10 Extraordinary Spanish Castles

Spanish Castles are among the oldest and most battle-scarred in Europe

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One of the most visited countries in the world, Spain has no shortage of cultural and historical jewels. Among them are around 10,000 Spanish castles and palaces, from crumbling ruins to the world-famous wonders of Alhambra.

There might be more castles in neighbouring countries. Yet the Iberian Peninsula is the place to visit some of Europe’s oldest, with contrasting blueprints from Moorish and European castle builders. Many Spanish castles show battle scars; each has a story to tell.

To paint a picture, we’ve picked 10 Spanish castles that are easy on the eye and reveal a little about the nation’s early history.   

Peniscola Castle featured in Game of Thrones and ranks among the prettiest Spanish Castles.

Peñíscola Castle (Castellón)

Castillo de Peñíscola is a stunning start to any tour of Spanish castles. It is one of the most photogenic buildings in the country, nestled on rocks on the Mediterranean coastline.

A castle at Peñíscola was first mentioned by the cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi in the 1100s during the Moorish Almohad Caliphate. The arresting structure you see today was completed in 1307 by the Knights Templar, who planned to build an empire from there. Nothing remains of the original Moorish castle, and the Knights Templar were dissolved years after the castle was complete.  

It didn’t stop Peñíscola Castle from playing a vital role in national events, first in the Kingdom of Aragorn (read about the remarkable story of Isabella and Ferdinand of Aragon) and then at the forefront of martial events that shaped the Kingdom of Spain.

In more peaceful times, cameos TV shows like Game of Thrones have ensured that one of the prettiest Spanish castles is also one of its best known.

Castillo Peñíscola – Castellón, Valencian Community

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Miravet Castle one of the most arresting Spanish castles

Miravet Castle (Tarragona)

When not fighting crusades, The Knights Templar was busy building castles for the next one. The Iberian Peninsula, then divided between Islamic Al-Andalus and the Christian kingdoms, was a particular focus and resulted in one of the sturdiest yet prettiest Spanish castles, Castell de Miravet on the River Ebro.

Fortifications first appeared on the rocks above the picturesque river during Moorish rule. As with several other noted Spanish Castles, the Knights Templar later rebuilt it, leaving only traces of the original fortress.

The Cistercian Romanesque castle-monastery they built is comparatively compact. Bounded by a river and using innovative castle-building techniques, it was considered impregnable.

A challenge it lived up to during the lengthy siege to eject the Knights Templar from Miravet Castle. They might have been terrible at diplomacy and religious tolerance, but they knew how to build a castle!

Today, you can leave the trebuchet at home and pay a few Euros to step inside. Although this castle is best seen from a boat, rising above the water for one of the most arresting sights in Tarragona.

Castell de Miravet – Miravet, Tarragona

The alcazaba of Almería is a Spanish castle built by Moors and still one of the most striking sights in the region

Alcazaba of Almería (Andalusia)

An alcazaba is an intriguing entry in the complex origins of the Spanish language and the country’s early history. From the Arabic word fortress, kasbah, alcazaba are relics of Islamic Al-Andalus found across the peninsula. The Alcazaba of Almería is one of the most imposing, an emblematic sight in the hills above the Andalusian city.

A defensive enclosure was raised by the Caliph of Cordoba after Almeria was designated a medina (city) in 955. The fortification was later expanded by successive monarchs – including finishing touches by the legendary Isabella I and Ferdinand II – to create a sprawling complex with three layers of walled defences, gardens, a mosque, and several centuries of evolving fortifications for military and civilian residents.

Brilliantly preserved, the Alcazaba of Almería is a stunning sight and Hollywood favourite, appearing in Indiana Jones and as the capital of Dorne in Game of Thrones. It’s easy to see why. The Alcazaba of Almería is one of the most aesthetically pleasing and historically significant landmarks in Spain. 

Alcazaba of Almería – C. Almanzor, s/n, 04002 Almería, Spain

The famous windmills of La Mancha backdrops one of the prettiest castles in Spain, Castle of La Muela

Castle of La Muela (Toledo)

Standing imperiously on the plains of La Mancha and backdropped by 12 famous whitewashed windmills, the Castle of La Muela (Toledo) is one of the most evocative sights in Spain.

The compact castle was once a medieval stronghold for the Knights Hospitaller, successor to the Knights Templar and recipient of many of their Spanish castles when the military order was dissolved. The Castle of La Muela has since been expanded and restored and even saw action during the Peninsula Wars against Napoleonic France.

There are more architecturally significant Spanish castles. But fans of classical Spanish literature (one of the many benefits of learning Spanish) will relish tilting at windmills in Don Quixote country. And you can’t avoid being impressed by a castle that was already 500 years old when Cervantes wrote his acclaimed 16th-century work, the world’s first novel.

Castillo de la Muela or Castillo de Consuegra – 45700 Consuegra, Toledo, Spain

Santa Barbara in Alicante has some of the best views of any Spanish castle

Santa Bárbara Castle (Alicante)

You don’t have to head to barren plains to visit Santa Barbara Castle, which sits on a mountain overlooking the busy city of Alicante.

The sand-coloured edifice and mountain are symbolic of the Costa Blanca port city. Nicknamed ‘the face of the Moor’, if you screw your eyes up as the light fades, you can just about discern a face on the cliffs.

Strategically positioned, the 166m Mount Benacantil has silently witnessed millennia of Spanish history, yielding artefacts from Romans and Bronze Age settlers. In the 9th century, texts mentioned a Moorish castle at the summit.  

Castilian forces captured the castle from the Moors in 1248 and renamed it Santa Barbara. Ownership of the castle keys has changed hands many times since, mirroring a journey through Spanish history sweeping through battles in the Kingdom of Aragorn, occupation by British soldiers during the War of the Spanish Succession, and its penultimate role as a concentration camp during the Spanish Civil War.

Alicante has beautiful beaches and a lively nightlife that pulls in tourists, plus an excellent university for international students. The castle is another big draw, fulfilling its final role as a skyline icon and one of the best Spanish castles for views as compelling as the history.

Castillo de Santa Bárbara – 03002, Alicante

Olite was the home of the Kings of Navarra and up there with the prettiest Spanish castles

The Royal Palace of Olite (Navarre)

The Royal Palace of Olite – former home of the Kings of Navarra – is more accurately a castle-palace. You get all the turrets and towers of a functional fortress, which is how it started life, attached to an ornate palace built for kings in more peaceful times.    

Olite started life as a Roman fortification, although the palace you can visit today was built during the 1200s. The kings of Navarre took a shine to the castle, making it more regal by adding a palace, chapel, banqueting hall, and all the royal trimmings necessary for the court of Navarra.

Navarra was absorbed into the Kingdom of Castile (what would be Spain) in 1538. Olite castle was left untouched until destroyed by local fighters to prevent it from being used by the French army during the Peninsula Wars. It has since been painstakingly rebuilt, placing it among a handful of Spanish castles perfectly restored to their original glory.

Navarra is a land of traditions, home to the Pamplona Bull Run and some of the most colourful festivals in Spain. The Royal Palace of Olite is another big attraction for visitors curious about Basque history or drawn to the spectacular views from the castle.

Palacio Real de Olite – Pl. Carlos III El Noble, 4, 31390 Olite, Navarra

Cardona Castle is one of the oldest and most enigmatic Spanish castles

Castle of Cardona (Catalonia)

The first brick of Castell de Cardona was laid in 886 during the reign of a Barcelona lord who took the unforgettable name ‘Wilfred the Hairy’. It is one of the oldest Spanish castles, home to the powerful Dukes of Cardona.

Romanesque and Gothic features were later added to leave a rare architectural and archaeological jewel, exemplified by the peculiar circular Torre de la Minyona (Maiden’s Tower). The castle also once housed valuable murals, although they now reside in Barcelona’s Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya.

The Castle of Cardona remained a vital defensive link long after the Middle Ages, with the fortifications holding out against a Bourbon siege of 1714 at a time when castles were considered obsolete. The Bourbons merely needed more patience, as it is now a hotel accepting credit cards instead of battering rams.

PS The Bourbons loved building castles, albeit in a more opulent and palatial style like those in our guide to the most impressive chateaux in France.

Castell de Cardona – Lloc Parador Nacional Turisme, 506, 08261 Cardona, Barcelona

Loarre Castle is a stunning Spanish castle

Castle of Loarre (Huesca)

Built during the 11th to 13th centuries, the Castle of Loarre claims to be the oldest and best preserved of all Spanish castles.

Like countless Spanish castles of the period, Loarre Castle was built on the faultlines between Europe and Islamic Spain, meeting a strategic need in the conquest of Huesca in 1094. It would later house a monastery and play a more benign role in regional affairs.

Rising from a rocky outcrop in what became the Kingdom of Aragorn, the castle makes a startling sight in the skyline, regularly catching the eye of Hollywood directors (most notably appearing in the Ridley Scott epic, Kingdom of Heaven).

An architectural marvel and breathtaking sight, the Romanesque Castle of Loarre is on the tentative list for the UNESCO World Heritage registry, confirming its status as one of the most architecturally significant Spanish castles.

Castillo de Loarre – 22809 Loarre, Huesca

1024px Castillo de Burgalimar K34b cropped wikimedia commons 3
Kordas, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Burgalimar Castle (Jaen)

Unlike dubious claims elsewhere, Burgalimar Castle’s claim to be the oldest in Spain is solid. Records work began in 967, making the Moorish structure the oldest in Europe if you ignore what remains of Château de Doué-la-Fontaine in France.

The Arabic name for the Castillo de Baños de la Encina (from the nearby town) is Bury al-Hamma, or Castle of the Baths. That later became Burgalimar, and the castle would become the prototype for hundreds of Spanish castles built during a time of perpetual conflict between Islam and Christianity.

Raised to defend the Umayyad Caliphate of Córdoba, the 15 towers and thick crenellated walls look impenetrable. They weren’t; the castle changed hands many times during the Reconquista before being captured once and for all on behalf of Castile in 1225.

There are undoubtedly prettier Spanish castles. But none can claim to be as groundbreaking as Burgalimar, a fort that spearheaded an age of castle building that would reshape Europe.

Castillo de Baños – Calle Sta. María, 1, 23711 Baños de la Encina, Jaén

Ponferrada Castle was another of several
 Spanish castles built by the Knights Templar

Ponferrada Castle (Castile and León)

We wrap up our pick of incredible Spanish castles in Ponferrada and a castillo built by the ubiquitous Knights Templar. The religious-military order was profoundly influential during the early Middle Ages, managing or building many Spanish castles. So, we should end with perhaps their most impressive built just a generation before they ceased to exist.  

Like many other Spanish castles, the immense Ponferrada Castle was raised over a Roman hillfort. It was built to house the head of the Castilian branch of the Knights Templar, who were charged with protecting the Way of St. James pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela (home to prominent Spanish churches).

They didn’t get to enjoy their new abode for long. The once untouchable order was brutally dissolved in 1307, 20 years after building their showpiece and moments after King Philip IV of France concocted a genius plan to erase his debt with…the Knights Templar. And they call him Philip the Fair!

If you’re collecting trivia, the Knights Templar dissolution happened on Friday 13th October, birthing an enduring superstition about the date.

Alongside inspiration for conspiracists and Dan Brown novels, the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon left castles and monuments strewn across Europe and the Middle East. Ponferrada Castle is one of the most architecturally impressive and should have been one of their most important, a powerbase for future generations. 

Gunpowder rendered castles obsolete in the 16th century. Yet, the history of Al-Andalus, the Knights Templar, and the Reconquista lives on in thousands of Spanish castles that helped shape the early history of the Iberian Peninsula. We hope you enjoyed this brief tour of our favourites.  

Ponferrada Castle – C. Gil y Carrasco, 1, 24401 Ponferrada, León

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