From imposing hilltop fortresses, to stumpy relics hidden throughout the countryside, tour 14 of the UK’s best castles in all corners of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We’ve picked our favourites and thrown in your suggestions too. Fun (nearly free) days out across the UK, right the way…
Best castles in the UK
– Leeds Castle
– Warworth Castle
– Windsor Castle
– Corfe Castle
– Many more
1. Leeds Castle, England
Few castles are as beautiful as this one in Maidstone, Kent – despite its name, it’s not actually in West Yorkshire. It’s the sort of turreted confection that graces chocolate boxes and postcards in abundance. There’s plenty to do at this 900-year-old beauty, surrounded by a glorious moat; get lost in the maze, go for woodland walks, try your hand at falconry and feed the swans. You won’t find yourself doing it alone though – this is one of the UK’s most popular castles so an off season visit (October to March) is recommended.
Address: Leeds Castle, Maidstone ME17 1PL
Admission: Adults £24, children £16 for an annual pass.
Opening Hours: 10am–3pm for entry (5pm is closing time)
Closest hotel to Leeds Castle: Get after hours entry into the gardens when you stay in the Stable Courtyard!
2. Corfe Castle, England
Image: ©VisitEngland/Weymouth and Portland Borough Council/Cycle West, Tim Pestridge
Corfe Castle looms up out of the rolling Purbeck hills, its tall ruins puncturing the sky with the weight of more than a thousand years of history. This romantic eleventh century castle, built by William the Conqueror, was a Royalist stronghold, turned to ruin by the Parliamentarians’ gunpowder during the English Civil War. Discover the story of the six-week siege before climbing up the hill next door for fine views of the castle, the puff of Swanage steam train punctuating the landscape behind it. There’s a discount for arriving by public transport and off peaks reductions too.
Address: The Square, Corfe Castle, Wareham BH20 5EZ
Admission: Adults £8.25, children £4.25
Opening Hours: 10am–5pm
Closest hotel to Corfe Castle: Find country-house chic and friendly staff at Morton’s House Hotel.
3. Warkworth Castle, England
Warkworth Castle is so perfectly preserved it’s hard to believe pictures of it are not computer-generated reconstructions of a ruin. The great cross-shaped keep at its centre is almost entirely intact, despite being long past its 600th birthday, while its protective ring of towered walls remains almost unbroken. The home of the powerful Percy family (the Earls of Northumberland), it played a significant role during England and Scotland’s long running war and was home to Harry Hotspur, immortalised as a rebel lord by Shakespeare in Henry IV, Part I. Don’t miss the hermitage, a private chapel carved from the rock, a half mile boat trip downstream.
Address: Castle Terrace, Warkworth NE65 0UJ
Admission: Adult £5.40 (hermitage £3.60) children £3.20 (hermitage £2.10).
Opening Hours: 10am-6pm
Closest hotel to Warkworth Castle: The Sun Hotel is a bargain, and only 441ft away from the entrance.
4. Edinburgh Castle, Scotland
Arguably the UK’s most famous castle, this Scottish stronghold stands atop a volcanic rock, dominating the city skyline. Marvel at its size and stature from below, before winding your way up to the Esplanade, (home to the spectacular kilt-swirling Edinburgh Military Tattoo every August) and inside its chunky walls. You’ll find architectural styles aplenty, reflecting this iconic building’s evolution from defensive citadel to national monument. Don’t miss the Scottish Crown Jewels (a crown, scepter and sword) and the Stone of Destiny, on which Scottish kings were enthroned for centuries. Visit just before lunchtime and you’ll be here to hear the One O’Clock Gun roaring its daily salute. Book online in advance and you’ll get Fast Track tickets for faster admission at no extra cost. For more stunning Scottish views, take a peek at this photo gallery.
Address: Castlehill, Edinburgh EH1 2NG
Admission: Adults £16.50, children £9.90.
Opening Hours: 9:30am–5pm
Closest hotel to Edinburgh Castle: The Sheraton has an amazing view of the city, and it’s a luxurious weekend nest too.
5. Stirling Castle, Scotland
Approach this ancient fortress from the west for the most jaw-dropping introduction to its impregnable bulk – the 75-metre drop into the crag below is best viewed from this angle. Scotland’s turbulent history has left its mark on this site, the castle succumbing to and beating off repeated sieges throughout the nation’s tempestuous past. See where Mary Queen of Scots grew up, check out the Chapel Royal and find yourself awestruck by the Great Hall – its five stone fireplaces and impressive wooden hammerbeam ceiling making it perhaps Scotland’s grandest secular medieval building. Book Fast Track tickets in advance online for no extra charge.
Address: Castle Esplanade, Stirling FK8 1EJ
Admission: Adults £14.50, children £8.70.
Opening Hours: 9:30am–5pm
Closest hotel to Stirling Castle: The Golden Lion is within walking distance of most of the main attractions in Stirling.
6. Eilean Donan, Scotland
Where three great sea lochs meet, a small island sits, and on that island is a castle that could lay claim to being Scotland’s most photographed and documented. Atmospheric Eilean Donan is recognised around the world as the quintessential Scottish castle, a restored medieval fortress that rises from the water’s edge surrounded by mountains. It was blown up during the Jacobite uprising in 1719 and lay in ruins for some 200 years, before Lieutenant Colonel John MacRae-Gilstrap bought the island in 1911 and spent 20 years restoring the castle to its former glory. Explore the barracks, banqueting hall and bedrooms before taking a step back, across the low stone bridge, to snap your own picture of this beautiful castle.
Address: Dornie, Kyle of Lochalsh IV40 8DX
Admission: Adults £7, family (two adults and up to three children) £17.
Opening Hours: 10am-5pm
Closest hotel to Eilean Donean Castle: Rent out your own cottage in the Scottish Highlands.
7. Conwy Castle, Wales
You could say Edward I was a little anxious about defence. He built the so-called Iron Ring after all, a series of imposing castles along the north Wales coast which is said to have been the most ambitious medieval building project in Europe. He flashed the most cash when it came to constructing Conwy Castle – his attention to defensive detail is apparent in the eight massive towers arranged around two wards and the pair of fortified gateways (barbicans). But the castle’s location, on a narrow rocky outcrop, did the rest. Go for a stroll along the ramparts for the best views of the entire site, but also take the opportunity to gaze out across the mountains and sea. Read more about Wales’s beautiful coastal spots with epic photographs here.
Address: Rose Hill St, Conwy LL32 8AY
Admission: Adults £6.75, family (two adults and all children under 16) £20.25.
Opening Hours: 10am-4pm
Closest hotel to Conwy Castle: Tired of roaming the castle walls? The Castle Hotel offers deep tissue massages. Almost more fun than the castle itself.
8. Carreg Cennen Castle, Wales
Sprouting from the steep limestone cliffs above the Cennen River, formidable Carreg Cennen was no easy target for would-be invaders. Would-be visitors will need their muscles too; it’s a steep walk up from the car park to the seemingly impregnable outer walls. Although the stupendous views down the lush, velvety valley and out to the Black Mountain are unforgettable, we reckon the highlight of a visit here is the descent into the inky blackness of the cave beneath, once used as a shelter. Rent a torch when you buy your tickets to explore, but be sure to switch off at the end to experience true darkness.
Address: Trapp, Llandeilo SA19 6UA
Admission: Adults £4, family (two adults and all children under 16) £12.
Opening Hours: 9am-5.30pm
Closest hotel to Carreg Cennen Castle: Llandeilo is the nearest town, cushioned between the Welsh Valleys. The Plough Inn has everything you might need on a cosy weekend away.
9. Dunluce Castle, Northern Ireland
Credit: ©Chris Hill Photographic
Turrets and towers of crumbling stone seem to rise almost naturally out of the basalt crag at Dunluce in County Antrim, the choppy Atlantic swirling beyond, the mainland only clinging on to this evocative headland by one skinny sinew of ground. Enter here, crossing the sturdy arched bridge and explore the dramatic ruins of what was once a powerful defensive site, occupied for more than a millennia. Download the (free) app in advance for a tour that includes animations of the castle being reconstructed before your very eyes.
Address: 87 Dunluce Rd, Bushmills BT57 8UY
Admission: Adults £5, children £3.
Opening Hours: 10am-6pm
Closest hotel to Dunluce Castle: The Bushmills Inn Hotel & Restaurant is in the centre of the small town in Bushmills (and it’s walking distance from Bushmills Whisky Distillery).
10. Carrickfergus Castle, Northern Ireland
Carrickfergus, on the northern shore of Belfast Lough, has long been hot property, besieged in turn by the Scots, the Irish, the English and the French. This medieval castle has seen plenty of action – and it’s got the cannon collection to prove it. Today the Norman keep still stands tall, staring down over the harbour from its rocky promontory, while the thirteenth century walls and gatehouse, sixteenth century storehouse and eighteenth century barracks make it the perfect place to learn about Irish history.
Address: Marine Hwy, Carrickfergus BT38 7BG
Admission: Adults £5, children £3.
Opening Hours: 10am-6pm
Closest hotel to Carrickfergus Castle: The cosy bar in Dobbins Inn is perfect when you want to huddle inside after a cold day on the Northern Irish Coast.
And a few of your suggestions…
11. Windsor Castle, Berkshire
It should be no surprise that this royal residence is one of the most popular castles to visit in Britain. This is the oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world, as it’s still an official residence of Her Majesty The Queen (as well as 150 staff). They welcome in visitors around the year for costume events, historic ceremonies and festivals.
12. Dunnottar Castle, Scotland
This is one of the oldest Pictish forts ever discovered, with ruins dating back to the third century. It’s a wonder the castle still stands: Dunnottar is occasionally closed if the weather is extremely bad. This ancient ruin sits proudly on the north east coast of Scotland, one hour away from Dundee. The crumbling facade and weathered foundations make it a dream for photographers, and the hikes around the castle will tire out the kids too.
13. Caernarfon Castle, North West Wales
This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site right on your doorstep. This castle has been impressively restored, considering it was King Edward 1st who built it in the thirteenth century. After conquering Wales, he built an ‘Iron Ring’ of castles, of which Caernarfon was a crowning jewel.
14. Warwick Castle, Warwickshire
Warwick Castle is arguably one of the easiest castles to get to in the UK, especially for those travelling from London. Perhaps this is why William the Conquerer first built the wooden motte and bailey in 1068 – and why numerous families have defended and lived in the castle in the past 11 centuries. It’s now a popular place for medieval costume parties, and you can book your very own themed banquet in the King’s Undercroft.
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