We know the allure to travel in summer can be strong. The promise of cloudless skies, the fragrant smell of sunscreen, the bliss of not having to carry an umbrella or jacket everywhere you go. While the UK and Ireland might not be the first places you think of when you think of as ideal ‘summer beach destinations’ (you’re definitely mistaken there), you might be surprised by how many people love another season almost more than summer.
A season that brushes a warm pallet of pumpkin orange and eggplant purple over the landscape. A season that lures you inside pubs for a cider by the recently lit hearth. The perfect season to finally invest in some of that iconic Scottish tartan, wrapping a scarf snuggly around your neck. Just enough to take the chill off.
We adore autumn here in the UK and Ireland. And we think it’s one of the best times to visit our vibrant cities and far-reaching landscapes hugged by mustard yellow and olive green.
Many know the UK as the land of castles, both magnificent and ruinous. These aged structures decorate our glens, our seaside cliffs, and even our cities, a constant reminder of our proud, dramatic, and often bloody histories.
And autumn is the perfect time to see them. Not just because of the fewer crowds, but because we think castles were created to pair with autumn. In winter, their grey facades often blend into the snow-covered surroundings. In summer, the beam of sunshine on such a steely façade seems somewhat out of place. But autumn? She was made to draw attention to our castles.
If castles are what drew you here to the UK and Ireland, are you sure you know where to start? There are thousands of castles across the UK, 600 in Wales alone. So we thought we’d help you out a little and narrow down some of our favourite castles to travel to in autumn, many of which we visit on our tours in the UK and Ireland.
Let’s start with our friends in the north... of Ireland. Many visit Northern Ireland to see its incredible landscapes, from the volcanic Giant’s Causeway to the eerie Dark Hedges. Some want to spend all their time in vibrant cities, like the capital Belfast, rich in maritime history and a bustling cultural scene. Others want to learn more about the decades-long conflict known as “The Troubles”. And some simply want to visit the ancient and unfathomable structures that dot the landscapes.
And we can’t look past Castle Ward.
Castle Ward has belonged to the Ward family since the 16th century, sitting on 332 hectares of gorgeously landscaped gardens. But the mansion itself is a strange mix of styles. Lord Bangor and his wife, Lady Ann Bligh couldn’t agree on one particular look, so they comprised. One face of the mansion is in a classical Palladian style, while the opposite face is done in a Georgian Gothic style. An oddity, to be sure! And surrounded by warm autumn tones, Castle Ward makes a striking first impression.
And like any good and proud estate, its beauty extends beyond the building itself. The surrounding gardens teem with woodland trails and stop-and-stare kind of views over Strangford Lough.
That’s before you even find the Old Castle Ward. This tower house and its accompanying farmyard sit on the grand estate. You may stop and stare for a moment, trying to recall why it looks so familiar. Well, this location was used throughout many vital scenes in the popular TV show Game of Thrones, standing in for part of the ancestral home of House Stark, Winterfell.
And visiting in autumn opens up a range of fun Halloween-themed, family-friendly events that are open to the public, such as the All Hallow’s Eve Spooky Trail.
We visit Castle Ward on our 3-day Discover Northern Ireland tour from Dublin.
While you’re traversing around this beautiful landscape, why not head a little further south and visit the rest of Ireland? It was rather difficult narrowing down our favourite castles here, but we managed it (just), if only to save time and room for the rest of our recommendations later on!
Full of superstitions and remarkable history, Blarney Castle draws countless visitors each season. Back in the 15th century, Cormac MacCarthy, the King of Minster, commissioned its construction. Ever since then, it has been doused in dramatic history, including two besiegements during the English Civil War.
During your visit, if you happen to see people hanging upside down, desperately trying to kiss a stone... don’t be alarmed. That’s perfectly normal for Blarney Castle. Legend has it that the Blarney Stone will give the “gift of the gab” to those who kiss it. Though it’s part of the battlements and a bit challenging to reach, so it’s not for the faint of heart.
After you’ve received your new and well-earned gift, take a wander around the lusciously vibrant autumn-hued gardens. You might continue tempting fate and visit the Poison Garden, created to educate visitors on a variety of poisonous plants that are found both in the wild and perhaps in your very own garden. Tread carefully here folks. Unlike the stone, we don’t recommend any kissing or touching of any kind in here *gulp*.
If that’s not your thing, try the Fern Garden or Bog Garden. Or perhaps you’ll hunt down the castle’s dungeon, affectionately known as “Oblivion”, where prisoners were once held. The entrance is now sealed off... so who knows what’s inside. Tis the spooky season, after all.
So join us this Halloween and visit Blarney Castle on our 3-day Blarney Castle, Kilkenny & Irish Whiskey tour or our 9-day All Ireland Explorer tour.
Going even further back in time now, we head to the impressive 12th-century Norman castle that the city of Kilkenny is proud to call its own. Having undergone a range of renovations and expansions over the centuries, Kilkenny Castle is a wonderful mix of Gothic and Victorian architectural styles.
If it’s not the history you’re coming for, enjoy the views of this magnificent structure from the castle’s gardens and parklands. Brushed by autumn, a crisp hint of winter in the air, your breath perhaps billowing before you, you can wander along the River Nore and revel in the fact that you are in Ireland, exploring one of its most important castles. Life can be pretty grand sometimes, can’t it?
What we love about autumn is that it’s the perfect time to settle in for a good story. And you’ll find plenty of those at Kilkenny Castle. You’ll also have your pick of events, if that’s your thing. The castle runs everything from traditional folklore and song workshops to musical concerts.
We’d love to show you the way to this beautiful castle, say on our 3-day Blarney Castle, Kilkenny & Irish Whiskey tour? Or perhaps our 5-day Escape to the South West tour.
Now it’s time to cross the pond into the merry old UK. A perfect amalgamation of serene England, wild Wales, and mystical Scotland. And as we mentioned before, Wales itself has over 600 castles. But don’t fret, we’ll guide you.
Originally built as part of King Edward I’s campaign to conquer North Wales, Caernarfon Castle stands today as a reminder of the past but, if anything, as a beautiful ‘mark’ on the landscape of Wales’ history. Renowned for its distinctive polygonal towers, patterns of colour-coded stones in the masonry, and intriguing curtain walls, the castle is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
So, why wouldn’t you visit one of Wales’ most architecturally impressive castles during what is our most emotive season, autumn? It may not be surrounded by an expansive garden estate, but the fresh autumn air and the way the ivy-covered stone walls bleed into red add a level of mysticism to this historic building.
Taking advantage of the shadows and mists of autumn evenings, you might even find a fun event or two to tickle your fancy.
Another powerful statement by the Welsh. Caerphilly Castle’s unique concentric design acted as a defensive fortress during the wars between the English and the Welsh. It’s everything you want in an iconic 13th-century castle, moats and drawbridges and all. It's a wonder to explore, from the displays and exhibitions to the leaning tower inside.
Like many of the castles in the UK, Caerphilly fell into disrepair after it was abandoned in the 17th century. Eventually, the world saw its value and beauty, and in the 19th century new work on it begun. Today, there’s been extensive restoration done to the walls and towers. It’s seen as a symbol of the Victorian Romanticism and the Gothic Revival movement, yet another reason it is historically significant today.
And if you’re visiting during the chilling autumn season, you can join them for a special two-hour evening tour to explore the ghostly and historic tales of this medieval masterpiece.
Surely you know this one already. Windsor Castle. As regal as its name suggests, serving as a royal residence for over 1000 years. That makes it the oldest (as well as largest) inhabited castle in the world. That alone should be reason enough to visit.
Before her passing, the Queen used the castle’s Round Tower as her weekend retreat. Doesn’t that just sound like the life you want to live?
And since we’re talking about visiting in autumn, there are a few things you most certainly have to see during your visit. Such as St George’s Chapel, which is one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in England. As spooky season demands, you might want to be on the lookout for ghosts... you might even get the sense that these ghosts were once royals.
Then there’s the grounds. They really are a living organism, evolving and changing over the centuries to match the beauty of the castle that dominates. To be worthy of it. Guests have three gardens to choose from. Honestly, can you imagine how magical your trip might suddenly become when you find yourself walking on a bed of burnt orange leaves with the view of Windsor Castle looming ahead? Pretty magical.
We’d love to take you there ourselves, on our 2-day Windsor, Stonehenge, Bath & Oxford tour from London.
Hidden passages. Ghostly legends. Treasure troves. Doesn’t that sound like the perfect spooky season destination? When things are cooling down and the nights grow bolder... you’re almost obligated to seek out these little thrills that only an autumnal season can offer.
And Warwick Castle needs to be on your bucket list. If you love history, if you love stunning architecture, if you’re a photographer... well then you need to visit Warwick Castle immediately. Like the best castles, it has medieval origins. First constructed in 1068 by the William the Conqueror (should we rename him William the Constructor?), the castle was originally a wooden motte-and-bailey castle. But eventually it was rebuilt into the stone structure you see today, a wondrous architectural mix of Norman, Gothic, and Tudor.
And surrounding it are the beautifully landscaped gardens, as every good English castle should have. Wouldn’t you agree?
Many are drawn to the castle to experience the theatrical performances that take place in the castle’s dungeon, complete with actors and special effects. While you wander about, see if you can spot the castle’s rumoured hidden passages. If you do happen to stumble upon them, you may run into the ghost of Sir Fulke Greville who was murdered in the castle in 1628. One of many, we’re sure.
And finally, where else is better for a castle than Scotland? We may be biased, but we truly believe that Scottish castles are shrouded in an air so mystic, it’s impossible not to be completely mesmerised by them.
You might call this the Windsor Castle of Scotland. Many come to our misty shores to see the iconic Loch Ness, to explore the Isle of Skye... and to gaze upon the epic Eilean Donan Castle. Perched on the tiny island of Eilean Donan, sitting snuggly at the confluence of three sea lochs, this picturesque castle has drawn visitors from across the globe and has been featured in several films and television shows over the years, including the movie Highlander.
Backed by a brilliant canvas of tree-covered mountains (and of course snow in winter), Eilean Donan Castle would win any beauty pageant. Her yawning stone bridge and picture-perfect views make her the real beauty of Scotland. It’s one of the many reasons we adore her.
She’s a castle of history like any other and has endured extensive destruction and restoration over the years. Left in ruins for centuries, she was torn to shreds during the Jacobite uprisings, giving her an iconic link to Scottish history. Our famous Bonnie Prince Charlie even sought shelter within her ageing walls for a time.
We’re thrilled she’s still standing today, and we visit her quite regularly on tours like our 1-day Skye & Eilean Donan Castle tour from Inverness, or our 3-day Isle of Skye tours from Glasgow and Edinburgh.
This one’s unmissable. A castle of such importance to Scottish history, you simply must add this to your list. Her beautiful gardens are hugged by the stone façade like a heart inside a body, turning both warm and cool with the onset of autumn. And perched atop a volcanic rock with a view that would make any camera envious, Stirling Castle has been a key defensive stronghold throughout Scottish history.
The castle itself has a long history as a royal residence. Our own Mary, Queen of Scots was crowned there in 1543. The castle’s historical significance extends beyond royals, of course. Stirling Castle played a pivotal role in several Scottish battles and events, including the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297, where the legendary William Wallace led Scottish forces to victory against the English.
Depending on when you visit, perhaps you’ll get lucky and head to the Crown Room where the Crown Jewels of Scotland are kept when not in use for ceremonies. What you’ll always be able to see is a carved wooden statue of a unicorn, perched atop the roof of the Queen Anne Garden Pavilion. Why? Well, the unicorn is Scotland’s national animal, as it is the only creature that could defeat the savagery of a lion, England’s national animal.
You have plenty of time to explore Stirling Castle on several of our tours, including the 1-day Loch Lomond National Park, Kelpies & Stirling Castle tour from Edinburgh and the 1-day Stirling Castle, Loch Lomond & Whisky tour from Glasgow.
One final architectural beauty because we can’t help ourselves. An incredible combination of Georgian and Gothic, Culzean Castle is perched on the Ayrshire cliffs with an enviable view of the Firth of Clyde. If you’ve ever wanted a view of the Scottish coastline, a Scottish island, and a Scottish castle all at once – this is the place for it.
You won’t know how to split your time here, for the gardens of Culzean Castle are as big a draw as the castle itself.
We don’t know what we love more, the castle or the grounds. Or what about the fact that there are smuggler’s caves beneath the castle, full of ghosts and their stories? Or the secret tunnels looming beneath the castle? Or maybe it’s the impressive collection of art and historical facts spread inside its walls, like secrets waiting to be discovered by you.
We explore this stunning piece of history on our 1-day Culzean Castle, Burns Country & the Ayrshire Coast tour from Glasgow.
Don’t let our list limit you. Because, honestly, you could spend your entire holiday in the UK exploring castles alone. And if that’s all you want to do, we couldn’t understand more than we do. The history, the beauty, the fascination... these structures are remnants of our past. A nod to a time long gone that still matters so much to us today. And what better way to see these both stately and ruinous castles than with a backdrop of quiet autumnal beauty?