20 of Britain’s most spectacular castles

Hundreds of castles dominate the landscape of Britain and are testament to the engineering prowess of previous generations. From vast fortresses overlooking the coast to former strategic strongholds, and others which remain inhabited to this day, these monuments stand as a reminder of the island’s turbulent past. These spectacular castles allow you to explore the nation’s beautiful outdoor spaces and lush autumnal scenery, while delving deep into Britain’s history and heritage…

ENGLAND

England is home to many striking castles, built over the centuries to protect and to control. From acting as royal residences to being the stars of TV and the silver screen, as the leaves begin to fall and the countryside becomes a burnished carpet of reds, golds and yellows, these immense fortifications are sure to spark the imagination…

1. Windsor Castle

Windsor Castle surrounded by Autumn foliage. Credit to Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018 Photographer: Peter Packer

Just to the west of London lies the world’s oldest and largest inhabited castle, having been a royal residence for around 950 years. First developed by William the Conqueror in the 11th century, Windsor Castle is regularly used by the Queen as a weekend retreat, as well as hosting state occasions and royal weddings. The Round Tower dominates the skyline and sits atop the oldest part of the castle, while St George’s Chapel acts as the spiritual home of the Order of the Garter – an order of chivalry dating back to the reign of Edward III in 1348. Advanced booking for the castle is recommended.

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Windsor Castle

2. Warwick Castle

View of Warwick Castle, a medieval castle, from the River Avon. Grand imposing castle with medieval and Victorian buildings. River Avon.

An imposing fortress in the heart of the Midlands, Warwick Castle provides a taste of medieval British life. Pass beneath the castle’s impressive portcullis, wander along its ramparts, take in archery exhibitions and explore 64 acres of landscaped gardens on the way to discovering 1,100 years of history. Children can venture back through time in the Horrible Histories Maze, or book in to the Castle Dungeon to unravel some of Warwick’s darkest secrets with the help of live actors and spine-tingling special effects.

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Windsor Castle

3. Tower of London

The Tower of London is a historic royal palace, former prison and fortress and national landmark on the banks of the River Thames in London. The White tower. UNESCO world heritage site. View of the palace from across the river, from the South Bank river w

Once a royal residence and notorious prison, the Tower of London is a World Heritage Site with 1,000 years of history at its core. The imposing fortress is now home to the Crown Jewels, a collection of more than 23,000 dazzling gemstones, and you can also meet the guardians of the tower – its legendary ravens! Learn more about this feast of Norman architecture from the Yeoman Warders, often known as Beefeaters, who have guarded the tower since Tudor times.

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Tower of London

4. Highclere Castle

Highclere Castle, Newbury, Berkshire, England

One of the stars of TV’s Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle in Hampshire provided the backdrop for four series of the show and the hit movie. Initially a medieval palace, Highclere was transformed in the mid-19th century by Sir Charles Barry, the architectural mind behind the Houses of Parliament in London. Alongside tours of its many rooms, including those used as the state rooms from the Downton Abbey movie, you can explore gardens dating back to the 13th century and 1,000 acres of stunning parkland, designed by the renowned landscape gardener, Capability Brown. The castle is home to the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, whose family have lived there since 1679, and also houses a unique display of Egyptian antiquities celebrating the 5th Earl of Carnarvon’s role in the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. This year, the castle will also hosts special autumn and winter tours, including Real Lives and Film Sets and Christmas at Highclere.

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Highclere Castle

5. Hever Castle

Hever Castle, family home of Anne Boleyn, in Kent. Credit to VisitBritain/Pete Seaward

With a history spanning more than 700 years, Hever Castle was the childhood home of Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. Initially a moated defensive castle dating back to 1270, this romantic setting is packed full of Tudor portraits and tapestries, and features fine views out over Hever Lake. Set within the 125 acres of grounds is a 100-year-old Yew Maze, as well as award-winning gardens, with startlingly beautiful dahlia displays and the warming sugary scent of the Katsura tree perfuming the frosty air. Pre-booking to explore Hever Castle and its grounds is essential.

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Hever Castle

6. Alnwick Castle

Exterior view of 11th century Alnwick Castle, Northumberland.

As the UK’s second-largest inhabited castle behind Windsor, the impressive walls of Alnwick Castle have acted as a military outpost, a teaching college and a family home over the centuries. Another castle with its origins in the Norman period, the fortress in Northumberland will be recognisable to if you’re a fans of Harry Potter, as the wizarding hero was filmed learning to fly a broomstick within its walls for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The castle is no stranger to the world of film, having also featured in Downton Abbey, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves and Elizabeth. Pre-booking is required.

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Alnwick Castle

7. Bamburgh Castle

View of Bamburgh Castle with beach below, Northumberland, England. Credit to VisitBritain/ Chris Ceasar

Perched on an outcrop overlooking the Northumberland Coast, Bamburgh Castle started life as an Anglo-Saxon citadel and has a rich and varied history. The mighty keep dates back to just after the Norman invasion, while it acted as a royal palace for numerous kings in the centuries that followed. Bamburgh holds the distinguished title of being the first castle in the world to fall to gunpowder, having been attacked during the War of the Roses, while a delightful array of artefacts and heirlooms reveal more about its past. Today it stands as the family home of the Armstrong family, descendants of Victorian engineer William Armstrong, who purchased the castle to return it to its former glory. Purchasing pre-booked advance tickets online is recommended.

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Bamburgh Castle

8. Leeds Castle

Leeds Castle beyond a border of colourful flowers. Credit to Leeds Castle Foundation

Occupying 500 acres in the heart of the Kent countryside, Leeds Castle celebrated its 900th anniversary in 2019. You can trace its journey from its Norman roots, through royal ownership and its time as a magnificent Tudor place for Henry VIII, to the country retreat that stands today. The Gatehouse Exhibition explores this history, while the castle’s Bird of Prey Centre features displays from hawks, owls and eagles, among other majestic birds. All visits must be reserved online.

SCOTLAND

Scotland’s castles provide a glimpse into the nation’s past, showcasing struggles for power amid some of Britain’s most spectacular scenery – from jewel-like forest foliage in autumn to misty lochs and frost-kissed glens…

9. Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle, ramparts and gothic architecture, Edinburgh gardens trees.

From its dominating position atop Castle Rock in the heart of the Scottish capital, Edinburgh Castle offers commanding views of the city. Having acted as a military fortress, prison and royal residence in the past, it stands proud as being the most besieged location in Britain. Within its thick grey walls it’s possible to explore tales of treachery and treason, to look out from the Half Moon Battery which overlooks the castle approaches, and to imagine the destructive force of Mons Meg, a 15th century six-tonne siege gun that was capable of blasting a 150kg projectile up to two miles! The Castle is also home to the Royal Palace, the living quarters of many medieval kings and queens throughout the centuries, as well as the National War Museum and the Scottish National War Memorial. Reopening on 1 August, pre-booking is essential.

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Edinburgh Castle

10. Craigievar Castle

Craigievar Castle Scotland. Credit. VisitScotland/Kenny Lam

Having served as the muse for Walt Disney’s Cinderella Castle, the fairy-tale setting of Craigievar, with its pink façade and carefully crafted stonework, is a sight to behold, and no time more so than in autumn, when its soaring turrets are offset by atmospheric skies and fiery autumn foliage. Surrounded by picturesque countryside and woodlands, this enchanting tower house was completed in around 1626 and little of its exterior has changed since. In fact, there is no artificial light on the upper floors, meaning an incredible collection of artefacts, art works and weaponry can be viewed in the same way as when they were first created. The castle’s grounds are open, with visitors encouraged to look out for the rare pine marten, which inhabits the woodland.

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Craigievar Castle

11. Stirling Castle

Landscape with Stirling Castle in the distance. The Wallace Tower. View over Castle Hill.

Found at the point where the Lowlands and Highlands meet, Stirling Castle dominates the skyline from its position atop a vast volcanic rock. It served as a powerful stronghold during the Wars of Independence, changing hands on several occasions, before becoming an important royal residence. The Royal Palace depicts life for royalty in the 1500s, while The Great Hall, built on the orders of James IV, is the largest banqueting hall in Scotland and is testament to the skills and craftsmanship of those who built it. From learning more about the castle’s past and its role as the childhood home of Mary Queen of Scots, to admiring its striking Renaissance architecture, you can discover why Stirling is one of Scotland’s most impressive castles. Reopening on 1 August, pre-booking is a must.

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Stirling Castle

12. Eilean Donan Castle

Eilean Donan Castle. Credit to VisitScotland. Kenny Lam

Surrounded by lusciously rugged mountain scenery, Eilean Donan Castle in the Highlands marks the meeting point of three vast sea lochs, Loch Duich, Loch Long and Loch Alsh. What began as a 13th century fortress was rebuilt several times, before being largely destroyed in the Jacobite Risings of the 17th and 18th centuries. However, the site was restored to its former glory some 200 years later, and is now recognisable as one of Scotland’s most iconic locations. Reopening on 5 August, pre-booking is essential.

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Eilean Donan Castle

13. Urquhart Castle

Urquhart Castle commands great views of Loch Ness and can be found beside the village of Drumnadrochit.

Sat on the banks of Loch Ness, the ruins of Urquhart Castle provide spectacular views both up and down the loch. With a history spanning around 1,000 years, the castle was once a medieval fortress and it’s easy to imagine what life was like here during the Wars of Independence. The last soldiers left the castle in 1692, blowing it up as they left, but the ruins remain resplendent against the striking backdrop of the freshwater loch and surrounding hills. Reopening on 1 August, pre-booking is essential.

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Urquhart Castle

14. Dunrobin Castle

Dunrobin Castle. Credit. VisitScotland. Paul Tomkins.

With its conical spires, walled gardens and stunning outlook over the Moray Firth, Dunrobin Castle can really ignite the imagination. Situated on the eastern coast of the Northern Highlands, the great house has nearly 200 rooms and has been inhabited since the early part of 14th century. Look out for the influences of architects Sir Charles Barry, who was tasked with transforming the castle into a home in 1845, and then Sir Robert Lorimer, who redesigned the interior after it was gutted by fire in the early 20th century.

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Dunrobin Castle

WALES

From UNESCO World Heritage Sites to eccentric gothic revival architecture, Wales is home to around 600 awe-inspiring castles. Ranging in size from small ruins to imposing citadels, these commanding structures played a key role in shaping Britain’s history. Cadw, which overseas castle sites in Wales, is gradually reopening its locations on a phased basis from early August.

15. Caerphilly Castle

Caerphilly Castle, a famous landmark and visitor attraction, a 13th century castle, with concentric defence walls and a moat. View from the air. Credit to VisitBritain/ Jason Hawkes

Built in the mid-13th century, Caerphilly Castle covers a massive 30-acre site, making it Britain’s second largest castle, behind the royal residence at Windsor. Initially developed as a means of control, the concentric design with its huge walls and extensive water defences was lovingly restored in the early half of the 20th century by the wealthy fourth Marquess of Bute, although its famed south-east tower continues to lean precariously at more of an angle than the Leaning Tower of Pisa!

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Caerphilly Castle

16. Castell Coch

Castell Coch, Cardiff, Wales.

With its conical towers poking out of the Fforest Fawr on the hills overlooking Cardiff, Castell Coch appears fresh from a fairy-tale. But while its exterior is impressive, the striking interior design from architect William Burges is what really captures the imagination – making it an enchanting location for some indoor exploration in the autumn and winter months. Supported by the wealth of the third Marquess of Bute during the Victorian period, Burges introduced a gothic revival style and rich furnishings to the remains of the 13th century castle, creating the opulent surroundings found today.

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Castell Coch

17. Harlech Castle

One of four coastal fortresses built during the reign of Edward I to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site – along with Beaumaris, Caernarfon and Conwy – Harlech Castle sits atop a vast rocky crag in north-west Wales. Dunes now separate the castle from the sea, while the rugged peaks of Snowdonia provide the backdrop, ensuring you can easily imagine how its commanding position would have dominated the medieval landscape. Besieged on a number of occasions, including for seven years during the War of the Roses, the castle inspired the tune ‘Men of Harlech’, a rousing song still used in the British military to this day.

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Harlech Castle

18. Caernarfon Castle

Caernarfon castle overlooking the Menai straits, Wales. Credit to VisitBritain/ Lee Beel

Another of Edward I’s great fortresses, the sheer scale of Caernarfon Castle is what captures the imagination. Having stood overlooking the banks of the River Seiont for 700 years, its polygonal towers were designed to mirror those found in the Roman city of Constantinople, while the huge curtain walls and intimidating gatehouse were built with defence in mind. At the western corner of the castle is its most impressive feature, the ten-sided Eagle Tower with three turrets and walls that are an incredible 5.5 metres thick – a true feat of medieval military engineering.

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Caernarfon Castle

19. Conwy Castle

Conwy Castle is a historic Norman castle on the estuary of the river Conwy. Lit up at on a winter's snowy. Credit to VisitBritain/ David Angel

Delve into 700 years of history at Conwy Castle, home to the most intact set of royal apartments from the medieval period. Restored spiral staircases in the castle’s eight towers provide access to the impressive battlements, with stunning views of Snowdonia National Park in the distance, giving you the chance to combine historical discovery with outdoor autumnal exploration. The UNESCO World Heritage Site includes a ring of town walls that stretch just under a mile, while those looking closely at the castle walls can see remnants of lime rendering – a sign that this immense fortress was originally white.

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Conwy Castle

20. Beaumaris Castle

Found amid the picturesque beauty of Anglesey, Beaumaris Castle was the fourth and final of the main royal strongholds to be built in Wales. But for all its splendour, the fortress of near-perfect symmetry was never actually finished. Its many towers, high walls and D-shaped gatehouses are considered by UNESCO to be among the best examples of late 13th century and early 14th century architecture in Europe and serve as a reminder of Edward I’s efforts to exert power over the region.

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Beaumaris Castle
05 Aug 2020(last updated)

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