Photo: Arno Senoner / Unsplash
Contributor Kim Kerr shares her favourite things to do in Edinburgh Castle, the city’s most popular tourist attraction
Undoubtedly the most recognizable national monument in all of Scotland, Edinburgh Castle has dominated the capital city’s skyline for centuries. Perched atop a former volcano called Castle Rock, this top Edinburgh attraction is for good reason regarded as one of the best places to visit in Scotland for those wanting to learn more about the nation’s rich history.
Accessible by an old drawbridge leading over a now dried-out moat, the sense you’re somewhere special is very palpable the moment you enter this historic site. The statues at the castle’s main entrance only exaggerate this impression. Cast in bronze, they represent William Wallace, who led the Scottish resistance against Edward I and was later executed in London, and Robert the Bruce, who defeated the English under Edward II at Bannockburn. It’s therefore only fitting that two of Scotland’s national heroes are there to welcome you.
To ensure you make the most of your Edinburgh Castle itinerary, we’ve pulled together this comprehensive list of (almost) everything you need to know before you go. Whether you’re visiting for an hour or a day, it’ll help you make the most of what is inarguably one of the top things to do in Edinburgh.
For more on Edinburgh Castle history, be sure to read our accompanying article on the long, rich history of this still mighty fortress.
The Top Things to Do in Edinburgh Castle
Make a Grand Entrance
Having walked up the Royal Mile, the city’s most famous thoroughfare, you’ll enter Edinburgh Castle from the broad Esplanade. This is the spot where, each and every August, the famous Edinburgh Military Tattoo takes place.
Crossing the old moat over the drawbridge, you’ll pass through the Portcullis Gate. This impressive structure was constructed in the late 1500s on the exact spot where the previous 14th century tower once stood. Look up and around you as you pass through, and you’ll get a sense of just how intimidating its spiked portcullis and three heavy doors would have seemed to invaders.
The portcullis gate is situated beneath the state prison, and was once better known as Argyll’s Tower, after its most famous prisoner, the Marquis of Argyll. Once through, be sure to stop a moment and reflect on the two bronze statues either side of you. These represent Scotland’s two most famous heroes, King Robert the Bruce and William Wallace.
Fight for the Castle
A great way to begin your visit is by stopping in at the excellent Fight for the Castle exhibit. This impressive attraction is actually located in the Argyle Tower, so you’ll be passing it anyway (it’s located by ascending the Lang Stairs).
Showcasing the castle’s role in the Wars of Independence with England, it tells how the fortress changed hands numerous times during this period through animation, slide shows, and displays of artifacts from the period. Afterwards, you’ll have a much better sense not only of the importance of Edinburgh Castle in Scotland’s history, but also of the lives of the main protagonists.
The Great Hall
Your next stop should be the Great Hall. Situated on the south side of Crown Square, this well-preserved building was constructed in 1511, not long before the death of King James IV. It served dual purposes: as the seat of Scottish parliament, which met here until 1640, and as a backdrop for state ceremonies.
After being occupied by Oliver Cromwell’s troops during the Civil War, the hall served as a barracks and later a military hospital. While a major renovation in the 1800s changed its appearance somewhat, parts of the original structure remain intact, most notably its superb wooden-beamed ceiling.
Of further interest is the Great Hall’s impressive collection armour and weapons from the period, plus the stained glass panels that were added to commemorate the country’s monarchs.
The Royal Palace
Another highlight of Crown Square is the Royal Palace. Here you’ll find the fully restored Queen Mary’s Apartments, which today look much as they would have done in the monarch’s lifetime. Last visited by James l in 1617, the chambers were in fact where he was born – Mary gave birth to her heir in the small adjoining room. Pay attention to the small window close by; it was from here that Queen Mary lowered her son to be baptised (it’s quite a drop!).
Legend has it that Mary’s husband had certain suspicions about the legitimacy of James, and reportedly commented on occasion that he looked nothing like other members of the family. The mystery only deepened in 1830, when a fire in the quarters revealed a tiny coffin in the apartment walls.
Despite the fact the bones were never officially identified as human, the coffin and its contents were placed back in the wall.
The Honours of Scotland
Before leaving Crown Square, make a beeline for the first-rate Honours of Scotland exhibit. It’s here that you’ll find the most important relics and artifacts belonging to Scotland: the crown jewels.
A word of caution: although the exhibit has been laid out in such a way that all visitors can get a glimpse of the most important items here, including the crown, you will have to shuffle in line in order to get a good close up view. But it’s certainly worth any potential waiting time.
The crown is certainly impressive, and was used at Robert the Bruce’s coronation. It had its last official airing when worn by Charles II in 1651. Other notable items on display include the royal sceptre and its dazzling globe. The sword, which is an even older treasure than the crown, was a gift from Pope Julius II.
The Stone of Destiny
Located in the same building as the Honours, the Stone of Destiny – also known as the Stone of Scone – is perhaps the most famous of Scotland’s historic treasures. But don’t be deceived by its appearance. Although looking nothing more than a simple sandstone block, it was the centrepiece of Scottish coronations in Scone since the 9th century.
Removed to England by King Edward I in 1296, the Stone of Destiny was placed in Westminster Abbey under the coronation chair used during the inauguration ceremony of English (and later, British) monarchs… some say as a slight to show the Scots who was boss.
Only returned to Scotland in 1996 (not counting a caper by a group of students that saw it back in Scotland for a short time), it now is, at last, back on Scottish soil… hopefully for good this time.
St Margaret’s Chapel
Standing on the tallest point of Castle Rock, St Margaret’s Chapel affords spectacular views over the castle, its grounds, and the city below. Although a remarkably simple building in its design, it’s not only the oldest building in Edinburgh, it’s one of the smallest churches in Britain.
Ordered built by Queen Margaret, the wife of King Malcolm III, around 1070, it wasn’t completed until 1093, some 20 or so years after her death. Famous for her European sophistication (she was raised in Hungary) as well as her charitable deeds, Margaret was granted sainthood by the Pope in 1250 – a move that played a major role in ensuring that the church was maintained.
While the church you see today has been restored on numerous occasions – most recently in 1993 – it still projects an air of authenticity… and majesty. Visit around November 16th, and you’ll be rewarded with a chance to see the floral displays placed around the church in Margaret’s honour.
You can learn more about the chapel at the website of the St Margaret’s Chapel Guild, a group dedicated to preserving this important piece of Scottish history.
Standing somewhat menacingly adjacent St Margaret’s Chapel is another historic reminder of the castle’s important role in history. Known affectionately as Mons Meg after the city in which it was cast, this massive siege cannon dates all the way back to 1449, and was considered state-of-the-art at the time.
Given to James II in 1457 by the Duke of Burgundy and weighing over six tons, it was so powerful it could shoot a 550lb cannonball a distance of two miles. Although it ended its days as a ceremonial cannon – it was used on the occasion of the marriage of Mary Queen of Scots – Meg did see action, most notably in 1460 during the siege of Roxburgh Castle.
Half Moon Battery
Equally as impressive as Mons Meg, the cannons at Half Moon Battery should also be visited. It’s here that numerous smaller canons were stationed, positioned in the half-moon pattern after which they’re named in such a way as to cover the castle approaches (the views over the city here are spectacular).
Located on the east side of the castle above the main entrance, Half Moon Battery in fact gives the castle its interesting profile. Where once stood the Seven Sisters, a series of bronze guns cast in the castle for James IV around 1500, today stands a number of smaller cannons dating from the Napoleonic Wars of 1810.
The battery was built on the ruins of David’s Tower, a huge medieval structure built in 1367 that collapsed during the ‘Lang Siege’ some 200 years later.
The One O’clock Salute
Although a far more modern piece of artillery is used for the castle’s One O’clock Salute, it follows a centuries’ old tradition. This always fun ceremony takes place bang on 1pm each day at Mill’s Mount Battery, and has been performed on this spot almost every day since 1861.
This ‘time cannon’ in fact fires at the exact same moment a time ball drops at the Nelson Monument on Calton Hill, both of them once essential to ships that lay in harbour on the Firth of Forth, who would check their chronometers by training a telescope on the castle. A special salute is fired at midnight on New Year’s Eve.
The National War Museum of Scotland
Established in 1933 to display the uniforms, weapons, and other memorabilia associated with the various Scottish regiments, the National War Museum of Scotland is ranked one of the top Edinburgh Museums to visit.
This fine museum is housed in a former ordnance storehouse and does an excellent job of telling the story of the military’s contribution to Scotland through its exhibits and collections of art and artifacts.
Learn more about this independent museum within the walls of Edinburgh Castle by visiting their website at www.nms.ac.uk/national-war-museum.
Scottish National War Memorial
Another important landmark of Crown Square is the Scottish National War Memorial. Constructed in the 1920s, it’s a very moving monument to the country’s war dead.
The names of some150,000 Scottish soldiers who lost their lives in the two world wars of the 20th century are inscribed in leather-bound books.
The memorial is divided into areas for each of the Scottish regiments, each illuminated by exquisite stained glass windows. While most of these are dedicated to the men who served in the military, the Women’s Window pays tribute to the many women who served in the country’s factories and farms.
Beyond these, the Halls of Honour, at the very heart of the memorial, a shrine has been built into the very rock on which the castle stands. Learn more on the memorial’s website, www.snwm.org.
The Regimental Museums
Edinburgh Castle is home to two very important regimental museums (Photo courtesy The Royal Regiment of Scotland)
Edinburgh Castle is also the location of two important independent regimental museums.
The Royal Scots Museum, located steps away from Foog’s Gate, delves into the history of the regiment from its formation in 1963, when its first recruits enlisted within the very walls of the castle. This informative museum also displays the regiment’s 149 battle honors.
Directly opposite is the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Museum. This fine museum tells of the history of the regiment from the time of its formation by King Charles II in the 1600s to help him quell uprisings by religious dissenters known as the Covenanters. Among its many priceless possession is the Eagle and Standard of the 45th French Infantry, which was captured in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo. Check out the museum’s website for more details.
Prisoners of War Museum
For an informative and fascinating look into the conditions faced by captured enemy troops, take a peek into the Prisoners of War Museum. It was here, under the Great Hall, that French prisoners (as well as pirates) were imprisoned during the Napoleonic wars.
Exhibits and displays show how the prisoners were allowed small luxuries, as well as given the tools and supplies for making things like jewelry boxes and toys. A side hustle that involved making counterfeit money was also undertaken. After the cessation of hostilities with France, other conflicts saw the incarceration of Americans, Spaniards, and even Polish prisoners of war.
The Queen’s Embroideries
One of the newer exhibits at Edinburgh Castle, The Queen’s Embroideries should definitely be included on your itinerary. Located in the ante-chamber of the Royal Apartments, they consist of a series of 37 needlework pictures, each telling a different story and replicating the original embroideries made by Mary Queen of Scots while exiled in England.
Made by 33 members of the School of Ancient Crafts, the replica embroideries took more than 7,300 hours to complete using only tools, materials, and techniques that would have been available at the time.
Visiting Edinburgh Castle – Top Tips and Tactics
- Edinburgh Castle Scotland – Official Website: For the latest news regarding opening times, closures, and special evets, visit the attraction’s official website at edinburghcastle.scot.
- Edinburgh Castle Tickets: Given its immense popularity – Edinburgh Castle attracts more than two million visitors a year – you can expect long line-ups to get in. The best strategy to save time is to pre-book your tickets online through the castle’s official website.
- Tours: A variety of guided Edinburgh Castle tours are included with admission, each covering a particular area of the castle (check the tour schedule upon arrival).
- Audio-guides: Superb audio-guides are available for a small charge. Commentary includes the voices of actors from TV and the movies… including Andrew Gowar from the hit TV show, Outlander.
- Food and Drink: Fancy a spot of tea? Head to the castle’s Queen Anne Tearoom, popular for its traditional high tea experiences. Lunches and snacks can also be enjoyed at the Red Coat Café.
- Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo: Few castle experiences can match the thrill of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Held on the Esplanade in front of the castle each August, this bucket list event includes marching bands, swirling kilts… and, of course, plenty of bagpipes. Check out the official website at www.edintattoo.co.uk.
- Book a Hotel Room With a View of the Castle: Check our list of the top luxury hotels in Edinburgh for details of great accommodations within an easy walk of Edinburgh Castle. great choices of hotels offering castle views include the 4-star Apex Grassmarket, the luxurious Waldorf Astoria Edinburgh, and The Balmoral.
Scottish-born Contributor Kim Kerr is a freelance travel writer with a soft spot for luxury and the luxury lifestyle… especially if it involves Bonnie Scotland
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Contributor Kim Kerr shares her favourite things to do and see in Edinburgh Castle, the city’s most popular tourist attraction