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The 13 best castles in the UK

You deserve a royally good day out, so scratch that itch by visiting one of the best castles in the UK

Written by
Emma Vince

The UK and castles go together like magnet and steel. This collection of grand estates across the land has long been home to the characters that flood period dramas on an annual basis, and the importance of the estates means they have been looked after incredibly well. As such, they have become one of the UK’s most enduring tourist attractions.

With all that in mind, take a moment to imagine your perfect castle. What does that grand mansion look like? Would you plump for a dramatic clifftop location, standing protectively over a gorgeous beach? Maybe you’re more into the battle-weary wear and tear of the old drawbridge and moat combination? Castles come in all shapes and sizes in these parts, truly offering something for everyone, although the majesty of these spots should really ensure that they tick all visitor boxes. Heck, you can even stay in some of them. 

The relationship towns and cities have with these castles is far more fascinating than one might initially assume. There is pride in the grandeur and aesthetics, but the political implications of their construction might cause some locals to bristle. It adds another thrilling element to travel throughout the UK, accentuating the magnificent views and tangible history of the buildings themselves. These are the very best castles that the United Kingdom has to offer.

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Best castles in the UK

Windsor Castle, England

1. Windsor Castle, England

If you visit the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world this weekend, you might find yourself rubbing shoulders with Queen Elizabeth II. Not literally, of course, that would have ‘security breach’ written all over it, but the Queen does spend her off-duty weekends here. When you’re done royal-spotting, take a tour of the plush red-and-gold state apartments (walk the historic or ceremonial route depending on your mood), explore the castle’s treasures and visit the chapel where (most of) your favourite royal weddings have taken place.

From £23.50. Windsor Castle, Windsor, Berkshire, SL4 1NJ.

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Caernarfon Castle
Photograph: WikiMedia Commons

2. Caernarfon Castle

Wales has a curious relationship with its many castles. Some are proud to hold them up as beautiful examples of medieval architecture that represent a major pull for tourists, while others see the so-called Iron Ring as a painful reminder of King Edward I’s conquest of Wales in the twelfth century. Of all the castles, Caernarfon’s is possibly the most arresting, a UNESCO World Heritage site that was said to be designed on the famous walls of Constantinople (today’s Istanbul). Caernarfon is a charming town with plenty of attractions but few come close to matching the might of its eponymous castle.

From £9.90. Castle Ditch, Caernarfon, LL55 2AY

Edinburgh Castle, Scotland

3. Edinburgh Castle, Scotland

Popped on a peak like the proverbial cherry, this striking urban castle dominates the Edinburgh skyline, making itself the Scottish capital’s most iconic landmark. Once you’re done admiring it from afar, march your way up the Royal Mile to the front gates, then there’s plenty to do and see inside the castle itself. Plan your visit around lunch to hear the firing of the one o’clock gun, and leave time to check out the enigmatically named Stone of Destiny. It’s displayed next to the Scottish Crown Jewels, which gives you some idea of its value, but, to preserve the air of mystery, we won’t tell you what it’s for.

From £15.50. Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, EH1 2NG.

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Tintagel Castle, England

4. Tintagel Castle, England

Said to be the birthplace of King Arthur, the romantic castle of Tintagel has long been connected to myths and legends. It appears to have been constructed for its legendary location alone, as its site on the north Cornwall coast offers no obvious military value. Part of the castle is built on the mainland and the other on an island with a footbridge linking the two. Visit for the Arthurian legends and mysterious spots like Merlin’s Cave if that’s your thing. If not, the rocky beachside location is a stunning destination in itself.

From £15.70. Tintagel Castle, Tintagel, Cornwall, PL34 0HE.

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Dunluce Castle, Northern Ireland

5. Dunluce Castle, Northern Ireland

Touring along the Causeway Coast? Dunluce Castle is well worth a stop. This striking cliffside ruin perches on the edge of the Antrim coast. And there are some pretty dramatic stories to go with its location. Forget actual history, like Scottish sieges, we’re here for the mythical tales of hauntings, banshees and how the entire castle kitchen crashed into the sea one stormy night. Ooh, we’ve got goosebumps.

From £6. Dunluce Castle, Bushmills, County Antrim, BT57 8UY.

Beaumaris Castle, Wales

6. Beaumaris Castle, Wales

Viewed from above, Beaumaris Castle on Anglesey is a symmetrical work of art. With its concentric ‘walls within walls’ design, it’s one of the most perfect castles in Britain… However, when it was being built, Edward I ran out of money (hey, we’ve all been there), and so the walls never reached their intended full height. The result? An unfinished but perfectly formed, tranquil-looking fortress set against a scenic, seaside backdrop. And as if it couldn’t get any more photogenic, there’s a moat. Serious castle credentials.

From £6.90. Beaumaris Castle, Beaumaris LL58 8AP

Warwick Castle, England

7. Warwick Castle, England

Warwick Castle makes for a proper day out. As well as all the towers, rooms and gardens to explore, there are plenty of attractions for small kids and big kids alike, all with the noble aim of making history fun. Spend the day exploring the ‘Horrible Histories’ maze, the castle dungeon and the Princess Tower, while in the grounds, there’s a bird of prey display and a knight school. Never want to leave? You can stay the night in style with suitably decked-out glamping tents, lodges or suites in the castle itself.

From £20. Warwick Castle, Warwick, CV34 4QU.

Castle Ward, Northern Ireland

8. Castle Ward, Northern Ireland

‘Game of Thrones’ is over, but that doesn’t mean our fascination with its filming locations is going anywhere. If you’re up for a little set-jetting, Northern Ireland has plenty of ‘Thrones’ gems, including Castle Ward, aka Winterfell, where the baby Starks began their adventures way back in season one. Take a Winterfell tour, where you can get into costume and try your hand at archery. Not a ‘GOT’ fan? Explore the eighteenth-century mansion, woodlands, gardens, the tea room and secondhand bookshop, with not a dragon in sight.

From £10. Castle Ward, Downpatrick, County Down, BT30 7BA.

Alnwick Castle, England

9. Alnwick Castle, England

Dating back to the Norman era, Alnwick Castle in Northumberland has been lots of things, from a family home to a refuge for evacuees. Most famously, though, it’s been a film set. With activities such as Broomstick Training and Dragon Quests, you can probably guess which franchise the castle is associated with. Grab your Nimbus 2000 and head to the exact location a certain boy wizard had his first quidditch lesson. If all that sounds like nonsense to you, there are plenty of muggle activities too, like jousting, fine dining and outdoor cinema screenings.

From £18.50. Alnwick Castle, Alnwick, Northumberland, NE66 1NG.

Dunnottar Castle, Scotland

10. Dunnottar Castle, Scotland

Nothing says drama quite like a ruined fortress perched on a precipice above the sea, and that’s exactly what you get with a visit to Dunnottar Castle in Scotland. The castle was saved from being completely lost by restoration work in 1925. It’s still kind of a ruin, but in a good, haunting way that suits its location. History buffs will love its ties to famous historical figures (shout out to Mary Queen of Scots, who visited for the first time in 1562), and photographers will love the striking figure it cuts against the sea – rain or shine, it’s practically impossible to take a bad photo of it.

From £8. Dunnottar Castle, Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, AB39 2TL. 

Cardiff Castle, Wales

11. Cardiff Castle, Wales

Set in the middle of the city, surrounded by Bute park, Cardiff Castle looks like a normal stronghold from the outside, but set foot inside and things start to get really jazzy. During its long history, the castle has been decked out with all the trappings you’d expect of a lavish palace: stained-glass windows, murals, marble and wood carvings. The opulent interiors have been described as a ‘Victorian medieval dream world’, and it’s well worth taking a tour to marvel at the banqueting hall, library and the ceiling of the famous Arab room.

From £12.50. Cardiff Castle, Cardiff, CF10 3RB.

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Dunrobin Castle, Scotland
Targn Pleiades / Shutterstock

12. Dunrobin Castle, Scotland

For a castle that looks like it’s been lifted straight from a fairytale, head for this turreted wonder in the Scottish Highlands. With the vibe of a fancy French chateau, you’ll find pointy spires and vast windows galore overlooking the walled, formal gardens below and Moray Firth beyond. The castle dates back to the 1300s and has been continuously inhabited since then by a long line of earls and dukes. Unfortunately, you can’t stay overnight, but you can take a tour of the interior and the gardens. There’s a tearoom and a falconry, too.

Open Apr 1-Oct 31. From £12.50. Dunrobin Castle, Golspie, Sutherland, KW10 6SF.

The Tower of London, England
Daniel Sambraus

13. The Tower of London, England

Despite its deceptive name, the Tower of London is most definitely a castle. Not only that, it’s the most secure castle in the land. No surprise that the Crown Jewels are stashed here. Visit for a glimpse of said sparklers, and pick up lots of great historical facts while you’re at it. Like, did you know that the Tower used to make all the coins in the realm, or that it has been a fortress, a palace and a prison? Or that if the six resident ravens ever leave the castle, the kingdom will fall into ruin? That’s your next dinner party convo sorted. 

From £31.80. The Tower of London, London, EC3N 4AB.

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