This is the first in a series where I’ll be asking knowledgeable locals for inside tips on visiting Scotland. Today, I’m lucky to have Gareth from Edinburgh Expert to answer some questions about Edinburgh Castle.
The castle is often listed as the number one must-see attraction in Edinburgh. Do you think this is a fair statement? Is there any attraction you’d put above the castle for a tourist that only has time for one?
Edinburgh Castle is not only the dominant feature of the city’s skyline, visible from miles around, it’s also the feature which gives the city its name – the old Gaelic name Dun Eiden translates roughly as ‘the fort on the hill’. On that basis alone, visiting Edinburgh Castle can be said to take you right to the heart of this historic city. It’s also the busiest paid entry visitor attraction in the UK, outside of London, making it not only Edinburgh’s but also Scotland’s most popular paid entry attraction. Visiting Edinburgh Castle presents you with a thousand years of Scots history, as both a site of military strength and royal majesty, including three military museums (including the National War Museum), the Scottish National War Memorial, the Scottish crown jewels and Stone of Destiny, and St Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest surviving building in the whole of Edinburgh.
But the Castle itself may not suit everyone. As an historical site, it can be difficult to access and navigate, especially for those with mobility difficulties, and – let’s face it – not everyone gets excited by old buildings! Those with young families may find the Castle struggles to hold the attention of younger children, and its emphasis on military history might disappoint those who want a more regal experience of a richly decorated royal palace. As a site that is largely open to the elements, the full enjoyment of a visit to the Castle may also be more than a little weather-dependent!
Edinburgh Castle is an iconic site, but visitors should certainly plan their visit in advance, and know what to expect (and what not to expect) from the visit before making the decision to go. With such a variety of sites and attractions on offer, the Castle is just one of a wealth of attractions within Edinburgh, and ought not to be considered as a standalone visit – with other sites, such as the Palace of Holyroodhouse and the Royal Yacht Britannia offering different, but equally interesting visiting opportunities, Edinburgh Castle may be best considered in conjunction with other attractions.
If you only have budget for one major attraction, Edinburgh Castle is a great choice, but if you have the time you might want to supplement it with some of the city’s free attractions, such as the National Museum of Scotland, the Museum of Edinburgh, or the National Galleries of Scotland.
About how long do you recommend tourists take to tour the castle?
Historic Scotland, who manage Edinburgh Castle as a visitor attraction, recommend a minimum of two hours to visit. It is a large site, with a variety of museums, exhibitions and displays, and your entry ticket gives you access to all of them, as well as to the stunning panoramic views across the city. Tickets include an optional introductory tour of the external areas of the Castle, which lasts up to 30 minutes. There is an excellent self-guided audio tour which is available at an additional cost which provides a wealth of historical information and detail to those who are keen to uncover more about the Castle’s past – although you pick and choose how much of the guide you listen to, according to your interests, there is around four hours of information included in the audio guide! Many visitors have said that the suggested two hour visit is simply not enough! But to get full value from the entry fee, a two hour visit is the least you should plan for. (This may be an important consideration when considering whether or not your trip or itinerary has space for the full Edinburgh Castle experience.)
What’s your favorite surprising fact or anecdote about Edinburgh Castle?
The site on the top of the rock has been occupied for over 3,000 years, dating back to bronze age settlements, and in 1093 the castle which by then had been constructed on the site was referred to the ‘the Castle of Maidens’. It is unclear how this name arose, or who the ‘maidens’ were. Interesting, eh?!
What are a few sights or relics within the castle that you think deserve special attention from visitors?
The Honours of Scotland – including the Scottish Crown Jewels and the Stone of Destiny – are a deservedly popular feature, as is St Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest building in Edinburgh. But other things not to miss are the Prisons of War exhibition, detailing the Castle’s history as a military prison, and the former exercise yard where an ambitious escape plan was hatched and executed. It’s also worth descending into the remains of David’s Tower, built in the late 1300s and reaching a height of up to 30m (100ft) before being destroyed during the Lang Seige of 1573. Today the vaulted remains of the tower make for an eerie glimpse into the Castle’s dark past. Watch the daily firing of the One O’Clock Gun (at 1pm every day except Sundays, Christmas Day and Easter Sunday).
What’s your favorite time to visit the castle?
In the summer the Castle receives up to 9,000 people every day – needless to say visiting during the off-season of spring or autumn allow for a less crowded visit, along with some of the best weather for an afternoon outdoors.
What else should visitors see while in the area of the Castle Rock?
From Edinburgh Castle, visitors can begin walking down the Royal Mile, which stretches all the way to the Palace of Holyroodhouse (and don’t ask how far, it’s about a mile – a little over, actually!). There are footpaths which allows a complete 360-degree walk around the Castle, through Princes Street Gardens, letting you see the volcanic plug of rock on which the Castle stands up-close. On Castlehill (the top section of the Royal Mile) itself there are also a host of other attractions, including the excellent family-friendly Camera Obscura, and the Scotch Whisky Experience, as well as a working tartan weaving mill, showing you how Scotland’s iconic tartan fabrics are created.
Do you have any logistical tips to pass along from past visitors? (parking, hours, anything to avoid or be aware of)
It is worth planning your visit to the Castle before you arrive. There is really no reason why you shouldn’t book your ticket in advance through the Historic Scotland website – in the summer this will save you up to an hour of queuing! There is no parking at the Castle – the nearest car park is Castle Terrace (pretty expensive) or on-street on Johnston Terrace (cheaper but with time limits). (A general travel tip: don’t bring a car into Edinburgh – we have excellent public transport options, and as a medieval city the roads really don’t cope well with heavy traffic!) Edinburgh Castle is open from 9.30am every morning, including Sundays, and visitors have to be outside the Castle by 5pm (Oct-Mar) and 6pm (Apr-Sept). For visitors used to late opening hours, especially in the summer, this often comes as a surprise! Note that the last entry is one hour before closing – but as you ought to be allowing a minimum of two hours to get full value from your ticket, it is advisable not to arrive later than 2pm or 3pm. Tickets are valid for one entry only – you cannot leave the Castle and enter again later in the day, so bring a picnic lunch or buy food in the Castle’s cafes if you plan to stay all day. If you are travelling Scotland and plan to visit other castles, such as Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness, Stirling Castle, or St Andrews, you might be able to save money with an Explorer Pass. Check online or ask at the ticket office for details. There is no student discount offered on daily Castle tickets – for a longer visit you could purchase a student-price Explorer Pass (giving access to additional Historic Scotland sites) or an annual Membership. As the Castle is an historic site, with uneven floors and roadways, wear sensible footwear, and check the weather for the day of your visit and dress accordingly. There are no cloakroom or left luggage facilities, so any baggage, prams or suitcases must be kept with you at all times. (The site is an active military barracks, and security is taken extremely seriously by the staff and security team.)
Gareth Davies has worked as a tour guide with Edinburgh Bus Tours, and runs EdinburghExpert.com, offering a personalised visitor information service for people planning to visit Edinburgh, including bespoke guided walking tours of the city centre. Thanks so much, Gareth, for answering my questions and lending some great local knowledge to our readers.