sandstone in 1639 right in the centre of the city, the red fort was the home of the Mughal dynasty emperors until 1857 and later used as a garrison. These days a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it houses a number of museums and is one of Delhi’s most popular sights. Even today, it serves as a bastion of peace. Outside, you make your way through crowds of beggars, often tiny children holding even tinier children asking for food. Inside, it’s blessedly peaceful, with gardens, a teahouse and the mosque.   

Wikipedia – Red Fort Delhi


Windsor Castle

The oldest and largest occupied castle in the world, visitors are these days allowed to climb the 200 steps to the top of its round tower. From the summit, there are great views over the castle, the River Thames and the London skyline. When the Queen is in residence of her favourite weekender, the castle’s 15-metre flagpole flies the Royal Standard, and the Union Flag when she’s away.  Built in the 11th Century after the Norman invasion by William the Conqueror, inside is the 15th Century Gothic chapel, and it’s had various functions throughout its lifetime. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I used it frequently as a royal court and later it became, markedly less pleasantly, Charles I’s prison.


This was once one of the most stunning sites in the Middle East, right in the middle of Syria’s second city with locals – and tourists – strolling arm-in-arm around its 13th Century ramparts as it glowed softly gold in the morning and evening light. Today, after the five-year-long war, reports say parts of the citadel have collapsed and rubble clogs its formerly magnificent moat. Before the war, it was an amazing place, with tiny shops and stalls surrounding it, selling jewellery and religious artefacts. “We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future,” one of the shopkeepers told me when I was there just before the outbreak of war. “But the citadel has withstood many things, and we are confident it will still always be here.” But, of course, no one back then could ever have imagined the ferocity of the fighting that’s gone on since.


When it was built in 1406 on the banks of the River Nogat by a Catholic religious group that became a military order, this was the world’s largest brick castle. Today, it’s still the biggest castle on earth by surface area. Staring up at its massive Gothic-style brick walls, you can just imagine boiling oil poured down to keep the enemy at bay, or showers of rocks thrown from the ramparts.


The Rock of Gibraltar, technically British but which should really be given back to the Spanish, is a stunning place in a magical location between Europe and Africa, with its sheer cliff face, its 16th Century Medieval structures and the tunnels carved into the rock to allow it to withstand sieges. I first visited as a small child and, while I was overwhelmed by its beauty, I hated the monkeys after one of the Barbary Macaques jumped over and pulled my hair. Hard.

  1. Doune Castle, Scotland

Getting back to Game of Thrones, Winterfell scenes were filmed at Doune Castle in Stirling, Scotland, largely in the show’s first season. The real castle is quite a bit smaller than Winterfell is imagined on-screen, but the magic of cinematography gives it greater expanse. Doune Castle was also recently used as Leoch Castle in the Outlander (2014) series, as well as many iconic scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), including those involving the Trojan Rabbit.

  • Sue Williams visited Spain and Portugal as a guest of Bunnik


Sue Williams
Sue Williams
Sue Williams is an award-winning journalist and author who’s written for all of Australia’s leading newspapers and magazines and has published 25 books.

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