Top 12 castles
The top castles in the U.K.
- Landmarktrust.org.uk - This organization helps oversee and preserve over 190 historic buildings—from castles to mansions to cottages—across Britain. Since there are few enough Lords of the Manor these days to pay for their upkeep and keep them lived-in (old homes deteriorate rapidly when vacant), the Landmark Trust has hit upon the perfect solution: preserve the buildings (and help fund the organization!) by renting them out.
- Celticcastles.com - Castles in England (14), Scotland (39), Wales (1), and Ireland (19) (plus 8 in France)
- Castleandpalacehotels.com - Not the most complete, but by far the most user-friendly site, maintained by professional travel writer and guidebook author Pamela Barrus (always gotta give props to my colleagues). All castles—9 in England, 4 in Scotland, 2 in Wales—are hand-selected. The interface is quick and intuitive: Click on a country, click on a region, then click on a castle (or palatial hotel) to get a concise but info-packed single page on the property, complete with photographs, prices, direct contact info, brochure-like descriptions of the castle and its history, and a few choice words and tips on the hotel from Pamela herself. Other nice touches: basic intel on how castle hotels work in each country, useful phrases in each language for booking a room, information on holding weddings, etc. She also just has a good eye for castles. I've written about them myself—for guidebooks and magazine articles—so I know what's out there and can tell you that Pamela tends to pick some of the best.
- Castlesontheweb.com - Bukoos links on the "Accommodations" page. Could do with some organization though: some are booking engines, some direct links, some hotel reservations services... still, most seem to at least hook you up with bona fide fortresses. Happy hunting.
- Relaischateaux.com - One of the granddaddies of refined luxury, an association with extremely high standards (and price tags) with more than two-dozen properties in the U.K. Not all are castles, despite the name, but even the manor houses, palaces, mansions, historic villas, and regular hotels are of the utmost in comfort, quality, charm, history, and are usually really, really expensive.
- Visitscotland.com - The Web site of Scotland's tourist board lists 180 Scottish castles and other historic homes that have been turned into hotels, self-catering flats, B&Bs, and even a hostel—fancy staying in a real medieval castle for just £15/$28?
- Luxuryscotland.co.uk - More than 30 properties in Scotland—some modern, some lodges (one a train), but several are hotels converted from castles or castle-like old manors houses. All of them are luxurious.
Activities, walks, & excursions tours
- Viator.com - Best one-stop shopping site for all sorts of activities, walking tours, bus tours, escorted day trips, and other excursions. It is actually a clearinghouse for many local tour companies and outfitters, and since it gets a bulk-rate deal on pricing (and takes only a token fee for itself), you can actually sometimes book an activity through Viator for less than it would cost to buy the same exact tour from the tour company itself. (I once booked a Dublin pub crawl via Viator and later discovered that I saved about $1.50; also, the tour turned out to be sold-out, and they were turning away the folks in front of me in line, but since I had a pre-booked voucher I got in.)Partner
- Londonwalks.com - Since the 1970s, the gold standard in city walking tours and museum tours—and cheap, to boot. Just meet your guide at the appointed time and place (usually a Tube stop), pay your £10 (students or over 65s are £8; under 15 free), and prepare for a good two hours of amazing cultural insight and historic anecdotes. If you plan on taking three or more walks, buy a "Frequent London Walker" card for £2 from your first guide, then each subsequent walk costs £8. They also run popular excursions outside London for £18. Note that the fee just covers the guided tour; you pay for any admissions (or, for excursions, travel expenses) yourself.
- Contexttravel.com - This bespoke walking tour company doesn't even call its 200 tour leaders "guides." It calls them "docents"—perhaps because most guides are academics and specialists in their fields: history professors, archeologists, PhDs, art historians, artists, etc. Groups are miniscule (often six people maximum), and most docents can be booked for private guiding sessions as well. They aren't always the cheapest tours, but they are invariably the best. People rave about Context.Partner
- City-discovery.com - Chief rival to Viator (though with a less spiffy interface and often sub-par text descriptions), representing many of the same tours (at the same prices). However, it also seems to cover more destinations, especially secondary ones. When it comes down to it, City-Discovery and Viator have maybe 70% the same inventory, but then 30% will be completely different (some Viator has City-Discovery does not, other vice-versa) so it pays to check through the offerings from both.Partner