Your ultimate guide to visiting Balmoral

Balmoral has been the Royal family's retreat ever since it was bought for Queen Victoria in 1852 - Jan Zabrodsky

Mrs Thatcher loathed it. Harold Wilson adored the barbecues. The late Princess Diana snagged a Prince here. Finally, royal watchers will be able to see for themselves, with news that visitors will be able to tour parts of Balmoral Castle used by the Royal Family for the very first time this summer.

It clearly reflects the King’s desire to make royal residences more accessible to the public, along with the announcement that the newly refurbished East wing of Buckingham Palace, with its famous central balcony used for Trooping the Colour, is also being opened up for tours.

But Balmoral, set in the Scottish highlands, is the real coup. It was Queen Elizabeth II’s favourite residence, where she spent most of her summers.

Members of the royal family at Balmoral; the castle was well known to be the Late Queen's favourite residence
Members of the Royal family at Balmoral; the castle was well known to be the late Queen's favourite residence - PA

What makes the 50,000-acre estate in the Scottish Highlands so special is its link with history. It has been the Royal family’s retreat ever since it was bought for Queen Victoria in 1852. Victoria found the house “small but pretty” and recorded in her diary that: “All seemed to breathe freedom and peace, and to make one forget the world and its sad turmoils.”

Prince Albert considered the original property too small, however, and a new castle was soon built on the site. The tower and “pepper pot turrets” are characteristic of Scottish baronial style. The royal couple decorated Balmoral with tartans and attended highland games at Braemar – effectively creating a royal brand for Scotland.

Today, because Balmoral is private property (not the property of the Crown), it is the place the Firm relaxes most. Free from royal duties, they can ride, stalk deer or catch fish in the River Dee, which runs through the estate.

The late Queen Elizabeth spent her summers here walking her beloved corgis, riding ponies and picnicking with family and friends (guests reported she was happy to muck in with the washing up).

The late Queen at the writing desk in her study at Balmoral in 1972
The late Queen at the writing desk in her study at Balmoral in 1972 - getty

Parlour games, along with the tartan rugs, bagpipes at breakfast, draughty corridors decorated with mounted antlers and shoals of midges, are all part of the Balmoral experience. The weekend usually consisted of a formal dinner and an informal barbecue, with a church visit to Crathie Kirk on the Sunday.

It might sound like a nightmare country house weekend for some. But according to Princess Eugenie, it’s “the most beautiful place on earth”. Speaking on the ITV documentary Our Queen At Ninety, she explained: “It’s a lovely base for Granny and Grandpa to be – for us to come and see them up there where you just have room to breathe and run.”

It has long been tradition for the prime minister of the day to make an annual visit to Balmoral during September (a key date in any political diary). But the famous Balmoral test – guests are expected to dress the part, speak the part and behave the part – can fox the grandest figures.

Harold Wilson enjoyed it far more than a portly Ted Heath who got breathless on the hills. (Wilson even reverted to Boy Scout-style foraging for firewood for the barbecue.)

Avid watchers of season four of The Crown will know that Margaret Thatcher failed the test (she hated the games of charades and brought unsuitable shoes). “She couldn’t get away fast enough,” noted one official. But months later a young Diana passed with flying colours, charming Prince Phillip.

The then-Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales at Balmoral in 1981
The then-Prince Charles with Diana at Balmoral in 1981 - Anwar Hussein

In his memoir, Tony Blair described the annual visit as “a vivid combination of the intriguing, the surreal, and the utterly freaky”, and recalls being served drinks with the strength of “true rocket fuel”.

Blame the drink. His poor wife Cherie Blair conceived her son Leo here in 1999, too embarrassed to pack her contraception (when you arrive, royal staff insist on unpacking all your luggage).

David Cameron famously observed there was “no chillaxing” at Balmoral. And an actress friend who visited in the 1990s recalls Princess Margaret and The Queen singing hymns, until Diana demanded show tunes.

When the royals are in residence, Balmoral is closed, although the grounds and gardens are open to the public each year. But now guided “castle interior tours” will be available between 1 July-4 August, with groups of up to 10. Tickets are priced at £100, or £150 (afternoon tea included) .The tours will end before the King and Queen arrive at Balmoral for their summer break in Aberdeenshire.

Change is already afoot, of course. Last year, the first Balmoral stay of King Charles’ reign was pronounced more “relaxed” as the royals were a little “in awe” of the late Queen. And now, in the year Charles opens up the last private royal homes to tourists, we too can go behind the velvet rope.

So now the public can experience the magic of Balmoral for themselves, what should you be looking out for?

What to look out for on your tour of the house

The new tour includes access to Balmoral’s famous Ballroom, with its three great chandeliers and antlers hanging from wood-panelled ceilings. When Queen Elizabeth died at Balmoral on September 8 2022 at the age of 96 (the first monarch to die at Balmoral, and the first time a monarch had died in Scotland since James V in 1542) her coffin lay in repose in the ballroom of the castle for three days, to allow the Royal family, estate staff and neighbours to pay their respects.

On the Balmoral tour we will also have access to the green carpeted Drawing Room, in which the ailing Queen met Liz Truss on September 6, 2022, and the red corridor, where the King greeted Rishi Sunak last September, the family dining room, and the library.

An amusing highlight may be the pages’ lobby, the all-male staff quarters at Balmoral (the female quarters are called Finch’s Lobby). Princess Diana’s former butler Paul Burrell wrote in his book A Royal Duty about the “party atmosphere” that existed in the staff quarters.

Unlike the more recognisable state rooms at Buckingham Palace, where the monarch has appointed her previous 14 prime ministers, the rooms at Balmoral are rarely revealed. So when the Queen appointed the new prime minister Liz Truss in September 2022 in the castle’s formal green-carpeted Drawing Room, with its matching green sofas, leaf-patterned fabric chair, an open fire and equine-themed antique paintings on the walls, we had a glimpse inside her favourite retreat.

Touchingly, little seemed to have changed since the 1970s, with the same wallpaper and carpets, and possibly the same sofas (now with fresh covers). The candelabra was made for the room in the 1850s by Minton of Stoke-on-Trent and Winfield of Birmingham. On the left of the fireplace is Sir Edwin Landseer’s Death of the Royal Stag, which depicts Prince Albert holding a gun on his left shoulder, with a stag he has shot at his feet, while Victoria approaches on a pony led by John Brown, the local ghillie from Crathie, who became one of her closest companions during her long mourning.

Sir Edwin Landseer's Death of the Royal Stag, which hangs in the Drawing Room at Balmoral - alamy

To the right is a copy of Landseer’s portrait of Victoria on a pony outside Osborne House after Albert’s death, accompanied by Brown.

But also the room appeared comfortable, liveable and dog-friendly. Details such as the loose covers and arm caps on the sofas revealed the Queen’s practical side.

We are also promised access to a collection of the King’s watercolour collection depicting scenery at Balmoral, Highgrove and Sandringham as well as a collection of outfits worn by King Charles and Queen Camilla, the late Queen and Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother.

What to look out for on your tour of the gardens

The formal gardens covering some three acres, have been developed by successive generations. They contain a range of Victorian glasshouses, the game larder, the ice house and the conservatory, which displays flowering pot plants throughout the year.

Prince Albert oversaw the design of parterres and Queen Victoria built several monuments to her husband on the estate after his death. These include a pyramid-shaped cairn on top of Craig Lurachain. A large statue of Albert with a dog and a gun by William Theed was inaugurated on October 15 1867, the 28th anniversary of their engagement.

Between 1923 and 1925 Queen Mary devised the charming garden, with a semi-circular stone alpine terrace surrounding a central fountain. The gates to this garden bear the monograms GR and MR.

The central fountain in the Queen Mary-designed gardens at Balmoral
The central fountain in the Queen Mary-designed gardens at Balmoral - iStock Editorial

In 1931, the gardens and castle grounds were opened to the public for the first time.

During the Second World War, royal visits to Balmoral ceased. Danzig Shiel, a lodge built by Victoria in Ballochbuie, was renamed Garbh Allt Shiel and the “King of Prussia’s Fountain” was removed from the grounds.

In the 1950s,the Duke of Edinburgh extended the gardens to incorporate a large kitchen garden, with the fresh produce harvested and used for the Royal family’s summer holiday. He is also responsible for the creation of a flowered paved walk, a water garden (to the west of the main garden, in the trees between Garden Cottage and the West Drive) and the plantation of oak trees.

The Duke of Edinburgh extended the gardens to incorporate a large kitchen garden
The Duke of Edinburgh extended the gardens to incorporate a large kitchen garden - alamy

On the front lawn, at a point opposite the tower and about 100 yards from the path, a stone marks the position of the front door of the earlier house, demolished in 1856.

This year, new planting designs added by King Charles include a Thistle Maze, Celtic Ballroom Maze and new topiary elements. In addition, many new trees and shrubs are being planted, including an avenue of cherry blossom and 8,000 daffodils.

The new hidden quarters of Buckingham Palace

After the refurbishment of Buckingham Palace – a 10-year programme of works – we’ll finally get to see The East Wing of the Palace. Included in the new tour this summer is the Centre Room, which leads on to the Palace’s famous central balcony, first used by Queen Victoria, and the Chinese Dining Room from where the late Queen paid her television tribute to the late Diana Princess of Wales.

Designed by Edward Blore, it was built for Victoria to provide more entertaining and living space for her expanding family. Between 1847 and 1849, the East Wing was added at the front, enclosing what had previously been an open, horseshoe-shaped courtyard and introducing the famous central balcony. The balcony was Prince Albert’s idea - so the Royal Family could be visible and connect with the public. The Monarch and members of the Royal Family have made appearances there since 1851.

The East Wing is made up of many rooms including the Yellow Drawing Room, the Principal Corridor and the Centre Room. Many are Chinese-themed and furnished with works from the Royal Collection, which were moved from George IV’s Royal Pavilion in Brighton upon its sale in 1850.

The Centre Room in Buckingham Palace's East Wing, which will open to visitors for the first time later this year
The Centre Room in Buckingham Palace's East Wing, which will open to visitors for the first time later this year - Peter Smith

The Principal Corridor, which runs the length of the Wing, includes paintings by artists Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Sir Thomas Lawrence and Thomas Gainsborough. The paintings at the north end of the corridor include portraits of Queen Victoria and her family as well as scenes of important events in her life.

In the Yellow Drawing Room there are two large, hexagonal, nine-tiered Chinese porcelain pagodas and the Kylin Clock (which combines pieces of Asian porcelain with a French clock). A glass chandelier, shaped to resemble a lotus flower, features in the Centre Room, the room which leads onto the famous balcony. There are also many Chinese porcelain vases originally supplied to George IV in 1807.

When will Balmoral open to the public?

Balmoral’s grounds, gardens and exhibitions will be open from Saturday May 4 to Sunday August 11, from 10am until 5pm (last admission 4pm) each day. The interior guided tours, new to 2024, will take place from Monday July 1 to Sunday August 4.

How to book your ticket

Tickets can be booked online at General admission tickets start from £17.50 for adults, £9 for children (aged five to 16) and children aged under five can visit for free. A family ticket for two adults and up to three children costs £38. General admission with afternoon tea costs £60.

The new guided tour of the castle interior starts from £100, rising to £150 if packaged with an afternoon tea experience (adults only). These have now sold out and it is not known when tickets for 2025 will go on sale.

General admission tickets to Balmoral start from £17.50 for adults - alamy

The final option for visitors is to book onto an Expedition Tour (there are two sessions: 10am to noon or 1pm to 3pm; £350 for six people), which features a guided Land Rover tour of the gardens, heading into the Caledonian Pine Forest and along the flanks of Locnhager. The Expedition Tour also includes general admission to Balmoral.

How to get there

Balmoral is in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park on the banks of the River Dee. The two closest airports are Inverness (66 miles; 1hr 50min drive) and Aberdeen (45 miles; 1hr 5min drive). The main public transport links to Balmoral are from Aberdeen, where Stagecoach runs a regular bus service taking around two hours. Many coach tour firms also operate trips to Balmoral.

There is parking available at Crathie, just next to Balmoral on the A93, costing £5. Disabled and elderly visitors can park within the grounds of Balmoral; staff at the main gates will be able to give directions to the Estates Office, where you can park.

Where to stay nearby

There are some wonderful places to stay within a short drive of the Balmoral Estate. The pick of the bunch is the Fife Arms in Braemar (15min drive from Balmoral), a romantic, design-led five-star hotel featuring a watercolour of a stag’s head painted by Queen Victoria (; doubles from £473). Another option, just 10 minutes from Balmoral, is Darroch Learg, a haven of calm and civility set in a 19th-century country house (; doubles from £225).