A helpful guide to visiting the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh

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The history just seeps from the walls as you walk around the luxurious interiors of this Royal Palace in Edinburgh. You hear stories that take you all the way back to the 11th century, shock you when Mary, Queen of Scots was alive and intrigue you with the current royal family.

I’m quite the fan of history and really enjoy learning more each time. I’d never been to a real palace that was in use before though so when I had some time to myself in Edinburgh recently I decided that I had to include a trip round Holyrood House. I had no-one to rush me through the rooms – it was bliss!

If you’re at all a fan of the British Royal family, royal history in the UK, Mary, Queen of Scots, or all 3 of them, then a trip to the Palace of Holyroodhouse is a must.

The palace is one of the official residences of the King when he’s visiting Scotland and is often called just Holyrood Palace or the Palace of Holyroodhouse or variations of both!

This guide should help you with any questions you might have on visiting the Palace of Holyroodhouse and what a visit is like.

This guide was originally written in 2019 and has been fully updated in January 2023

Visiting the Palace of Holyrood house in Edinburgh is one way to learn more about the Royal family as it is one of their official residences.

Looking for tickets to the Palace?

I recommend booking them in advance from Get Your Guide – it’s the same price as buying on the official site but they also have an option of booking now and paying later.

To save money and time you might also like the Hop on Hop off bus bundle that includes the palace, the castle and the Royal Yacht.

The Palace is situated at the very end of the Royal Mile at the opposite end to the Castle. Would you believe that many people don’t venture down this far?

A (very) brief history of the Palace of Holyroodhouse

The history of the site goes back to medieval times and the 11th century when David I, the King of Scotland at the time, had a vision of a deer running past him with a glowing cross between its antlers and this is where the name of the abbey and subsequent palace came from.  Holyrood means holy cross.

Believing it was a message from God, King David had the Abbey was built on the site and as it grew many buildings were added for the monks including royal guest chambers for when the King visited.

The oldest part of the palace that is around today is the north-west tower which was built by James V in the 16th century and the history of that part of the palace includes Mary, Queen of Scots who was, of course, James’s daughter.  The palace was well guarded at the time with a drawbridge and a moat possibly.  Mary lived there between 1561 and 1567 and was witness to many goings on including the murder of her private secretary David Rizzio.

The palace was extended over the years to make it look how we see it now.  The majority of the work took place in the late 1600s by the designer Sir William Bruce when Charles II was restored to the throne after the English Civil War.

Bonnie Prince Charlie used the palace to set up court in 1745 when he was claiming the crown for himself.  Apparently he was greeted with cheers from the Scots as he arrived there.  He stayed at the Palace for 6 weeks before leaving and eventually being defeated at the battle of Culloden the following year.

The Palace has since seen Kings and Queens come and go until our current monarch, King Charles IiI – he will still come to the castle every year as it is the official residence of the King in Scotland.  He’ll hold state affairs here, garden parties and welcome visitors to the palace.

Inside Holyrood Palace

When you visit the Palace there are a few things to do but the main attraction is the tour of the inside of the building.  You can see the staterooms, galleries and the oldest part of the palace where Mary, Queen of Scots stayed.

Interior courtyard in the palace of holyroodhouse in Edinburgh

What’s the tour like?

When you arrive at the palace and get your ticket you’ll be given an audio guide with headphones that can be manipulated into any language.  There’s even a children’s version of the tour too, although I’m not sure what that’s like as for once I was child free on this trip!

You’ll start outside in the courtyard and if you want you can spend as much time out here taking pictures, exploring the grounds and also the Abbey.  When you’re ready to go inside and start the tour it will take you round a number of rooms in the palace and the audio guide explains what you’re seeing and sometimes there’s also some extra snippets of interviews from the Royal Family to listen to as well.

There’s no rush to go around each room which I found nice.  I could go at my own pace and really take in all there was to see in the rooms.  Personally, I found the dining room super small – I expected it to be much bigger!  I loved the royal history and as you go through the palace you learn bits about the characters who used it.

The Great Gallery is interesting if you have any idea of any of the characters in Scottish history.  You can find portraits of Macbeth, Robert the Bruce and Mary, Queen of Scots – all commissioned by Charles II to highlight the royal ancestry of the Stuart line.  You might also spot some of the damaged paintings that the government troops attacked when they had been defeated at the battle of Falkirk in 1746.

Towards the end of the tour, you can see the original tower where Mary, Queen of Scots stayed including her bedchamber.  Many of the original oak panelling still exists and many contemporary decorations too.  There’s a lot to see here – so many items that had a connection with her including some jewellery, books and tapestries.  There’s also a story that the blood stain from the murder of David Rizzio can be seen in the Queen’s Outerchamber – I don’t recall seeing it myself!

You can’t take photos inside the palace, but you can once you’re outside in the courtyard and also in the abbey.

The Abbey of Holyroodhouse

The origins of the palace are rooted around the Abbey that was built in the 12th century and it’s an interesting little place to wander around even if it is in stark contrast to the palace which is of course in great condition.  The Abbey is now in ruins but there are lots to see still including the Royal Vault that includes the remains of James V and plenty of information boards that show how the abbey would have looked in its heyday.

Tours of the Abbey run every hour through the day if you’d like to get more information about the history and legends that surround the abbey.

2023 update – the Abbey is currently closed – check their site to see if it’s reopened for your visit.

Interested in more abbeys? – Our guide to the medieval Abbeys of the Scottish Borders is here

The Palace Gardens

palace gardens holyrood

You can look around the gardens that surround the palace on the standard admission ticket although it is only open fully in the summer months from April – October and in December.  In the winter months, it’s only open on weekends.

I would love to go back and be able to look around in the summer when everything is in full bloom.  It’s a lovely, huge open space that is a welcome relief from the crowds of the city.  There are also some historical pieces to note too including a sundial that was made in the 1600s for the coronation of Charles I.

You can go on a tour of the gardens if you buy a combined ticket to the Gallery and the Palace.

The Queen’s Gallery

The Queen’s Gallery is a separate attraction that houses many paintings and exhibitions often with a Royal theme.  The exhibitions change over time but recently have been about the Russian Romanov’s, Prince Harry and Megan’s wedding and a display of the works of Leonardo da Vinci.

2023 Update – The Queen’s Gallery is temporarily closed until 2024

Love castles? – Here’s our guide to castles in or near Edinburgh

How long should you spend visiting Holyroodhouse Palace?

I managed to spend a good couple of hours visiting the Palace.  I was on my own so could go as fast as I liked and I was definitely mindful of the fact that I was there late in the day and it would be closing soon.  I could have spent a lot longer there especially if I’d taken time to visit the Queen’s Gallery and the Palace gardens more too.

The tour inside the palace will take around an hour. If you can, schedule in at least half a day to get the most of your time there and explore fully. Even if you only have a day in Edinburgh you can enjoy the palace among other sights!

When is the King at Holyrood Palace?

The King spends a whole week in Scotland at the end of June and beginning of July.  This is known as Holyrood Week, or Royal Week to those in Scotland, and sees the King base himself at the palace while he visits many places and the people of Scotland.

When the King is staying at Holyroodhouse the Palace is closed to the public although you can still visit the Queen’s Gallery (closed until 2024 unfortunately).

The Royal Standard is flown from the palace when the royal family is in residence and the Scottish flag is flown when they are not.

View of Arthur's Seat and Salisbury Crags from the outside of Holyrood Palace.  Also an old ornate fountain in the foreground
Fountain in the exterior grounds with Arthur’s Seat in the background

Opening hours & prices of Holyroodhouse Palace

(Accurate as of January 2023)

Bear in mind that in order to allow enough time for your tour that there is a ‘last admission time’ and in winter that is much earlier than I had envisaged.  I nearly didn’t make it in time!

Summer opening hours (1 April – 31 October) : 9.30am – 6.00pm with last admission at 4.30pm

Winter opening hours (1 November – 31 March) : 9.30am – 4.30pm with last admission at 3.15pm

Admission prices are as follows:

(When the Queen’s Gallery is open (2024 hopefully) there’s a combined ticket that can save you money)

Tickets are slightly cheaper if you book in advance. Prices in brackets are the ‘on the day’ price – even if you book online it will cost you the extra. You must book at least a day before to get the cheaper price.

Advance TicketOn the Day ticket
Adult£18.00£19.50
Young Person (18 – 24)£11.50£12.50
Child (5-17)£10.00£10.50
Disabled£10.00£10.50
Under 5FreeFree
Family (1 adult, 2 children)£30.50£33.00 (online)
Famiy (2 adults, 2 children)£46.00£50.00 (online)
Ticket prices for the Palace of Holyroodhouse in 2023

If you’re a family then you can get a discount when booking online – it will automatically calculate it for you. I have added sample prices above but it depends on how many children and adults. There’s a discount for up to 2 adults and 4 children.

If you think you will be able to return and want free readmission then you can get your entry ticket treated as a donation to the palace and your ticket will be stamped allowing a years worth of free admission.

Best place to get tickets

Tickets are available at the palace itself and if you’re travelling out of season like I was doing you may find that it’s fine to just purchase at the time although be aware that it’s slightly more expensive doing it this way.  

If you’re travelling in high season you might like to book ahead.  You can book tickets for the Palace here.

If you’re planning on visiting Edinburgh Castle, Royal Yacht Brittania and the Palace plus want to do a hop on hop off bus tour as well then it might be worth checking this all in one ticket.

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Kirsty Bartholomew

Kirsty has been getting lost around the world for over 30 years and writing about it for 10 of those. She loves to help people explore her favourite places in Scotland, England and beyond. She cannot stay away from historical sites.

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