Perched high above the town, Edinburgh Castle is the historical heart of Scotland. One of the oldest fortified historical sites in all of Europe, this castle has been the home of kings and queens and the battleground of sieges and war. It’s the must-see historical site in all of Edinburgh!
The craggy rock on which the castle is now built (called Castle Rock) has served as a fortified military site since the Iron Age and is the most besieged site in all of Britain.
The castle itself was built as a medieval fortress on the prominent ridge one thousand years ago, with one of its original 12th century buildings still remaining (St. Margaret’s Chapel). It served as the home of Scotland’s kings and queens until the 15th century when King James IV moved his residence to the newly built Palace of Holyroodhouse, leaving the castle for the military.
Mary, Queen of Scots, did reside in the castle in the mid-16th century and gave birth to her son, the future King James VI (King James I of England) who united the English and Scottish monarchy. During the messy years of the English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell launched an invasion of Scotland, resulting in a three month siege of the castle. After Charles II returned as king, he reestablished the military and a military garrison was maintained at the castle until the early 20th century.
The castle features in Jacobite history as well, including the Jacobite rising of 1745, led by Bonnie Prince Charlie who captured Edinburgh but lacked the weapons to take the castle. It was used as a military prison for years until the early 19th century when the castle became a national monument. During these years, Sir Walter Scott, the Scottish novelist, searched the castle and found the national crown and jewels, called the Honours of Scotland. These items remain at the tower and are older than the English crown jewels which were destroyed by Cromwell.
During World War II, Luftwaffe pilots shot down over Scotland were brought to the castle which was serving as a military hospital.
The castle now sits at the end of the Royal Mile, a mile-long street that leads from the Palace of Holyroodhouse to the castle. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is the historical site to visit when in Edinburgh!
No trip to Edinburgh is complete without a visit to Edinburgh Castle. It looms over the entire city as a reminder of its bloody past and its struggle for independence.
It is the most popular tourist site so you’ll want to purchase your tickets ahead of time. View this map to help you plan your visit. Strollers are allowed though the steep incline and the uneven stone paths will make it a challenge. If you can, use a baby sling or backpack to carry your toddler – or get ready for a workout!
It’s easy to get to the castle from any part of Edinburgh. Just walk up the Royal Mile and enter through the imposing gate with statues of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce.
Be sure to pick up your mobile guide at the shop directly on the right at the portcullis gate. It will help you navigate the sometimes confusing complex and will tell you the history behind what you’re seeing.
You’ll see some big cannons on the castle walls. Walk up on the ramparts to get a good view of the city. We were there on a rainy, overcast day but it was still breathtaking!
Go down the stairs and follow signs to Crown Square where you’ll tour the royal palace and crown jewels (no pictures allowed). You might have to queue in a short line but it moves quickly. Be sure to read the markers on the walls as you wait!
You’ll see the beautiful crown jewels and Stone of Scone, collectively referred to as the Honours of Scotland. The jewels are older than the English crown jewels destroyed by Cromwell, dating to the 14th century. The crown was used in Queen Elizabeth II’s recent lying in state at St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh.
The Stone of Scone has been used since the 9th century to crown Scotland’s kings and queens. It was taken to England in the late 13th century and remained there under the coronation chair (see my Westminster Abbey post for more information on the chair) until Queen Elizabeth sent it back home to Scotland in 1996. It will be used for King Charles III’s coronation next year.
After seeing the Honours of Scotland, enter the Royal Apartments where you’ll see where the Scottish monarchs lived, including Mary, Queen of Scots who gave birth to King James VI of Scotland in these rooms, the first king to unite England and Scotland.
The last room is the grandest (accessed via another entrance from the square) – the Great Hall built in 1511 by King James IV to host banquets and state events. It is truly amazing!
Kids will love all of the suits of armor and weapons!
Exit the exhibits and walk across Crown Square to the Scottish National War Memorial (no pictures allowed). This solemn building is a shrine commemorating the over 200,000 soldiers lost in WWI, WWII, and more recent wars.
Turn right after exiting the memorial and head through Foog’s Gate to the Royal Scots Regimental Museum. It’s a quick stop but one that kids who love military history will find it interesting.
All kids will be interested in the next door Prisons of War, an eerie recreation of the 18th century military prisons.
After touring the prisons, head to the National War Museum Scotland if you have older kids. We didn’t get to visit it on this trip but it looks great!
Head back to Foog’s Gate and walk up the stairs to St. Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest part of the castle dating to the 12th century. Its simple stone interior seems fitting for a queen who became a saint.
Visit the next door exhibit, Fight for the Castle, to learn about the many sieges and battles in its history in an immersive experience.
Head back to the ramparts for a final look at the cannons lining its walls, including the Mons Meg from the 15th century.
Your tour is over but don’t forget the great gift shop where you can buy authentic souvenirs!
For a great view of the castle, head down to the Grassmarket area to take a picture of it from below.
Your kids will love pretending to be a medieval knight or a Scottish Highlander storming the walls of Edinburgh Castle. It’s a site that must be seen on any trip to Edinburgh!
- Cost: £18/ages 16+; £11/children 5-15; note there are family ticket packages available
- Recommended: all ages
- Tour time: 3 – 4 hours
- Gift shops located onsite (near entrance and St. Margaret’s Chapel) and online
- Transportation: Best accessed via walking up the Royal Mile, the castle is not directly accessible via car or bus. Your cab or bus will drop you off about a block away.
- Dining options: There is a cafe onsite, Redcoat Cafe, and a tea room in Crown Square. Many restaurants are located within an easy walk down the Royal Mile. I recommend heading to Victoria Street via The Hub for family-friendly restaurants (see my Edinburgh guide for more details).
- Nearby hotels: Check out my Edinburgh guide for recommendations!
- Nearby attractions include: Camera Obscura, Tartan Weaving Mill, Gladstone’s Land, Victoria Street shopping (Harry Potter sites), and Grassmarket (restaurants)
Books to Read:
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