Museo Castelvecchio (Verona): Most people do the Romeo-and-Juliet trail, peak at the ancient Arena, and then call it a day in Verona. Unfortunately, few make it to the stunning castle on the river. This 14th-century stronghold, complete with its own fortified bridge across the river, was built by "Big Dog" Cangrande II Scaligeri. It was so mighty that it survived the centuries intact until the Nazis bombed it in World War II. Though there are collections of local wood sculptures and canvases by Tintoretto, Tiepolo, Veronese, Bellini, and local boy Pisanello, the true treat here is just wandering the maze of halls, passageways, stony staircases, and ramparts to relive the bad old days of the Middle Ages.
Castello Sabbionara (Avio): This bellicose castle was a true fortress and makes no bones about it. Built in the 11th century and enlarged in the 13th century, it helped define and hold the line between the constantly warring neighboring powers of Venice and Austria. It switched hands several times, and in the 13th century the Guard's Room was frescoed with marvelous scenes of battles fought here.
Castello di Buonconsiglio (Trent): Serious history went down in Trent's Castle of Good Council. The name might not be apt, however, because the famous Council of Trent -- many sessions of which were held here -- effectively put up the wall between the Vatican and the burgeoning Protestant movement that ended up being the cause (or at least excuse) for many European wars and numerous unjust politico-social systems, from the 16th century all the way to the recent unrest in Northern Ireland. Much later, leaders of the Irrendentisti (a World War I-era movement to return the then-Austrian South Tirol region to Italy) were imprisoned here, including the popular Cesare Battisti, who was executed in the yard. The castle is vast, built around the core 13th-century Castelvecchio and 15th-century palace of Trent's bishop-prince. The highlight is the Cycle of the Months fresco painted around 1400 and laden with late medieval symbolism.
Castel Roncolo (Bolzano): This 13th-century castle sits atop a small cliff upriver from the town and looks like the most livable medieval castle you can imagine: cozy, with views of the vineyards. The central courtyard is hung with staircases and open wood balconies running along the upper stories, while many rooms retain all sorts of wonderfully crude medieval frescoes, including a lovely set that tells the story of Tristan and Isolde, a popular romantic tale from the Middle Ages.
Castel Tirolo (outside Merano): The entire Tirol, covering this region of Italy and much of western Austria, was once ruled from this medieval fortress perched dramatically on an outcropping 4.8km (3 miles) outside Merano. You must walk a long and narrow path to get here, where there's a gorgeously frescoed Romanesque chapel and a new museum on Tirolean history and culture.
Castello di San Giusto (Trieste): Built between 1470 and 1630 and pleasingly castlelike, this gem has mighty ramparts to walk for city vistas, modest collections of armor and furnishings to peruse, and outdoor concerts and films presented in the huge courtyard in summer.
Castello di Miramare (near Trieste): The "Castle Admiring the Sea" rises in gleaming white fairy-tale splendor along the coastline. Built in the 1850s, it was doomed to host ill-fated potentates ever since. Its original owner, Austrian Archduke Maximilian, was sent to Mexico to be emperor and ended up shot. Archduke Ferdinand spent the night here before going off to Sarajevo to be shot (which kicked off World War I). Other dukes and ladies have met bitter ends after sojourning here, which is perhaps why it is now public property and no longer a royal guesthouse. They do nice concerts here, plus sound-and-light shows telling the sad tale of the castle's builder, Maximilian.
Castello Scaligero (Sirmione): This mighty midget is not spectacular as far as castles go, but -- if you can apply this phrase to a fortress -- it's cute as a button. Unimportant in most respects, it is darn picturesque, guarding the entrance to town with somber 13th-century stone turrets and surrounded by its little moat complete with drawbridges.
Castello di Fenis (Castle of Fenis; outside Aosta): The Challant viscounts controlled the Aosta Valley from this stronghold throughout the Middle Ages. The frescoed figures strolling about the balconies of its central courtyard spout cartoon balloonlike scrolls of speech that are a treasure-trove for linguists unlocking the origins of the local dialect, which is founded largely in a medieval variant on French. The furnishings, though all genuine castle antiques, were culled from sources throughout this area, Switzerland, and France to give the place that medieval lived-in look.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.