Castles: Europe’s Kid Pleasers

It’s hard to go wrong with a castle. The very word sets kids’ minds to imagining swordplay, armored knights or imprisoned princesses.

Almost any castle will do, and it doesn’t even need to be whole. In fact, ruined or semi-ruined ones are more fun, because they are great places for make-believe. Kids can safely walk the ramparts of several castles in Portugal — ours especially like the one at Marvao, overlooking the border with Spain, where they can defend the towers against imaginary Spanish armies.

A little homework helps — nothing makes a place so appealing as a good story, and a quick look at a website or a quirky guidebook should give you some ideas. In Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight, for example, is the window where the corpulent King Charles I got stuck while trying to escape imprisonment. The image of that embarrassed monarch brought giggles and questions about why the king was a prisoner in his own country. Every castle brings a history lesson with it.

Some castles make this really easy for you, with special programs and re-enactments. England’s Warwick Castle has enough of these to merit most of a day. Others have colorful brochures for kids with treasure hunts and quirky facts; Dover Castle has holographs of its former residents telling their stories. Others are hokey to say the least, such as the 30-foot braid that hangs from a window high in the tower of Germany’s Trendelburg, the supposed setting for Grimm Brothers’ Rapunzel. But that’s all the more fun for little kids.

Here are some of our kids’ favorite castles:

A fairytale castle at Marvao, Portugal

© Stillman Rogers

Marvão Castle, Portugal

Overlooking the Spanish border, this 13th-century fortress atop a steep rock escarpment was once a bulwark against invasion. Today, only part of its interior buildings and its giant cistern remain, but its thick walls stand as firm as the rock beneath it. Kids can safely walk the perimeter and defend it against armies, dragons or whatever their imaginations can conjure. The entire hilltop town of Marvão is enclosed by walls, and you enter through a thick stone gate.

With an active history that spans from William the Conqueror to World War II, Dover Castle has something for kids of all ages. Interactive exhibits inside the Great Tower include holograms of royal residents, costumed re-enactors and a royal throne they can sit on. Brightly painted reproduction furniture and textiles show a much more colorful medieval world than we might have imagined. A tour of the underground tunnels and map rooms of the World War II command post fascinated our teens.

Scaligeri Castle, Sirmeone, Italy

Lake Garda, Sirmione, Italy

© Stillman Rogers

The first sight of this small, 13th-century castle as you approach Sirmeone is enchanting. The village is completely surrounded by water, at the end of a long narrow peninsula jutting into Lake Garda. Step across the drawbridge (how cool is that?) and straight into the forecourt of the small, picture-perfect castle. Kids won’t mind the steep climb to the top of its crenelated towers when they see that from there they command the entire southern part of the lake, with their fleet safely enclosed in the fortified port below.

Koenigstein Castle, Germany

Germany, Weesenstein, Weesenstein Castle, gardens, Saxony,

© Stillman Rogers

In the eastern German region of Saxony, Koenigstein Castle is like a movie springing alive as you go in through the great cobblestone bridge and tunnel. Inside, models, detailed dioramas and life-sized costumed figures illustrate the history and more than two dozen media stations add color to the 800 years of the castle’s story. Kids love the underground casemates, and there’s a special audio guide in English for ages 6–12. Saxony has a lot of well-preserved castles, including Weesenstein and its beautiful gardens, and you can get free admission to more than 50 of them with the SchlösserlandPASS. Each pass includes one adult and two children.

Falaise Castle, France

France, Normandy, Falaise, Falaise castle, William the Conqueror, interior, exterior, Dukes of Normandy,

© Stillman Rogers

The three keeps, ramparts and 15 towers of the castle where William the Conqueror was born has the best interactive program for kids — and adults — of any our family visited. Our oldest is especially curious about details of how people lived and she was delighted with the 3D views on tablet devises. She could target any piece of furniture or decorative detail and see what it would have looked like when the castle was lived in, plus learn more detail about it (in English). Film projections, audiovisuals and replicas of period furniture and decor combine with the tablet technology to bring kids into 12th– and 13th-century castle life.