Top Castles of the British Isles

by J. M. Pressley
First published: August 26, 2008

The British Isles are home to many magnificent castles. If you're visiting, don't miss the top attractions among them.

Castles stand as monuments to a time when a king's reign was only as long as his military's reach. The British Isles are practically littered with them, a testament to the often violent history that gave birth to a unified Great Britain. As the Normans conquered England—and England later battled its neighbors—castles served as homes, fortresses, even symbols of oppression all at once.

Some are little more now than tumbled stone ruins. Some are preserved, remaining as manor residences to this day. Their evolution from wooden motte-and-bailey structures to towering stone bastions spanned centuries. The advent of gunpowder may have doomed the castle's military preeminence, but it couldn't erase them from history. Here are some of the most impressive castles worth seeing in Great Britain.

The Tower of London

The notorious Tower of London is one of the most recognizable structures of the city. Its central White Tower was one of William the Conqueror's first fortresses built to assert his authority over the city's population. Further expansion projects through the fourteenth century created the sprawling, walled fortress we see today. The bloody history of the Tower is legendary; it's a stronghold more renowned as a prison than a palace. The murders and executions that occurred over the centuries have given it a grisly reputation, but the Tower has also in its history served as home to the Royal Mint, Office of Ordnance, Records Office, and the repository of the Crown Jewels. The Tower first became a major tourist attraction during the Victorian era, although it briefly returned to use as a state prison during both World Wars. Today, the Tower of London is a World Heritage Site that annually receives over 2,000,000 visitors.

Warwick Castle

Warwick Castle has loomed over the river Avon on its sandstone precipice since the eleventh century. It first served as a defense against Danish invasion. The castle is the ancestral home to the Earls of Warwick; the Beaumont, Beauchamp, and Greville families are the most prominent in the castle's rich but turbulent history. After the castle fell into disrepair in the seventeenth century, subsequent generations of owners performed extensive landscaping and renovations, including repairs from an 1871 fire that gutted the Great Hall. Today, Warwick is recognized as one of the most well-preserved castles in England and perennially makes the list of top tourist attractions in Britain.

Caernarfon Castle

Following his conquest of Wales in 1283, King Edward I began a series of castles meant to impose his will upon the independent-minded principality. Caernarfon was selected for its commanding position at the juncture of the River Seiont and the Menai Strait. Although it took four decades and an exorbitant £22,000 to build, the castle was never completely finished. Even so, it is an architectural masterpiece of castle design, inspired in part by the city of Constantinople. Edward's son was born in Caernarfon, where he was the first English crown prince to be invested as Prince of Wales. It is a World Heritage Site and home to the Royal Welch Fusiliers museum.

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle towers above the city below, perched atop its basalt crag. The castle has been a symbol of Scottish royalty since the eleventh century. As such, it has also borne the brunt of many assaults over its history. Much of the current structure dates to rebuilding efforts of the 1500s, although the site houses St. Margaret's Chapel, which dates from the twelfth century, making it the oldest building of any kind in Edinburgh. Scotland's most prized national treasures are kept at the castle, including the Stone of Scone (returned from England in 1996), upon which Scottish monarchs were crowned. With over a million visitors each year, it's one of Scotland's top tourist attractions.

Dover Castle

Hovering above the White Cliffs, Dover Castle has been the site of fortifications since Anglo-Saxon times. As with many English castles, it was refurbished and expanded as part of William the Conqueror's reign. The castle standing today is largely the rebuilding effort of Henry II in the twelfth century. The site's location on the English Channel made it a strategic point of defense well into the twentieth century. In addition to the castle structure, the cliffs hide a complex series of tunnels built originally as barracks during the Napoleonic Wars. Those tunnels would later be commandeered and refurbished as a military command post during World War II; it was from here that the British directed the evacuation of Dunkirk. Now owned by the cultural agency English Heritage, the castle grounds and tunnels are major attractions of southeast England.

Cahir Castle

Cahir is widely acknowledged as one of the largest, best preserved castles in all of Ireland. Originally built on a rocky isle in the middle of the river Suir, the castle controlled the river's boat traffic between Limerick and Waterford. Despite a 10-day artillery siege in 1599 and a couple of centuries of disrepair, much of the castle remains not only intact but in surprisingly good shape. Cahir remained in the nearly uninterrupted possession of its ancestral Butler clan until 1961, when it became the property of the state. While less famous than Blarney Castle to the south, Cahir is arguably more impressive and still a top Irish tourist destination in its own right.

Windsor Castle

Windsor originated nine centuries ago as a wooden palisade fortifying a plateau that overlooked the Thames. It was part of the building program of William the Conqueror to maintain control over the Anglo-Saxon populace. Later kings rebuilt it in stone in the 1100s, and practically the entire structure was demolished and redone in the 1300s by Edward III. Further extensive restoration work occurred in the reign of George IV. The castle stands today as both the largest occupied castle and oldest royal residence in the world. It is the principal weekend residence of Queen Elizabeth. In addition to the magnificent fortifications, Windsor is the home to St. George's Chapel, one of the finest examples of medieval churches in the land. The chapel, which is home to the Knights of the Garter, contains the tomb of Henry VIII and nine other English monarchs.


Best Castles—England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales: The Essential Guide for Visiting and Enjoying (Various Authors, 2006), Guide to Castles of Europe