Where in the world are truly great castles...for kids?
April 11, 2016 11:45 AM   Subscribe

My daughter, who is 5, would really like to visit a castle. She's very interested in Princesses and seems fascinated that I lived in England as a kid. "Right next door to the Queen?!?" she asks. Well, not exactly.

We'd love to take a vacation to England although it's not the highest on our list of places to go (currently living in U.S. on West Coast). But this idea that we'd go there and see castles because our daughter wants to see where Princesses live while great in theory I know will mostly likely be incredibly lame in practice. I lived in Europe off and on during my childhood and I remember visiting castles. Mostly, they were unimaginably boring. Lots of walking. Nothing to look at other than dusty furniture that you cannot touch. Huge four-poster beds that you cannot climb into and pretend to be a fainting Royal? What is the point?!

So, I'm curious. Other than Cinderella's castle in Disneyland, where exist some interesting castles or castle-like experiences that have awed you for one reason or another? Are there architecturally interesting tours that could possibly hold the interest or imagination of a kid? I feel like we have a certain window of interest before she hits the rotten teenage years (I visited Russia when I was 17 with my parents and was amazed at the Winter Palace, the Palace of Catherine the great...but I was insufferable).

NOTE: My parents did take us to Frankenstein's castle in Germany around Halloween when I was a kid and I thought that was really cool. It's on my list but it's certainly not what my daughter wants to do now.
posted by amanda to Travel & Transportation (41 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Could you stay in a castle? I don't know what your budget is, but if you hop over the border to from Chester to Wales Ruthin Castle is an option. They do banquets too.
posted by randomination at 11:47 AM on April 11, 2016

Casa Loma in Toronto occasionally does special children's events.
posted by northernish at 11:50 AM on April 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Hammond Castle in Gloucester, MA. Great tours and delightful scary descriptions.

Some university campuses have castles, like Brandeis or Alfred, though the insides are usually full of offices.
posted by Melismata at 11:52 AM on April 11, 2016

If you are on the west coast of the US, would the Winchester Mystery House mansion tour be more convenient?
posted by jillithd at 11:56 AM on April 11, 2016 [4 favorites]

Hampton Court (outside of London) is more behind-the-scenes than your average palace, I think (you can walk by Henry VIII's kitchens with their giant hearth and so on). It also has a famous hedge maze. Finally, it is plagued, from the adult point of view, with re-enactors that might in fact appeal to a younger crowd. If I were taking a kid to a palace in England, that would be the one.
posted by praemunire at 11:57 AM on April 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

Would your daughter be interested in any of the Gilded Age mansions now open as museums? Newport has probably the greatest concentration of those, but there are some on the West Coast as well. Obviously Hearst Castle included.
posted by witchen at 11:57 AM on April 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

Another option for staying-in-a-castle-in-England: one of the colleges at the University of Durham is an actual, like, castle. You can stay in the castle during summer vacation. It may be a bit damp. More here.
posted by randomination at 11:57 AM on April 11, 2016

Castles in California.
Castles in Washington.
Castles in Oregon.

Beware, a lot of these are very liberal as to the definition of castle.
posted by ND¢ at 11:57 AM on April 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Warwick Castle is kind of the Disneyland of British castles. It's a real 1000-year-old castle, but it's run as a theme park -- jousting, a working trebuchet, falconry and archery demonstrations, interactive tours for the kids, overpriced burgers, etc. I took my 4- and 6-year-old girls there last summer and good times were had by all -- easy to get sniffy about how tacky the whole thing is, but they had a blast.

Several UK castles also do open-air Shakespeare productions, with the actors running around and declaiming stuff from the battlements, which I remember being very impressed by as a kid.
posted by Yo Soy La Morsa at 11:59 AM on April 11, 2016 [18 favorites]

Well there are youth hostels in castles, let's see, in Scotland, Germany, probably elsewhere I'm forgetting. My recollection is that they are 1) always on top of a hill and 2) cold water only.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 11:59 AM on April 11, 2016

Hearst Castle!

This is listed in ND¢'s list but I wanted to call it out specifically as it's the canonical example of "over-built rich guy dwelling" on the west coast of North America. Which is basically what passes for a "castle" around here, and might just do the trick for your daughter.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 12:02 PM on April 11, 2016 [4 favorites]

Victoria has a pretty cool castle.
posted by galvanized unicorn at 12:04 PM on April 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Following ND¢'s link, the comments on a mansion in Oregon being reminiscent of the Loire Valley in France, I've been to Chenonceau that has ponds and beautiful gardens and swans (and a play area for small kids!) and really was the summer home of royalty in France. It isn't very big, plus lovely gardens, so the tour might be more favorable to a youngster. (Chambord is also gorgeous and in the Val de Loire, but might be too big for a fun tour.)
posted by jillithd at 12:08 PM on April 11, 2016

There's an "authentic 13th-century Tuscan castle" and winery in Napa.

I also liked the Vikingsholm Castle, located on Emerald Bay in Lake Tahoe and a sort of Beowulf-y kind of place.
posted by a sourceless light at 12:12 PM on April 11, 2016

The castles at all the Disneyland parks were inspired by the Neuschwanstein castle (which also makes an appearance in the movie "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang")!
it is the best castle of all IMO
posted by Hermione Granger at 12:13 PM on April 11, 2016 [5 favorites]

Seconding Hearst Castle! It's completely over the top and is undoubtedly the sort of thing that she is imagining.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 12:15 PM on April 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

I was seven when I first went to Edinburgh--I found it totally fascinating.
I mean, you have Hollyrood palace on the one side and the old castle on the other, and there are coach trips to I don't know how many old highland castles and sites and whatnot.
(and if you're done with castles, the botanical garden is pretty nice, too).

Otherwise for the true Disney-like experience, go to Neuschwanstein.

And if you're interested in France, the Loire district has one castle after the other.
posted by Namlit at 12:18 PM on April 11, 2016

Castleporn on reddit has lots of castles to look at for fun.

Landmark trust in Great Britain has castles to stay in.

Here's a question on reddit about Castles
posted by ReluctantViking at 12:32 PM on April 11, 2016

Nthing Warwick Castle (in the UK) and Hearst Castle (in the USA). Visited the former as an adult but spotted lots of kids having a blast; visited the latter as a kid and...had a blast.
posted by thomas j wise at 12:46 PM on April 11, 2016

I really loved Neuschwanstein. I had several jigsaw puzzles of it as a kid, which is what prompted me to try to find out what castle it was later on. The area around Neuschwanstein is stunning. The castle itself is quite interesting. Parts of it are ornately decorated, and there are some really amazing wordwork furniture pieces. However, due to *insert history lesson*, the funding stopped, and the interior of the castle was never finished. I paired this with a bike trip to Swan Lake when I was there, and that was totally worthwhile too.
posted by ktkt at 12:47 PM on April 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Another super fun destination, though it's not really "where princesses live" is Suomenlinna, off the coast of Helsinki. It's a former island fortress, sort of a giant castle playground. Kids can climb all over, and there are tunnels to explore and interesting things in some of the buildings.
posted by ktkt at 12:51 PM on April 11, 2016

Hearst Castle gets my vote as well. For a fun visit, where you can enjoy the rooms and surroundings, try Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo. You can stay there for a night or two, then take a day trip up Highway 1 to Hearst Castle (make reservations!)

Here's a site where you can book lodgings in castles.
Rather spendy, but if you have the money, you can make it happen.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:53 PM on April 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Casa Loma usually also has a nice Christmas-themed event evey year. Maybe the combination of Christmas plus the castle will mitigate the not-being-able-to-touch a little? I also remember the guided tour when I was a kid, you did not get to lay on furniture but you did get to go through a secret passage. I don't know if that is still part of the tour though :-)
posted by JoannaC at 12:54 PM on April 11, 2016

I have a great suggestion that's not very realistic: Gillette Castle. This not a place you are going to cross the country to see, but if you were castle-hunting from NYC to Boston, it could be worth the stop. Not too grand castle-wise, it's fun and Gillette was into cats/kittens if that's also an interest.
posted by SemiSalt at 12:58 PM on April 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Neuschwanstein castle in Bavaria was totally built by a guy who looked around in the 19th century at all of the old, boring, gray castles around him and was like, "Hell with that! I want a REAL castle like I heard about in the fairy tales and like I see on Wagnerian opera sets!" So he built one. It's got electricity (since it was built in the late 19th century) and a room that is a grotto that looks like it's straight out of Disney World and a throne hall that is, well, words sort of fail me, and some other pretty rooms.
posted by colfax at 1:02 PM on April 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Cardiff Castle (wiki) is a Norman-era ruin mashed up with a 19th-century neo-gothic monstrosity (e.g.). When we visited, there were falconry demonstrations in the courtyard. Also, it has the convenience of being right in Cardiff, which has plenty of other stuff to do.
posted by irrelephant at 1:17 PM on April 11, 2016

SemiSalt beat me to it, so I'll just second Gillette Castle in Connecticut --- I've got some fond memories of that place!

Also: I believe it is possible to stay overnight in Cinderella's castle at Disneyworld in Florida; I imagine it'd cost a fair bit, and I don't recall the reservation details, but it might be worth checking into..... The pictures I've seen of the rooms make me think your little princess would definitely find it acceptable.
posted by easily confused at 1:43 PM on April 11, 2016

I like Caernarfon Castle in Wales a lot ... it doesn't so much have the dusty old furniture but the broken-down, half-repaired stone bones of a castle, and consequently kids are climbing all over everything and up and down towers and peeking out arrow slits and so on. It's more of the castle-as-fortress vintage than castle-as-fancy-palace, but if you end up going to to the UK, it's a neat spot to visit. Especially for kids with a lot of imagination who can fill in the details themselves.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:13 PM on April 11, 2016 [4 favorites]

I believe it is possible to stay overnight in Cinderella's castle at Disneyworld in Florida; I imagine it'd cost a fair bit, and I don't recall the reservation details, but it might be worth checking into

For the first year of existence, the castle suite was a prize that they gave out daily to a family already in the park. Now the suite is in the realm of well connected celebrities and things like the Make-a-Wish foundation. Long story short, this isn't a viable way of scratching the castle itch.
posted by mmascolino at 3:22 PM on April 11, 2016

Definitely Hearst Castle on the West Coast to tide you over. But I will also say that your daughter might find generic castles more interesting than you did as a kid. We took a castle-oriented vacation to France when I was a kid and I COULD NOT GET ENOUGH. I loved all of them from the broken down old castles to the ones that had been totally restored and had lots of beds and tapestries. I think my parents were very sick of castles by the end, but it was total heaven for me and I still remember it very fondly. So, it may be that your daughter is just more into castles than you were as a kid. :)
posted by rainbowbrite at 3:23 PM on April 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

I was also going to suggest Hammond Castle and Gillette Castle until I saw you're on the west coast - but if you were going to put together a US trip specifically for visiting castle-like structures you could probably get pretty good bang for your buck in the northeast, especially if you bend the definition of 'castle' to include opulent houses like The Crane Estate or the Newport mansions. There's also Bannerman Island on the Hudson river in New York and various smaller structures hither and yon like Belvedere Castle (NYC), Newport Tower (RI) Bancroft Tower in Worcester, Massachusetts, Madame Sherri's (ruins) in New Hampshire, The Poet's Seat Tower in Greenfield, Massachusetts, and the Retreat Tower in Brattleboro Vermont.

Admittedly, some of those smaller, folly-like structures could be potentially underwhelming/disappointing to a kid; you can't go inside a lot of them, and even if you can there's not much to them. If she's more into the "opulent lifestyle" aspect of castles than the "mysterious old stone tower" aspect, Hearst Castle seems like it would be a good bet.
posted by usonian at 4:18 PM on April 11, 2016

Response by poster: You guys are reminding me of how many damn castles I have visited in my lifetime. In fact, I kind of forgot, but she's already been to Neuschwanstein...when she was 5 months old! I found the interior a bit of a let-down because you walk through so little of it. What's there is amazing but you are clearly missing a lot since it was never finished. I forgot about the crazy grotto, though. She would love that...and Bavaria.

Rainbowbrite, you are right, she may actually really like castles more than I. That's a good reminder. Also, I never thought of Pittock Mansion as a castle. I think we'll try that one out on her ASAP.
posted by amanda at 4:38 PM on April 11, 2016

If you did decide to visit Warwick Castle, then Kenilworth Castle is really just down the road. It has events on in the summer, ruined battlements and some ancient and beautifully lettered graffiti from previous centuries carved into the walls, which is sort of quaint in its way.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 5:09 PM on April 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

At your daughter's age, what scratched the castle itch for me very well was going to Carcassonne.
posted by gudrun at 5:15 PM on April 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

I mean, if you do get to England, the first castle I think of is right there in London. The Tower. With yeoman warder tour. (Maybe when she's a little older and can appreciate discussions of head-chopping and whatnot. But also the Crown Jewels!)

Newport Mansions ("summer cottages") in Rhode Island have already been mentioned; the flagship is the Breakers. Vanderbilt money, and it's not even the only one from that family on that row.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 5:33 PM on April 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

For my eight-year-old self, Arundel Castle was the pinnacle of castly perfection. There are guides in the rooms but you wander at your own pace, and, in the 90s at least, you could run around and yell and pretend to rally the men-at-arms against the Saxon dogs. And I was amazed by Matilda's apartments, so tiny compared to what I expected a queen/empress to have, and humanizing her for me in ways I hadn't considered before.

The little castle ruins on the Neckar were also fascinating, since you were basically free to crawl all over them and indulge in make-believe without interruptions other than the occasional bewildered tourist.
posted by notquitemaryann at 6:29 PM on April 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Warwick castle is great, and as Huffy Puffy mentioned, the Tower of London is worth a visit especially if you know a bit of history & know some of the people who were imprisoned there at various times. You can also see the crown jewels which I found an enormous yawn, but others may find interesting.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 10:01 PM on April 11, 2016

Can I second (if/when you do ever go to England) Hampton Court Palace? Even though I am in my late 20s, one of the absolute highlights of my visit was borrowing one of the velvet cloaks they keep around in a variety of sizes for visitors and wearing it around the palace. The website goes on to say that "any child under the age of 12 who comes dressed for a role at court - whether as a knight or a princess – will be made very welcome." I wouldn't be surprised if this is something other palaces may allow as well!

Also, this is probably hokey but...Medieval Times?
posted by spelunkingplato at 12:49 AM on April 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

My kids really liked Schoenbrunn in Vienna. The castle itself they tolerated, but they loved the children's museum, the mazes, and the playground.

And just to third Hampton Court Palace -- my kids liked the maze when they went before. And since then, there's a new Magic Garden, which looks really cool.
posted by yankeefog at 2:03 AM on April 12, 2016

Loch Lomond YHA is more of a manor than a castle, but you can stay there super cheap and it was bloody awesome when I went there in the early nineties as a kid
posted by smoke at 2:19 AM on April 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Muiderslot Castle, outside of Amesterdam, is VERY kid-friendly. In fact, on my recent visit, it was so kid-oriented that I alsmot found it boring as an adult.

That said, the castle and grounds are absolutely stunning, the surrounding village is gorgeous, and you're like a 15-minute drive from Amsterdam so there is plenty for the adults to do as well.
posted by Brittanie at 5:29 AM on April 12, 2016

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