25 places that are straight out of fairytales
Great castles, grand palaces, secret gardens and spooky churches… They sound, look and feel straight out of fairy tales, but fantastical places like these exist in the real world, and form fascinating parts of our tours.
To celebrate 25 years of Classic Journeys, enjoy our 25 favorite fairy tale locations.
Pena Palace, Portugal
Once upon a time, high on a hilltop in the Portuguese Riviera, stood a monastery. Suddenly, lightning struck it down, leaving it in ruins for hundreds of years. Then, along came the king consort, who transformed it into a Romanticist castle, rebuilding the monastery walls in rich red, and adding fanciful features in glorious gold— battlements, terraces, stone archways and glaring gargoyles. On the Queen’s terrace, he placed a golden sundial, and in the King’s chambers, frescoed walls. Royals spent their summers here for decades, before it became a museum enjoyed by people all over the land.
Turf houses, Iceland
Long, long ago, the people of Iceland—descendants of Vikings—lived in charming turf villages, where houses clad in mossy green blended cozily into the surroundings. That’s no fairy tale, but when you wander around them you’ll certainly feel like you’re in one.
A kingdom far, far away, where homes are carved out of fantastical fairy chimneys, and every morning, hundreds of hot air balloons float overhead…
60 million years ago is when this story starts, as wind and rain began to whittle lava and ash into Cappadocia’s fairy chimneys. It served as an important stop on the Silk Road, before becoming the hiding place of Christians escaping the Roman Empire—in the hideaway homes and churches they carved into the rocks, you’ll now find fabulous restaurants and hotels.
Ta Prohm, Cambodia
Deep in the Cambodian jungle lies a forgotten temple, forever in the grasp of ancient tree roots.
Ta Prohm was built as a Buddhist monastery in 1186, and has since been swallowed up by the jungle. As you feel your way through its long, dark hallways, walk around the courtyard and come face-to-face with rock carvings, the mystery fills your mind with all kinds of stories.
Lake Bled, Slovenia
In northern Slovenia, majestic mountains soar skywards. Thick forest spills down their slopes—home to roaming wolves and bears. It stops at the banks of a glassy glacial lake. And in the middle of that lake, sits the smallest island you’ll ever see. It was formed by fairies—folklore tells us—and on it, 99 steps lead, not to sleeping beauty, but to a gothic church. Ring the bell three times in that church, and, legend has it, your wishes will come true. Accessed by colorful wooden boat. Lake Bled’s idyllic island church was once a temple devoted to Živa, the pilgrim to the goddess of love, before it became a Christian pilgrimage site.
Borgund Stave Church, Norway
Here be dragons. Nordic dragons. Four of them. Swooping down the scale-like tiles of an 800-year-old building like none you’ve seen before. Found on the King’s Road of Vestland, Borgund Stave Church is so well preserved it’s almost supernatural. Green mountains and a silent graveyard complete the foreboding formula for a villain’s lair.
Casa Batllo, Spain
Ever wondered what it would feel like to be in the belly of a whale? In the beating heart of Barcelona, Gaudi’s Casa Battlo gives you that experience—and that’s just the attic. An architectural spectacle with an under-the-sea theme, this is exactly what a mermaid’s house would be like—with walls shaped to the rise and fall of waves, fish-scale roof tiles and curious ornate balconies (are they pirate skulls or turtle shells?).
Golden Bridge, Vietnam
How did the bridge become gold? Did Rumpelstiltskin have something to do with it? Or does it lead to the end of a rainbow? And what happened to the giant holding it up? Did he turn to stone having stood for so long?
High in the Ba Na Hills of Danang, Vietnam, and lined with flowers, the Golden Bridge only opened recently, but could easily inspire thousand-year-old tales and legends.
Not many waterfalls come with a cavern as vast as Seljalandsfoss’. Perhaps it was the dwelling of Icelandic trolls, before they were turned to rock off the coast. Perhaps not, but as the sun hits the cascading water and forms rainbows, you gaze on mile after mile of mythical mossy landscape, and wonder what lies beneath the pool, your imagination will start to stir.
Marrakech medina, Morocco
A whole new world lies within the red mudstone walls of Morocco‘s Marrakech medina. In a maze of colorful alleyways, you’ll meet skulking cats, snake charmers and fortune tellers. In a kaleidoscope of market stalls, vendors sell miracle oils, never-smelt-before spices, sparkling slippers, glowing lanterns and (magic?) carpets.
The village of Durnstein, Austria
Charming Durnstein—complete with colored chalets, cozy taverns and Baroque church—sits on the steep river banks of the Danube. It’s the perfect place to live happily ever after, once you’ve been rescued from the crumbling castle on the hill. Over a thousand years of history are held in these parts, most notably the days of the Kuenring dynasty and imprisonment of Richard the Lionheart in the aforementioned ancient castle that peers over the village.
A Medieval marvel—island during some parts of the day, mainland at others, depending on the tide. Surrounded by quicksand to ward off unwanted visitors, it’s the perfect place to hide a fairytale prince or princess… With over a thousand years of history, the ancient abbey church is France’s most popular landmark outside of Paris. Legend says that it was built by the bishop of Avranches in the year 709, after Archangel Michael appeared to him in recurring dreams requesting he build it.
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You won’t notice Croatian fairies and imps flitting about Plitvice National Park. You’ll be too distracted—by the winding wooden path, leading through lush forest. And the sixteen lakes shimmering sixteen different shades of blue. And the sparkling waterfalls that link them. You might notice the bright flowers, and a bird or three, maybe a hedgehog, or a dormouse. But you won’t notice any fairies. You will start to believe they exist, though.
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Welcome to the Valley of the Elves. Lauterbrunnen literally translates to the “land of many fountains” and lives up to its name beautifully. 72 waterfalls thunder down sheer cliffs with mysterious caves and babbling springs. Peaceful alpine meadows bask under pure sunshine and some of the freshest air on earth. Locals live in cinematic wooden houses, while jagged peaks rise in the distance. J.R.R. Tolkein, who spent several summers in this part of Switzerland, credits the village as his inspiration for the Elven realm of Rivendell in his Lord Of The Rings trilogy and it’s every bit as spectacular as he describes.
Prague, Czech Republic
Historic Capital of Bohemia, City of a Hundred Spires, The Golden City. Its nicknames alone make Prague the dream fairytale destination.
This is where you’ll find the world’s largest ancient castle (home to the Bohemian Crown Jewels), and the Gothic Church of Our Lady, which inspired Walt Disney for Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Like all great fairytales, there’s a spooky sinister side—legend demands that the Medieval Astronomical Clock is never neglected, or the city is doomed and the Sedlec Ossuary Church is decorated with human bones…
Now it’s your turn to feel like a mythical creature. A demi-giant perhaps, walking among the conical, gnome-sized houses of Alberobello. This carefully preserved Trulli commune in Italy’s Puglia region is charming as can be, with dwellings decorated in bright flowers and symbols painted on roofs to bring good fortune and ward off demons.
Wat Rong Khun (AKA The White Palace), Thailand
From afar, this could be the snow queen’s palace—a dazzling white wonderland, carved from ice. Come closer. Closer yet. The more you see, the more you’ll imagine this is the abode of a wise oracle or Thai deity. Beauty meets beast in Chalermchai Kositpipat’s amazing architectural depiction of good, evil, and the search for Buddhist enlightenment. There’s symbolism in every inch of it and under direct sunlight, it literally shimmers.
Forget the Emerald City in Oz, India’s Pink City is a true feast for the imagination. All in delicious dusky pink, you’ll find elaborate entry gates, grand courtyards, and palaces galore—like the Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Breeze) with its secret windows, City Palace, built by the ruler of the of the kingdom of Amber, and Rambagh Palace, where the Maharaja lived.
Ross Castle, Ireland
Peer up the 15th century battlements of Ireland‘s Ross Castle and you can easily imagine Rapunzel looking out of the top window over the waters of Lough Leane. Undulating national park surrounds this ancient castle, and legend does too. Apparently O’Donoghue Mór who built it sleeps in the lake and rises every seven years to ride around the grounds on a white horse. If you see him, you’ll have luck for life.
Flower tunnels, Japan
She transformed pumpkins into carriages, so though a tunnel of flowers would have been a piece of cake for the Fairy Godmother, this certainly feels like her work. Walk through a world of wisteria in Japan’s Kawachi gardens. The colors alone are bibbety-bobbety-beautiful. But wait until you breathe in the perfumed scent of your surroundings.
Diamond Beach, Iceland
“Follow the path to the black sand beach on glacier lagoon, and there you’ll find your treasure.” A beach like none other, with gazillions of ice crystals, some as small as your thumb, and others big enough to stand on, all sparkling in the sun against the velvet sand on Iceland‘s cinematic coast.
Taj Mahal, India
In India, over 400 years ago, a young prince fell in love with the beautiful daughter of the soon-to-be prime minister. They married and everyone who met her—royals and public—loved her. Tragically, after giving birth to their daughter, she died in his arms and utterly devastated, he cried for 8 days, then commissioned a declaration of everlasting love in the form of a white marble mausoleum. Not just symbolic of the true love that fairytales are made of, the Taj Mahal is architecture and craftsmanship at its most exquisite.
Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna
If you shall go to the ball, make it the Great Gallery of Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna. A Cinderella-worthy residence if ever there was one, the Schönbrunn belonged to Hasburg emperors for hundreds of years. Imperial grandeur decks all of its 1,441 of its rooms, and the romantic ornamental gardens welcomed the world’s first ever zoo in 1752.
The same French gardens where Monet painted his legendary waterlilies could easily be the site of fantastical tales—of princes and princesses, frogs and flower fairies—with their dreamy bridges, drooping trees, butterflies and blossoms of every shade.
Once home to the father of fairytales, 17th century Nyhavn is where Hans Christian Andersen penned classics such as The Princess and the Pea— a Little Mermaid statue dedicated to him joins bright-colored townhouses on the cheerful quayside.
Nyhavn forms the waterfront and canal district of Copenhagen, and the entire city—gloriously free of any skyscrapers—is crammed with features that would have fueled Anderson’s creativity, from cobbled streets with secret passageways to ornate palaces with beautiful gardens.