If you’re asked to think of Edinburgh, no doubt the first thing to pop to mind will be the striking silhouette of Edinburgh Castle. Well, its understandable, what with it being one of the oldest complexes in Edinburgh and its domination of the city skyline.
This is THE Edinburgh tourist attraction, and the vast majority of tourists make a beeline for it as soon as they are off the plane, train or tour bus! There’s no doubt that this is a must-see, and if you haven’t been to Edinburgh before, then it’s definitely worth exploring. But even if you are a local, don’t take this stunning landmark for granted. There’s plenty to discover in this fascinating complex, so let me take you around Edinburgh’s primary stronghold…
But first, a personal note
Okay, okay, so I’ll admit. Even though this is Edinburgh’s most popular tourist attraction and it draws in millions of visitors every year, I do feel like I have a personal connection to this place. Back in the days when I was a student, I spent a summer working in the gift shop by the Castle’s Portcullis Gate. It was the best job I ever had, because I loved talking to all the different people who wandered in, from all over the world, sharing the stories of this wonderful city and giving them recommendations for where to go next.
You could say that the seed (or larva, if we’re being pedantic) for Edinbug was very much planted in the gift shop at Edinburgh Castle. It only took another four years to come to fruition!
Anyway, personal rambling over, I’m going to give you a rundown of everything you need to know about the Castle. I’ve tried to make this comprehensive without being too overwhelming, but if you have any more questions, feel free to dump them in the comments section below!
Getting into Edinburgh Castle
You’ll find Edinburgh Castle at the very top of the Royal Mile, at the end of (aptly named) Castlehill. It’s a wee bit of a climb, but if you go outside festival season (around October – June time) you’ll be rewarded with a fantastic panorama of the whole city from the large expansive esplanade at the front of the castle.
It’s such a shame that once the stands go up for the Tattoo (or any other major concert), the view is obscured. Never fear though, as you can still get great views from the Castle itself all year around.
This is Edinburgh’s primary tourist attraction, and that is certainly reflected in the ticket price. At the time of writing, entry to the Castle will cost you:
- £16.50 for an adult
- £9.90 for a child
- £13.20 for concessions (over 60 and unemployed)
You can either buy your tickets from the admission office as you go in, or order and print your tickets from the website. The online price is exactly the same, but it’s a good idea to print your ticket off in advance if you can, as the queues at admissions can get pretty long during peak times (around 11am – 3pm), especially during the summer months.
Getting your bearings
Edinburgh Castle is a pretty large complex, and it can be quite overwhelming when you first get in. However, there are plenty of ways to find your way around.
Directly on your right hand side as you enter from the Portcullis Gate, there are audio tours available. These come in the form of a headset with a wee gadget, where you punch in the number of the location specified on the black shields dotted around the Castle.
These tours come in several languages and are a great way to find out about the Castle in your own pace. At the time of writing, they cost £3.50 for an adult, £2.50 for a concession and £1.50 for a child.
Alternatively, if you want a souvenir to take home, you can get a guidebook for £5.99 from the gift shop. Again, these come in several languages and are great for just flicking through as you wander around the Castle.
However, my favourite way to explore the Castle is with one of the guided tours – not least because they are absolutely free of charge! These tours are conducted in English and start roughly every 40 minutes from just beyond the audio guide booth.
The tour lasts half an hour and will take you through the main thoroughfare up to Crown Square at the top. It’s a good idea to follow the tour up to Crown Square, then you can work your own way back down, giving further exploration to the points that piqued your interest on the tour.
The first thing you’ll encounter when you get into Edinburgh Castle is the Portcullis Gate. It’s the first main gate past the initial entrance, and it’s just past here you’ll find the guided tours and audio guides.
Beyond the gate you’ll find a large line of cannons, which were given to Edinburgh Castle second hand after a life at sea. While these have never been fired in anger from the Castle, it’s kind of comforting to know that we had the power to attack any threats, if needs be!
The One O’Clock Gun
The only gun that still fires today can be found right at the far end of the Castle, straight ahead as you enter from Portcullis Gate. It is fired once every day, apart from Sundays, at 1pm.
I worked at the Castle for several months, and yet every time I was in the staff room having my lunch, the solitary BANG would always make me jump from my seat!
The One O’Clock gun used to be a timekeeping tradition for the ships off Leith docks, however now we have iPhones and the likes to tell us the time, the gun is more often used by office workers in the city centre as a reminder to go and have some lunch!
The Lang Stairs
On the left hand side of the Portcullis Gate you’ll find a long set of stairs that will take you up to the top of the Castle. It’s a great little shortcut and I used to use it loads to nip up and down to Crown Square.
Halfway up you’ll find the Castles in the Clouds exhibition, which is a welcome distraction if you are finding the stairs too much to do in one go!
Prisons of War
As you head up and around the main thoroughfare of the Castle, you’ll start to see a series of military buildings, which are still in use today. These are also home to a few fascinating military exhibitions, but my personal favourite is Prisons of War, which is located deep underground where prisoners of war were actually held.
A couple of the rooms are made up to be what the prison used to look like, so you get a really clear idea of what it was like to be a prisoner of Edinburgh Castle in those days.
St Margarets Chapel
St Margaret’s Chapel, dating from the 12th century, is the not only oldest structure in Edinburgh Castle, but the whole city of Edinburgh. It was built under the reign of King David I, who named the chapel after his Mother, a dedicated Christian woman who was posthumously made a saint.
It is small, intimate and charming inside, with small stained glass windows and a simple set up for worship. The chapel is still in use today for weddings and the like, but it can only take a small congregation of around 20 people!
Just in front of St Margarets Chapel, you’ll find Mons Meg, the biggest canon in the castle. It was built in the 15th Century and given to King James II as a gift from Phillip the Good of Burgundy.
It was used in several sieges until the mid 16th century, after which is was fired only for ceremonial purposes. It was during one of these occasions in 1680 when the barrel burst, taking Mons Meg out of service for good. However, she still remains at pride of place in Edinburgh Castle today.
The Scottish National War Memorial
It’s a funny coincidence that opposite one of the oldest buildings in the Castle, St Margarets Chapel, lies one of the newest buildings in the Castle: The Scottish National War Memorial.
Opened in 1927, the memorial commemorates every single Scottish soldier that has died in combat during the First World War and every conflict since. As you walk inside, you’ll see rows of books, each one listing the names of the brave men who gave their lives for their country. It’s a very humbling experience and definitely worth a quiet moment of reflection.
The entrance of Scottish National War Memorial can found in Crown Square, along with the Royal Palace and the Great Hall. This area is very much the epicentre of Edinburgh Castle, and it is where the initial guided tour ends.
Here you’ll find the Royal Palace (pictured above) which is where the royal family used to sleep whenever they stayed at the Castle. In fact, it was in this very building where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James IV of Scotland, who later went on to become James I of England and Ireland as well.
Nowadays, it is home to the Honours of Scotland, which include the Crown of Scotland, the Sceptre of Scotland, the Sword of State of Scotland and the Stone of Scone, also known as the “Stone of Destiny”.
The Stone of Scone is my favourite piece of the Scottish Crown Jewels, because legend has it that no one can be truly the ruler of Scots until they have sat on this stone. In fact, our current queen, Elizabeth II, had the stone underneath her throne at the coronation in 1953 and when it is time for our next heir to be crowned, the stone will be shipped down to London for that coronation too!
The Great Hall
The Great Hall is one of the finest spots in the Castle, and is still used today for special events.
The interior is furnished with bright red walls, stained glass windows and an impressive hammer beam ceiling, made completely of wood with no metal support at all.
It is a bright and colourful venue, which was used for grand banquets and royal occasions. However, it was briefly used for military accommodation when the entirety of the Castle was used for army purposes. The Great Hall has a fascinating story is definitely worth checking out!
Edinburgh Castle is definitely a must-see if you haven’t been before. Over 70% of visitors to Edinburgh go to Edinburgh Castle, and its easy to see why. I’ve just scratched the surface of this incredible complex, so it’s worth seeing for yourself. Put aside at least a couple of hours to explore the Castle fully, and be sure to check out the gift shop on your way out! 😉