Visiting Edinburgh Castle: 8 Highlights, Tips & Tours
Scotland's most famous fortress has towered above Edinburgh since the 13th century and is the country's most popular tourist attraction. Perched high atop a dramatic black basalt outcrop, Edinburgh's spectacular castle affords magnificent views of many of the city's landmarks, including the Royal Mile, Princes Street, and the long green swath of Princes Street Gardens. The history of Edinburgh Castle is long and often both poignant and violent. It's no wonder it is known as one of the most haunted places in all of Scotland.
From the broad Esplanade, where the famous Edinburgh Military Tattoo is held every August, you'll cross a drawbridge over a moat to enter the castle through the Portcullis Gate. Built in the late 1500s on the ruins of a 14th-century tower, this gate posed an impressive obstacle to anyone trying to storm the castle, with three heavy doors and the spiked portcullis blocking entry. Above the gate is the Argyle Tower, named for the Marquis of Argyle, who was imprisoned here. On the way into the castle, you'll pass bronze statues of legendary heroes William Wallace and Robert the Bruce.
1 The Royal Apartments
The palace inside Edinburgh Castle was the official residence (and refuge in times of danger) of the later Stuart monarchs, including Mary Queen of Scots. Look over the entrance to the Royal Apartments for the gold letters MAH, representing the initials of the queen and her husband Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley. Among the most beautiful of the restored rooms is the Laich Hall, with its lovely fireplace. The small adjoining room is where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to the future King James VI of Scotland and James I of England in 1566.
2 Crown Jewels and the Stone of Destiny
For centuries, the Royal Palace was the repository for state documents and the Crown Jewels, but they were removed on two occasions: In 1291, Edward I sent all papers and jewels to London; and 400 years later, just before Oliver Cromwell captured the castle, the regalia were taken to Dunnottar Castle for safekeeping. The regalia were returned to Edinburgh in 1707, but were locked away to ensure the Scottish public wouldn't be roused to anger by the sight of them. The oak chest they were stored in was finally opened in 1818, and the contents have been displayed in the Crown Chamber ever since: a scepter dating from 1494 given to James VI by Pope Alexander VI, a sword presented to James IV by Pope Julius II in 1501, and a 16th-century crown made from Scottish-mined gold with 94 pearls and 40 jewels. The three were first used together at the coronation of Mary Queen of Scots in 1543 and are the oldest crown jewels in the British Isles.
Here, you can also see the famous Stone of Destiny (aka, the Stone of Scone), the coronation stone taken by Edward I and stowed under the English throne in London, only returned to Scotland in 1996.
3 The Great Hall
At the south side of Crown Square, the Great Hall was built shortly before the death of King James IV in 1513, and was used for state ceremonies and as the meeting place for the Scottish parliament until 1640. Later, during Cromwell's occupation, the building was used as a barracks and later as a military hospital. It was restored at the end of the 19th century, and although its appearance changed, the hall's original wooden ceiling remains. The Great Hall now houses a comprehensive collection of arms and armor, and stained glass panels added at the restoration commemorate Scotland's monarchs.
4 Scottish National War Memorial and the One O'Clock Salute
On the north side of Crown Square, the Scottish National War Memorial was built in memory of Scots who died in World War I. Each regiment has its own memorial, and even the animals that worked alongside the soldiers are remembered in its iconography. A silver shrine holds the roll of honor with the names of 150,000 dead. Many well-known artists were invited to help with the final decorations of the memorial, which was consecrated in 1927.
A "time cannon" near the Half Moon Battery - the distinctive curve-walled section of the castle - is fired at 1pm every weekday. At the same time, a time ball drops at the Nelson Monument on Calton Hill, part of a tradition that dates back to the days when ships on the Firth of Forth checked their chronometers by training a telescope on the castle. The 18-pound cannons on the battery were all made in nearby Falkirk in 1810 for the Napoleonic War.
5 St. Margaret's Chapel
One of the first attractions you'll see as you climb to the castle is St. Margaret's Chapel, built in 1130 and the oldest building in the castle and in Edinburgh. It was built by King David I to honor his mother, St. Margaret, who died in the castle in 1093 and was canonized in 1250. Despite its size - it's only 17 feet long and 11 feet wide - this interesting example of early Norman architecture was used as a Royal Chapel until the reign of Mary Stuart and was restored in 1845 at the request of Queen Victoria. The beautiful stained glass windows, added in 1922, were designed by Douglas Strachan and depict St. Andrew, St. Columba, St. Margaret, and Sir William Wallace. The chapel arch is original. Today, it is a popular place for small weddings and baptisms.
6 Prisoners of War Museum
During the Napoleonic wars, French prisoners were interned under the Great Hall. The captives' lives were reasonably tolerable (at least compared to prisons of that era), and they were allowed to spend their time making toys and jewelry boxes. Others became so successful at making counterfeit money that in 1812, the banks put a notice in the Edinburgh Gazette offering a reward to anyone who could provide information about the forgers. Their living quarters are fascinating to explore because they are restored as accurately as possible and very well interpreted with signage and background information.
7 Mons Meg
The mammoth Mons Meg cannon is quite a contrast to the tiny and contemplative St. Margaret's Chapel, almost beside it. Manufactured in Mons, Flanders in 1449 and at the cutting edge of 15th-century military technology, it was presented to James II by the Duke of Burgundy in 1457. So powerful that with 110 pounds of gunpowder it could propel a 550-pound cannonball for two miles, Mons Meg saw action several times, including the siege of Roxburgh Castle in 1460. In 1558, it was fired to celebrate the marriage of Mary Queen of Scots. Today, it is popular with tourists, who can't resist putting their heads into the enormous barrel.
8 The National War Museum of Scotland
The military museum was founded in 1933 to display uniforms, weapons, and other memorabilia from the Scottish regiments, as well as a number of paintings, including Robert Gibb's Thin Red Line. Two regimental museums are also in the castle grounds. The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Museum portrays the history of the regiment from its founding in the 17th century by King Charles II to fight religious dissenters, and includes the Eagle and Standard of the 45th French Infantry captured during the charge of the Scots Greys at Waterloo in 1815. The Royal Scots Museum tells the story of the regiment since its formation in the castle in 1633, including its 149 battle honors.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Edinburgh Castle
- Tours of Edinburgh Castle: Because the castle is so popular, ticket lines can be long. You can avoid these and walk right in with a Skip the Line: Edinburgh Castle Entrance Ticket. Once inside, you can join any of the free guided tours. The half-day Edinburgh Historical Walking Tour Including Skip the Line Entry to Edinburgh Castle is another way to enter the castle without waiting, combining priority entrance with a lively tour of the city's highlights led by a well-informed local guide.
- Food and Drink: The castle's Queen Anne Tearoom serves traditional afternoon teas, and the Red Coat Café serves lunches and heartier meals.
- For Your Comfort: Wear good walking shoes. Edinburgh Castle covers a large area with worn and uneven stones underfoot.
Address: Castle Hill, Edinburgh