Coming up with this list of the best scotland castles and palaces was so fun. Creating this post, however, was more work than anything else…
So here’s the story. This blonde blogger who you know may or may not have gone to Scotland for three weeks and she may or may not have come home with 2,500 photos and videos. Literally. I did it for you. And a little for me. So, basically for both of us.
Any long trip deserves multiple posts, of course, and at the moment I have 4-5 planned… When I edited the photos just for this post, however, I started with 59. Yeah. I know – way too many. Then I narrowed it to 49 to edit. Then I got it down to 27 when I uploaded the photos! If that doesn’t deserve a reward, I don’t know what does. So, drinks all around!
What’s the difference between a castle and palace?
So, let’ talk Scotland castles and palaces. These are not the same. In case you’re wondering, yes, I did have to google the difference.
Castles are military defense posts. They were at one time a home to royalty (one of many), but because of their defensive nature, they are castles. And also because of this, castles are usually on hills (to see the enemy coming).
Palaces, however, are homes of royalty. So they’re usually big (BIG!!) homes in beautiful settings with little to no defensive capabilities.
In my now humble opinion, not all Scottish castles and palaces are created equally, but more importantly, not all castles and palaces are maintained and presented equally.
We visited more than 5 properties (I couldn’t justify saying castles and palaces again in this paragraph), but these are my top picks! They aren’t all on the main road, but they are all worth trekking across the country to see…
First and foremost, Balmoral Castle. This castle is the private Scottish vacation home of the royal family. A bit of background.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited Scotland for the first time in the 1840s and fell in love with the country. Seeking a place to escape the stresses of their lives, they sought a place of respite and the Highlands was exactly what they needed.
Prince Albert bought the estate for Queen Victoria. They soon built the stunning palace and it’s been the late summer holiday home for the royal family ever since!
When you visit the property (open only late March to late July every year), you can walk the grounds and see the ballroom of the castle.
There’s an audio tour (with refundable deposit). Walking around the estate near the palace was a divine experience. The manicured gardens are overseen to bloom and bare produce for precisely the time when the royal family is there on holiday – a scientific feat considering cold winter temps and the precise dates of visit.
Wandering around, you can imagine picnics with family, playing outside with children, and breakfasting in the gardener’s cottage. Moments of serenity quickly come to mind. I’d be ready to visit 10 weeks out of the year. The weather was stunning in April, so I can imagine August-September are sublime!
There was an advertisement of a guided tour in the afternoon, but we missed that. There are also safaris and cabins to rent on the estate – yep, dreaming of those too!! This is the castle my Scotland dreams are made of!
How do you get to Balmoral?
The one downside (intentionally) about Balmoral is that it’s a little bit in the middle of nowhere. Curvy, two-lane roads are the only way in (short of the helipad that the Queen uses). I certainly had moments of carsickness during the 3-hour drive from Edinburgh. It was fabulously worth the visit, however.
You can rent a car and drive the distance yourself and I’m sure there are tours available. If there was one thing my mom wanted to do in Scotland, it was to see Balmoral Palace, so she hired a tour for us through Discreet Scotland – certainly a luxurious experience we won’t soon forget.
Often Glamis (pronounced “Glamz”) or Scone (pronounced “skoon”) Palaces are on to the itinerary. These two palaces pale in comparison to Balmoral, but the estates are beautiful.
Scone Palace sits in the previous home of the Stone of Destiny – the coronation stone of Britain. The stone isn’t on site anymore, however.
Also, there are peacocks – not my favorite – though they were beautiful and only a slight hiccup for me enjoying the beautiful property! If you’re wanting to visit Scone Palace on your own, let me know and I’ll tell you how we got their via train and bus from Edinburgh!
Where to Eat Near Balmoral Castle?
As for lunch. We had a very quick bite at The Bothy Braemar just down the road from Balmoral Castle. The meal wasn’t spectacular, but the dessert selection certainly was! We enjoy a dessert bar with shortbread, dried fruit, and nuts, topped with coconut. OMG! You should go just for this goodie!
One of the things I most looked forward to on this lengthy trip was a mental reset. I needed a disconnect from my everyday along with a few moments of ease.
We had been so busy (doing fabulous things of course) after we arrived in Scotland, however, I that was having trouble disconnecting. Everytime we found a small, cute town, we had to move along to the next destination.
About ten days into the trip, we visited Dunnottar Castle. The castle is about 30 miles south of Aberdeen in northeast Scotland. You walk down a huge staircase and then up to the castle (because it’s on a hill with great views like any good castle is).
You’ll wander around the site reading the signs – there’s no organized tour, but the signage is quite good and you really get a feel for the semi-isolated location.
Best View of The North Sea
After entering, you wander through the ruins of the Scottish castle and read the stories of those who lived there, those who invaded it, and those who were captured and held there.
Toward the eastern side of the main building, there’s a ‘window’ overlooking the North Sea. I leaned over as far as I could and began to soak up the sounds of waves crashing against the rocks and the breeze gently blowing in my hair (a welcome respite from the wind). I closed my eyes and started to feel myself disconnect.
Much to my husband’s careful chagrin, he helped me up onto the ‘window sill’ so I could fully enjoy the experience.
And then that moment hit. The moment where you feel like you’re at the end of the world and nothing can get you. The moment where you enter complete oblivion and know that like magic, your soul is refueling! It was wonderful and possibly the best moment of our entire trip.
Soon, however, it was time to move along and I happily did so, knowing that I just had the experience I will always remember from our trip to Scotland.
Dunnottar Castle sits just outside the seaside town of Stonehaven (pretty much cuteness perfected). On a clear day, there is a seaside path between the town and the castle that I can only imagine is stunning. It was raining the day we visited the castle, however, so we drove between the two.
Where to Eat in Stonehaven?
Best Fish & Chips in Scotland
Now, if you’re anywhere in the neighborhood of Stonehaven, you HAVE to go to The Bay Fish & Chips. This place is famous and, on a sunny day, will have a line of locals and visitors trying to get their hands on freshly fried fish!
After we ordered two ‘standards,’ we saw them pull a fresh piece of fish out to fry. I was the tourist that asked to take a photo of the fish. The fish is obviously fresh and the food is amazing.
They do have a lot of offerings, but they could just have the ‘standard’ and I’d be a happy camper.
There’s no seating in the shop, so plan to eat in the car (if it’s raining) or along the water if it’s sunny!
And if the sustainable fish fried to perfection upon your order wasn’t enough – CUTE KETCHUP PACKETS! I’m such a sucker for good packaging, but this! This was pretty amazing. However, the salt sprinkled and the lemon drizzled over the fish and chips before closing up the box were so tasty, you almost didn’t need the ketchup!
Dessert in Stonehaven
Though The Bay Fish & Chips is amazing, you should save room for a visit to Aunt Betty’s right next door. Full of homemade goodies, ice cream with tons of toppings, and all the candy you could imagine, it’s a great stop for dessert or a bag of morsels to enjoy later!
This ice cream is called ‘Black Faced Sheep.” It’s coffee ice cream with chocolate chunks and caramel – delightfully enjoyable! You’ll see that ice cream is a very big thing in Scotland, so it only seems right to enjoy it after the best fish & chips!
If you’re spending anytime if Edinburgh, which you absolutely should – it’s a wonderful city, then Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace will be on your list to visit. And they absolutely should be.
The crowds at the two are the biggest of any of the castles and palaces we visited by far and away, which is logical since they’re in the big city.
You should try to get there as close to opening time as possible to avoid long lines, which I imagine are a little too hot for comfort in the summer months.
There is an audio tour you can buy, but there are also 20-minute guided tours included in your ticket price. They provide a brief overview of the castle and give you some guidance about what and where you can see the highlights at the castle. Many visitors want to be at the castle at 1pm since that’s when the cannon goes off.
We visited the castle when I was about 12 and though we were there at the right time, I never heard it. This time, we also managed to be there at the right time.
My husband and I ran out to be on the hilltop to watch the cannon firing. It wasn’t as loud as I expected, so I think it’s totally fair that I missed it the first time. And if truth be told, I don’t think it’s worth your making sure to be there at 1pm.
Where are the Crown Jewels?
There are a few highlights to particularly note in Edinburgh Castle. First, the oldest Crown Jewels of the British Empire are available for viewing. This includes the crown, sceptre, and sword.
Stone of Destiny History
The Stone of Destiny (the one from Scone Palace) is also there! When you see the stone, look for a crack in the large earthen piece.
In 1950, a few grad students drove from Glasgow to London to steal back the Stone of Destiny (at over 300 pounds) from Westminster Abbey, hoping to bring it home to its home country. In the process of taking it out of the Abbey, however, the students dropped the stone, breaking it in two. One student drove the first piece home to Scotland while the second piece was brought north in different car.
Facing roadblocks, the students buried the big piece of sandstone in a field just south of the Scottish border.
They soon learned that sandstone buried in dirt was scientifically a bad idea (discoloration, etc.), so they returned as fast as they could to retrieve it.
And because every step of the plan seemed to go awry, they discovered a group of vagabonds over the burial site. The students eventually dug up the rock, returned it to Scotland, and had the two pieces reconnected.
The story goes on and on – you can read more here – but you’ll have some fun insight into the Stone of Destiny when you wander through Edinburgh Castle!
I really enjoyed visiting the prisoners quarters (they were all separated by nationality and class) as well as the very small abbey where you can still get married (with very few guests). The views of the city and the Firth of Forth (the river) are spectacular.
Weather in Scotland
The weather in Scotland is predictably unpredictable. One person said you can only predict the weather 20 minutes into the future by looking west.
A second (and many more) said there’s no bad weather in Scotland, you’re just wearing the wrong clothes.
And yet another person wrote on my Instagram that Scotland experiences all four seasons every day.
Yes, yes, and yes!! So, while the weather is a bit unpredictable in Scotland, the clouds come and go frequently and blue skies will show up eventually!! So wait for the clearing to really get those good views!
There are A TON of places to eat around Edinburgh Castle (food post coming soon), but after our visit to the castle, we walked down to The Piemaker.
They offer inexpensive hand pies filled with veggies, meat, cheese, and fruit. The employees were far from chatty and I’m not sure they really want to do more than sell pies to their customers, what can I say?, but the pies were tasty and easy! I had the mushroom vergas bake (above) filled with mushrooms, onions, peppers, carrots, and spices!
At the other end of The Royal Mile (actually 1.2 miles) from Edinburgh Castle are Holyrood Palace (pronounced Holly-rude) and Scottish Parliament.
Holyrood is the official Scottish home for the Queen. It’s built next to Holyrood Abbey which is now in ruins but certainly a highlight for this visit.
The Queen stays at Holyrood each summer (before heading to Balmoral) where she ceremoniously receives the key to the city. She graciously accepts and then immediately returns said key for safe-keeping!
While many of the other palace interiors were blocked off for visiting or focused on the family who lived/owned there (i.e. not the Queen’s immediate family), Holyrood Palace’s second floor is open for viewing and beautifully presented.
There’s an audio tour that goes along with it, providing a great background and history to each room and the palace as a whole. You can learn about Queen Victoria’s visits and home decor styles, the drama of Mary Queen of Scots and her assassinated secretary/possible lover by her husband, as well as stays of each of the monarchs for the last few centuries.
Holyrood Abbey + Gardens
After touring Holyrood Palace and walking through the abbey, you can wander the gardens of the palace and, if it’s a beautiful day, see people hiking up Arthur’s Seat, a hill overlooking the city.
The hike is only one mile, but it’s a constant incline. We didn’t take the right shoes for hiking up Arthur’s Seat, but we certainly will next time!
In the square in front of the palace, there is a beautiful fountain, but sadly it is only in operation for two occasions – when the Queen is present in the summer and when somebody else that’s important (note: please send help if you know) is there.
In a funny twist of fate, the fountain came on during our visit. We thought nothing of it until we asked for more background on the fountain (it really is beautiful) and were told about the rare sighting we were having. Because these important visits are happening soon, they were testing the fountain on the very afternoon we were there. What luck!
UPDATE: We were back a year later and asked about turning on the fountain and the person working there looked at us as though we were asking for a miracle to happen and told us it was never turned on! So it really was a treat!
While the line to buy tickets for Holyrood was a little hectic, wandering through the palace and gardens was a calm, enjoyable experience. The Queen’s Gallery is also at the same location. Unless you’re an art lover of exactly what’s on exhibition, then I’d just do the palace and abbey.
About forty miles outside of Edinburgh is Stirling Castle – one of the most important castles in Scottish history. Every other castle or palace will reference Stirling Castle at one point or another.
It sits atop, you guessed it, a hill with, you guessed it again, views of the land as far as the eye can see! You’re becoming a castle expert already!
The location of the castle is why the castle is so important in British history. The English and Scottish fought for control of the castle, each with their own fair share of victories, until they came under the same monarchy with James the VI and I (that’s a single person) in 1603.
The castle was also the place of coronation for James V and his daughter Mary, Queen of Scots.
Particularly of interest at Stirling Castle are the Scottish Tapestries. The tapestries are replicas of the original 16th century tapestries (now housed in NY Met) and they’re absolutely stunning.
The planning, work, artistry, and patience that went into each of these is mind-boggling. I tried to find the size of these tapestries online and failed. They looked to be about 15-20 feet wide. (note: if any of you know their sizes, please let me know!). They’re beautiful.
I’m not sure the best order in which to visit all these Scottish castles and palaces. I can tell you it took me at least five such visits before I began to have a grasp on the basic fundamentals of the history of Scotland and England and how they came under the same crown.
Interestingly, many in Scotland are not happy about being under British rule in present day. Anyway, visiting Stirling Castle seemed to provide the centerpiece to all the histories heard at the other castles and palaces.
Details for your visit. There is a parking lot at the castle if you’re driving. It was full when we arrived. So we parked in town and walked up to the entrance.
If you’re used to walking at this point, it’s not a big deal. You can also take the train from Edinburgh (Waverley station). It’s 0.8 miles of walking (uphill) from the Stirling station to the castle or you can take a bus.
There are audio tours available, but there’s also a free guided tour every hour, which was quite informative.
Where to eat in Stirling?
After our visit to the Scottish castle, we enjoyed lunch at Brea in Stirling. They had a nice big menu and hearty food perfect for the “dreich” (overcast and dreary) weather!