Many fairy tale settings were inspired by real-life destinations around the world. From Sicily to Scandinavia, here is the scoop on some of the most idyllic lands of folklore just waiting to be discovered.
Stories of heroes and magic, and goblins and trolls, have been entrancing the masses ages before even the Brothers Grimm decided to pen some of history’s most memorable tales. The reasons for this preoccupation with folklore vary: Some people pine for their favorite characters and others wish for a world where magic spells and potions can be bought and sold at your local witch’s hut.
But perhaps the most alluring part of a fairy tale is the setting, filled with grand castles, forbidden forests, and charming villages galore. These fascinating worlds come to life before our eyes thanks to the rich descriptions of our favorite authors. And there’s good news for all of the dreamers out there: Many of these otherworldly settings were inspired by real-life destinations around the world.
We all know Sleeping Beauty’s castle was based on the gorgeous Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, Germany, and that Colmar, France could be La Belle et La Bete’s hometown, but what about lesser known fairy tales? From Sicily to Scandinavia, we have the scoop on some of the most idyllic lands of folklore that are just waiting to be discovered—and, of course, the dreamy hotels where you can almost imagine Prince (or Princess) Charming awaiting your hand for a dance.
1. Sicily, Italy
Palermo. Jerzy Strzelecki CC BY-SA 3.0
Sicily remains one of the most intriguing regions of Italy. A mix of cultures—including Italian, Spanish, Arabic, Greek, and African—provide the island with a heady history filled with intrigue. You can see the blend of cultures reflected in the island’s cuisine, architecture, language, and—yes—folklore.
Fairy tales from Sicily have all of the traditional components: heroes and heroines, magic and might. But they also have some surprising twists that make them entirely their own. In Sorforina, for example, our titular heroine is a well-educated young woman, the daughter of a Sicilian merchant, who falls in love with a young, belligerent prince. The tale of their love affair is tortured, filled with artful witchcraft and steamy seduction (this is an Italian fairy tale, after all). It is a fairy tale of its own unique making, filled with the wry and unabashed sarcasm Sicilians are known for in the face of insurmountable obstacles.
Stay: Grand Hotel Villa Igiea
The Grand Hotel Villa Igiea offers a magnificent and ornate example of Sicily’s 19th century architectural history—as well as a plausible backdrop for our Sorforina.
Visitors have noted that this is considered one of the best, if not the best, hotel in Palermo. The grounds are spectacular, and the outdoor pool was built to incorporate ancient stone ruins. Inside, there’s a romantic bar with vaulted stone ceilings and wall frescoes.
The Irish are known for their storytelling, so it should come as no surprise that their folklore tradition is alive and well. Many of the stories take place amid Ireland’s stunning countryside, where larger-than-life hunters, warriors, kings, and fairies play out some of the island’s most treasured tales.
The landscape comes into play in nearly every story, but none so great as the legend behind Giant’s Causeway, which folklore would have us believe was created by actual giants many centuries ago. In the story, Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill was challenged to a fight by the Scottish giant Benandonner. How Fionn managed to defeat his much larger foe is still debated, but it is said that in his haste to be away, Benandonner destroyed the causeway behind him so that the two could never meet again. The remaining basalt columns on either side of the Irish Sea stand as the testament to their great battle.
Stay: Ashford Castle
Though some distance from Giant’s Causeway, Ashford Castle embodies a different Irish folklore fantasy: that of castles and kings, medieval honor and political intrigue. The hotel features a massive historic stone facade, complete with towers and turrets; gorgeous, manicured grounds; a stunning setting on a huge lake; and common spaces that are truly grand, with rich wood paneling, chandeliers, and antique furniture.
The wide range of estate activities includes falconry lessons, boat tours on the lake, golf on the 9-hole course, clay shooting, and archery. You’ll be ready to join Tristan and Isolde‘s court by the end of your stay.
3. Hong Kong
China’s folklore tradition sees the blending of the mystical with reality in many of the country’s most treasured stories. Pu Songling is one of the best known Chinese storytellers, having composed or collected over 500 supernatural tales during the 17th century. His stories are filled with magical foxes, ghosts, scholars, court officials, exorcists, and mythical beasts.
Fox spirits are prevalent in a large portion of Asian folklore (in Japan, they are called kitsune) and are akin to Western fairies; they are mischievous and can be good or bad depending on the story. The setting for these tales range from the Chinese countryside to its vast shores, with some stories talking of mermaids and demons guarding treasure buried deep beneath the waves.
Stay: Intercontinental Grand Stanford
Today, travelers flock to Hong Kong, where its harbor location speaks to much of Chinese folklore. Location is indeed a big draw at the InterContinental, as it is within walking distance of museums and major sights.
The rooms are also a highlight, and are tastefully decorated in a classic style, with understated wood furnishings and neutral-toned carpeting. Some rooms offer beautiful views of the harbor and the Hong Kong skyline, which is especially stunning at night.
Though traditionally one often thinks of Hans Christian Andersen when reminiscing on fairy tales of the Scandinavian variety, to the north of Andersen’s Danish homeland lies a nation equally as rich in storytelling.
Countrymen Asbjornsen and Moe are considered the Brothers Grimm of Norway, having amassed a collection of traditional tales and legends some 150 years ago. Their stories feature mountain trolls and talking bears and foxes, as well as figures that resemble the Nordic gods and goddesses that once prevailed throughout Scandinavia.
The Norse god of thunder—Thor—is a familiar hero whose likeness can be seen in several stories. He steals and lies, and boasts and kills to get his prize—often with magical help. He is not a perfect hero, but he is vastly entertaining. Set against Norway’s stunning natural beauty, his stories become a grand adventure of battles and witchcraft.
Disney fans will also be keen to visit Norway: The setting of Frozen was based on the country’s rugged landscape and charming architecture, despite the actual story drawing inspiration from Andersen’s The Snow Queen.
Stay: Britannia Hotel
The Britannia Hotel is Trondheim’s grande dame. This historic luxury property (opened in 1897) has hosted royalty, celebrities, and diplomats over the years, and today continues to be one of the city’s most prestigious options—we’re sure Elsa would approve.
Its rooms have traditional decor (most have plaid fabrics and wood furniture), but the hotel’s real draws are its historic character, impressive restaurants, and, most notably, full-service spa—it is one of the only hotel spas in Norway.
5. Paris, France
Romantic Paris has always been rife with storytellers, but none have so largely captured the imaginations of children and adults as Charles Perrault. Considered to be the founder of the modern fairy tale—yes, even before the Brothers Grimm—Perrault was born in Paris in the early 1600s, and played a large part in French governance at the time.
However, he is best known for his Tales of Mother Goose, which include favorite folk tales such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, and Puss in Boots. Many of these stories take place in the surrounding French countryside, but Perrault drew inspiration from the City of Light as well.
Stay: Hotel Relais Saint-Germain
Owned by celebrity chef Yves Camdeborde, this upscale boutique is focused on food and culture. On-site restaurant Le Comptoir is a destination unto itself, and guests get priority when booking one of its coveted tables.
Large, stylish rooms feature unique decor and distinctive details inspired by literary greats that would have made Perrault proud.
6. The Caribbean
The Caribbean isles are rife with tales of magic and mischief. While some stories are merely retellings of European folklore—Cendrillon is a heartwarming rendition of Cinderella, told from the fairy godmother’s perspective—other original tales are even more bewitching.
Creole storytellers would weave invigorating tales, many of them rooted in West African folklore, of gods and magicians at constant odds with one another. The Anancy stories—about a spider spirit whose keen use of trickery often helped him outsmart his competitors—are the most popular. West African deities, like Papa Bois, La Diablesse, and Mama Dglo, also make appearances.
Stay: The Ritz-Carlton Golf & Spa Resort, Rose Hall, Jamaica
This swanky Ritz lies on the grounds of a (supposedly) haunted 18th-century sugar plantation, making it a perfect spot to go to explore some of the Caribbean’s best tales. The ghost of slave owner and voodoo practitioner Annie Palmer, known as the White Witch of Jamaica, can be seen at night riding across her former estate.
It’s a small price to pay for the Ritz’s traditionally top-notch food, golf course, service, facilities, bathrooms, beds … well, everything.
Hawaiian folklore and mythology has a distinct flavor from that of other Polynesian islands, due to Hawaii’s distance from other nearby nations. It melds Hawaiian mythology with urban legends, using gods and goddesses to explain the islands’ unique landscapes. On these islands, night marchers—or huaka‘i po, the ghosts of ancient warriors—roam by torchlight, and banshees chase away unsuspecting travelers (anyone who’s visited Manoa Falls on Oahu may have heard one particularly violent specter’s screams).
But the islands are also home to hundreds of gods and goddesses who work to restore balance … or throw it out of whack entirely. Pele, possibly the most famous Hawaiian deity, is the oft-temperamental goddess of volcanoes.
Stay: Ke Iki Beach Bungalows
Location trumps luxury at these 11 beachfront bungalows sitting just above the sand on Oahu’s picturesque North Shore.
Sure, the bungalows are modest, amenities are zero, and service is minimal. But a beautiful beach is just outside the door, as are hammocks and grills. And Oahu’s most famous surfing spots and a charming surfer town, Haleiwa, are just down the street. The remote location makes it an ideal hotel for getting in touch with Hawaii’s folklore.
8. British Columbia
This section was originally going to be entitled “Canada,” but Canada’s mythology and folklore is so diverse—ranging across a multitude of Native Canadian tribes, French-Canadian tales, and more recent English Canadian stories—that to do so would have been impossible.
The Pacific Northwest section of the country, home to British Columbia, the Yukon, and portions of Southeast Alaska, shares similar fairy tales. The Haida peoples tell tall tales of the Raven—a trickster spirit (and sometimes sexual deviant)—who is responsible for creating the universe. Hundreds of other deities inhabit the land, sea, and air with the Raven, with whom village shaman could communicate. Canada’s vast wilderness and stunning terrains inspired much of these myths.
Stay: Summit Lodge & Spa
This casual property has large, bright rooms with kitchenettes, fireplaces, balconies, and free Wi-Fi. Dogs are very welcome here (and can stay for free), and there’s a small spa on-site offering Javanese-style treatments.
The Lower Village location is a bit removed from the main tourist action, but does come with lovely mountain views.