It’s always fun and interesting to visit castles and palaces, but it is even more special when you get to visit an actual working palace. I was excited to have the opportunity to tour the Palace of Holyrood House, the Queen’s official residence when she visits Edinburgh. In addition, we would also visit the ruins of the Holyrood Abbey and the Holyrood Gardens, where the Queen throws an annual Garden Party. Setting foot in a place where the Queen stays makes me feel more connected to the royal family, there is also a real sense of history here.
The name Holyrood comes from the old word “rood” which means cross. The abbey was the first building on the site so it makes sense that it was called Holy Rood. The palace was built next to the Abbey and is the home of Scottish Royal History. It has been a royal residence for 500 years! Some of the history of Holyrood Palace is reflected in the impressive collection of portraits, especially in the Great Gallery, and also many (over 60) very large and beautiful tapestries, some brought from Buckingham Palace.
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The Queen’s main Official Residence is of course, Buckingham Palace, which I hope to visit soon. On the weekends, her official residence is Windsor Castle. When she comes to Scotland each July to open the Scottish Parliament, her official residence is the Holyrood Palace. She also has an official residence in Northern Ireland called Hillsborough Castle. All these residences are owned by the crown.
Holyrood Palace Castle Yard
When you go through the gate to Holyrood, you enter the castle yard. This large open space is designed to show the palace building off to maximum dramatic effect. It’s worth taking the time to stand back and admire the architecture of the palace, it is an impressive and imposing building. Right in front of the castle, you will see a fountain (it wasn’t on when we were there), be sure to go close and admire the details. Towards the back of the yard, you will also find a statue of Edward VII. After admiring the pieces of art, we took a few Holyrood Palace pictures including some fun ones in the sentry posts and headed inside.
Holyrood Palace Interior
Before you go inside Holyrood Palace, you visit the courtyard. You can see that the building is laid out in a quadrangle. The design is classical, with different columns on each level that get more ornate on the higher floors. It was in this courtyard that Zara Phillips, the Queen’s granddaughter and Mike Tindall, the former England Rugby Player had their wedding reception.
Note: No photos are allowed inside the Palace. The photos of the Palace rooms included in this post have been provided by the Royal Collection Trust.
Royal Dining Room
Next you move inside and up the Great Stairs into the Royal Dining Room which has been used since the time of Queen Victoria. When we visited, the room was set up with the table that the Queen dines at and can be expanded up to 30 people. It was interesting to learn that the Queen sits at the middle of the table and not the head. This way it is easier for her to talk to more people.
The Throne Room
Then you move into the Throne Room, which originally was the Guard Room, but got its name from the two thrones in the room. The Thrones were commissioned by George IV. I almost missed these because my eyes were drawn to the large portraits on the walls. Charles II who is responsible for how the palace looks today and James I of England (formerly James VI of Scotland) are among the monarchs who have portraits in this room. The Queen hosts her lunch for the Knights and Ladies of the Order of the Thistle, the highest order of chivalry in Scotland, in this room. You will see and learn more about the Order of the Thistle throughout Holyrood Palace.
The Morning Drawing Room
The Morning Drawing Room was a room for more private access to the Queen and significant Holyrood Palace history took place here. It is where Queen Elizabeth appointed the First First Minister of Scotland, Donald Dewar. She also had an audience with Pope Benedict in this room.
Next, you go through the King’s Ante Chamber, the most important waiting room of the palace, before entering the King’s Bedchamber. Of course, the focal point of the King’s Bedchamber is the beautiful bed, but the king would not sleep there. The room was more a show of power and status. The artwork on the wall of the Greek deities and the elaborate ceiling help reinforce the King’s stature.
The Grand Gallery
The Grand Gallery is the room where the Queen holds State functions, including investitures – among others, Sean Connery was honored here. ‘Grand’ is about right! This room is long, elegant and the walls are covered with 96 portraits of Scottish monarchs.
Holyrood Palace has been a focal point of a number of conflicts with the English. On one occasion, some of the paintings in the Great Gallery were damaged by the English. While they did their best to repair the portraits, you can still see the damage on some of them. It wasn’t blatantly obvious though, I had to get a warden to point it out to me. They also had a TV set up playing the Highlights of Holyroodhouse video, which included some ceremonial footage with the Queen including some of the Holyrood Garden Party.
The Queen’s Lobby and Ante Chamber
In the Queen’s Lobby they have some of the jewelry and regalia for the Order of the Thistle on display, as well as other honours, such as medals given to those honoured as Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE), or Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE). Next, you enter the Queen’s Ante Chamber which is the oldest part of the castle. You can tell by looking at the windows and seeing how thick the walls are. They must be about four feet thick.
Mary Queen of Scots at Holyrood Palace
Lastly, you visit the area of the palace that was Mary Queen of Scots’ apartments. She is a controversial figure and I have been fascinated with her since I read the Other Queen by Philippa Gregory. The first room is Queen’s bedchamber which contains a bed worth over £20,000 so it is kept behind glass and in low light to protect the fabric. Mary married her second husband, Lord Darnley in this room.
Next, you have to go up 25 spiral steps to the Mary Queen of Scots bedchamber. You can see the French influence that Mary brought with her from her time in France. The room was significant not just because Mary Queen of Scots lived in it but also because her second husband, Lord Darnley had her secretary, Rizzio, murdered here. Lord Darnley was jealous of Rizzio’s relationship with Mary. The rebels stabbed Rizzio 56 times!
The final room you visit is Mary Queen of Scots Outer Chamber. This is the room where Mary, a devout Catholic prayed. It also had some interesting artifacts including Mary Queen of Scots hair, the Darnley Jewel, a letter written by Mary, and the Holyrood Ordinal. The Holyrood Ordinal is a prayer book that reminded me of the Book of Kells.
As part of your admission, you also get to visit the Holyrood Abbey, or really its remains. The ruins of the abbey were depicted in the painting called the Ruins of Holyrood Chapel by the French artist, Louis Daguerre.
The Abbey is located directly behind Holyrood Palace and was founded in the 12th century. The original abbey included more buildings (cloisters, dormitory, etc) than the Holyrood Abbey ruins you see today. By 1500, the Holyrood Abbey was one of the largest and most impressive monasteries in Scotland. This church was also used for royal ceremonies, including the coronation of James V (Mary Queen of Scots father) and Charles I. In the 18th century, the roof collapsed and they decided it was too costly to repair especially since there was another church on the Royal Mile.
Even just seeing the ruins, you can tell the Holyrood Abbey Church must have been a magnificent building. The columns that still stand are huge and I loved the detail design of the windows. I can just imagine how beautiful the stained glass must have been. In some ways, it reminded me of Walsingham Abbey.
If you head to the back corner, you will find the Royal Vault which holds the remains of James V, his Queen, and other royals. Surprisingly, it is not an elaborate tomb. In 1688, the tomb was violated by rioters. Queen Victoria ordered it repaired in 1898. I didn’t recognize any of the names on any of the other graves that are located throughout the Holyrood Palace Abbey.
The Palace Wardens give tours of the Holyrood Abbey every hour, just ask a warden for details.
The Holyrood Gardens are beautiful even when we visited in January. The grass is so green and everything is perfectly manicured as you would expect. You have great views of the Palace, Abbey, and Holyrood Park (also known as the Queen’s Park). I could see the hikers walking up Arthur’s Seat, a popular hike in Edinburgh.
Queen Elizabeth II hosts her annual Holyrood Garden party here for 8,000 guests. As I walked along the path, I dreamed about attending that party and what it must be like. I also thought about how pretty the garden would be in the summer with everything in bloom. We stumbled upon a nice sculpture and took in the views of the palace, abbey, and Holyrood Park. As we got close to Holyrood Abbey, we could see some more of its ruins buried under the grass. I tried to imagine what the Abbey would have looked like in its prime.
Entrance to the Gardens is included with your admission ticket to Holyrood Palace. During most of the winter, the gardens are only open to visitors on the weekends, however during December and the rest of the year, the Holyrood Palace Gardens are open daily. If you purchase the Royal Visit ticket, it includes the Garden History Tour. During this tour, you get to go off the path and see the Jubilee Border (planted in celebration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee), Queen Mary’s sundial, and ha-ha (a trench at the edge of the garden, which creates a barrier without blocking the view of Holyrood Park)
Holyrood Palace Cafe
When you exit the palace into the Mews Courtyard, you will find the cafe. They serve afternoon tea (or Champagne afternoon tea if you prefer) along with a selection of soups, salads, main courses and home-baked cakes. On a nice day you can sit outside with nice views of Edinburgh Holyrood Park. If you have a party of five or more, you are advised to book in advance. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to visit the Cafe, but I would love to do a Holyrood Palace afternoon tea next time.
The Queen’s Gallery
After visiting the Palace, we went back inside the gift shop to the Queen’s Gallery. During our visit, he special Holyrood Palace exhibition was about Prince Albert’s four month visit to India and the gifts he brought back. Prince Albert made the trip to help improve relations with India and to meet with the Maharajas. As you might have guessed the gifts displayed were very gold, artistic, and beautiful. One of my favorites was the dagger which had pearls inside that moved with the dagger.
The Holyrood exhibition, Splendours of the Subcontinent, will be on display until April 22, 2018.
Holyrood Palace Gift Shop
You will walk through the Holyrood Palace shop to get to the ticket desk and the Queen’s Gallery, but if you are a fan of the Royal Family like me, you should browse a bit. They had some beautiful china, nice teas, and biscuits (cookies for my fellow Americans). I was tempted to buy the china that was made to commemorate the Queen’s 70th wedding anniversary but wasn’t sure if we had room in our bags.
Holyrood Palace Review
We enjoyed our visit to the Palace of Holyrood House. I thought it was fascinating to set foot in the Queen’s Scottish residence, a place where several important historical moments took place. Even Russell, who is a history buff, learned a lot from the audio tour. It was full of interesting Holyrood Palace facts. The wardens in each room were so helpful in answering my questions. I just wish that you were allowed to take photos inside the palace.
Logistics for Your Visit to Holyrood House
Holyrood House Location
The Palace of Holyrood House is located at the end of what is called the Royal Mile across the street from the Holyrood Scottish Parliament building. At the other end of the Royal Mile, you will find Edinburgh Castle. The address for the Palace of Holyrood House is Canongate, The Royal Mile, Edinburgh, EH8 8DX.
If you are driving, there is public parking near Holyrood Palace in the Holyrood Palace car park. If you are using public transportation, you can take the train to Edinburgh Waverley Station and it is a 15-minute walk. To take the bus to Holyrood Palace, use bus numbers 6, Skylink 300, or the hop on hop off tour bus which all stop near the Palace.
Holyrood House Opening Times
In general, the Holyrood Palace opens daily at 9:30 am. In the winter (November 1 – March 31), the last admission is at 3:15 pm and they close at 4:30 pm. In the summer, they stay open until 6 pm so the last admission is 4:30 pm. Since Holyrood is a working royal palace, they do have to completely close at times like when the Queen is in residence. Be sure to check the website for up to date Holyrood Palace hours.
Holyrood Palace Admission
You have several options for Holyrood Palace tickets. You can either get the standard admission (£14 for adults) which includes admission to the Palace, Gardens (on the path only), and the Abbey. If you prefer, you can get the Royal visit (£23 for adults) which also includes admission to the Queen’s Gallery where special exhibitions are held and a Garden History Tour. All options include an audio guide. All tickets can be converted to a free one year pass to return to the Palace of Holyrood House for the ticket holder. You just sign your ticket and get it stamped when you leave.
Note: Holyrood Palace prices are accurate as of 1/31/18. Please check the website for the most up to date information.
Holyrood Palace for Kids
You may be wondering if you should bring the kids to Holyrood Palace. The palace does offer family tickets that include admission for two adults and three under 17. We did not see any children during our visit but they did have free booklets with activities for kids inside the courtyard to help keep them entertained. Also please note that for safety reasons, strollers are not allowed inside the palace and must be checked.
Expert Tips for Visiting the Palace of Holyrood
- If you have questions about anything you see at the palace, just ask the wardens. I found them very helpful.
- No photography is allowed inside the palace.
- You should allocate three hours if you plan on doing the Royal Visit. If you are just seeing the Palace, Abbey, and the Gardens (path only) then I would plan 1 ½ hours.
- If you have time, go for the Holyrood House afternoon tea at the cafe. Book ahead if your party is five or more.
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Disclosure: We would like to thank the Holyrood Palace for hosting our visit and providing photos of the rooms inside Holyrood Palace. As always, opinions are my own.
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