The 5 Best Castles in Wales

Raglan Castle entrance.

For anyone interested in medieval times, knights in shining armor, fair maidens, the struggles of kings and conquered peoples, and fortifications, the place to visit is Wales. This tiny country in the United Kingdom has the world’s best collection of existing castles from the Middle Ages.

Conwy Castle
Conwy Castle on the River Conwy in Wales.

Between the Norman invasion in 1066 and the English Civil War in 1651, warring English and Welsh forces constructed, and in many cases tried to destroy, more than 400 great stone fortresses. That’s a huge amount for such a small place. Some castles were constructed by Welsh princes to defend their homeland from the English invaders. Other castles were built by the English kings William of Normandy and Edward I to subjugate the proud nation of Wales.

Here’s my list of the top five castles to visit in Wales: Conwy, Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Harlech, and Raglan.

Conwy Castle inside view
Interior view of Conwy Castle.

I started my castle tour driving into Wales from the Roman town of Chester, England. The first stop was the magnificent Conwy Castle. Conwy has been described as “one of the most outstanding achievements of medieval military architecture.”  Conwy Castle was built from 1283-1289 to strategically protect the entrance to the River Conwy in north Wales. The English king Edward I withstood a siege in the castle in 1295 during a Welsh revolt. After climbing to the top of one of the towers, I could see for miles up and down the river. It was certainly built in the right spot to control the area.

Conwy Castle tower view
View from one of the towers of Conwy Castle.

Farther west along the coast of North Wales is Beaumaris Castle. This is the last of the many castles built by Edward I. Construction began in 1295 with 3,500 laborers on the job. After 35 years of building, the money and supplies ran out and the castle was never completed.

Beaumaris Castle entrance
The entrance to Beaumaris Castle.

Beaumaris was designed with geometric symmetry in a beautiful setting amidst marshland. Part of the castle was connected by a short protected channel to the Irish Sea, so ships could safely deliver men and supplies.

inside Beaumaris
Inside view of Beaumaris Castle.

The most famous castle in Wales is Caernarfon Castle. This fortress was modeled on the walls of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) and begun in 1283.

Caernarfon Castle
Caernarfon Castle in North Wales.

Caernarfon was intended as the seat of English government in Wales. In 1284, Edward I’s son was born in the castle and thus was dubbed the “Prince of Wales.” This tradition of giving the heir to the English throne the title of Prince of Wales carried forward all the way to 1969, when Prince Charles became the latest prince in a ceremony held at the castle.

Caernarfon Castle view
Interior view of Caernarfon Castle.

Situated on the west coast of Wales, Harlech Castle has a concentric design and is noted for its large gatehouse protecting the entrance to the castle. It was also built by Edward I from 1282-1289 during his invasion of Wales.

Harlech Castle
The imposing entrance to Harlech Castle.

Harlech was controlled by various sides in the English and Welsh wars and later in the English Civil War in 1461-1468, and was the site of several sieges. The castle was heavily damaged during the sieges and was never rebuilt.

Harlech Castle view.
Spectacular views of the Welsh countryside from one of the towers of Harlech Castle.

The last castle I visited before leaving Wales was Raglan Castle. It is one of the oldest castles in Wales, having been established by the Normans in the twelfth century. It was modified throughout the late medieval period.

Raglan Castle entrance.
The entrance to Raglan Castle.

Raglan was lived in for hundreds of years before being ruined during a siege in the English Civil War.

Raglan Castle tower view
Interior view of Raglan Castle from one of the towers.
Raglan Castle bathroom.
One of the bathrooms in Raglan Castle.

It was interesting to see the parts of the castle used for domestic purposes, such as the kitchen with its massive fireplaces and ovens, and even a latrine with a stone toilet seat!

As we know very well today, war is expensive. When the English invaded Wales, I wonder if King Edward I had any idea how much it was going to cost his treasury to build all of these castles to protect his conquests.

Was it worth it? Probably not, but it left us with a rich array of stunning military architecture to appreciate.




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A Cruise on the Rhine River

Rhine river valley castle

“Ow! That’s my foot!” I yelled.  The big SUV had rolled slowly forward.  I was standing outside the right rear passenger seat, reaching into my bag to grab some trash to throw away.  We had stopped at a gas station to get some gas and snacks.

The revolving tire pinned my foot to the ground for a second, then released it.  The big toe on my left foot started throbbing.


We had been having a great day touring the Rhine River Valley.  We were staying with friends outside of Düsseldorf, Germany.  Marc and his friend Christian were taking us down to the region south of Koblenz where the best part of the Rhine is.  Marc’s wife had to stay home to take care of their small children.

We barreled down the autobahn going 140 km/hr.  It was nice to relax in the backseat for a change instead of driving or navigating in a foreign country.  Having knowledgeable locals as our tour guides was a nice treat.  They had already looked up the necessary information for the day.  Our plan was to see the castles along the Rhine.

Rhine river valley castle
A castle on the Rhine River

We went to a small town on the Rhine called St. Goar.  The Koln-Düsseldorf (K-D) river cruise line stops at several towns along the Rhine, but the part of the river between St. Goar and Bacharach has the best castles.  We got on the boat in St. Goar after leaving our car in a parking lot near the dock.  The boat was crowded with German retirees and a handful of American tourists.  It was a splendid late summer day, sunny and warm.

The boat was an old side-paddle wheeler built in 1907.  It had a full restaurant and bar inside, but we pushed our way through the crowd to get outside to the front of the boat.  The deck chairs in the bow would give us the best views of the castles built into the hillsides above the Rhine.

Rhine castle
Hello! Anyone home?

The castles were built in the 12th and 13th centuries by enterprising families who made their fortunes by controlling the river traffic on the Rhine.  They would stretch a chain across the river and stop boats trying to go past.  The river was the main transportation channel in the region and the boats carried all the goods of the medieval economy.  As the families grew richer from their toll booths, they built castles to live in and to protect themselves and their business interests.

Some of the castles are just ruins today, but many castles still look magnificent high on the bluffs above the river.  Cruising on a river boat is the best way to see these castles as the boat plows upriver.

castle ruins
Nobody home here

We rode past Bacharach all the way up river to the town of Rudesheim.  In this town is a very old, narrow street called Drösselgasse.  This path has been filled with shops, restaurants, and beer gardens since the Middle Ages.  We walked up the hillside on the Drösselgasse and had an excellent late lunch in a rustic looking wine garden.

building in Rudesheim, Germany
A building on the Drosselgasse in Rudesheim, Germany

Next on our touring plan was to explore the best castle in the Rhine River area, called Burg Eltz.  This castle is actually in the nearby Mosel River Valley area, not on the Rhine.  The Mosel River is a tributary of the Rhine. We climbed out of the Rhine River Valley and crossed the Mosel.

Burg Eltz was not built by the robber barons of the Rhine.  It was built by three rich families from 1472 to 1530.  The three families each had their own section of the castle grounds.  The castle thus belonged to a community of joint heirs.  An engraving of the Burg Eltz was on a Deutschemark bill in the pre-euro Federal Republic of Germany. Marc remembered looking at this bill as a child.  Marc and Christian had never seen the Burg Eltz castle so they were eager to tour it.

The castle stands in a wooded area on top of a small hill, a few kilometers from the nearest village.  Unfortunately it was closed by the time we got there.  We drove past an area where shuttle buses ferried tourists to the castle to an overlook.  We had a fine view of the castle from this hill, however parts of the castle were covered in scaffolding and a huge crane dominated the skyline.  Renovations were underway.

Burg Eltz
Renovations at Burg Eltz

While I was peering at the castle in the distance, I noticed a man load two large dogs into a blue van inside the castle walls.  He opened a large wooden door that served as the main gate to the castle, drove the van through, and then closed and locked the door.  A few minutes later he re-appeared at the overlook.  He walked towards us yelling in a typically German way.  I guess we weren’t supposed to drive our car to the overlook.  Instead of arguing, we calmly walked back to our car, got in and drive away.  The man continued to turn red in the face and verbally blast us the whole time.  He needed to go somewhere and relax.  He was way too uptight. It’s not like we were planning to rob the place.  We were only looking at it from a distance.  Maybe he was the remaining descendant of the Kempenich family, whose part of the castle is not open to the public.

Being denied on our first attempt to tour the Burg Eltz, we tried to find a hotel to stay in for the night so that we could go back to the castle in the morning.  However, the Mosel River area is a very picturesque (and touristy) part of Germany.  It was a Saturday night on the last weekend of summer and every hotel we checked was full.  We decided to rocket back up the autobahn to home.

I’ve never been run over before.  I was lucky this time.  I pulled my sandal off to inspect it.  It looked OK.  I didn’t think it was broken.  Christian was very apologetic.

“I am so sorry, Steve,” he said. “We must take you to the hospital!”

“Uh, no.  I am not going to the hospital. That is my worst nightmare.  Don’t worry about it.  Accidents happen.  I should have gotten in the car and stayed there.”

He went back into the gas station to get some ice.  They didn’t have any ice bags so he bought some popsicles.  I rode the rest of the way home with popsicles on my foot.  It was cold, but it kept the swelling down.

I even pulled one out of the pile and ate it.

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