From Dracula to Downton Abbey, the castles of Europe have inspired many fictional tales, and they have plenty of their own fascinating stories to tell, too. One of the best ways to see them is on a cruise.

There’s nothing like visiting a medieval castle to fire the imagination. From their ramparts, many an arrow would have travelled to its target on the lands below as marauding bandits laid siege.

Most of these “fairy-tale” residences started life in the Middle Ages as fortresses built to protect landowners’ properties from invaders. Think Game of Thrones meets Vikings. They are usually perched on cliffs and hilltops, commanding the best possible views of advancing enemies. They were distinctly bleak and lacking in creature comforts; cold, barren and not a lot of fun. Not surprisingly, once the wars were over, many fell into ruin. Then, in the 19th century, many were rescued and restored.

Today, there are dozens of spectacular castles open to the public where you can view priceless collections of art, antique furniture, tapestries, porcelain, silverware, weapons and books. An entertaining, well-informed guide adds extra insights to your voyage into the past and these days, some European river cruise operators offer the chance to tour a castle and even dine with its royal owners.

Several of our favourite castles also offer inspiration for garden and wine enthusiasts. When you have several hectares of land to play with (and staff, of course, to maintain manicured parks, gardens and vineyards), the opportunities are limitless.

1. Alnwick Castle, Northumberland, England
Owned by the titled Percy family for 700 years, this palatial residence starred as Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the Harry Potter films and took on the persona of Brancaster Castle in the Downton Abbey 2014 Christmas special. There has been a castle on the site for 1,000 years and it’s open to the public from late March to the beginning of November.
Visit with Tauck Tours, Fred.Olsen Cruise Lines, Regent Seven Seas Cruises.

2. Bran Castle, near Brasov, Romania
Legend has it that the 14th-century Bran Castle was the setting of Bram Stoker’s Gothic novel Dracula, although the writer never visited Romania, let alone the spooky edifice. It has connections with the notorious Vlad the Impaler, who may have inspired Stoker’s book and countless vampire movies. If you have a spare few million dollars, the castle is up for sale.
Visit with Avalon Waterways, Tauck Tours, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Fred.Olsen Cruise Lines.

3. Burg Namedy, Andernach, Germany
Princess Heide von Hohenzollern, resident owner of the 14th-century Namedy Castle, welcomes APT guests to her splendid home with a champagne reception in the Knights Hall and a banquet in the Hall of Mirrors. Guests are also free to roam around the rooms and courtyards. The surrounding gardens are part of Germany’s  national heritage and host concerts and annual art exhibitions.
Visit on APT’s Royal Invitation river cruises.

4. Dunvegan Castle, Isle of Skye, Scotland
Built beside an idyllic loch on the site of a Norse fortress, Dunvegan is said to be the oldest continuously inhabited castle in Scotland. It has been the ancestral home of the chiefs of Clan MacLeod for 800 years and houses numerous historic clan treasures. The magnificent formal gardens date back to the 18th century and the loch is home to a seal colony.
Visit with APT, Ponant.

5. Edinburgh Castle, Scotland
Looming over Scotland’s capital city from its dramatic rock-top position, Edinburgh Castle was fought over by the Scots and English for centuries. Today, it is the country’s most-visited site. Don’t miss the Crown Jewels, the oldest in Britain, and the beautiful 12th-century St Margaret’s Chapel, the city’s oldest building.
Visit with Azamara Club Cruises, Princess Cruises, Oceania Cruises, Celebrity Cruises.

To find out about the remaining castles in our European top 10, pick up a copy of Cruise Passenger magazine, on sale now.