Edinburgh Castle is Scotland’s most-visited attraction. Dominating the city skyline, the castle sits on Castle Rock at the upper end of The Royal Mile (one mile from Holyrood Palace – hence the name). The castle boasts cafés, a restaurant, museums, exhibitions and displays including the Honours of Scotland.
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Review of Edinburgh Castle
The world-famous Edinburgh Castle doesn’t really need an introduction as most visitors to Scotland will have researched it before leaving home, which is perfectly understandable as it’s Scotland’s most-visited tourist attraction.
The fact that the castle is so famous means that annual visitor numbers are huge (over 2 million) and it holds the prestigious title of being the most popular attraction in Scotland.
In fact, out of all the tourists who come to this country each year, over 70% claim that a visit to Edinburgh Castle is their top priority.
In my opinion it encapsulates everything that’s great about the best Scottish attractions. It’s big, atmospheric, very old, utterly fascinating and is situated in a stunning location.
There are lovely old buildings to walk through, lots of interesting artefacts to look at, some really good museums to wander around and more exhibitions, shops and cafés than you’ll likely be able to fit into one day.
Basically, Edinburgh Castle rightly deserves its position as the nation’s number-one tourist attraction.
Things to do at Edinburgh Castle
You can reach the entrance to the castle by following The Royal Mile uphill to the very end of its northernmost point. You can’t really miss it because once you get there you’ll be presented with a magnificent open courtyard with the castle looming over the scene.
This area is where the world-famous Edinburgh Military Tattoo takes place each year, where military bands and performers from all over the world come together to entertain a quarter-million tourists annually, watched by upwards of 100 million people on television.
All around the castle sheer cliff faces can be seen which give an indication of what an impenetrable fortress it was for hundreds of years, but the approach up The Royal Mile from the eastern side of the city is relaxed and affords a pleasurable walk past street performers and souvenir shops.
The Argyll Battery
Once through the main gate you’ll find the ticket centre to your right and after purchasing your ticket you can follow the narrower path into the castle’s outer area known as the Argyll Battery.
But before going any further it would be wise to pick up a copy of the castle map which is handed out free to ticket holders as the site is pretty big and if you don’t have directions there’s a distinct possibility you’ll miss out on some of the best sights.
Within the courtyard of the Argyll Battery is the One O’ Clock Gun where a British Army gunner fires a cannon-shot (not live thankfully) at precisely one o’clock every day. Just make sure you get there early because it draws quite a crowd.
The gunshot was initially intended to alert the ships moored along the Firth of Forth that the time was exactly 1pm, in conjunction with a visual cue on a mast sited on the top of Nelson’s monument on Calton Hill. Nowadays the One O’Clock Gun is mainly ceremonial, but it’s still an exciting display to watch.
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The large building on the south side of the battery is the Governor’s house which is today used as the castle’s administrative building as well as the officer’s mess for the remaining military personnel stationed at the castle.
That unfortunately means the building is off-limits to tourists but at least virtually every other building in the castle is accessible to the public.
As you look in this direction and slightly to the right you’ll also see the castle tea rooms which offer top quality food and at the rear of this building is an expansive window that provides great views across the city.
Heading towards the southernmost point of the courtyard you’ll come across the New Barracks which were completed in 1799 with the intention of housing the 600 soldiers that used to be permanently stationed at the castle.
To the west, you can find the National War Museum of Scotland which was originally a store for munitions. The museum now displays exhibits from Scotland’s military history and you can find original examples of military artefacts and uniforms from over 400 years ago right up to the present day.
The Palace Yard
If you follow the steep winding path upwards to the inner part of the castle you’ll pass through Foogs gate, and through the gate to the left you’ll see a shop housing an impressive selection of Scotch whisky. Interestingly, this building was actually built to house the castle’s fire station and the large cisterns that used to collect rainwater are still there.
As you walk around the small courtyard near the shop you can’t fail to see Mons Meg – a massive artillery cannon that was built in the 15th-century and given as a gift to King James II.
The cannon was made unusable after the barrel burst during an official ceremony in 1681 but its credentials as one of the most powerful weapons in Scotland can be seen in the collection of cannonballs piled up on the ground, each weighing an incredible 300 pounds (twice the weight of an average person).
Behind Mons Meg lies the oldest building in Edinburgh, the 12th-century St. Margaret’s Chapel.
This building was built as a private chapel for the royal family by King David I and was constructed to honour the memory of his mother, St. Margaret of Scotland. Since being used as a gunpowder store in the 16th-century it has been fully restored and it’s now a favourite attraction in the castle.
Next, follow the path around the upper level of the half-moon battery and you’ll find the Palace Yard which is a 15th-century courtyard surrounded by the Royal Palace, the Great Hall, and the Queen Anne building.
The Royal Palace
The Royal Palace is perhaps the most dramatic section of the entire castle complex as it houses not only the royal apartments where the legendary Mary Queen of Scots lived but also the great crown room which houses the Honours of Scotland.
These artefacts are the Scottish equivalent of the Crown Jewels held in the Tower of London and they’re no less impressive, comprising a crown, sceptre and the Sword of State. The Stone of Scone – the ancient stone on which Scottish monarchs were crowned – is also held within the vaults of the crown room.
The adjoining Great Hall should be the next building you visit as the spectacular collection of weaponry is a sight to behold. Originally built for formal occasions such as meetings with heads of state, the Great Hall houses fine examples of Scottish tapestries and ancient weaponry.
Be sure to keep an eye open for the Claymore, a four-and-a-half foot long sword that’s so big you’ll wonder how someone could even lift it off the ground, let alone swing it at an opponent.
Adjacent to the great hall is the Queen Anne building which was once a military museum but has now been converted into a function suite and education centre. You’ll also find another tea room here which is a great place to stop and take a break if you find your feet are aching after so much walking.
Across the courtyard, you can see the Scottish National War Memorial which was used as a barrack block and arsenal in previous lives. Although the arsenal was demolished in 1755 the masonry was reused to build the memorial which commemorates the fallen British military personnel that have died in conflicts since WWI.
Inside you’ll find stone plaques dedicated to all three services; Army, Navy and Air Force, with an altar placed on the highest point of Castle Rock. Stained glass windows flood the interior with light while a sealed casket containing the names of over 200,000 fallen soldiers can be seen in the hall.
There are plenty of other exhibitions and galleries to view as you make your way around Edinburgh Castle and it may not be possible to fit them all into one day. I’d recommend purchasing a Historic Environment Scotland membership which will allow you free return visits to this and hundreds of other historic attractions for a reasonable one-off cost.
If you want to discover other attractions in the city read my Guide to the top 25 Places to Visit in Edinburgh.
The history of Edinburgh Castle
The story of Edinburgh Castle goes back to the very beginnings of Edinburgh city.
The earliest known settlement in Edinburgh was located at Castle Rock, the enormous rock formation that rises up in the middle of the city.
Archaeologists believe that wandering tribes inhabited the site as far back as the Iron Age but it wasn’t until the sixth century AD that unified tribes began to build their strongholds throughout Scotland.
At this point there were four major kingdoms and it’s from these disparate groups of people that Scotland was born. To the north were the Picts, to the far west were the Scots, to the west were the Britons, and to the south-east were the Angles, and as you might have guessed they did not lead a peaceful co-existence.
For over two hundred years these four kingdoms brutally fought each other, until in the 9th-century the King of Dal Riata – Kenneth MacAlpin – brought them together under one banner to create a nation similar to the modern Scotland we recognise today.
However, one of the most powerful tribes during those turbulent years were the Votadini – and it’s this group who established the territory known as Lothian from which all the modern districts surrounding Edinburgh eventually emerged.
Over time the Votadini were integrated into neighbouring tribes and by the 7th-century a tribe known as the Gododdin had built a hill fortification on top of Castle Rock. This fortification was called Etin by the Gododdin, which changed into the name Edin in later years.
Historical records state that later in the 7th-century English forces captured an area in Scotland that had a fort situated on top of a rock, and that they named this place Eiden’s burgh.
Records of the earliest beginnings of the castle are scarce but it seems that by the middle of the 10th-century Northumbrian nobles had decided to make it the location of their permanent residence, which in turn led them to build increasingly fortified walls as protection from neighbouring rivals.
The castle had become a place of royal residence by the reign of David I in the 12th century and it continued this role for the next five hundred years until it was converted into a military complex with a large garrison in the 17th-century.
The castle served Scotland as a military base for many years thereafter and was pivotal to the story of the Jacobite uprising when Edinburgh was claimed by the forces of Prince Charles Edward Stewart.
It is a fact that Edinburgh Castle is one of the most besieged castles in the world, with 26 recorded sieges since the modern castle was built.
Today, it is under the care of Historic Environment Scotland, the organisation that takes care of and preserves the majority of the nations historic buildings.
Not only is Edinburgh Castle the home of the Honours of Scotland – the official regalia of state – but it’s also the location for the National War Memorial and the National War Museum.
I think it’s fair to say that Edinburgh Castle has one of the most interesting histories of any building in the world.
If you’d like to explore more Scottish castles read my Guide to the Best Castles to Visit in Scotland.
- The castle complex is huge and will occupy you for most of the day.
- The museums and buildings are really interesting, both for adults and children.
- The café and shops are of decent quality but have typical tourist prices. You could save a bundle by getting your snacks and souvenirs from Princes Street instead.
- The ticket booth gets extremely busy but you can buy tickets in advance online.
- Get to the café before midday for a better chance to eat in front of the panoramic window.
- If you’re going to visit a lot of historic buildings in Scotland then you need a Historic Environment Scotland explorer pass which allows free unlimited entry. Follow this link and search for your pass on Viator: Roam the world.
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Things to do near Edinburgh Castle
- The Royal Mile. 197 High St, Edinburgh EH1 1PT. 1-minute walk. A famous medieval high street that joins Holyrood Palace to Edinburgh Castle. Known for its closes and wynds that join the road along its length. It features a variety of shops, bars and restaurants.
- St. Giles Cathedral. High St, Edinburgh EH1 1RE. 4-minute walk. A grand Gothic-style medieval cathedral also known as ‘The High Kirk’, it was the place of worship where John Knox preached. Free to visit and guided tours are available. Shop and café on site.
- Gladstone’s Land. 477B Lawnmarket, Edinburgh EH1 2NT. 2-minute walk. Historic restored house dating from the 1600s. A guided tour takes you through the history of Edinburgh and shows visitors how people lived in the days of ‘Auld Reekie’.
- John Knox House. Scottish Storytelling Centre, High St, Edinburgh EH1 1SR. 5-minute walk. A historic building known as the home of the preacher John Knox and the royal goldsmith James Mossman. Attached to The Scottish Storytelling Centre which has a café and runs storytelling workshops.
- Princes Street Gardens. Princes St, Edinburgh EH1 2EU. 1-minute walk. Large landscaped gardens that border Princes Street. The gardens feature a number of attractions including the Ross Fountain, the Ross Bandstand and the Scott Monument. The Scottish National Galleries are located between the east and west gardens.
More places to visit in Edinburgh
- Cramond Island – Edinburgh: Complete Visitor GuideSituated just over 3/4 of a mile into the Firth of Forth, Cramond Island is a tidal landmass located close the village of Cramond near Edinburgh.
- Edinburgh Butterfly and Insect World: Complete Visitor GuideEdinburgh Butterfly World is a fascinating tourist attraction on the southern outskirts of Edinburgh that showcases some rather incredible, beautiful, and very creepy-crawly insects and reptiles from across the globe.
- The Scotch Whisky Experience – Edinburgh: Complete Visitor GuideIf you’re embarking on a visit to Edinburgh then your trip won’t be complete without a visit to The Scotch Whisky Experience, located just a short walk from Edinburgh Castle Esplanade on the Royal Mile.
- The Royal Yacht Britannia – Edinburgh: Complete Visitor GuideThe Royal Yacht Britannia is the former royal yacht of HM Queen Elizabeth II which now takes pride of place at the Ocean Terminal shopping centre at Leith in Edinburgh. Over the course of her working life Britannia was the official residence of the Royal Family and sailed over one million miles around the world.