Europe isn’t the only place with amazing ancient castles — America has its own short list of stunning palaces and estates that will make you feel like absolute royalty.
No, Cinderella’s Castle at Disney World didn’t make the list, but you won’t be disappointed by our top must-see castles right here in the U.S. From extravagant castles built by showboating millionaires to a passion project hand-built by a quirky character deep in the wilderness, we’ve uncovered the top four castles in America from coast to coast.
If you were a celebrity in the 1930’s and 40’s, Hearst Castle was the place to be and be seen. Perched on a hillside along the Central Coast of California, this sprawling estate was constructed over a 30-year period by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Why did the castle take so long to complete? Well, Hearst was a bit of a perfectionist who loved to change his mind — a room would be almost complete, and then he would have a change of heart and completely tear it down and rebuild.
Named La Cuesta Encantada, or “The Enchanted Hill,” this Spanish-style castle consists of one giant mansion (Casa Grande) and three impressive guesthouses, for a total of 60,645 square feet. And it served as a vast playground for the rich and famous — the ultimate place for celebrity spotting. From movie stars to entertainers to politicians, everyone vied for an invitation to Hearst Castle. Celebrity guests included Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joan Crawford.
Hearst was the ultimate host, and he constructed indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a movie theater, tennis courts, and over 100 acres of gardens for his guests to enjoy. Any why not add a zoo? Hearst Castle was once home to the world’s largest private zoo, and the offspring of the zebras from that zoo still roam the ranch. He also built a private airfield, so his famous guests could escape prying eyes and fly their private jets directly to his home.
One of the estate’s most famous and picturesque spots is the Neptune Pool — a 345,000-gallon swimming pool with stunning views of the California coastline and Santa Lucia Mountains. But no ordinary decorations would do for this pool. Hearst ordered in the façade of an ancient Roman temple, transported directly from Europe and reconstructed onsite. The pool took 12 years to complete (in typical Hearst fashion), and it took three attempts before he was finally satisfied with the design.
Sadly, Hearst died in 1951, only four years after Hearst Castle was finally complete. But his reputation as California’s King lives on at Hearst Castle, one of the coolest castles in America.
Tucked away in a remote region of central Colorado, Bishop Castle is a handcrafted masterpiece, served with a side of danger. This impressive castle, built by hand with stone and iron, is a physical testament to one quirky man’s dream and perseverance.
Jim Bishop started the castle in 1969 at the age of 25, and he’s still alive today and actively works on the castle. Originally, Jim wanted to build a one-room stone cottage. But his dream ran wild, and the towering fortress now stands around 160 feet tall! Constructed by hand with over 1,000 tons of rock, Bishop Castle defies belief (well, the beliefs of everyone but Jim).
The castle sits just off the road in Middle of Nowhere, Colorado (technically, it’s in Rye, Colorado, but the castle is miles from any sign of civilization). The castle is completely free to enter, and the more daring visitors can climb turrets, race around iron balconies, discover hidden stone stairwells — nothing is off limits.
One of the most iconic and fantastic features of Bishop Castle is the towering metal dragon that perches 80 feet in the air off the front of the castle. This dragon was sculpted by Jim and added in the 1980s. Inside, the star of the show is the Grand Ballroom, a cavernous room with magnificent ceilings and oversized windows of intricate stained glass.
Jim works on the castle almost daily, and visitors will likely run into him while wandering around the property. But even if you don’t happen to meet the King of the castle, his presence is felt everywhere through hand-painted, politically-charged signs scattered around the property. Despite several run-ins with the government, Jim continues to assert his authority as ruler over his own domain.
This castle is not for the faint of heart. A towering structure constructed by one feisty hermit, with no permits of any sort, kept my adventurous spirit in my throat for most of my visit — especially when looking down through rickety metal framework from several stories up.
But the experience is definitely worth the risk. There’s no place like Bishop Castle. And no one like Jim.
Get ready for a fairytale — a real life love story (but with a tragic ending). George C. Boldt migrated to New York City at the age of 13 and began working in hotel kitchens. By his 20’s, he was offered a prestigious job managing The Philadelphia Club, where he met and fell madly in love with his boss’ daughter, Louise. They were married just before her 16th birthday. Boldt was a hard worker and rose through the ranks. Soon, he was a multimillionaire and was managing the world-famous Waldorf-Astoria.
With his fortune, Boldt purchased Heart Island for his beloved Louise. This island, located in the Thousand Islands region of New York, was the perfect location for one of the most magnificent castles in America, which Boldt planned to build as a tribute to his wife (swoon!). He and Louise began planning their dream summer home, imagining a castle with soaring turrets and sweeping balconies — a castle rivaling those found in Europe, and a castle fit for his queen.
Construction began in 1900, with 300 workers on the island to build Boldt Castle. But in 1904, just months before the castle was complete, Louise died suddenly. Boldt was heartbroken, and he ordered all construction on the castle to stop immediately, leaving the property unfinished and vacant. After 26 years of marriage, the Boldt was inconsolable and never returned to Heart Island. Boldt Castle stood vacant as an unfinished testament to his love for Louise for over 70 years.
In 1977, the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority took over Heart Island and Boldt Castle and began the restoration process. Today, you can visit Boldt Castle — a six-story castle with 120 rooms. There are also four other structures on the island, including a huge yacht house that houses a collection of antique wooden boats and Alster Tower, built as a playhouse for both children and guests alike. Boldt Castle even boasts its own drawbridge!
And inside the house, at the bottom of the grand marble staircase, is a gold-framed wedding portrait of Louise, the queen of one man’s heart.
Just outside the hippie town of Asheville, North Carolina, is the Biltmore — a majestic European-inspired estate that holds the title of the largest privately-owned castles in America. Built by the filthy rich George Washington Vanderbilt II in the late 1800s, this massive yet elegant estate once served as home to the Vanderbilt’s, the closest thing America has to a royal family. Today, the Biltmore is still family-owned but operates as an enchanting tourist destination.
Set on 8,000 acres amidst the gorgeous backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Biltmore boasts 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces. Remember, this sprawling castle was built over 100 years ago — indoor plumbing (let alone for 43 bathrooms) was quite the extravagance! Even the most indulgent celebrities couldn’t match the luxuries added by Vanderbilt.
On the first floor, there is an octagonal Winter Garden, filled with plants and greenery and featuring a soaring ceiling of multifaceted glass. The Banquet Hall is the largest room in the house and seats 64 guests (now that’s one wild party). And for us bibliophiles, the two-story library contains over 10,000 books!
And as you move from floor to floor, you’ll feel like true royalty ascending the Grand Staircase, which features 107 spiraling steps and a four-story, wrought iron chandelier with over 70 light bulbs. Sometimes, bigger is better!
In the basement, there is a 70,000-gallon swimming pool that’s heated and has underwater lighting (again, almost unheard of during this time). Also in the basement is one of the nation’s first bowling alleys built inside a private home. Vanderbilt did it first!
Stepping outside the castle, you’re surrounded by lush gardens and landscaping, perfect for a leisurely stroll on a gorgeous North Carolina day. Further out on the 8,000-acre estate, you’ll find Biltmore’s own vineyard and America’s most visited winery. The estate also boasts six restaurants, plenty of shopping, historical guided tours, and outdoor adventures such as fly fishing and horseback riding.