One of the most identifiable things about the UK is its long-standing Royal Family. Therefore, it is not surprising that across the country, there are more than 4000 castles in various states of repair, many of which were, at one time, home to Royalty. Of those, some of the best castles in the UK can be found in England.
Castles have been dominating the landscape in England for centuries, with each and every one forming part of the history, whether built specifically as Royal residences or as a former strategic stronghold, each unique in some way, making it hard to narrow down which one of the many scattered around the country is the best to visit. Therefore, below is a guide to some of the coolest English castles, many of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
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Just 40 minutes west of London, Windsor Castle has been a Royal residence for over 950 years and remains the largest castle in England, with around five hectares of land. It is also the oldest castle in England and the longest-running palace in Europe, having housed 40 monarchs since it was built in the 11th century.
A favourite of Queen Elizabeth II, Windsor Castle remains open all year to visitors, allowing you to get a glimpse into the life of the British Monarchy. Once inside the castle, you can wander around historical rooms built for Charles II and George IV and explore grandiose rooms like the Waterloo Chamber, the Crimson Drawing Room, and the Grand Reception room, decorated in real good plus catch sight of the Grand Staircase. You will also get to see some genuine masterpieces, vases, and sculptures created by some of the most renowned artists ever to live and see Queen Mary’s very own dollhouse, which was made in 1924.
The outside is no less impressive with the Round Tower, which sits above the oldest part of the castle, gracing the skyline from afar. To truly grasp the splendor of Windsor Castle, though, it is best seen from the Long Walk, a 3-mile tree-lined stretch through the Great Park with an impressive statue of King George III on horseback at the far end.
Finally, no visit to the castle would be complete without a tour of St. George’s Chapel, one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture, founded during the 14th century and then enlarged during the 15th. Since then, many ceremonies have taken place there, including, most recently, Prince Harry’s wedding and Queen Elizabeth II’s burial.
Travelling by train is easy, with multiple train lines feeding into Windsor station. At the same time, by car, it is accessible via the motorway, although be warned that parking is at a premium.
Accommodation near Windsor Castle
Many are easily confused by the name of Leeds Castle because it is situated not in Leeds as you might expect but further south in Kent. This castle, built more than 900 years ago, is often referred to as one of the most romantic castles in England to visit and was once the Tudor Palace of Henry VIII.
Originally a wooden castle built during the Saxon age and situated in the middle of the River Len, the current structure and its 500 acres of parkland have been standing since 1119. Over time, not only has it been home to arguably the most famous monarch in British history and a Norman stronghold, but seven queens were lucky enough to call this castle home. It was then purchased by American Heiress Lady Baillie, who turned it into an elegant retreat for the rich and famous.
Today, as you step through the gates of Leeds Castle and straight into the extensive grounds bursting with wildlife and beautifully manicured gardens, you will get your first sightings of one of the best castles in England.
Enter the castle and be transported back into the 1930s to a time when Hollywood stars and society’s elite would have partied before heading back outside to tackle the challenging maze and its underground grotto with mythical beasts. There are also Spectacular Bird of Prey displays to watch, mini golf to play, and train and ferry rides to take.
In the summer months, families descend for picnics in the park and to watch the jousting tournaments that take place, while during the winter months, you will find murder mysteries playing out here and festive parties taking place.
The closest train station to Leeds Castle can be found at Bearsted, which runs a shuttle service directly to the gate during the summer months, while during the winter, you can pick up a private transfer from the same location. By car, it is just 7 miles from Maidstone, and parking is included in the price of your entrance ticket.
Accommodation near Leeds Castle
Perhaps the best-preserved castle in the Midlands, Warwick Castle, can be found on a bend on the River Avon. It was originally a wooden castle rebuilt in stone during the 12th century and was refortified during the Hundred Years War. Originally founded by William the Conqueror, the castle has had many different visitors over time, including Royalty, knights, nobles, politicians, and, if some are to be believed, ghosts.
During the 17th century, Warwick Castle was gifted by King James I to the Greville family and was involved in the gunpowder plot involving Guy Fawkes to overthrow the same king. During this time, the castle grew in size, adding state dining rooms, a conservatory, and the 64 acres of garden that can still be explored today. The last of the Grenville family, Charles Guy, also a Hollywood movie star, sold Warwick in 1978 to the Tussauds Group, who restored it and opened it for the public to explore.
After extensive restoration, inside the castle, you can wander around the Great Hall, the staterooms, the bedrooms, and the library experiencing centuries of history as you go. Then climb the 600 steps to the castle walls and walk along the narrow ramparts to explore the towers.
Unlike some, what stands out at Warwick Castle is the complete immersion you will experience, which perhaps makes it the best castle to visit in England. Visiting could see your day crammed full of shows, including one that relives the War of the Roses and a falconry show, before heading off to learn more about bowmanship and jousting.
Remember to also head down to the castle dungeons, where actors recreate what life would have been like had they been sentenced to incarceration there. Finally, don’t forget to take on the Horrible Histories Adventure Maze, where you will face a series of challenges, including invading a Viking ship, surviving the trenches, and uncovering treacherous plots.
If driving, the castle is well signposted and is less than two miles from junction 15 on the M40, where there are three car parks to choose from. For those with mobility issues, it is essential to note that the car parks are a fair distance away, and therefore it may be worthwhile using the drop-off zone. The train station is roughly a mile away, where you can pick up a bus that will pass close to the entrance.
Accommodation near Warwick Castle
Downton Abbey fans will recognise Highclere Castle as it is a favourite filming location for the popular show. Located in Berkshire and designed during the 19th century by Sir Charles Barry, the same architect behind the Houses of Parliament, this castle is home to the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, whose family have lived here since 1679.
Unlike other castles, you need to book in advance because it is still inhabited. However, don’t let that put you off. During your visit, you will still get to explore many of the 250-300 rooms, some of which were used during the filming of Downtown Abbey, as well as the cellars and the staff quarters. There is also an Egyptian exhibition that celebrates the fact that the 5th Earl of Carnarvon played a role in the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb.
Outside there are a 1000 acres of garden dating back to the 13th century, with some designed by Capability Brown. There are various monuments to visit, including Jackdaw’s Castle, an Etruscan Temple, and the Temple of Diana, set within the parkland. At the same time, you can also explore the original monks’ garden, the wood of goodwill, the rose arbour, and the wildflower meadow.
On top of that, before visiting, why not listen to one of Lady Carnarvon’s podcasts, read one of her books or explore her blog to learn even more about Highclere. How many other castles in the UK can boast about having their very own in-house narrator?
If driving to Highclere Castle, it is best to avoid using your sat nav and instead follow the brown tourist signs to the main entrance, while the closest train station is at Newbury, which is around a 15-minute taxi ride away.
Accommodation near Highclere Castle
Located on the Northumberland coast overlooking the beach and the North Sea, Bamburgh Castle was once an Anglo-Saxon citadel that also acted as a royal palace and remains to this day, one of the largest inhabited castles in England.
Looking at the history books, Bamburgh is also one of the oldest castles in England, dating back to 420 AD. However, the one standing today dates back to the Victorian Era, the original falling during the War of the Roses, making it the first castle in the world to fall to gunpowder.
There is still plenty to see inside, with 14 rooms, an 18th-century whinstone windmill, a 12th-century keep, and a constable’s tower. Once you have strolled around the structure, head to the Artifacts museum, home to a vast display of weapons, armour, furniture, and artwork from across the ages. You can also participate in the archeological dig, which is still underway, hoping they will discover more about the rich history of such an old site.
You may also recognise the outside of the castle with its striking silhouette of turrets rising up upon what was once a Celtic Fort, as it was featured in ‘The Last Kingdom,’ with filming taking place on Bamburgh beach with the castle in the background.
The best way to approach Bamburgh Castle if travelling via road is along the coastal road (B1340) to maximise the stunning views of the castle overlooking the beach. There is a good bus service for those using public transport in both summer and winter.
Accommodation near Bamburgh Castle
Arundel Castle in West Sussex, built in 1067, is another one still inhabited today. Unfortunately, the original structure was severely damaged during the first civil war and therefore has undergone extensive restoration. However, the Norman Keep, medieval Gatehouse, and Barbican remain, making it one of the most impressive castles in England to look at from the outside.
Once owned by the Dukes of Norfolk and under the control of the Crown for many years, Arundel Castle was one of the first to get both electricity and heating. Today it is still home to many commissioned pieces of furniture and artwork designed in honour of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who visited in 1846.
Set on 40 acres overlooking the River Arun, you can now explore the wonderful walled gardens with its quirky stumpery, glasshouses, and organic kitchen garden. Its staterooms are richly decorated and full of art, china, sculptures, carvings, the extensive Regency library, the Baron’s Hall, and the Drawing room. You also have the freedom to visit the Fitzalan Chapel, where the Parliamentarians keep their horses during the civil war, or take a tour of the moat with a medieval crusader.
If travelling by road, head for the Mill Road car park directly opposite the castle gates, while Arundel train station is just a 10-minute walk away and has regular service throughout the day.
Accommodation near Arundel Castle
Located in Northumberland, Alnwick Castle is the second largest inhabited castle in the UK. It will be recognised by anyone familiar with the Harry Potter films, as well as Transformers: The Last Knight, Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, and Black Adder.
Owned by the Percy Family for nearly 700 years, originally erected to guard the River Aln and playing a significant role in the border wars between Scotland and England, this castle has been a military outpost and a teaching college. It remains to this day, someone’s home.
What was once a motte-and-bailey castle is now a mighty border fortress with towers and shelters for soldiers on guard, not one but two gatehouses front and rear, two colossal towers all encased in well-preserved walls. Inside is no less impressive, with palatial rooms decorated in the finest materials – silk wall hangings, paintings from the Old Masters, and the best Italian carvings. There is also a Fusiliers Museum exploring the regiment’s history in Northumberland and a castle museum focusing on the collections of the Percy family.
However, one of the real draws in recent years has been the broomstick lessons on offer in the castle grounds for any budding wizards wanting to follow in the footsteps of Harry Potter. It was at Alnwick Castle where Harry learnt how to fly his broomstick and later went on to play the now-famous game of Quidditch.
Easily accessible from the A1 for anyone driving, the car park is shared between Alnwick Castle and Alnwick Gardens. At the same time, the train stops at Alnmouth Station, about ten minutes away, in a taxi, and buses frequently run into the town, which takes roughly five minutes to walk to the entrance.
Accommodation near Alnwick Castle
Rising up from the white cliffs on the English Channel, Dover Castle was built shortly after the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Referred to as the Key to England, it is one of the most famous castles in England and has played a crucial part in supporting and defending the country for thousands of years.
Holding the title as the largest castle in England, 50 percent bigger than Windsor, Dover Castle has withstood many sieges, became a strategic military headquarters during World War I, housed an underground hospital for injured soldiers, and is home to several secret tunnels designed for escape if needed. Moving forward to World War II and once again, it became operational, this time as an evacuation centre for the thousands rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk.
Dover Castle sits imposingly on the hills overlooking the town and across the water. The walls and towers are still fully intact, surrounded by massive earthworks, ditches, and mounds. Visiting today, you can still climb the Great Tower, full of vibrant colour and rich furnishings, and explore the underground tunnels, the old operating rooms, and what would have been the recovery wards.
Whether travelling via bus or train, both frequently arrive in the town about a mile away. In contrast, for those travelling by road, you will find a large, free car park, although if you have a larger vehicle, you should park in town and wander up to the entrance.
Accommodation near Dover Castle
While Bodiam Castle in East Sussex is smaller than some, this 14th-century moated building is one of the prettiest castles in the UK. Built by Edward III, a former soldier, this Quadrangular castle, with its imposing towers and portcullis, still has a drawbridge to walk across to the main gatehouse full of murder holes.
Unfortunately, although the exterior remains intact, most of the interior is now in ruins. However, you can still climb spiral staircases to the top of the towers, sit on the dais or look at the iron-clad oak portcullis, considered the oldest in England. You can also still see the floorplans for the Great Hall, the courtyard, the kitchen, the private apartments, and the chapel.
Once you have finished exploring, Bodiam Castle also has its own tearoom, cafe, and second-hand bookshop.
To add to the romance of this castle, if you are travelling in the high of season, you can travel on a steam train from Tenterden to Bodiam Station, while there is a bus stop right outside the entrance next to the car park for those travelling by car.
Accommodation near Bodiam Castle
Sitting high above the village of Corfe, Corfe Castle is sadly now mostly in ruins. Surrounded by Bronze Age burial grounds, the entrance to what would have been the main castle is across a stone drawbridge that now spans a dry moat.
Another castle established by William the Conqueror, Corfe Castle on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset, was at one time where King John kept his crown jewels and remained in the Crown’s control until 1572 when Elizabeth I sold it to Sir Christopher Hatton.
Later it was sold to Sir John Bankes, who owned it during the civil war, and it was during this time that the castle lost its own battle. By order of Parliament in 1646, Corfe Castle was destroyed to prevent it from ever being used further as a military stronghold. As a result, we are left with a crumbling monument, and legend has it that if the ravens that nestle at the castle were ever to leave, the building would completely crumble.
In the summer months, the roads get extremely busy, and parking is limited, so it may be best to travel by train to Wareham, where you can pick up a bus, or to Swanage, where you can travel by steam on the Heritage Railway. If you need to travel via car, consider using the Park and Ride at Purbeck and catch the bus that runs right through the village.
Accommodation near Corfe Castle
Located in the Suffolk town of the same name, Framlingham Castle has some of the highest defence walls of any castle in the UK. Before the masterpiece that you see today, a simple motte-and-bailey structure once stood on the same site, but Henry II destroyed that.
During the 12th century, Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, created a formidable fort of thirteen towers, which is the castle that remains today. After this period, it swapped hands several times until 1552, when Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII, inherited it. It was at Framlingham Castle where Mary was proclaimed Queen of England. Sadly after her death, her sister Elizabeth I turned the castle into a prison and was later used as a workhouse for the poor.
Today you can wander around the parklands, visit the historic workhouse or take in the breathtaking wall walk, which sits 10.5 metres high and is the same wall Queen Mary herself walked.
If you decide to visit, bear in mind that the onsite car park will only hold around 30 cars, and therefore you may need to find parking in Framlingham itself; a quaint little market town also worth exploring. The closest train station is Wickham Market, which is about 6 miles away, although a frequent bus service will take you into the town.
Accommodation near Framlingham Castle
Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire, this Stuart Mansion, sitting high on the hill overlooking the Vale of Scarsdale, is an impressive sight. Newer than some castles in England, Bolsover Castle was built in the 17th century as a fashionable retreat for those of influence.
Today you can wander around the lavish rooms with their carved marble fireplaces and ornately painted ceilings, sit on the reproduction furniture, open the cabinets to discover more of Bolsover’s secrets, and enjoy the areas where the rich would have once relaxed and partied.
Outside you can now walk the restored walls, looking out over the landscape or down into the fountain garden home to the statue of Venus rising out of the ground and explore the extensive gardens that are home to more than 5,000 plants, flowers, and fruit trees.
Parking at Bolsover Castle is free, as are all the car parks in town, while the closest train station is at Chesterfield, 6 miles away, but all buses pass close to the entrance.
Accommodation near Bolsover Castle
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