Did you know there are over 2000 castles in Scotland, with some estimates as high as 4000? The exact number is as heavily debated as the exact definition of a “castle” itself, but what is not up for debate is the fairytale-like beauty of these historic treasures.
With so many Scottish castles to choose from, it can be a bit overwhelming to try and decide which are worth a visit. To help you plan your travels to the United Kingdom’s northern gem, I have compiled a list of the top 20 best castles in Scotland to include on your itinerary, along with a map of their locations.
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Best Castles in Scotland #1: Dunalastair Castle
The abandoned Dunalastair Castle claims the title as the best castle in Scotland! It is also one of the least-known castles in Scotland, which adds to its appeal and makes it a true hidden gem.
While it is now derelict and in disrepair, this is precisely what makes it such a unique, beautiful relic. The olde castle skeleton is now entrenched in nature, with trees literally growing right out of it. Our visit was during peak Autumn foliage, creating an incredible juxtaposition of vibrant, colourful nature and run-down, decrepit remains. It also set an amazing stage for some spooky photos after dark.
To access Dunalastair Castle, you will need to find parking and walk there from the road. Please note that this requires walking up a private drive that is open to pedestrian traffic only. The closest parking available is about a half-mile east of the driveway and is a roadside layby large enough for 5-7 cars.
Best Castles in Scotland #2: Eilean Donan Castle
In stark contrast to the relatively unknown Dunalastair Castle, the silver medal for the best castle in Scotland goes to Eilean Donan Castle; perhaps the most photographed castle in the entire country!
Any visitor planning to drive to the Isle of Skye will want to ensure Eilean Donan is on their itinerary. This 13th-century treasure resides only 15 minutes from the Skye Bridge, making it a natural stop for most road trip routes.
Parking is plentiful but can still fill up in the summer months during peak hours. Entry to the castle itself is £10 per adult but it was free to roam the grounds before 8am and after 5pm when we visited in the fall.
The picturesque castle you see today has actually been rebuilt, but was done so primarily using the original materials and aesthetic to keep its spirit intact.
Eilean Donan features a visitor centre, cafe, and restroom facilities, which was a surprising rarity in much of Scotland! However, the toilets are only available during castle opening hours.
READ MORE: Visting the Isle of Skye from Edinburgh
Best Castles in Scotland #3: Kilchurn Castle
Kilchurn Castle is not the most impressive in and of itself, but the stunning scenery that surrounds these old castle ruins pushes it near the top of this list. Set majestically against Loch Awe, photographers will discover a unique mood each time they visit. While Kilchurn Castle is little more than old rubble at this point, the way it seems to exude enchantment in all weather, light, and conditions makes it one of the best castles in Scotland.
Parking for Kilchurn is plentiful and free, though there are no restroom facilities available. The walk from the car park to the castle is about 10-15 minutes, but many visitors prefer the view from across the loch. For these views, simply drive to the far side of Loch Awe and park in any one of the numerous laybys available.
Best Castles in Scotland #4: Glenapp Castle
What makes Glenapp Castle so special is the experience it offers beyond beautiful photos.
While researching castles you can stay at in Scotland, I came across Glenapp and instantly fell in love. The exterior looks like something out of a Disney movie, which is impressive enough, but it really set itself apart on the interior. The castle feels old and historic, but somehow comfortable and homely as well.
For more on that plus photos of the interior, I’ve written this blog detailing my unforgettable experience at the amazing Glenapp Castle.
If you have the time and budget, I highly recommend staying at least one night at Glenapp Castle. Even if you are not able to stay, it is worth stopping in for an afternoon tea. This will allow you to experience one of the best castles in all of Scotland while enjoying the best coffee and scones I have had in all of the UK!
READ MORE: An Unforgettable Night in a Scottish Castle
Best Castles in Scotland #5: Inveraray Castle and Gardens
You will catch your first view of the beautiful Inveraray Castle as you cross the old bridge into town. It is the absolutely picture-perfect, postcard castle you may imagine as you close your eyes and daydream of Scottish castles.
Parking is plentiful for vehicles of any size and only £3 per vehicle, but this does not cover access to the inside of the castle, nor its amazing gardens. Still, the view from the front is very impressive and you can always catch a glimpse of the gardens with the castle as a backdrop by looking through the gate on your way up the drive. If you do want to enter the castle and gardens, it is £12.50 per adult if you pay on arrival or £11.50 if you book tickets in advance online. The ticket price includes parking.
There will be restrooms, a gift shop, and a cafe available even to non-paying visitors, as well as a herd of highland cows!! Take some time to walk around the property, visit Scotland’s iconic, hairy cattle, and at the very least be sure to stop and snap some quick shots from the outside!
Best Castles in Scotland #6: Craigievar Castle
Perhaps the most unique castle on the list is the pink, highly Instagrammable Craigievar Castle. This looks much less regal and majestic than the others you’ve read about so far, with more of a Grimms Fairy Tales vibe to it. Though I don’t exactly see the resemblance, it is rumoured that Craigievar Castle was the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Cinderella castle!
Craigievar Castle is a National Trust for Scotland site. There is plenty of metered parking and bathroom facilities available year-round, and access to the castle is available for £13 during open hours. We did not enter the castle, but explored the grounds thoroughly and enjoyed the autumn colours here.
While we did not need more than an hour or two to explore, those who would like to stay overnight can do so in one of the on-site holiday cottages.
Pro tip: If you’re planning on visiting several National Trust for Scotland sites (there’s 3 in this guide alone!) then it’s worth considering an annual membership. At the time of writing (Nov. 2019), this costs £60 for an individual or £102 for a couple. This grants you free entry and parking at their sites not only in Scotland but worldwide. And it’s cheaper than the annual membership for the National Trust for England, Wales and Northern Ireland if you’re travelling around the UK!
READ MORE: The ULTIMATE Scotland Road Trip Itinerary
Best Castles in Scotland #7: Dunvegan Castle and Gardens
If you are on the Isle of Skye and planning a visit to Neist Point, Dunvegan Castle will be a natural stop on your route. The best photos come when the water is high and calm, creating a beautiful reflection of the castle and scenery from across the moat. Sadly, neither of these conditions aligned for us, but the grandeur and scale of Dunvegan Castle still rank it high on our list. In fact, so much so that we included it in our Top 10 Isle of Skye Photography Destinations!
When you arrive, there is a large parking lot available that is free of charge. Unlike most castles, you will not be able to see Dunvegan Castle and Gardens at all without paying £14 entry per adult. The entire estate is gated off, meaning the only way to enjoy the grounds or snap off any photos of the castle is during open hours and by paying at the gate.
Best Castles in Scotland #8: Brodie Castle
After looking at photos of Brodie Castle on Google Images, we almost skipped this one altogether. It looked blocky, generic, and lacking character. And yet, here it is at the 8th spot on our list of the best castles in Scotland! While Brodie Castle may not be the flashiest, it has a certain charm and quirkiness that translates well to photos.
When we arrived using Google Maps, we were directed via some strange backroads that brought us to the rear of the castle. There is a main parking lot at the front, but this rear entrance allowed us to pull right out in front of the castle; this accessibility is partially why we loved it so much. We visited after 5pm, at which point the castle itself was closed but the grounds were still open for exploring.
Brodie Castle is a Scottish National Trust site and has tours available, with castle entry listed at £11 per adult. In the spring, over 100 varieties of daffodil take over the scene and fill it with colour!
While it may not rank this high on most visitors’ list, there was something I just loved about how quiet and preserved Brodie Castle proved to be.
Best Castles in Scotland #9: Balmoral Castle
A popular destination for the Queen, Balmoral Castle is perhaps the prettiest castle in all of Scotland. The grounds are immaculate, the setting pristine, and the castle itself is straight out of a storybook. So why is it so low on our list? Well, because we never got to see it!
When Queen Elizabeth II is residing in Balmoral, no visitors are allowed, which makes experiencing the castle a bit tricky. Beyond that, the days that tours are available are very limited! Basically, Balmoral is perhaps the best castle in Scotland for those who are able to navigate its many barriers for entry, but the worst for those of us who are not so fortunate. For this reason, it slipped a bit on our list.
If you would like to see Balmoral Castle, be sure to plan ahead! Visit their website and book your tickets in advance, if possible!
Best Castles in Scotland #10: Edinburgh Castle
This castle is possibly the most famous of all; the one and only Edinburgh Castle!
You will see this impressive castle from all around the city, which is why I loved it so much. While difficult to capture from up close, I love how many city backdrops include Edinburgh Castle in the distance. Take a day to simply walk around the city, especially the Grassmarket and Royal Mile regions, if you have one to spare!
My favourite photo of the castle was taken near Grassmarket at a place called The Vennel. I would love to get a night photo from here but sadly was not able to stick around long enough on this first visit.
The castle is open from 9:30am-5pm, but last entry is at 4pm. Tickets are £17.50 per adult, which was enough to price me out, but those with an interest in history would likely find that price a steal considering how much it has to offer.
Best Castles in Scotland #11: Kincardine Castle
Realistically, this little-known gem should likely be a lot higher on my list. We only happened upon it by accident as it is kept a bit under the radar, but Kincardine Castle is spectacular.
While it is a prominent venue for weddings and special events during peak season, the castle is actually a full-time home to Andrew and Nicola Bradford. Because it is their home, Kincardine Castle is not open to casual visitors. While you cannot explore the home or grounds, you can park in town and walk up the long private road to view the castle from the front yard, as seen here.
We actually had the good fortune of meeting Mr. Bradford while shooting, who was gracious enough to engage us in polite conversation while letting us know we had gone past the public access limits. This is something they undoubtedly must deal with all the time, so please be mindful of the signage, stick to the road, and absolutely do not attempt to picnic on the poor guy’s front yard (yes – apparently people have done that in the past!).
If you would like to arrange a visit or event, you can do so via the Kincardine Castle website.
Best Castles in Scotland #12: Dunnottar Castle
Dunnottar Castle is set majestically on the eastern coastline, providing one awesome photo op… or so it looks. Sadly, we found our time running short and did not make it to this famous castle as it was simply too big a detour to make the drive.
Despite never having seen it for myself, I felt I had to include it on the Top 20 list of Scottish castles because it is many locals’ favourite castle in all of Scotland.
Best Castles in Scotland #13: Castle Fraser
As you can see, Castle Fraser is among the prettiest castles in Scotland. At 13th place, it’s still among the best castles in the country, but it would rank higher on my list if the setting surrounding it was just a bit more idyllic. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of greenery and farmland, but I had to deduct just a couple points because it felt slightly sparse.
Castle Fraser is a National Trust for Scotland site, so you will find facilities here. Admission of the interior is offered for £12 per adult, though they have some strange seasonal hours that you will want to check prior to visiting. Parking is plentiful but metered as well.
The castle grounds has a few extras, including a play area for the kids, free gardens, and some nature trails that promised red squirrels and deer… a promise, sadly, that was not kept.
Best Castles in Scotland #14: Urquhart Castle
I found Urquhart Castle to be a bit disappointing, but still one of the best castles Scotland. It is located right on Loch Ness, which provides a gorgeous scene to complement the castle ruins. The disappointing part of my visit was in the difficulty of capturing decent photographs. Because the castle is quite run-down, finding good angles that made it clear you were seeing a castle was challenging.
You will not be able to see Urquhart Castle at all without paying for entry, which is reasonable at £12 per person, especially for history buffs. There is some very rich heritage to this site, which has seen its share of battles. Unfortunately, those battles have left ruins that hardly resemble a castle at all these days. Were it not for this, Urquhart Castle would be much higher on the list.
Best Castles in Scotland #15: Atholl Palace
Despite all of our research prior to the trip, Atholl Palace was not even on my radar. In fact, I only became aware of it when driving back to Edinburgh, seeing it from the dual carriageway and wondering how on Earth this stunning palace wasn’t on the itinerary.
While, technically, it’s not a castle, I felt it was just too beautiful to be excluded from this list!
My favourite view of Atholl Palace is actually from the side of the road, however, this shot took some effort. There is only one layby in the area and it is about half a mile before you will even see the castle. From there, you will have to walk on the side of the motorway, where a small path already exists.
It looks like a beautiful hotel to stay in. However, if you’re just passing by there is also a museum that you can visit. While we’ve not visited the palace ourselves, judging by its exterior from a distance, it certainly looks impressive enough to make the trip to!
Best Castles in Scotland #16: Stirling Castle
Coming in at the 16 spot for best castles in Scotland is the iconic Stirling Castle; a true castle on the hill!
There are a few vantage points around the city of Stirling that offer nice, clear views of the castle. As a photographer, however, I was looking for a view that showed its grandiose stature as the crown jewel of the city… I found such shots on Google, but due to the large motorhome we were touring in, I was limited with my inner-city access and never quite found THAT shot.
*I suspect the best view is from Wallace Monument, but only discovered this after leaving.*
Best Castles in Scotland #17: Linlithgow Palace
Some of the critics will take issue with a palace making it on the Top 20 Castles in Scotland list, but I found it to be just too beautiful not to make an appearance.
If you’re wondering, the difference between a castle and a palace is only that a palace is not fortified.
Linlithgow Palace was my first stop after leaving Edinburgh. It was another one that hadn’t made it onto my original itinerary, but as I drove by and saw it from the road, it looked just too regal on the far side of the loch not to stop.
There is a large trail around the loch that provides a variety of views looking back at the palace. You can also enter the building, if you desire, for a small fee.
READ MORE: Top 15 Castles near London
Best Castles in Scotland #18: Cawdor Castle
Much like Kincardine Castle, Cawdor Castle is a home and residence whose owners limit castle visits. However, they have made tours available of their home and impressive gardens during the summer months. From April – September, it is open 7 days a week and costs £13.50 for entry.
The castle itself is beautiful, but the impressive gardens may be the highlight, as is its remote location. If you are passing through the area during the summer, it is definitely worth adding Cawdor Castle to your itinerary.
Best Castles in Scotland #19: Braemar Castle
Braemar Castle was the most disappointing of the castles that had made my list. Its interesting design and reputation as the home of the Scottish Braemar Games had me excited for my visit, but after seeing it in person I was left a bit wanting.
Most of the castles that rank high on this list are either picturesque, fairytale castles, located in an idyllic setting, or both. Braemar slipped down near the bottom because the grounds are fairly barren and the castle itself was just less impressive than I’d hoped.
Still, in a country that boasts somewhere between 2000-4000 castles, claiming the #19 spot isn’t too bad!
Best Castles in Scotland #20: Inverness Castle
Rounding out the Top 20 Best Castles in Scotland list is the iconic Inverness Castle. Located in the heart of the “capital of the Highlands”, Inverness Castle is a well-maintained symbol of pride for local residents.
There is a gorgeous walk along the River Ness that Inverness Castle sits upon. This easy stroll takes you through gorgeous fall colours and offers unobstructed views of the castle; I highly recommended it.
The real reason Inverness Castle is not higher on the list is that it looked more like an old university than a castle, and only looks regal from a few select angles.
If you wish to enter the castle, you will be limited to the north tower, but you are free to roam the grounds if you like.
Map of the best castles in Scotland
Final thoughts on the best Scottish castles
No trip to Scotland would be complete without a trip to at least some of the best castles in Scotland. The country is steeped in rich history and visiting one (or many!) of the castles can help give you a real insight into the past.
These iconic landmarks are also incredibly photogenic and have definitely made for some of my favourite photos from our Scotland road trip. So whether you’re interested in history or just a pretty picture, these top 20 castles in Scotland should not be missed!
Have some castles you think I missed? Please leave them in the comments below!
Don’t forget to check out our other Scotland blogs to help you plan the best Scottish vacation:
- The ULTIMATE Scotland Road Trip Itinerary
- Tour from Edinburgh to the Isle of Skye
- Top 10 Isle of Skye Photography Locations
- An Unforgettable Overnight Stay at Glenapp Castle