England, Scotland, Turkey and Romania castles offer families a chance to sleep in splendor, whiz through time, and live in history.
Ever wanted to experience historical Europe through its castles? Staying in a medieval European castle is one of the best ways to do it. Finding a luxury castle-hotel that is kid-friendly is hard to come by, but two that made TripAdvisor’s “Top 10 Luxury-Castle Hotels” list, cater to children: Swinton Park in England and Inverlochy Castle in Scotland.
If you love history but don’t want to actually stay in a castle, many have become museums that offer rich insight into their long and dramatic history. Two castles that are highlights in Central Europe are Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey and Bran Castle in Romania, and both offer regal accommodations nearby.
Swinton Park: A Breath of Fresh Air
Located in North Yorkshire, England, Swinton Park (866/810-3039) is a very family-friendly castle hotel situated on a vast 200 acres of parkland. Built in 1695, the home has been in the Cunliffe-Lister family since 1882 and truly has a family atmosphere. Its 30 uniquely decorated and themed bedrooms are large enough to accommodate a cot or crib, and many of the rooms are already equipped with a sofa bed. While they capture the spirit of medieval times, the rooms include all the essential modern amenities such as a phone, WiFi Internet access, CD player and satellite TV.
There is much to explore outdoors along a chain of five lakes. Gorgeous walking trails throughout offer hours of nature exploration and hiking and include a walk through the four-acre walled garden, which was newly restored by Susan Cunliffe-Lister (Country Life “Gardener of the Year 2001”). Stroll through the picturesque market town of Masham to shop or take a more challenging hike along the Quarry Gill Bridge Trail, which offers spectacular views of the deep ravine.
Swinton Park offers an endless array of activities both on and off-site, including archery, art lessons, clay pigeon shooting, cricket, estate tours, falconry, and fishing. Guests can relax in the newly refurbished spa, which includes a sauna, Jacuzzi, and relaxation zone. The spa has a “Mother and Baby” package, which teaches moms how to massage their babies, while leaving time for mom’s own personal massage (from $150-$240 depending on duration of your session).
The family atmosphere is apparent, as there is a playroom stocked with toys, an Xbox, kites, bicycles and outdoor games. Each child receives an age appropriate welcome bag as well. Groups of kids as old as 12 can learn to cook at Rosmary Shrager’s, the cookery school of a renowned TV chef, at two-hour sessions. Themed cooking lessons, such as “Simply Italian” and “Modern British” are also available for adults.
Dining at Samuel’s, a highly rated UK restaurant, is a delight because the emphasis is on seasonal and local produce, often from the castle’s own gardens, as well as estate venison and fish. Kids can enjoy food off of the children’s menu as room service or in one of the ground floor public rooms. Children 8-years and older are welcome to dine at Samuel’s with their parents.
If all these activities aren’t enough, there are many nearby family-friendly attractions. Lightwater Valley (+44 8704 580040), one of the largest theme parks in the UK, offers 40 family-friendly rides and attractions. A visit to the mysterious fantasy garden at the Forbidden Corner (+44 1969 040638) will thrill adults and children alike. Explore the labyrinth of tunnels and try to navigate your way through the garden full of dead ends and elaborate statues.
The average nightly rate at Swinton Park is $465 (including breakfast, $120 more for lunch and dinner) and children sharing rooms with adults are only $40 extra per night. Swinton Park often offers family packages during the spring, summer and winter holidays that offer free lodging for children under 12-years-old and complimentary tickets to nearby attractions such as Lightwater Valley; note the Castle follows the British school calendar in its holiday celebrations.
Inverlochy Castle, Ireland: A Gaelic Delight
The lush and historic Scottish highlands, of which Queen Victoria wrote, “I never saw a lovelier or more romantic spot” are the picturesque backdrop to Inverlochy Castle (888/424-0106). Built in 1863 by Lord Abinger near the site of the original 13th-century fortress, its interior is as impressive as its exterior surroundings with its magnificent stained-glass windows, grand hall, and exquisite chandeliers.
The luxurious castle hotel has 17 bedrooms, each with a private bathroom. The castle keeps its 19th-century feel while at the same time offering modern amenities such as TVs, personal laptops with Internet access, DVD player, and PS2 upon request. There are three dining rooms that serve modern British cuisine. Though young children are not allowed in the Great Hall and Drawing Room after 6pm, there is a children’s menu and dining options for young children can be arranged with the staff.
Inverlochy Castle is nestled amongst the glens, lochs, and mountains, including Ben Nevis, the United Kingdom’s highest peak, so there is much to explore outdoors. Activities such as horseback riding, white-water rafting, archery and mountain biking are popular. Iverlochy Castle offers tennis, fishing, a walled garden, and clay pigeon shooting, while summer cruises on Loch Ness and snow skiing can be arranged.
There are also many children’s activities to enjoy including as a game room, videos, playstations and a snooker table, which is similar to pool and very popular in Britain. Children can also enjoy organized woodland walks and boat trips on the castle’s very own loch. Children’s high tea is offered and babysitting is also available.
Rates for Inverlochy Castle start at $1130/N for a family of four with two children over eight years of age in the Winter Season.
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey
If you are in Istanbul, Topkapi Palace (+90-212-512 04 80) is a must-see for everyone 8-years-old and up. Built by Mehmet the Conqueror in the 1450s after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the magnificent Topkapi Palace is situated at the tip of the peninsula in the Bosporus Strait. Vibrant ceramic tiles, inlaid ivory, and elaborate friezes and mosaics are just some of the luxurious highlights of the palace. Turned into a museum at the request of Ataturk in 1924, the palace covers a vast 70,000-square-meters. It is an elaborate complex and in its heyday it was home to anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000 people.
The palace is very different from the western perspective of a castle because it is not single structure; rather it is centered around four courtyards with a series of pavilions, chambers, halls, kitchens, and smaller gardens. Each of the different courtyards opens into one another with monumental ornate gates. The “welcome” gate is the Gate of Augustus where the severed heads of rebels and other enemies of the sultan were displayed.
Because it is so large and its history is so rich, with its 200 display halls and 86,000 artifacts, Topkapi Palace has something to offer for everyone The collection includes everything from traditional clothing and elaborate jewelry to gold thrones and weapons collections. It is impossible to explore the whole palace in one day, so it is important to pick and choose what you want to see. There are a few highlights that everyone should take time to enjoy:
The treasury is a vast collection of the plunder and loot collected during the 400 years of Ottoman rule. Among many other illustrious spoils including imperial thrones, weapons, and pottery, the Treasury contains the Topkapi Dagger, made famous by the film “Topkapi” in which thieves plot to steal the jeweled dagger from the museum. The dagger was a gift to the Persian King Nadir Shah but was returned when he was assassinated. With three large emeralds embedded in the handle, surrounded by diamonds, it is spectacular.
The 86-carat Spoon Maker’s Diamond, set in silver and surrounded by 49 smaller diamonds, is a sight to behold. One of the legends behind it says that the diamond, originally bought from India, ended up in the hands of Napoleon’s mother who sold it to Mehmet Ali Pasha to keep her son from exile. Also check out twin solid gold candelabras, each weighing 48 kg.
You’ll need to buy separate admission tickets for the half-hour tour this section of the palace. During the days of the Ottoman sultans, the Harem was the private living-quarters for the sultan’s family. The Harem (meaning “forbidden” in Arabic) was strictly off limits to outsiders, and many lurid stories have arisen over the years because of the secrecy surrounding it. The sultan’s mother ruled over the sultan’s concubines who lived in the 400 rooms. The tour takes you through the mother’s quarters, exquisite halls (one with it’s very own pool) and the Turkish baths. You’ll also see the Golden Cage in which the Sultan’s brothers were kept under house arrest to avoid any thoughts of a coup.
The Weapons Collection
Formerly the state treasury, this eight-domed building is now home to the enormous weapons collection of the Ottoman Empire. Weapons and armor of the sultan and army along with weapons of enemy countries are displayed.
The Sacred Relics
This hall was previously the throne room, but since the conquest of Egypt in the 16th century it has been home to the sacred relics. The walls of the rooms are majestic with elaborate mosaics. This collection includes the sword and bow of Muhammad and his mantle, which is kept in a gold chest. The first manuscripts of the Koran, the staff of Moses, and the keys to the Ka’aba in Mecca are also part of the immense exhibit.
For overnight accommodations in Istanbul, the luxurious Ciragan Palace Kempinski Hotel (+90 212 326 46 46) is a great place to stay. A seashore hotel overlooking the Bosporus, the Ciragan was originally the home of the last Ottoman sultan but it burned down in 1910. It has been recently renovated and turned in to a five-star luxury hotel, with the addition of a modern six-story wing.
It retains the imperial feel of the Ottoman era but at that same time contains modern luxuries. Its 568 newly renovated air-conditioned rooms and 31 suites contain amenities such as a phone, a safety deposit box, a mini bar, TV with cable and radio. There is 24-hour room service and a choice of nearby world-class restaurants. Additional luxuries include a fitness center with an indoor and outdoor pool, a Turkish bath, Jacuzzi, sauna, solarium, massages, hairdresser, and gymnasium.
The modern marble bathrooms, balconies with beautiful views, and local textile decorated rooms add up to very luxurious accommodations. There are three a la carte restaurants, a Ciragan Bar with live music, and a large restaurant that serves a variety of international cuisine. The coastal promenade offers spectacular views over the Bosporus.
Rates are upwards of $480/N based on double occupancy. However, in order to fit children in the room, most families will have to opt for larger accomodations starting around $1,000/N.
Bran’s Castle, Bran, Romania
Home to the legend of Count Dracula, Bran Castle (+40 268 238 333) was built in 1377 as both a fortress and customs station. The Romanian prince Vlad the Impaler (c.1431-1476) sometimes signed his letters as “Dracul” (the Devil) and has been rumored to be the Count Dracula upon which Bram Stoker based his 1897 novel “Dracula.” Vlad never actually lived in Bran Castle though he did hide from the Turks there, briefly in 1462. He was known as a ruthless warrior and a national hero who drove out the Turks. Alas, he is not the real Dracula as he was a Wallachian king, not a Transylvanian count turned vampire.
The creepy associations with vampires still surround this majestic fortress built deep on a rocky ledge in the Carpathian Mountains. Its white-plaster stone buildings, four turrets, and red tile roof don’t exactly conjure up an image of Dracula; instead the castle seems like something out of a fairy tale. Yet if you take in its surroundings – the dense, dark wooded forests and narrow mountain passes – the allure of Dracula prevails. According to legend, Transylvania sits atop one of the Earth’s strongest magnetic fields and its people have strong perceptive senses. Vampires are believed to hang around Bran Castle on St. George’s Day (April 23rd) and the eve of St. Andrew (November 29th).
The castle contains many underground secret passages, courtyards, balconies, and stone staircases. The popular Queen Marie of Romania lived here during the summers between 1920 and 1938 and the insides of Bran Castle reflect her tastes, displaying her vast collection of both Romanian and foreign furniture and art dating from the 14th to 19th centuries. Queen Marie’s impressive bedstead is richly carved 18th-century antique that is stained black. An open-air ethnography Village Museum is a fun experience offering exhibits of furniture, household objects, and traditional costumes worn over the centuries.
There are many “Dracula Tours” that are offered throughout Romania, visiting many sites linked to Vlad the Impaler and Bram Stoker’s Dracula including trips to Bran Castle, Snagov Monastery where Vlad is supposedly buried, and the Golden Crown where Jonathan Harker ate a meal.
If you choose to stay nearby, there are many smaller hotels and bed ‘n’ breakfasts. Bran is an easy day trip from the larger medieval city of Brasov and many hotels there offer day trips to Bran Castle and other Dracula sites. In Brasov, the Aro Palace Hotel (+40 0268 477 664) is in the process of a renovation that will modernize its accommodations and make it the only five-star hotel in Brasov. The completed section includes 104 double rooms and 7 suites with safe boxes and internet access. The hotel is very centrally located and within walking distance of everything in Bran. Visit www.eBran.ro for a list of other accommodations.
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