Cardiff Castle, a major visitor attraction, is a traditional motte and bailey castle with Roman foundations, Norman origins and Victorian additions. // © 2015 VisitBritain/Simon Winnall
Feature image (above): Caernarfon Castle is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and medieval fortress. // © 2015 VisitBritain/Lee Beel
Wales, the land of legendary King Arthur, fascinates visitors for many reasons. It was ruled by the Romans, raided by the Vikings and can trace its history back to 1000 B.C., with the arrival of the Celts.
Empires rose and fell. Battles were won by blade. What remains to this day, however, are some of the most distinctive castles and fortified structures known to man. With a population of approximately 3 million, Wales is said to contain more castles per square mile than any other country in the world.
“Wales is rich with history, heritage and culture, and castles play a significant part of that,” said Robert Jones, media relations executive for Visit Wales. “We have 641 castles in Wales and some of which offer accommodations and even medieval banquets for guests.”
Jones said that castles are a significant part of the country’s heritage and one of the main attractions that brings visitors to Wales.
“I grew up living just a mile away from a ruined castle,” Jones said. “It was great as a child because most of my friends and I would ride bikes to the castle, pretend to be knights, play battle and play hide and seek.”
Today, visiting Wales brings back great childhood memories for Jones.
“If you want to discover past history of more than 700 hundred years and perhaps be a knight for the day, then our castles are the places to visit,” he said.
We may never be royals, but we can at least get a glimpse into the world of the wealthy and powerful. What follows are four of the country’s most impressive ruined and stately castles.
Don’t be spooked if Caerphilly Castle looks eerily familiar. The second-largest castle in all of Britain, Caerphilly played a starring role in the popular BBC series “Merlin” and has been featured in several episodes of the long-running television show, “Doctor Who.”
“Most impressively, though, is the castle’s famed southeast tower,” Jones said. “Optimistically dubbed ‘the Welsh Tower of Pisa,’ this medieval tower leans at 10 degrees to the vertical — most likely because of subsidence. The effect is extremely impressive — especially up close.”
Covering nearly 30 acres of land, Caerphilly is surrounded by a series of islands and moats. It was built in the 13th century by Gilbert “The Red Earl” de Clare, a redheaded nobleman of Norman descent.
Cost: Adult tickets cost about $9 per person, while access for a family (two adults and all children) is about $26.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site and medieval fortress, Caernarfon Castle occupies a strategic piece of land in northwest Wales. King Edward I, like the Normans and Romans before him, was drawn to this area along the River Seiont for its easy access to the sea.
“The mighty castle is also home to a military museum,” Jones said. “Additionally, Caernarfon is known for being the location of the Investiture of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales in 1969.”
Keep an eye out for Caernarfon’s polygonal towers, color-coded stones and a design that mimics Turkey’s Walls of Constantinople.
Cost: Adults can tour the castle for approximately $11, while the family rate (two adults and all children) is approximately $32.
Located in Cardiff’s city center, Cardiff Castle has a history that dates back 2,000 years when it served as a Roman fort. What remains today is a mixture of buildings from several different eras. More recently, however, the Third Marquess of Bute transformed Cardiff Castle into the mock gothic palace it is today.
In the 19th century, Bute was one of the richest men in the world, and he spared no expense in hiring architect William Burges. Burges was an eccentric who had a love for nature, humor and opium — elements that are all heavily reflected in the castle’s interior design.
In the library, for example, Burges ridicules Charles Darwin with a series of monkey carvings. One monkey steals an apple from the Tree of Knowledge, while two others grapple with the Book of Truth. Look closely to discover Burges’ ultimate snub — one of these curious critters is actually Darwin himself.
One of the stranger features of the castle is the ceiling of Bute’s bedroom, which is covered with 189 beveled mirrors. Other highlights include a children’s room filled with scenes from popular fairy tales; a Roman bath, outfitted with hand-painted tiles and mosaics; and a gilded fireplace, branded with Virgil’s famous words: “Love conquers all; let us too yield to love.”
Cost: A castle ticket, which includes a free audio guide, costs approximately $19 per adult and approximately $56 for families of two adults and two children. A house tour is available at an addition cost: about $5 per person or $13 per family.
Tretower Court and Castle
Tretower Court and Castle in Crickhowell may not be in tip-top condition, but the 14th-century structure has evaded destruction in several wars and conflicts, including the English Civil War.
Significantly, Tretower is a strong example of the way in which castles were adapted over time. Since the 15th century, the castle has served as an impressive home for influential Welsh families; a working farm, overrun with geese and lambs; a Hollywood film set (both Johnny Depp and Robert Downey Jr. have graced the castle grounds); and, more recently, a popular backdrop for weddings and receptions.
Fun fact: Tretower is home to three protected species of bats: the greater horseshoe, the lesser horseshoe and the pipistrelle.
Cost: Adult tickets are approximately $8 per person. Family tickets, which include two adults and all children, cost approximately $23.