Dover is one of the most significant castles in England’s history. It’s perched high atop a hill overlooking the White Cliffs of Dover and the English Channel. Everyone told me Dover Castle was big, but I didn’t realize how huge until I visited for myself. You can easily spend a whole day at the castle and not see everything. Dover Castle is an English Heritage site, so English Heritage members get in free. If you are not an English Heritage member, you may be wondering if it is worth visiting Dover Castle? I will give you my thoughts on that as well as the things to see on your Dover Castle visit in this post.
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History of Dover Castle
Dover Castle has played a significant role in history over several centuries. It all started when a hill fort was established around 800 BC. The lighthouse, the first building on the Dover Castle site, was built in the year 43 AD. The Castle Keep, also known as the Great Tower, was started by Henry II in the 12th century. Fast forward to more recent times and the castle was the headquarters for some of the most important planning during World War II.
Unlike Windsor, Dover is no longer a working castle.
Things to See at Dover Castle
I was surprised by how much there is to see at Dover Castle. We stayed at the castle for almost six hours and didn’t have time to see everything we wanted. When you buy your ticket, they will give you a map of Dover Castle. Hold on to that, you will need it!
Keep in mind, you will be outside a fair bit of the time, so be prepared for the weather. We had nasty weather during our day at Dover Castle which made us cut our visit short. If you want to cut down on the amount of walking, there is a train/tram that runs around the site.
Dover Castle Lighthouse
This lighthouse, known as the Roman Pharos, is the oldest structure at Dover Castle dating back to 43 AD. At one time, the Pharos was used as a bell tower for the adjoining church, St. Mary in Castro. Take a quick peek inside and be sure to look up. I was impressed that the lighthouse was in such good condition considering how old it is. I later learned it is the most complete standing Roman building in England. The Roman Pharos is one of only three Roman lighthouses to survive from the whole of the former Roman Empire.
Dover Castle Church
Next to the Roman Pharos Lighthouse, you will see the St. Mary in Castro Church which dates back to 1000 AD. Unfortunately, it was in ruins and roofless by 1720, but luckily it was restored as the Garrison Church in 1826 by Sir George Gilbert Scott. The tower was not completed until 1888 when the vestry was added.
Inside the church, the thing that stood out most to me was the tile work on the walls. We sat in the pews for a few minutes to admire it and let our feet have a break. I was impressed with the restoration job, it was hard to tell what was “new” and what was not.
The Great Tower is the heart of Dover Castle. The design is similar to the White Tower inside the Tower of London. It was started by Henry II in the late 12th century. The Tower is 83 feet tall with walls up to 21 feet thick. The defensive walls surrounding the Great Tower were completed during the first half of the 13th century under King John and Henry III.
Inside the Great Tower, six rooms (including the King’s bedroom) have been recreated as they would have looked during Henry II’s time. In each room, you will find staff members who can answer any questions you might have. Don’t miss the chapel dedicated to Thomas Becket on the second floor, it is richly decorated stonework. He was the Archbishop of Canterbury who was slaughtered by Henry’s knights in 1170. Two years after his death, he was canonized Pope Alexander III
You can also go up to the roof where you should get an amazing view. By the time we got up to the roof, the weather was nasty. We couldn’t see anything and my umbrella kept flipping inside out. As soon as I got to the roof, I wanted to go back inside again.
Secret Wartime Tunnels
The Secret Wartime Tunnels were the headquarters for Operation Dynamo which rescued over 330,000 Allied soldiers from Dunkirk beach in France. The tunnels were actually built during Napoleonic time. You can only visit the tunnels on a guided tour, so I recommend that you visit early in the day before the line gets too long.
Once you enter the tunnels, it’s a walk down a descending path to get to the main sections. The tour lasts about an hour. You visit several different rooms where there are videos for you to watch to help you learn a bit about the history.
To exit the tunnels use the spiral stairs or there is an elevator available for visitors with mobility issues.
The Underground Hospital
The Underground Hospital is a set of tunnels that were used to treat some of the injured during World War II. The entrance to these tunnels is next to the Secret Wartime Tunnels. You can walk through and explore it at your own pace. We saw rooms set up as the dining hall, administration rooms, and sleeping quarters. There are guides along the way that are happy to answer any questions that you may have.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to see the Medieval Tunnels. They are located on the opposite side of the castle from the other tunnels. These tunnels were first built after Prince Louis of France besieged the castle in 1216. More tunnels in this part of the castle were added later, but they are still known as the Medieval Tunnels.
There are no exhibits in these tunnels, it is left mostly as it was. You know these tunnels were used for the castle’s defense when you see all the canons. It does get dark in some spots, so be ready to use your cell phone as a flashlight.
Note: Do not confuse the Dover Castle tunnels with the tunnels you can visit at the Dover Cliffs. The networks do not connect and the use was quite different.
Eating at Dover Castle
At some point during your visit to Dover Castle, you are going to get hungry! Luckily, you have a few options:
- Picnic! – If you are on a budget, it’s best to bring your own food. It’s not hard to find a nice spot with a view. (As long as the weather cooperates!). They ask that you not eat inside the Tower though. Also, please take your trash home, or put in one of the bins provided.
- Great Tower Cafe – It was built in 1901 and incorporates some of the inner bailey walls. They serve snacks, sandwiches, home-made soup, cakes, and ice-cream.
- Tunnels Tea Room – This is built into the original Napoleonic Tunnel complex of the Secret Wartime Tunnels alongside the shop. You can purchase sandwiches, cakes and ice cream and you don’t need to do the tunnel tour to visit the Tea Room.
Dover Castle Video
Check out our video to see more of our experience at Dover Castle. We were unlucky with the weather but still managed to enjoy ourselves.
Is Dover Castle Worth the Price of Admission
Dover Castle admission is not cheap. As of January 1, 2019, it costs £20 for adults, £12 for children, and £50 for a family. Now through March 31, 2019, you can get a voucher for 2-for-1 admission through Visit Kent – click here for more details.
It is an English Heritage property so if you are a member (like us) you get in for free at Dover Castle and over 400 other historic properties. Click here for more information on English Heritage membership. If you are not a UK resident, you can get a 9-day or 16-day single or family English Heritage Overseas Visitor Pass. Click here for more information on the English Heritage Visitor Pass.
English Heritage occasionally holds special events at the Castle where there might be an additional charge which is not waived for English Heritage members. When we went they had a jousting event going on, so we had to pay £6 each, even though we had no plans to see the jousting.
Dover Castle is such a historically significant place that I do feel it is worth the price of admission. I wouldn’t recommend going to Dover Castle for a short visit if you are not an English Heritage member. You need at least five hours to see Dover Castle. In all honesty, I am not sure it is possible to fully explore the castle in one visit. There are so many different points of interest to visit and they also had several interesting exhibits. As an English Heritage member, it is nice to know that I can go back and see more.
If you are on a tight budget, there are other castles in the area (Walmer and Deal) that aren’t as expensive, but they are significantly smaller. Another option could be to visit the White Cliffs of Dover since you only have to pay for parking.
How to Get to Dover Castle From London
A visit to Dover Castle would be an excellent day trip from London. Dover is in the county of Kent in the southeastern part of England. You have a few options to travel the 78 miles from London to the Dover Castle.
- Drive! The drive from London to Dover Castle takes about 2 hours. Use the postcode xx then follow the signs. Parking is free. They also have an offsite parking lot with a free shuttle to the castle.
- Train! The train from London St. Pancras Station to Dover Priory takes a little more than an hour. The one thing you need to keep in mind is that the distance from Dover Priory to the Dover Castle is about a little more than one mile. It takes about 26 minutes to walk it or you can take a taxi from the from the station. Be sure to book your train ticket in advance and choose a specific time to get the best price. Click here to check the schedule and pricing.
- Tour! I couldn’t find a tour that just goes to the Dover Castle instead it is combined with other attractions. You won’t have that much time at the castle but you also get to see the White Cliffs of Dover and Canterbury Cathedral. Click here for more details about the tour from London.
What to Bring When You Visit Dover Castle
Since you will be spending the good part of the day at Dover Castle, you want to be prepared. You spend a fair bit of time outside at Dover Castle so check the weather forecast and dress accordingly. I recommend wearing comfortable shoes because you will be on your feet most of the day. If you are on a tight budget, it might be a good idea to bring along some food. We saw a few nice picnic spots!
Other Nearby Attractions
Although I think visiting Dover Castle is a pretty full day, some may not take as long exploring it as I did. If you finished visiting the Castle and have time to do more sightseeing in Dover, you are in luck! Within walking distance, you can visit the Dover Cliffs and the Dover Museum.
If you want to stay overnight, you can check out hotel options in Dover on Tripadvisor here.
Have you been to Dover Castle? Or would you like to visit?
Expert Tips for Your Dover Castle Visit
- There is plenty to see at Dover Castle. It’s easy to spend the whole day exploring it.
- Consider joining English Heritage, to get into Dover Castle and 400 other historic sites for free. Click here for more information.
- Be prepared for the weather, you will be spending a fair bit of your day outside.
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