The best castles in the UK

best castles in the UK
Medieval Bodiam Castle and defensive moat in Sussex, England

The country’s abundance of mighty fortresses – some ruined, some palatial, some still lived in today – are an enduring  reminder of our turbulent past. Read on for the best castles in the UK that you can visit today

Best castles in the UK

Bodiam Castle, East Sussex

The outside of this 14th-century moated castle looks impeccably preserved and you’d be forgiven for thinking you could expect much of the same inside, but sadly not. Like so many other historic buildings, the English civil war reduced the interior to ruins, though mercifully the exterior was saved and throughout the 17th and 18th centuries as ivy grew around the building, its dilapidated beauty was celebrated. Today the castle is in the hands of the National Trust and it has been restored where possible, earning it a deserved place on the list of best castles in the UK. Among its most notable features are spiral staircases and a rare original wooden portcullis.

Hever Castle, Kent


Anne Boleyn’s childhood home is the perfect picture-book castle on a miniature scale, its stout creeper-covered walls encircled by a double moat, making it undoubtedly one of the best castles in the UK. Among its collections are two private prayer books signed by Anne herself. For a real behind-the-scenes experience, make the most of your time here by booking onto a private guided tour before the castle opens for the day, and don’t forget to lose yourself (literally) in the Yew Maze and to wander the Tudor Garden and Chess Garden, where golden yew trees are carved into the shape of chess pieces. There’s so much to see here, so why not stay the night? Book one of the 28 luxurious bedrooms across two Edwardian wings and you can stroll the beautiful castle grounds free of the daytime crowds.

Windsor Castle, Berkshire

best castles in the UK
The Crimson Drawing Room at Windsor Castle. Royal Collection Trust/His Majesty King Charles III/ Photographer: Peter Smith

If you want to gain insight into the Royal Family and more than 900 years of royal history then there really is no better place to visit than this splendid riverside castle, which, as well as being one of the best castles in the UK, is also the largest and oldest occupied castle in the world. It was here, after all, that King Charles II set out to rival the opulence of King Louis XIV’s Versailles, to create the grandest state apartments in England, while King George IV added the mighty Waterloo Chamber in celebration of the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815. All of this was endangered when in 1992 a fire swept through the castle, destroying 115 rooms. The meticulous restoration was completed five years to the day after the fire. More recently, the committal service for Queen Elizabeth II took place in St George’s Chapel.

Tintagel Castle, Cornwall

best castles in the uk
Tintagel Castle and bridge. Credit:

Few places can rival the romance and mystery of Tintagel, on Cornwall’s wild north coast. Perched high on a craggy, sea-lashed headland and accessed via a dramatic footbridge, the ruined castle here swirls with the legends of King Arthur. If you believe the legend, it was here that Arthur was magically conceived, with the help of Merlin, who lived in the cave below. It’s true that in the period that Arthur is said to have reigned (5th and 6th centuries), Tintagel was a prosperous site, but from the 7th century onwards little is heard about it until Geoffrey of Monmouth’s romantic depiction of the Arthurian legend in the 12th century. One of the best castles in the UK, the ruins that you see today date from the 13th century but that didn’t stop it becoming a popular pilgrimage site on the King Arthur trail, and it’s not hard to imagine the life of the heroic king beginning here, in this mystical and elemental place.

Corfe Castle, Dorset

Corfe Castle at sunrise. Credit: Alan Copson / AWL Images

Looming mysteriously over the Purbeck countryside, if the ruins of Corfe Castle could talk they would have some interesting – if bloody – stories to tell. Throughout its 1,000-year history, the castle has not only seen its fair share of battles (some say it was on this site that Edward the Martyr met his grisly death), but it has also performed many functions: as a Saxon stronghold, a Norman fortress, a prison, a palace and a family home. It was under this last guise that its Royalist owner, Lady Mary Bankes, bravely fought off not one but two sieges by Parliamentarians during the English Civil War. When she was betrayed in 1646 by an officer from her own ranks who allowed enemy troops to enter, the castle’s downfall was sealed. Parliamentarians used gunpowder to reduce the castle to its ruinous state but Lady Bankes got the last laugh when the estate was returned to her following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

Cawdor Castle, Nairn

best castles in the UK

Cawdor Castle will forever be linked to Shakespeare’s Macbeth (in which Macbeth was made Thame of Cawdor), though the events on which the tragedy is based actually took place before the castle was built. Nevertheless the association has stuck and it certainly adds to the sense of intrigue when you visit this ancient fortress. Another legend that is woven into the story of Cawdor is that of its origins. Apparently the Thane of Cawdor, who wanted to build a stronger castle, followed instructions he received in a dream that told him to load a coffer of gold onto the back of a donkey; wherever the donkey came to rest should be the site of the castle. And so the medieval tower was built around a holly tree that is still there today.

Lincoln Castle, Lincolnshire

Built by William the Conqueror in 1068, This Norman castle has been a symbol of power and punishment through the ages, and is home to one of only four surviving copies of Magna Carta. You can view this precious artefact in the vault before exploring the castle’s many fascinating corners. Look round the Victorian prison, walk the medieval walls and visit the Archaeology Exhibition, which displays finds from an ancient church, unearthed 3m below ground in 2013.

Lancaster Castle, Lancashire

Owned by the King through the Duchy of Lancaster, Lancaster Castle stands on a hilltop where the Romans once built a series of garrison forts. The Castle was a prison until 2011, though by then its treatment of criminals was a lot less cut-throat than at previous points in its history. In 1612, the Lancashire Witch Trials saw 10 people hanged on the moor above the town after being found guilty of witchcraft following a dubious trial based on rumour and gossip, while between 1584 and 1646, 15 Catholics known as the Lancaster Martyrs suffered a similar fate.

Raby Castle, Durham

best castles in the UK

Raby is a picture-book castle, all crenellated battlements and forbidding stone walls, whose towers tantalisingly appear and disappear through the trees as you approach. Built in the 14th century, it was home to the powerful Nevill family until 1569, when it was confiscated by the Crown due to Charles Nevill’s involvement in a plot to depose Elizabeth I. The estate then passed to Sir Henry Vane, a confidant of Charles I, whose family still live in the castle. You can explore Raby’s wonderful interiors, from the Blue Bedroom, reserved for the castle’s most important guests, to the medieval kitchen, lined with copper pots.

Caernarfon Castle, Gwynedd

best castles in the UK
Exterior of the Eagle tower from the King’s gate Caernarfon Castle

This huge fortress, which forms part of King Edward I’s ‘Iron Ring of Castles’, and which together with Beaumaris, Harlech and Conwy is classified as a World Heritage Site, was built by the English king to tighten his grip on power and keep Welsh dissidents at bay. Never one to miss an opportunity to exert his authority, Edward even ensured his first son was born here, thus making him the first English Prince of Wales. Architecturally more impressive than some of his other castles, its structure includes polygonal towers, such as the Eagle Tower, and, unlike some of the other castles that were created primarily to defend, this castle was built to demonstrate Edward’s dominance over the Welsh and is now one of the best castles in the UK.

Leeds Castle, Kent

best castles in the UK
Leeds Castle Kent. Credit: Tony Watson/Alamy

This majestic castle rising from the still waters of its moat has famously been described as ‘the loveliest castle in England’. Even if there’s a castle that pips it to the post in your mind, there’s no denying the sheer romanticism of its picture-perfect setting make it one of the best castles in the UK. A favoured retreat of King Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon – they even stopped here on their way to northern France for the ceremonial meeting with Francis I of France that became known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold – it was under Henry’s orders that it was transformed from a Norman stronghold into the Tudor palace that we see today.

Dunnottar Castle, Aberdeenshire

There can be few castle settings as wild and timeless as that of Dunnottar, which sits upon rock that was pushed to the surface 440 million years ago. Throughout its colourful history the site has been a place of worship, suffered Viking attack, was set alight by William Wallace and played an integral role in protecting the Honours of Scotland from Oliver Cromwell’s army.

Dover Castle, Kent

best castles in the UK
The Kings bedroom at Dover Castle. Credit: English Heritage Trust

Thanks to its strategic location guarding the southeast coast, Dover had a pivotal role in the Second World War, in which it became a beacon of hope and defiance. It’s hard to think of it without hearing the dulcet tones of Vera Lynn uttering the immortal lines: “There’ll be bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover, tomorrow, just you wait and see.” Secret tunnels that were carved out of the rock face to ward off Nazi invasion are now open to the public. But its military prowess goes back much further. Evidence suggests there was an Iron Age hillfort on the site, and a Roman lighthouse still stands proud, but it was Henry II who built the stone castle you see today, turning a military garrison into a medieval showpiece where he could host noble visitors to England.

Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh

best castles in the UK
Edinburgh Castle. Credit: VisitScotland/Kenny Lam

Scotland’s most recognisable landmark, Edinburgh Castle stands proud above the vibrant capital city. As though its location atop an extinct volcano was not reason enough to visit, its history is pretty astounding too: it was here that Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth to a baby boy in 1566, who was crowned King James VI of Scotland just one year later, and King James I of England in 1603, creating a union between the two countries. The castle is also home to Scotland’s ‘Crown Jewels’ – the Honours of Scotland – and the Stone of Destiny, which has been used in Scottish coronations for centuries.

Arundel Castle, West Sussex

best castles in the UK
The Drawing Room at Arundel Castle. Credit: Toby Smedley,

Arundel is so perfect it can seem almost unreal. Even its name somehow brings to mind an ancient, mythical stronghold – another Camelot. Undoubtedly one of the best castles in the UK, it was founded in 1067 by Roger de Montgomery, the first Earl of Arundel, one of William the Conqueror’s closest advisors. It is one of England’s longest-inhabited country houses, the seat and still the home of the Duke of Norfolk, England’s premier duke. The castle was badly damaged in the Civil War and most of what you see today is the result of an extensive restoration that was completed in 1900. The oldest part of the castle is the Norman keep, whose ancient tower is reached by 131 steps – worth the effort for the breathtaking view of river, town, South Downs and sea.

Dunluce Castle, County Antrim

best castles in the UK
Ruins of medieval Dunluce Castle. Credit: Krzysztof Nahlik

If you lost yourself as a child in the magical tales of C S Lewis and his imaginary land of Narnia, then a visit here, which some say was the inspiration for Cair Paravel – the seat of power for the kings and queens of Narnia – is a must. C S Lewis was born in Belfast and spent his early years in Northern Ireland, with regular holidays along the Antrim coast, and he would have known Dunluce Castle, which perches on a small hill atop some sea-lashed jagged rocks, from trips to nearby Portrush and Ballycastle. C S Lewis wasn’t the only person to recognise the potential of this most dramatic of settings – it was also chosen as the location of the House of Greyjoy in the kingdom of Westeros in TV’s Game of Thrones.

Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire

best castles in the UK
Credit: Ian Dagnall / Alamy

The fairytale Belvoir Castle occupies a promontory overlooking the beautiful Vale of Belvoir in the north of Leicestershire. The castle has been the ancestral home of the Dukes of Rutland since the land was first gifted to Norman baron Robert de Todeni by William the Conqueror. And the current castle, designed by the prolific Regency neo-Gothic architect James Wyatt with a dramatic skyline of towers, turrets and crenellations, is the fourth to stand on the same spot since 1067. Its magnificent grounds include the tranquil and elegant Duchess Garden, the Japanese woodland, the seven-acre Hermit Garden with its recently rediscovered Regency grottos, and the restored Capability Brown parkland.

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