Neuschwanstein Castle in Schwangau, Germany. (Photo: Shutterstock)
We’ve combed through some of the world’s most fantastical fairytale locales, from a volcano lodge hidden deep in Chilean Patagonia to a trippy glow worm-lit cave in New Zealand. Whether you’re looking for backdrop befitting a princess or a spooky spot more suited to a villain, take a look.
Neuschwanstein Castle, Schwangau, Germany
Perched on a densely-wooded hill in southwest Bavaria is Neuschwanstein Castle, or the “castle of the fairytale king.” The Romanesque Revival palace – Disney’s inspiration for Sleeping Beauty’s digs – belonged to King Ludwig II, a reclusive monarch whose master plan was to hole up in a fortress of solitude, distancing himself from the public.
Something everyone should have seen coming – FYI – given the fact he was quoted saying,”I want to remain an eternal mystery to myself and others.” Unfortunately for our guy Ludwig, his plan never panned out as he passed in 1885 and the castle wasn’t completed until the following year.
If you’ve ever opened Instagram, then you know Cappadocia is overflowing with geographically-surreal Turkish fairy chimneys (point-y volcanic peaks and rock formations created by lava), rolling Anatolian plains, and skies full of colorful hot air balloons.
What you might not see as much of, though, are the cave hotels – a rare 21st-century experience for most, and probably the closest you’ll get to staying on what seems like another planet. The atmospheric stone dwellings are etched into the side of Cappadocia’s lunar landscape, and kitted out with both medieval Turkish artifacts and elements of luxe modern design.
Tunnel of Love, Klevan, Ukraine
Give the Tunnel of Love even the most cursory of glances, and you’ll quickly pick up on its whimsical nature. Which is why it’s pretty surprising to learn that it serves a rather utilitarian purpose, first and foremost, as it belongs to a stretch of privately-owned railway between Klevan and Orzhiv that accommodates industrial freighters transporting plywood (odd…right?).
Lovebirds are nonetheless infatuated with the botanical corridor, however, making annual trips there, particularly in spring and summer when the leaves are most lush. Plus, local lore has it that the romantic spot is capable of granting sincere couples’ wishes.
If you’re not feeling the major Beauty and the Beast vibes that Colmar is throwing your way, you might be in the wrong place. The village is an amalgam of quaint stucco and timber framing, Gothic German houses and wildly ornate Renaissance churches – and no we’re not wearing any rose-colored glasses, the utopian hamlet is truly befitting of the prettiest Disney princess.
Admire Alsacian art at the Musee d’Unterlinden, spot the town’s most famous house, Maison Pfister (you might have seen its animated rendering in Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle), or sneak a peek at Colmar’s mini Statue of Liberty (the sculptor of the real deal was born in town).
Admont Abbey Library, Admont, Austria
We’ve all felt a tinge of bookshelf envy when perusing our favorite indie bookstore, clicking through a book-centric Pinterest board, or hell, even scrolling past a perfectly-curated Urban Outfitters ad.
But all of that envy combined could never prepare us for the jealousy we’d feel just standing in the Baroque Admont Abbey Library, AKA the library to end all libraries.
The cavernous monastic hall (the largest of its kind) is all Enlightenment-style ceiling frescoes, bronzed sculptures and gilded busts, secret doors concealed by faux book spines, and oh, yeah…some 200,000 titles.
Sagano Bamboo Forest, Arashiyama, Japan
Not far from the Buddhist temples, modern skyscrapers and imperial palaces of Kyoto lies Arashiyama – a district brimming with scenic villages, wooded mountains, and otherworldly bamboo groves.
Winding through the looming plants, along the narrow, meandering paths of the Sagano Bamboo Forest, you’ll find the yourself awash in brilliant green light as it filters through the tops of the stalks.
For the most ethereal experience, save your trip for a windy day, when the towering bamboo sways back and forth overhead, rustling and creaking in a simultaneously sinister and transfixing way.
Avenue of the Baobabs, Madagascar
The Baobab trees that line the dirt road from Morondava to Belo Tsiribihina, in western Madagascar, used to be part of a thriving forest, but deforestation has recently left the 20+ monoliths to guard the way in relative isolation.
Known by locals as renala, the more than 800-year-old trees are believed to hold the spirits of those who’ve passed on.
Walking along the avenue of arboreal dinosaurs, it’s easy to see why they’re also known as the upside-down tree, since their branches more closely resemble roots. Eerie and enchanting, we’re always down for a stroll.
Palace of Versailles, Versailles, France
Disney fairytales almost always have a happy ending, but if you know anything about the Palace of Versailles’ most infamous resident, Marie-Antoinette, then you know the same can’t be said about real life. Sidestepping the queen’s “Let them eat cake”-fueled ending, the former French royal residence is just as opulent as ever.
Wandering through the chandelier-strung Hall of Mirrors, the King’s seven-room, ostentatious Grand Apartment, and the highly-curated, maze-like gardens (replete with an Orangerie), it’s hard not to imagine what life could have been like had you grown up a French heir. A well-liked one, of course.
Huilo Huilo Montaña Mágica Lodge, Chilean Patagonia
This volcano-meets-waterfall-meets-lodge looks as though it could easily house a hobbit or Keebler elf, but you won’t find it in Middle Earth or in an enchanted cookie-producing forest.
Chilean Patagonia’s Montaña Mágica Lodge blends into a vast swathe of southern Andes rainforest, rather, camouflaging itself with a living exterior, free-flowing waterfall, and rustic design.
Swallow’s Nest Castle, Gaspra, Crimea
The neo-Gothic Swallow’s Nest Castle, once home to Baltic German oil millionaire Baron von Steingel, clings to the edge of Aurora Cliff. Look closely, and you’ll see that some of its balconies and patios actually extend over the edge, hovering above the Crimean Sea.
Despite a precarious design implemented by Russian architect Leonid Sherwood, the castle somehow survived a 1927 earthquake that registered as a 6 to 7 on the Richter scale, and not only did it live to tell the tale, but necessary restoration efforts came in at only $150,000 USD.
In a, perhaps, even weirder turn of events, the castle was flipped into an Italian restaurant in 1975 – so if dizzying perspectives and endorphin rushes put you in the mood to eat, you’re in luck.
The Dark Hedges, Ballymoney, Ireland
If you’ve spent a good chunk of the last 6 years repeatedly binging Game of Thrones (and mourning your fave characters, like we have), then this should be a familiar sight. Ballymoney’s beech tree-lined avenue is the real life Kingsroad, after all.
But before the tunnel of intertwined, knotted branches was forged by Arya Stark and nearly everyone else in the Seven Kingdoms, it functioned simply as a statement entrance to the Stuart family’s private manor – Gracehill House. Now, at a cool two-centuries-old, the Dark Hedges has developed quite an occult air.
Waitomo Glowworm Caves, Waitomo, New Zealand
We owe a hearty thanks to New Zealand’s indigenous Maori people for discovering this North Island gem. Waitomo’s limestone caves are filled with stalactites and stalagmites, and the most magical ones are lit by thousands and thousands of luminescent glow worms.
You can see them up close and personal on a psychedelic boat ride underground, along the subterranean Waitomo River, through what’s been dubbed the Glowworm Grotto.
Saint Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow, Russia
Truth be told, Saint Basil’s iconic, candy-colored domes weren’t a part of its original design. When it was ordered, and completed in 1560, by Ivan the Terrible (Russia’s OG tsar), it was done up in stark white with gold domes, all to match the nearby Kremlin.
It’s brilliant hues were introduced in the 1600s, once the cathedral was already at the center of much urban folklore – including a rumor that Ivan had personally blinded the Italian architect behind the holy spot in order to ensure he would never reproduce his genius design.
Today, Saint Basil’s is a museum, and guests are invited to explore the complex’s handful of chapels – not to mention a secret wooden staircase that wasn’t unearthed until restoration efforts in the 70s.