Wales has more castles per square mile than any other country in the world, and some of Wales’ most impressive castles can be found in Snowdonia, along with a clutch of 19th century neo-Norman castellated mansions built by wealthy Victorians in homage to the age of chivalry.
The age of chivalry to which so many Welsh castles belong evokes romantic images of heroic knights winning fair ladies’ hands. But when you look at the design and construction of Snowdonia‘s medieval castles, it’s clear this wasn’t a romantic age at all, but one of hardship and brutality.
Snowdonia’s castles tell the story of the region’s struggles for independence from the English crown, and some of Snowdonia’s best-known castles were built by the English king, Edward I, in an effort to subdue the Welsh.
But the Welsh princes were also prolific castle builders; Snowdonia’s Welsh castles provided protection and served as inspirational symbols of the Welsh struggle for independence.
In Victorian times, wealthy land owners looked to the past for inspiration in creating homes that portrayed wealth, status and power; consequently, Snowdonia is dotted with beautiful neo-Norman castellated mansions that ooze character.
1. Caernarfon Castle
Caernarfon Castle was arguably Edward’s finest castle in Snowdonia, costing £25,000 to build – a vast sum in medieval terms. The bands of red sandstone built into Caernarfon Castle’s walls are said to imitate the walls of Constantinople. Caernarfon Castle and town walls are a UNESCO World Heritage site.
2. Conwy Castle
Conwy Castle – another of Edward’s castles and also a UNESCO World Heritage site – was begun at the same time as Caernarfon Castle, in 1283. It took ten years to complete the castle, which is built on a base of bare rock surrounded by marsh and water. The castle’s eight fortified towers rise up over Conwy, providing stunning views of the town and surrounding countryside.
3. Criccieth Castle
Criccieth Castle is one of the great Welsh castles of Snowdonia, built by Llywelyn ab Iorwerth and later extended by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. Edwards I and II remodelled the castle, and there is still dispute as to which parts of the castle are Welsh and which are English. Perched atop a rocky promontory that juts dramatically into Tremadog Bay, Criccieth Castle is a spectacular sight from ground level, and views from the castle across the bay and the surrounding countryside are absolutely breathtaking.
4. Harlech Castle
Harlech Castle – another UNESCO World Heritage site – has been described as “the definitive Welsh castle”, although it was actually built by Edward I. Harlech fell to Owain Glyndwr in 1404, and was his headquarters for the duration of his uprising. During the Wars of the Roses Harlech was held for the Lancastrians, enduring an eight-year siege which inspired the song “Men of Harlech”.
5. Castell y Bere
The ruins of Castell y Bere, near Tywyn, are often overlooked by visitors. But here you’ll get a great sense of the history of this part of Snowdonia, and the might of the Welsh princes. From the remains of the rectangular tower you’ll get the best views of the layout of the castle, and of Cader Idris, the brooding mountain overlooking the ruins.
6. Penrhyn Castle
Penrhyn Castle, just outside Bangor, is a castellated mansion which extends from the original medieval manor house in an extravagant display of Victorian wealth and status. Penrhyn’s exterior is imposing and impressive; its interior beautifully carved and vaulted like a medieval cathedral. Penrhyn Castle also houses a wonderful art collection and railway museum.
7. Dolbadarn Castle
The remains of Dolbadarn Castle, near Llanberis, are an evocative sight. Built by Llywelyn ab Iorwerth before 1230, Dolbadarn stands in a strategically important spot, which historians believe was the site of a 6th century fortress. Dolbadarn is distinguished by its mighty tower, whose remains stand at over 40ft. The floors have long since disappeared, but you can still climb the stairs to the top.
8. Dolwyddelan Castle
Like Castell y Bere and Criccieth, Dolwyddelan is a Welsh castle built by the Welsh. Dolwyddelan was built by Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, some time after 1200, and was defended against Edward I by Llywelyn’s grandson Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. Like other Snowdonia castles, Dolwyddelan is in a beautiful setting with amazing views, so make sure you take your camera.
9. Bryn Bras Castle
Bryn Bras Castle, Caernarfon, is the work of Thomas Hopper, creator of Penrhyn Castle. Bryn Bras is privately owned and so is not open for visits, but you can rent a holiday apartment within the castle and enjoy a stylish break in beautiful and historic surroundings.
10. Castell Deudraeth
Part of the Portmeirion estate near Porthmadog, Castell Deudraeth is a 19th century castellated mansion built by David Williams, the first Liberal MP for Meirioneth. Castell Deudraeth was once used as a prep school, but in 2001 opened as a luxury hotel and restaurant. Visit Castell Deudraeth as part of your tour of Portmeirion, or book a table for a delicious dinner of local produce cooked to perfection by expert chefs.
Save money with CADW
With CADW annual membership, you can visit CADW properties (including the CADW-managed castles mentioned in this article) for free all year round, as well as enjoying a number of other benefits. You can also save money with an explorer pass or World Heritage explorer pass, which give you free entry to CADW properties for three or seven days.