I have never been one to go crazy for castles and palaces. Growing up in Vienna I have certainly been surrounded by them all my life, and moving to Scotland that fact should not change. The Scottish Castle Trail in Aberdeenshire is one of Scotland’s most famous attractions. The area boasts an incredible 300+ castles from majestic and in tact residences in the lush valleys to derelict ruins by the sea. And yet, I had never been to this part of Scotland. When I recently was paid a visit by my mum I decided that it was time to change that and we set out on an Aberdeenshire road trip to follow at least parts of the Castle Trail. Our first stop was in the Royal Deeside – here is everything you need to know about visiting Balmoral Castle.
Compared to the Highlands and the Isles our trip around Aberdeenshire felt like we had everything to ourselves. There were other visitors without a doubt, and accommodation had to be booked well in advance, but somehow all these people spread out a bit more. Aberdeenshire and the Royal Deeside, as the valley of the River Dee is also called, have a lot to offer and you don’t need to be a mountaineer in order to get active here (while in the Highlands many ‘regular’ travellers mainly stick to the roads and easily accessible view points).
What did it for me was the natural beauty of the valley, which is so different than anything else I had seen in Scotland before. The Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve has made a lasting impression and I am sure I will visit again to explore the forests and lochs of the valley. Another reasons why I liked this stop of the trip so much, was of course our visit of Balmoral Castle.
Visiting Balmoral Castle
Essential info for visiting Balmoral Castle
We arrived almost as the castle opened at 10am, which is something I can highly recommend if you wish for photo ops without flocks of tourists standing in your way. When we left again, the car park was very busy and we could see many people in and around the ticket shop.
The car park is free to use and you buy your tickets in a small shop at the entrance gates to the Balmoral Estate. From there it is either a 10 minute walk through the forest to reach the Castle, or you can hop on board the free shuttle bus which drops you exactly where you need to pick up your audio guide.
The audio guide is included in the ticket, although a £5 deposit charge applies. I’d recommend picking up an audio guide for a bit of background story, and to listen into some interviews with current staff at the estate. You get a little map, although the path is also clearly marked with sign posts, and now your self-guided tour begins. Allow around 2h, whether you fill your time listening to all the info from the audio guide, or taking hundreds of photos of the gorgeous gardens.
Note, that you can’t actually visit the castle from the inside, but only the gardens and the ballroom exhibition. Balmoral Castle is still an active holiday residence of the Royal Family who comes here for their summer holidays every August – hence the limitations of which parts you can visit. The castle can only be visited until July 31 and does not re-open until next Spring.
What to expect at Balmoral Castle
We were lucky and the fog that covered the valley early in the morning had lifted by 10am, which meant bright blue skies and warm sunshine all day for us. The tour of the Gardens takes you around some of the minor buildings of the estate, like the summer pavilion or the hunting lodges, the vegetable and flower gardens, the greenhouses and of course around the actual castle itself. The estate is massive and you could spend all day hiking and exploring. The Castle even offers safari tours to introduce you to the local wildlife. (Note that these have to be booked in advance and paid extra.)
We stuck to the normal tour and particularly enjoyed the flowers and vegetables in the green houses and fields. From the audio guide we learnt that the biggest challenge of the gardening staff is to ensure that all the veg and flowers are at their best and ready for harvest right before the Royal Family arrives in the first week of August. Call it excessive, but the fact that you can witness this process in the run-up every year is quite cool.
The Balmoral Estate was bought by Prince Albert in 1852 after Queen Victoria had fallen in love with the Deeside valley a few years prior to that. Ever since, the area has been a holiday favourite for the British aristocracy and the valley respectfully re-named as the Royal Deeside. The Queen had a new castle built on the site of the Estate, which of course is Balmoral Castle.
She ensured that she had the best view of them all, and even got her own little flower garden – which all due respect for the rest of the place is the most beautiful and serene spot on the tour.
No wonder, the Royal Family would still come here every summer! Maybe one day soon it will be up for grabs again though, why should the royals get to keep it all to themselves? I’d be the first to take up the loan for that spot of our planet!
Other things to do around Balmoral Castle
If the self-service cafe at the Castle is too busy, or simply not your style, head back to Balloter for a delicious lunch at The Bothy, a little cafe on the town’s main street. They serve soups, sandwiches, salads and baked potatoes with all sorts of fillings, and I kid you not – the best coleslaw ever! Aberdeenshire is famous for its rich and tasty produce, and the vegetables served and sold in the cafes and shops of Balloter are no exception! For dessert buy some cake for takeaway and head out for a picnic in the gorgeous Muir of Dinnet nature reserve. Read everything about this part of our journey through the Royal Deeside right here!
Find out more about Balmoral Castle, its history, the estate grounds and visitor information on their website.
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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.
Disclaimer: VisitScotland provided my mum and me with ASVA cards which grant free entrance to many of Scotland’s visitor attractions, including Balmoral Castle.