Visiting Britain's Top Castles
Custom travel guidebooks tailored to a traveler's interests, budget, and schedule.
Britain is a country truly rich with history and beauty found in every corner of the island, and castles give ever more testimony to this fact. From Scotland to England to Wales you will find magnificent castles in all shapes and sizes. With literally hundreds of castles scattered throughout the British countryside, there is no lack of options for an enthused traveler to explore. But, if you are like most people your travel time is limited and you must choose from the myriad of options. I have made a list of what I believe are the most beautiful and historic castles in Britain, making choosing a bit easier.
#1 Arundel Castle
My all time favorite castle in Britain must be Arundel castle. One of the largest, best kept, and most interesting castles to wander through, this fortress houses the ancient Howard family who serve as the stewards of the throne should something happen to the royal family. Despite the beautiful construction and its important connections, this castle remains relatively unknown in the mind of the average Brit. When asked my favorite sights and destinations by locals I usually throw in Arundel somewhere in the talk, and to my disbelief the vast majority have never heard of it before. Anyway, the castle is a real marvel and well worth any visit to England.
The castle is located in West Sussex overlooking the River Arun in the small village of Arundel, with a population of just over 3,000 people. (just about 1 1/2 hrs SW of London, with easy access by car, train or bus). Built at the end of the 11th century by Roger de Montgomery, Earl of Arundel, the castle is currently the seat to the Dukes of Norfolk (The Howard Family). The Howard family played an important role in English history, from the Wars of the Roses through the Tutor period, with notable family members such as Lord Howard of Effingham who repelled the Armada with Sir Francis Drake in 1588, and even more famous was the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, uncle of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, both wives of Henry VIII. Members of the Howard family still occupy the house, therefore you are not permitted to explore the entire castle, but the large majority of the good stuff is open to the public, as well as the castle gardens and grounds. If you have time make sure to allot at least a couple hours to this castle, because once there you will not want to leave. Take your time and wander through the varied quartered rooms, long passageways leading to the castle keep, the impressive library encased entirely in wood, and admire the countless works of art and historical artifacts scattered about the house.
#2 Edinburgh Castle
Perched on the remnants of an old volcanic ridge, Edinburgh truly is the gem in the beautiful city of Edinburgh. The site of Edinburgh castle contains evidence of human habitation since the 9th century B.C., and there has been a royal castle here since the reign of David I in the 12th century, and continued to be a royal residence until the Union of the Crowns under James I in 1603. The site has undergone many changes throughout its life, undergoing extensions, alterations, and modifications. During it's formidable years under the Scottish crown, the castle was a near impregnable fortress. However, after the Union of the Crowns the castles' royal role decline and began to serve primarily as a military garrison housing many POW's during the American revolution. Beginning in the 19th century the castle's importance as a historical monument was recognized, which shaped the castle we see today.
The castle is extremely big, once inside it feels as though you're in a small village. It's advisable to leave a few hours to roam around the castle, as there is a great deal to see. There are several museums inside the castle featuring interesting artifacts and famous moments in Scottish history. The highlights of the castle are St. Marget's chapel (the oldest building in the entire city), the breathtaking views of the city, the siege weapons displayed (which are occasionally fired), and of course the Scottish Crown Jewels. Take my advice and spend a couple hours exploring the infamous Edinburgh castle!
#3 Tower of London
While beginning life as a castle, and technically still considered as such, the stronghold took on a very different role than that of a castle centuries ago. But, as one of the iconic fortresses in Britain it must hold a place in the top three. Houses the crown jewels, neat museum complete with ancient swords and suits of armor, beautiful view of Tower bridge, and the thought of being in a place of such immense historical moments.
The Tower of London, officially 'Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress' lies on the north bank of the River Thames, and dates back to the Norman Conquest in the 11th century. The central white tower building, from which the fortress recieved its name, was built by William the Conqueror in 1078. From its inception the fortress doubled as a royal residence and state prison. Several phases of expansion were added under subsequent kings, notably Richard the Lionheart, Henry III and Edward I and by the late 13th century the fortress had more or less retained the same layout we see today.
The Tower of London remains one of Britain's most famous and most visited tourist attractions. It receives its acclaim largely from its days as a prison, which saw some of Britain's most notorious figures (like Anne Boylen). The grounds include a number of museums and exhibits featuring a lot of neat artifacts from British history, with the center piece being the crown jewels (on display since 1669). A famous attraction within the tower is the notorious 'Traitor's Gate', which according to legend if one entered through that gate he would never leave. The tower also offers great views of the beautiful Tower Bridge spanning over the Thames.
#4 Caernarfon Castle
A medieval masterpiece envisaged by King Edward I in the late 13th century in order to pacity the unruly Welsh once and for all. Edward I had built a number of these fortifications throughout Wales, which still dominate the landscape seven hundred years later. Located in the North-West area of Wales, the castle walls appear to have a near Roman look. This is no coincidence. The area around Caernarfon has strong links to the Romans, as the fortress of Seguntum is located just miles away. Edward I wished to emphasis this connection with Rome and sought to imitate the great walls of Constantinople (the unreachable city now modern day Istanbul).
The main draw for me with this castle was it's look, size, and access to every part of the castle. It's a complete tourist attraction and visitors are allowed to wander in and out of any passageway they wish! And this castle is so large and filled with so many multilevel passageways you'll swear you were in the movie 'King Arthur's Court.'
#5 Windsor Castle
Official residence of Queen Elizabeth II, second only to Buckingham Palace in London. Windsor castle is located just a few miles (or Kilometers apologies) outside London, and holds the title of largest castle in Britain. The fortress dates back to the reign of William the Conqueror, and since the 11th century has been an official residence of the English monarchs, making it the longest occupied palace in Europe. There is far too much history to narrate here, but just know it's intense. Much of the castle is off limits, however you are allowed to roam the grounds, and certain rooms when the Queen is not in residence. Apparently if you are standing in the right place in the courtyard at the right you are able to witness the Queen eating breakfast in the iconic circular tower.
#6 Warwick Castle
The present castle owes its design to the 12th century, however it was first begun under the reign of William the Conqueror. It's 14th century additions offer some of the best examples of medieval military architecture. The castle remained a fortress until the early 17th century, when it was bequeathed to Sir Fulke Greville by James I, which Greville subsequently turned the area into his country house. The Greville family became earls of Warwick in 1759 and retained the castle until 1978 when it was bought by heritage foundations.
When I think of the medieval castles I learned about in grade school I think of Warwick castle. The typical rectangular shape lined with circular towers on each corner, with a large fortified entrance where a defending army could pour boiling water all over you. Not as big as some of the other castles, but the castle's historic appearance is well worth the trip.
#7 Leeds Castle
Located southeast of London in Kent, Leeds castle is built on small islands in a lake formed by the River Len. Began in the early 12th century, the castle became a favorite residence of Edward I during his reign. The castle has seen extensive changes and remodeling over the years, and most of what you see today is a result of 19th century reconstruction. However, the appearance and image of this castle bears testament to the eloquent tastes of the ruling monarchs. The unique castle and beautiful surrounding country are enough to make the trip to this wondrous castle.
#8 Conwy Castle
Another one of Edward I's great architectural triumphs, Conwy castle is by all accounts one of Europe's great medieval castles. The castle's eight towers and high curtain walls impressed any visitor, dignitary, or army that came calling. The castle proved a strong and reliable stronghold against local resistance, and in the years after the Civil War in the mid-17th century the castle was left to ruin for fear of it falling into the wrong hands. Artists began to flock to the site beginning in the 18th century for its majestic beauty, and restoration work began in the 19th century. The castle is now kept up by local tourism, and sees hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
Conwy castle and the surrounding fortified town of Conwy are beautiful sights and absolutely worth a visit. The area around Conwy is rich with medieval castles. Caernarfon castle is nearby, and Harlech castle (another Edward I castle) is just down the road. If you are ever in North Wales make sure to stop in and see Conwy castle.
#9 Caerphilly Castle
Pronounced -KA-philly- this 12th century castle was yet another one of Edward I's masterpieces. Are you picking up a persistent theme here? Largest in Britain next to Windsor, Caerphilly castle is one of the great medieval castles of Europe. Although it appears to be in ruins today, the stronghold is in surprisingly good condition offering ample opprounity to explore the medieval fortress. Also, the castle is renowned for hosting historical exhibitions, such as dueling, jousting, and launching off medieval siege equipment. For more information on dates for such events check out the website below.
#10 Bodium Castle
Bodium castle, located in East Sussex, was built by Sir Edward Dalyngriige in the 14th century in order to fend off an invasion by French forces during the hundred years war. Lacking a central keep, the castle's chambers were built along the exterior wall. The castle was surrounded nearly on all sides with water, adding an additional burdon to an invading army. The castle passed through many generations of Dalyngrigge's until their line became extinct. Over the next couple hundred years the castle passed hands often coming under the guardianship of the National Trust in 1925. Bodium castle stands a testament to medieval architecture, and serves a marker for a very important time in English history.
#11 Dunnottar Castle
Although a now ruined fortress, Dunnottar castle is one of my favorite Scottish castles. The epic foundations and scenery alone are grounds for marvel. The fortress dates back to the early middle ages, however most of the remaining buildings are from the 15th and 16th centurfies. Located in Aberdeenshire in the north east of Scotland, 3 miles from Stonehaven, the castle has served an important role in Scottish history due to its strategic location on the coast. The castle is most famous for hiding the Scottish Crown Jewels from Oliver Crommel during the Civil War. It is said that William Wallace allegedly captured the fortress from the English and imprisoned over 4,000 English soldiers here.
An absolute must see if you are in northern Scotland. The surrounding countryside is beautiful rolling green hills lined with stone halls, relatively flat for Scotland, and the nearby town of Stonehaven is a great place to stay or visit while in the area. This town is the home of the world famous Scottish Hogmany Fireball show, in which locals grab big burning fireballs and parade through the town at night, drunk of course.
#12 Eilen Donan
One of my favorite castles in Scotland, Eilen Donan's desolute scenery marks it as one of the most picturesque in the collection of Britain's castles. Set deep in the Scottish countryside just east of the Isle of Skype, the small castle saw its most famous hour as the star of the movie Highlander. (You thought you recognized it didn't you). Actually quick funny story about the making of that movie and the castle. While filming around the castle the crew kept running into a fisherman who was reluctant to give up his favorite fishing spot. Since there is a free access law in Scotland allowing for the freedom of passage for any person, the film crew could not legally tell the man to go. So, getting frustrated and wasting money, they eventually bribed the man to go away. Drunk with his surprise good fortune the man went down to the pub to tell his story to all his mates, who then proceeded to go to the same fishing spot the next day. The film crew now found themselves with hundreds of Scotsman looking to get their hands greased. Faced with the prospect of having to pay a huge amount to all these loiterers, one of the crew members came up with a savvy cheaper solution to the problem. He bought out the local pub for the day and spread the word around town there was free beer. Problem solved. True story.
Oh and about the castle, it is actually a 20th century reconstruction of an earlier 16th century castle. But it's still beautiful and one of Britain's famous castles!
#13 Alnwick Castle
Built following the Norma conquest in 1066, Almwick castle was constructed to protect England's borderlands from Scottish invaders. The castle was located in Northumberland, England northernmost county bordering Scotland. Through years of military engagements and family entanglements the house finally came under the ownership of the Percy family, the Dukes of Northumberland, who own the castle to this day.
Alnwick castle is perhaps most famous for its use as a set for many popular movies such as Mary Queen of Scots, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, several of the Harry Potter films. If you are in northern England and tired of the pubs then make sure to stop by the beautiful and historic Alnwick castle.
#14 Stirling Castle
Stirling castle stretches back to the 12th century, when King Alexander I dedicated a chapel on castle hill, and also oversees the site of the legendary battle of Stirling bridge. The Battle of Stirling Bridge was the famous battle fought between William Wallace and English forces in which Scottish countrymen defeated well equipped and trained English soldiers against overwhelming odds. This battle did not take place, as is depicted in the movie Braveheart, on a field near Stirling, but rather a wooden rickety old bridge which has been lost to time.
Just across the narrow river, looming on top a small hill, sits the Wallace Monument. A simple yet beautiful tower peers out into the Scottish countryside, keeping watch over the land while reminding passer-by's of great Scottish freedom fighters like William Wallace. Any visit to the castle ought to be accompanied by a visit to the Wallace Monument, which gives a great narrative of the events surrounding the Scottish hero, and which also houses William Wallace's sword.
#15 Glamis Castle
Fairy tale setting of the Shakespeare's Macbeth, this castle has long played a role in the imagination of the Scottish people. Tucked away in the Scottish countryside, this beautifully unique castle is off the beaten path a ways in the North of Scotland, but well worth a visit. Best visited if you are staying in or around Inverness as it's a short commute from the capitol of the Highlands.