Think of castles, and you probably imagine a turreted wonder in Europe. But California has its own surprising crop of palaces and estates fit for a monarch, created by people with imaginations as big as their castles.
Here’s where to find these and other California-style castles and learn about the creative dreamers behind them, as well as a couple of castle-like locations created by the ultimate dreamer, Mother Nature.
Sleeping Beauty Castle, Disneyland, Anaheim
Rising beyond Main Street, Sleeping Beauty Castle is the unmistakable beacon (along with the Matterhorn ride) at the heart of Disneyland. With its turquoise-tiled towers and golden turrets, it looks every inch the grand castle, loaded with cool details like a working drawbridge (though it’s only been raised and lowered twice: first when the park opened in 1955, and again for the 1983 rededication of Fantasyland). The iconic design is based on a real-life 19th-century Bavarian castle in Neuschwanstein, Germany. Step inside to experience the “Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough,” where 3D dioramas display luminous images in the style of Eyvind Earle, the artist who created the look for the 1959 animated classic. (More: Sleeping Beauty Castle)
Medieval Times, Buena Park
Join the fantasy of the Middle Ages—a time of chivalrous knights, fair maidens, and dazzling swordplay—at Medieval Times, a high-spirited indoor attraction that’s a feast for the eyes as much as one’s appetite. It’s hard to know what kids like best: the jousting, the horses, the acrobatic moves, or the chance to dig into dinner medieval style—with your hands. This is a join-in-the-fun-and-clank-your-steins kind of place, with generous doses of singing, spirited competitions, and tomfoolery. Each show ends with a knight being crowned champion of the jousting festivities. (More: Medieval Times)
Hogwarts Castle, Universal Studios Hollywood, Los Angeles
Since Hollywood is already known for grand mansions and lavish estates, it’s only fitting that Hogwarts Castle, the spectacular centerpiece of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, rises from the grounds of Universal Studios Hollywood. Walk the recreated streets of Hogsmeade, then pass through the castle gates to step into the world of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, complete with Dumbledore’s office and the soaring Gryffindor common room. After dark, gaze upon the Nighttime Lights at Hogwarts light show, as the castle’s exterior comes alive with colorful projections.
HARRY POTTER characters, names and related indicia are © & ™ Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Harry Potter Publishing Rights © JKR. (s16) ©2016 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved. (More: Hogwarts Castle)
Magic Castle, Hollywood
This 1908 mansion, the clubhouse of Hollywood’s Academy of Magical Arts, houses a warren of rooms where members perform their craft for visitors in such spaces as The Parlour of Prestidigitation and the Palace of Mystery. See if you can spot the magician’s sleight of hand from just a few feet away in the tiny 22-seat Close-Up Gallery. There are bars and a Victorian-style restaurant, all worthy of a classy night out reminiscent of another era (jackets and ties required for the men, and dresses or skirts for the ladies). To add an air of exclusivity and mystery, entrance is only allowed to members or guests of members (various options are detailed on the club’s website). (More: Magic Castle)
Hearst Castle, San Simeon
Mansions are a dime a dozen in California, but nothing comes close to Hearst Castle. Built to serve as the private residence of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, the complex, completed in 1947, is an extraordinary temple to opulence and excess. Now one of California’s most visited state historical monuments, it’s an eye-popping extravaganza with a 165-room castle, 127 acres of terraced gardens, sparkling fountains, towering palms, and, to top it all off, wraparound views of the sunny Central Coast. It’s easy to spend a full day or more exploring the castle and its environs in San Simeon. Start your visit with one of Hearst Castle’s daily tours of the main house, or special tours of the cottages; come in November or December to see the estate dressed up in its very-festive holiday decor. (More: Hearst Castle)
Scotty’s Castle, Death Valley
Appearing like a mirage in the desert, Scotty’s Castle is one of Death Valley’s oddest and most fabled attractions. Built in the 1920s, the Spanish-style castle is filled with hand-wrought iron and tile, custom-made furniture, and extravagant antiques and tapestries. A highlight is the Chimes Tower, which contains a set of 25 carillon chimes that were set to play on the quarter-hour; there’s also a 1,121-pipe theater organ. Explore the castle in a one-hour ranger-led tour (underground tunnel tours offered from November through mid-April; less often in summer). Same-day tour tickets are sold at the Scotty's Castle Visitor Center. Reservations are available; be sure to call at least one day in advance. (More: Scotty's Castle)
Castle Mountains National Monument, Mojave Desert
Castle Mountains National Monument, one of the desert region's three national monuments designated in 2016, is home to the Castle Peaks, a cluster of epic spires that climb skyward like the ramparts of an ancient fortress. Those towering landmarks, though, are just a part of what makes the park notable. At the mountains’ feet lie some of the Mojave Desert’s best grasslands, plus forests of twisted junipers and Joshua trees. Roaming (and soaring) amidst it all are desert bighorn sheep, golden eagles, mountain lions, coyotes, and bobcats. And if you are lucky enough to visit from March through April after a few substantial spring rains, the carpet of wildflowers can be spectacular.
The park is only accessible by dirt roads; high clearance, 4WD vehicles are recommended. Camping facilities are available within the park; spring or fall months are the best times to visit. (More: Castle Mountains National Monument)
Sam’s Castle, San Francisco Bay Area
With its square towers and walls made of rectangular concrete blocks resembling ancient stonework, this architectural oddity about 15 miles southwest of San Francisco looks like something out of a Shakespeare play. But the bluff-top manor known as at Sam’s Castle actually has a uniquely California pedigree: it was constructed after the 1906 earthquake by a San Franciscan who was determined to ensure it could survive another such calamity. If the timing of your visit allows, take the once-a-month tour to learn about the building’s past uses as a Prohibition-era speakeasy and a wartime Coast Guard station, and the eccentric collection of furnishings and artwork inside. (More: Sam's Castle)
Castello Di Amorosa, Calistoga
You don’t need to travel all the way to Italy to see the inside of a Tuscan castle. Castello di Amorosa, one of V. Sattui’s open-to-the-public wineries in Napa Valley, is built to precisely replicate a spectacular medieval fortress. Conceived by Dario Sattui, the castle boasts 107 rooms (not including the underground network of caves), and no two rooms are alike. On guided tours, look for spectacular flourishes like the hand-painted frescoes in the Great Hall. Or enjoy food and wine pairings with the castle’s sommelier in the Royal Apartment, complete with a carved fireplace and hand-forged chandeliers. (More: Castello di Amorosa)
Vikingsholm, Lake Tahoe
In a fjord-like setting at Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay State Park, the 38-room Vikingsholm castle is a rare masterpiece of Scandinavian architecture. This spectacular site was originally built to be the summer residence of Mrs. Lora Josephine Knight, who traveled to Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland to research ideas for her Lake Tahoe house. Explore the castle on tours offered several times daily from late May through the September and marvel at the meticulous stonework, hand-forged metalwork, and intricately carved wooden beams ending in dragon heads. You’ll also learn about Knight, an extraordinary woman who married into extreme wealth, then used her money to educate young women who couldn’t otherwise afford it. (More: Vikingsholm)
Castle Crags State Park, Siskiyou County
Gaze up at the imposing granite ramparts at the heart of Castle Crags State Park, and it’s easy to understand why centuries of the region’s Native Americans revered these pinnacles as sacred places. Here, less than an hour’s drive north of Redding on Interstate 5, you’re looking at formations more than 170 million years old. It’s a spectacular site, with the tallest spires soaring 6,500 feet high—yet surprisingly accessible on well-maintained trails. There are 76 campsites that make taking in the views at both dusk and dawn possible, and those who fish just might be able to catch their lunch in the river—striped bass, sturgeon, steelhead, and trout are all plentiful. Head out on your own or book a trip with Dave Jacobs’ Professional Guide Service, all equipment included. (More: Castle Crags State Park)