Sitting at the bottom end of the Royal Mile opposite Edinburgh Castle at the other end is the Palace of Holyroodhouse, also called Holyrood Palace. It acts as the official residence of the British monarch and royal family in Scotland.
With only the abbey in ruin, the remainder of the estate is almost impeccable, every room comes alive with history and legends of kings and queens past. What began with a vision ended with a royal palace fit for the monarchs of the current era to reside in, so put a few hours aside and absorb the beauty of this architectural wonder.
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Holyrood Palace History
The Augustinian abbey church was built in 1128, but proved to be too small for the community’s needs and extensions were required. Over a period of 35 years from 1195, significant changes were made to Holyrood Abbey, including new cloisters, a refectory, a chapter house, and private apartments for guests. Seeing as these were often used as royal apartments, the guest houses adjoined to the abbey became the humble beginnings of the Royal Palace of Holyroodhouse.
With the prosperity and popularity of Holyrood Abbey climbing ever upward and its proximity to Edinburgh Castle, it soon became an important administrative centre for the Scottish political system. In 1177 a Papal legate was received at this location, and a council of noblemen met in 1189 to discuss the ransom for Willian the Lion.
During the years of 1256 and 1410, the Scottish parliament met at Holyrood Abbey several times, and in 1328 Robert the Bruce visited the abbey himself and signed the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton in the King’s Bedchamber.
David II was the first of several royals to be buried at Holyrood Abbey in 1371, with James II experiencing all of his major life events from birth and coronation to marriage and burial there. Margaret of Denmark and James III also married at the abbey in 1469, and by the end of the 15th century, there was a dedicated royal residence on the property.
From 1501 to 1505, James IV had the royal apartments expanded into a Gothic palace in anticipation of his marriage to Margaret Tudor in 1503. They were laid in a quadrangle, with the chapel and royal lodgings on the first floor. A tower was added towards the southern end, and work was begun on the palace gardens.
In 1528, An enormous tower rounded at its corners was commissioned by James V as new royal apartments towards the north-west corner of the Palace of Holyroodhouse. This is currently the oldest surviving part of Holyrood Palace, and is known as the chambers of Mary Queen of Scots.
Over the next several centuries, the Palace of Holyroodhouse kept growing in size and glory as each monarch continued to make changes and additions to glorify the royal palace. James VI largely extended and improved the gardens in 1567, and the palace and Holyrood Abbey were improved for the coronation of Charles I in 1633.
Charles II took up Holyrood Palace as his residence, and renovations and extensive rebuilding took place in 1671 after a fire devastated part of the palace 20 years earlier. By 1679, the exterior of the Palace of Holyroodhouse had taken shape as we see it today.
Things to Remember When Visiting the Palace of Holyroodhouse
Here are a couple of things to bear in mind on your visit to the palace.
Holyrood Palace Opening Times
From April to October, the palace is open from 9:30 am to 6 pm with last entry at 4:30 pm. During the winter months from November to March, it’s open from 9:30 am to 6:30 pm with last entry at 3:15 pm.
During July, August, and September, the palace is open 7 days a week, but for the rest of the year it closes on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. It is also closed on 25 December and 29 March 2024.
Holyrood Palace Entry Fee
The cost for an adult ticket is £19.50, while those aged 18 to 24 will pay £12.50. Tickets for children over 5 and the disabled are £10.50 each. Children under 5 have free entry.
You can shave a bit off the price of your tickets by purchasing them online in advance. You can also save on family tickets available online.
Each ticket includes a multimedia tour.
You are not permitted to take photos indoors at the palace, but the grounds outside are fair game. Pushchairs for children are allowed except at busy times when there are crowds. Then you can request a carrier to use instead.
How to Get There
With the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, it’s fairly easy to reach by most forms of transport.
Ways to Get There Using a Car
Any route that will get you into Edinburgh, such as the A702, will do. There’s a public car park just opposite the Palace in Holyrood Park called Broad Pavement. If you prefer a closer parking spot, there are some available in Horse Wynd right outside the Palace of Holyroodhouse, but they’re limited and on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Ways to Get There Using Public Transportation
Edinburgh Waverley is the nearest train station and is a 15-minute walk from the Palace of Holyroodhouse. There’s also a tram stop (York Place) about a 20-minute walk away, and Bus No. 35 stops quite near the Holyroodhouse Palace.
Attractions at Holyrood Palace
There are almost too many notable attractions and impressive rooms to visit at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, including historical apartments, the Queen’s Bedchamber, and the state dining room, to name a few. Here are some of the standouts.
Galavant About the Great Gallery
The Great Gallery is the largest room in the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh. Here you’ll find a treasure trove of portraits of Scottish royalty, both legendary and real. Bearing the painted likenesses of 95 kings and 1 queen, including a significant number of the Stuart dynasty starting with the legendary founder of Scotland, Fergus I, circa 330 BC.
Get your bingo cards out and tick off the notable nobles such as Macbeth, Robert the Bruce, and Mary Queen of Scots as you traverse the hall. There were originally 111 portraits in this gathering of historical faces, but many were damaged by government troops in 1746. If you look closely at some of the remaining paintings, you can still see the marks made by their swords.
Tiptoe to the Fountain
Some improvements were made to the interiors in preparation for the visit of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1850, who took a fancy to the place and had a fountain modelled after the one at Linlithgow Palace placed in the forecourt in 1859.
If you look closely, though, you’ll notice that this fountain pays homage to some Scottish royals, bearing the likenesses of Queen Margaret and Mary Queen of Scots. There are also depictions of soldiers, musicians, and a unicorn.
Swing by Holyrood Abbey
Right next to the Palace of Holyroodhouse is Holyrood Abbey, which in its prime was one of the most impressive abbeys in Scotland from the medieval period. Even without a roof, you can see the grandiose architecture and stone-carved details that went into making this building the most glorious abbey of its time.
Look upwards at the row of angels above the entryway and then marvel at the extensive and intricate windows and moss-stained arches inside. On a sunny day, every piece of architectural detail seems to leap out at you. Don’t forget to keep an eye out for the Royal Vault – it holds the remains of James V.
See Mary Queen of Scots’ Chambers
This most famous Scottish queen lived in the Palace of Holyroodhouse from 1561 to 1567, and her chambers are richly decorated not only with furniture but with wall embellishments and paintings as well.
Constructed almost 500 years ago, the royal residence of Queen Mary is reached by a narrow staircase that winds steeply upwards. Her Bed Chamber is renowned for its very low door, painted frieze, and decorated oak ceiling.
The Outer Chamber was where she received her many guests and visitors, including John Knox, the Protestant cleric. On display here is the Darnley Jewel, perhaps the most precious treasure in the Royal Collection. It’s an enchanting piece constructed of gold, Burmese rubies, Indian emeralds, enamel, and cobalt-blue glass.
That’s not all you might see in this chamber, though. Mary’s private secretary, David Rizzio, was stabbed 56 times by her jealous husband Lord Darnley. Some claim that you can still see the bloodstain left by his body on the floor.
Visit the Gardens
Put your walking shoes on and explore the 4 hectares of the palace gardens which have an uninterrupted view of Queen’s Park, also called Holyrood Park. The best time of year to see the gardens is in summer when the plants dress themselves up in the most vibrant of flowers and gently sway in a mesmerising kaleidoscope of colour in summer breezes while birds sing from the trees.
The Jubliee Border is a highlight on the grounds, planted exclusively with silver-flowering plants and shrubs in celebration of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. A species of tree thought to be extinct, namely the Wentworth Elm, also grows in the gardens, and many people stop by the sundial from 1633 that was created for Charles I’s Scottish coronation.
This was the garden where the Queen would host her annual Garden Party at the Palace.
Pop by the Queen’s Gallery
This museum on the grounds holds exhibitions throughout the year showcasing the most treasured items from the royal collection, from furniture to paintings and a vast photographic collection. They’ll also borrow showpieces from other palace collections to spice things up from time to time, so look out for those exhibits.
The Queen’s Gallery is currently closed but will reopen in 2024.
See the Majestic Throne Room
With rich red carpets and warm dark brown timber walls, the Throne Room is not as highly decorated as you might think but sumptuous in its simplicity. Some large paintings hang from the wooden panelling and the ceiling displays some intricate decorative motifs, though it remains plain white.
Even the centrepiece of the room, the two thrones side by side with the royal crest on the wall above, make more of a humble statement than a flashy bold-and-gold show. Nowadays, it’s used for State occasions, official engagements, and receptions.
On one occasion, George IV came to visit the Palace of Holyroodhouse and wore a specially made Scottish outfit to honour the people. His kilt was Royal Stewart tartan, and he accessorised with traditional Highland weaponry.
Tips and Advice to Have a Fulfilling Trip
- Peak visitor times usually occur just after opening and through the morning. If you want to avoid crowds, book your ticket in advance and arrive after 11 am.
- If you ask the warden to stamp your ticket on the way out, it converts to a 1-year pass that will enable you to revisit the Palace of Holyroodhouse with the same ticket for free.
- You can grab something to eat or drink at the Café at the Palace. However, eating and drinking aren’t allowed inside the palace’s state apartments, so plan your lunch accordingly.
- As it is the current royal residence, you might be subject to standard security checks upon entry.
Holyrood Palace Facts
The visually harmonious look and design of Holyrood Palace is thanks to the genius of Sir William Bruce under the reign of Charles II. He blended old and new architectural aspects to ease the juxtaposition of the older buildings against the new.
According to legend, David I experienced a vision of a stag with a bright, glowing cross sitting between its antlers while hunting and took it as a sign from God that he should build a church. Whether the legend is based on fact or not, the King set to work building Holyrood Abbey on the spot he saw the stag, “holy rood” meaning “holy cross.”
Under the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, the Palace of Holyroodhouse became more friendly to tourists, with a welcoming and ticketing area being constructed as well as visitor facilities and a sparkling new public garden.
Bonnie Prince Charlie stayed at the Palace of Holyroodhouse for 6 weeks in 1745.