Florida might not be the first place that springs to mind when you think about castles, but in fact, the Sunshine State is blessed with a slew of these structures. Some are historic monuments, built from stone and designed to be solid enough to have fended off attacks in the past.
Meanwhile, others are modern follies: artistic and beautiful fakes created from concrete or local materials. Even Orlando’s theme parks play their part, contributing fantasy castles that feed the imaginations of visitors, young or old.
These castles, no matter where they fit in the grand scheme of things, all have something in common – there’s a good reason to visit each of them. Here are our picks for the best castles in Florida.
Castillo de San Marcos National Monument
Castillo de San Marcos is a 17th century fortress overlooking Matanzas Bay. This St Augustine gem owes its existence to the Spanish who once occupied the area. They feared pirate raids, attacks by the English and hostile indigenous groups.
So, they constructed a castle which could repel such threats. To an extent, they achieved that aim. The stone walls of the Castillo de San Marcos were designed to withstand an onslaught from cannonballs while its circular towers allowed the Spaniards to keep a close eye on anyone who approached.
The castle proved impregnable and was never captured in battle. It was, however, ceded to the English for a short time as part of the 1763 treaty that ended the Seven Years’ War.
After a second period of Spanish control, the place was handed over to the United States in 1821. Today, it’s managed by the National Park Service and remains a popular visitor destination.
Though Howard Solomon passed away in 2016 at the ripe old age of 81, he left an important legacy, Solomon’s Castle. This talented artist dubbed himself the “Da Vinci of Debris” which is a clue to the methods he employed. His greatest project took seven years to complete.
He bought a parcel of land in 1972 and set about creating a home out of items that others had thrown away, such as the aluminum newspaper printing plates that create an impactful first impression.
It took the form of a medieval-style castle, a three story building that looks out over Horse Creek, an hour’s drive inland from Sarasota. That view is best enjoyed through one of the ninety stained glass windows that Solomon also fashioned from discarded materials.
Allow plenty of time to tour the property, which also features numerous sculptures and pieces of art and bring cash since the tours are cash only.
Proof-readers stand down: that’s not a typo. Castle Otttis really does have that extra letter ‘t’. If you’ve been fortunate enough to travel to Ireland, this place may seem reminiscent of the many historic castles you’d find littering the Emerald Isle.
Yet it’s near St Augustine in Florida and also, it should be said, many centuries newer than those structures from which it takes its inspiration.
A duo named Ottis Sadler and Rusty Ickes built the place between 1984 and 1988 out of concrete. They conceived it as a landscape sculpture, “done in remembrance of Jesus Christ”.
Inside, the woodwork was the responsibility of Lee Carpenter. Over the course of three more years, he painstakingly created an interior which features an altar, pulpit and eight staircases.
The end result reflects a medieval Irish abbey, designed to encourage a sense of peace and a feeling of spirituality. Castle Otttis has hosted ecumenical church services bringing different Christian groups together, though all are welcome, regardless of belief, so long as they are respectful.
Heartbreak can make or break us, but in the case of Edward Leedskalnin, it changed his life in dramatic fashion. His fiancée called off their wedding the day before they were due to be married and Edward fled his beloved Latvia for a fresh start in North America, eventually winding up in Florida.
There, he began a labor of love, dedicated to the girl that had crushed his heart. Over a period of almost three decades, he crafted a magnificent yet quirky structure that he named Rock Gate.
Using only basic tools and working at night, he built himself a house out of oolite stone and then continued on to build what would later be referred to as Coral Castle.
The eccentric European was undaunted by challenges that would defeat most normal people and when the time came to move, he simply hired a truck and driver to shift the structure to its present site in Homestead.
Braden Castle might not be much of a castle, but it’s one with a storied past. To discover its history, we need to get acquainted with a physician called Joseph Addison Braden.
In 1843, this Virginia native had a sugar mill built by slave labor. It was made of wood and a material called tabby, a kind of concrete made of burnt and crushed oyster shells mixed with water, ash and sand. Though the property was more akin to a manor house, he called it his “castle”.
Unfortunately, things didn’t work out for Braden: the plantation hit hard times when the sugar cane crop failed. Repeated incursions by Seminoles were the final straw that drove him away.
What was left was largely destroyed by fire in 1903. In 1924 it was sold to become a campground, owned by an organization called the Camping Tourists of America. Today, Braden Castle lies in ruins, the historic focal point of Braden Castle Park.
The crenellated parapet and chunky tower of Villa Zorayda give this the feel of a castle. When Franklin Webster Smith set about designing a winter home for himself, he had in mind the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.
Construction began, using poured concrete and crushed coquina shell, and the building soon became an envied and admired landmark in St Augustine.
In 1913, ownership passed to a Lebanese immigrant called Abraham Mussallem, and it’s been in his family ever since. For a time, the place became many other things, but in 1933, it opened as a museum, the Villa Zorayda Museum.
On display today are many of Smith’s prized antiques as well as pieces bequeathed by Mussallem. The highlights include a 2400 year-old mummy’s foot.
Located near to St Augustine, Castle Warden was originally constructed as a winter residence for William Warden. Hailing from Philadelphia, he was a business partner of Standard Oil founders Henry Flagler and John D. Rockefeller.
The architecture is distinctive; the imposing place was built in 1887 in Moorish Revival style and featured opulent interiors befitting a man of Warden’s status and wealth. The family owned it until the 1930s, after which it became a hotel.
One of the guests was a man named Robert Ripley, a newspaper cartoonist famous for his “Believe it or not” sketches. He loved the place so much he wanted to buy it, but the owners wouldn’t sell.
After his death, his heirs managed to procure it and in 1950 it became the first Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum to open in the US. Today, you can still visit this curious collection of oddities that are still housed in Castle Warden.
The Pink Castle
The Loews Don CeSar Hotel in St Pete Beach is unmistakable thanks to the vivid pink paint job that covers its sprawling exterior. This coastal landmark opened almost a century ago in 1928.
Wealthy Thomas Rowe, whose family had made their fortune in real estate, purchased a sizeable waterfront lot. With the intention of building a pink castle, he commissioned architect Henry Dupont to help him realize his dream.
It quickly became a magnet for the fashionable set – everyone from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Al Capone was seen there. But tragedy struck when Rowe suffered a fatal heart attack.
Neglected, it was bought by the US Army and used for military purposes. Since 1973, it’s been an upscale hotel, overlooking the white sand and glittering sea of the Gulf of Mexico. Rowe’s ambitious pink castle has once again been transformed into a sumptuous pink palace.
No Florida castle round up could be complete without a mention of Cinderella’s Castle in Disney’s Magic Kingdom. This fairytale castle boasts elegant turrets and spires.
It was largely inspired by Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany, but also reflects the architecture of a host of other historic European buildings including the Alcazar of Segovia, Poland’s Moszna Castle and numerous French properties including Fontainebleau, Versailles, Chenonceau and Chambord.