There?s a good chance that the first thing you?ll notice upon arriving in Edinburgh ? after the indecipherable Scottish accents ? is Edinburgh Castle.
Towering over the western end of Princes Street, Edinburgh Castle rises out of the volcanic crags of Castle Rock with all the majesty and grandeur of a real-life Hogwarts.
Occupied by royalty since the 11th Century and used as a military stronghold from the 17th Century onwards, Edinburgh Castle is one of Scotland?s most important historical artefacts and its most visited tourist attraction, with over two million visitors in 2018 alone. (Anyone who has experienced the crowds of the Royal Mile won?t be surprised by this figure.)
Locals that I?ve spoken to while bartending often disregard the castle as little more than a ceremonial tourist attraction, but with a history spanning over 1100 years, it?s much more than that ? it just so happens to look pretty too.
Here?s everything you need to know to make your visit to Edinburgh Castle as smooth and enjoyable as possible ? from tickets, pricing and opening times to fun facts and a brief overview of the castle?s history so you can sound like an expert to your friends.
A Brief History of Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle sits atop Castle Rock, a volcanic plug ? the remains of an erupted volcano ? that is estimated to have formed around 350 million years ago.
While humans have occupied the area around the rock continuously since the Iron Age, the first royal castle wasn?t built until the reign of David I in the 12th century.
A view of the city down the barrel of a canon.
Since then, until the early 19th century Edinburgh Castle was involved in constant historical conflict, leading historian David H. Caldwell to declare it as ?the most besieged place in Great Britain and one of the most attacked in the world.?
From the 17th century onwards Edinburgh Castle was mainly used as a military barracks and garrison. Its value as a part of Scotland?s national heritage wasn?t truly recognised until the early 1800s, and since then a number of programmes have been dedicated to restoration and maintenance.
The site of conflict between Scotland and England for centuries, the ageing castle now stands valiantly as a symbol of Edinburgh, and Scotland more broadly.
When Is The Castle Open?
I know from a particularly haunting experience in Vienna, when I arrived on a Sunday only to realise that everything was closed, that you should never just assume that things will be open when you?re travelling.
Beware ? the castle is always busy.
In the spirit of ensuring that no one ever makes the same mistake I made, here are the official opening times of the castle below.
Edinburgh Castle is open from 9:30am ? 6pm between April and September and between 9:30?5pm between October and March.
The last entry is an hour before closing. Staff are very serious about enforcing this rule! If you happen to visit with an hour left until close, don?t expect to see anywhere near everything that the castle has to offer ? you?ll need at least two hours for that.
Be warned that due to construction, cleaning and maintenance, opening hours may change on short notice. Be sure to check before you book.
How Much Do Tickets Cost?
You can buy tickets at the castle, but it?s a good idea to pre-book to avoid the dense crowds and save 1 on all tickets.
Adult (Ages 16?59): 18.50Concession (Ages 60+): 15.00Children (Ages 5?15): 11.50Children Under 5: Free
Purchase tickets online here.
Pull the trigger ? or fire the canon ? and buy tickets to Edinburgh Castle early
A more cost-effective option (one that I wish I knew of at the time), is to buy the Explorer Pass, which gives you admission to over 70 of Scotland?s largest attractions over a period of five or 14 days.
Adult: 35 (5-Day Pass) / 45 (14-Day Pass)Student: 28 (5-Day Pass) / 36 (14-Day Pass)Child: 21 (5-Day Pass) / 27(14-Day Pass)Family: 70 (5-Day Pass) / 90 (14-Day Pass)
Purchase your Explorer Pass online here
The Explorer Pass is definitely the best option if you?re only in the city for a few days and want to see as much as possible ? especially if you?re travelling as a family.
A visit to Edinburgh Castle is expensive, but worthwhile. However, if you?re after cheaper, less-crowded alternatives, both Craigmillar Castle and Lauriston Castle are worth visiting.
Do I Need A Guide?
Well the good news is that your ticket comes with an optional guided tour of the castle. You?ll be guided by an expert that knows everything there is to know about Edinburgh Castle. They?ll baffle you with obscure facts, incredible stories and offer a wealth of information that?ll make your trip all the more enjoyable.
A view of the castle once through the gates.
Tours run every 30 minutes in summer and around every hour in winter. The tours only go for half an hour so there?s plenty of time to explore on your own afterwards.
If you find tour guides too restrictive, or are looking for more after your half-hour tour, then your best option is to buy an audio guide.
I know that the last thing you want to do after shelling out 18 is to tack on another few quid, but it?s so worth it.
Your time looking at and admiring the architecture, grand interiors, cobbled lanes and rusted siege canons will be made so much richer by learning the historical context behind what you?re seeing ? as you?re seeing it.
You won?t regret it. It?s just like listening to a podcast, except you don?t have to deal with Joe Rogan saying ?wow? every ten seconds.
So get yourself a free map (or download it here beforehand) and listen to your audio guide as you explore the castle. If you really don?t want to spend the extra money, just search for a podcast on Edinburgh Castle and listen to it as you walk around.
Audio Tours are available in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Russian and Mandarin. They cost 3.50 for adults, 1.50 for children and 2.50 for concessions and are available to purchase on-site.
Itineraries for Edinburgh Castle
One of the struggles of being a tourist is trying to cram a bunch of activities into a limited amount of time. I?ll never forget, due to circumstances outside my control, having roughly 45-minutes to explore the priceless renaissance artworks of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. It?s an experience I wouldn?t recommend.
The colossal Mons Meg
So whether you have a full day, a few hours or 60 minutes on the dot, here?s some itineraries to make sure you get the most out of your visit to Edinburgh Castle.
Only An Hour
An hour at Edinburgh Castle isn?t quite long enough to see all that it has to offer, but you can see the majority of its highlights.
- Portcullis GateEnter beneath the raised portcullis, part of the fortified gateway built nearly 450 years ago after the devastation of the Lange Siege.
- Lang StairsClimb all 70 steps along the fastest route to the top of the Castle Rock. This winding set of stairs was once the original entrance to the castle before the gradual cobbled hill was added in the 17th Century to bring in heavy guns.
- St. Margaret?s ChapelKing David I had this chapel built in 1130 as a tribute to his deceased mother. The oldest building in Edinburgh ? which is saying something ? until the castle was restored it was the only part still standing.
- Mons MegA gift to King James II in 1457, the six-tonne Mons Meg fired a 150kg gunstone a distance of 3.2 km. This very gun was fired over the city to celebrate Mary Queen of Scots? wedding, with the gunstone landing in the Royal Botanic Garden.
- The view of Edinburgh Sure there?s plenty to see inside the castle, but be sure to take the time to enjoy the view of Edinburgh. If you?re lucky enough to visit on a clear day you can see all the way to the Highland peaks!
- Crown JewelsTake a few minutes to check out the oldest Crown jewels in the British Isles, first used for the coronation of Mary Queen of Scots in 1543.
- The Great HallThe closest thing you?ll get to being in a Harry Potter film, the opulent hall was finished in 1511 to host ceremonies for King James IV. As well as the room itself, there is an amazing collection of weapons and armour around the walls.
- Prisons of War ExhibitionDuring the 18th and 19th centuries pirates and POWs were held in the vaults beneath the Great Hall. There?s a great exhibition exploring the stories of the prisoners and replicating the conditions they would have lived in.
Depending on your pace ? and whether you want to stop in for a whisky tasting ? you may choose to stay longer, but ideally you want to budget between two and three hours to fully explore Edinburgh Castle.
It?s worth visiting the castle for the views alone
As well as the attractions I mentioned in the one-hour itinerary, you?ll be able to see so much more. Best to consult your map to make sure you?re seeing things in order and not wandering all over the place.
- Argyle BatteryThe cannons overlook the northern vantage point and have been defending the castle since the early 18th Century. The current canons date from the Napoleonic Wars with France. Take some time to look across Edinburgh and imagine what the Castle has withstood over the centuries.
- Argyle Tower ? Fight for the CastleThis exhibition tells the story of Edinburgh Castle in the Wars of Independence through animations, projections and real medieval objects.
- Military PrisonDuck under the tiny doorframe and imagine yourself as a prisoner inside this tiny Victorian prison. Unsurprisingly knowing how much the Scottish love a drink, ?Drunk on guard? was one of the most common offences soldiers would get locked up for.
- Royal Scots MuseumOnce the British Army?s oldest serving regiment, take a trip back through the 350-year heritage of the Royal Scots. Don?t miss the six ? yes, six ? Victoria Crosses on display.
- Royal Scots Dragoon Guards MuseumFrom the battlefields of Waterloo to the deserts of Iraq, the senior Scottish regiment in the British Army has a proud and storied history. Treasures include a French Eagle and Standard taken at the Battle of Waterloo.
- New BarracksWhile it is not open to visitors, wander past this seven-storey building that once housed a 600-man infantry battalion. Built during the Napoleonic Wars, the military continues to use the New Barracks today.
A famous depiction of the Battle of Waterloo
- National War MuseumCovering the 17th century to the present day, take in iconic paintings, flag and standards, and learn about the history of military kilts and bagpipes. There?s even a regimental dog, Bob, with a remarkable story that you won?t want to miss.
- One o?clock Gun ExhibitionThis 105mm field gun is fired every day except Sunday, Good Friday and Christmas Day at 1pm sharp. The practice dates back to 1861 when the gun was fired to signal the time to ships in the Firth of Forth ? it?s just like Mary Poppins!
- James VI?s Birth Chamber/The Royal ApartmentsEnter the very room where the first monarch of both England and Scotland was born. His mother, Mary Queen of Scots, chose the safety of Edinburgh Castle over the more comfortable lodgings of Holyroodhouse for the birth of her son.
- Scottish National War MemorialMy favourite part of the castle! The war memorial is a colossal, breathtakingly beautiful space to reflect on the sacrifice of those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the First and Second World Wars, as well as subsequent campaigns.
For more information on Edinburgh Castle, visit the official website.
Thanks for reading. I hope this article helps you make the most of your time at Edinburgh Castle! If it did help you please press that clap button!
If you have any questions, comments, queries, or live in Edinburgh and want to grab a pint, comment below or email me any time at [email protected].