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Palace of Holyroodhouse (Edinburgh)
Member Name: collingwood21
Palace of Holyroodhouse (Edinburgh)
Date: 25/01/04, updated on 25/01/04 (126 review reads)
Advantages: Good interpretation, Open all year, Fascinating history
Disadvantages: Expensive, Gardens closed in winter, Poor signposting
The Palace of Holyroodhouse is the official residence in Scotland of the monarch - in other words, it is where the Queen stays when she visits Edinburgh. The palace is situated in the Holyrood area of the city, the historic royal quarter that also includes Holyrood Park, a large area of semi-wild parkland, and Arthur's Seat, the extinct volcano that rises above the city to give Edinburgh one of its most visible landmarks. The associations of Holyrood with history and the ruling of Scotland is probably also why the site of the new Scottish Parliament is on a piece of land directly opposite the palace, neatly tying together the sites of the old and new powers in the country. The entrance to the palace is directly at the eastern end of the Royal
Mile - once described by Daniel Defoe as the "Largest, Longest and Finest Street in the World" - the road that links it to Edinburgh castle, which lies (rather unsurprisingly) a mile away.
Holyroodhouse's origins go back to the twelfth century, although much of what is visible today is seventeenth century baroque architecture. According to legend, King David went out hunting one day and was suddenly confronted with a vision of a stag with a cross between its antlers about a mile east of Edinburgh castle. The most pious of the Scottish kings, he duly founded an abbey on the site of his vision in 1128. Many of the succeeding kings preferred to stay beside Holyrood Abbey, as it was a more agreeable and less draughty abode than the castle, at first in the monastic guesthouse and later in the palace that King James had built on the spot in the late 15th century. This early palace was replaced with a much larger building by Charles II, although he never actually lived there, and indeed it stayed something of a white elephant until Queen Victoria began to use it again as a convenient stopping-off place en route to Balmoral. However, it is the palace's association with Mary, Queen of Scots that it is really famous for - many events in her short and tragic reign took place at Holyroodhouse, including two of her three weddings and the murder of her Italian secretary, Rizzio.
As a visitor, finding Holyroodhouse itself is not a difficult task; it is a large and obvious building that can be found simply by walking down the Royal Mile away from the castle. I would strongly recommend that you do walk it, as not only is it a very attractive route, but also traffic is heavy and parking limited. However, as easy as finding the palace itself is, finding your way in proves to be a little harder. Whoever designed the visitor facilities here clearly doesn't believe in clear signposting. You see, the ticket
office, shop and toilets are all based in a courtyard, and the signs for visitors to follow are on boards that are put out every day - perhaps it was the person putting the boards out on the day I visited, but I found myself following signs into the courtyard and then being led in a circle through it that left me by the exit gateway. After going into the gift shop to ask where I could buy my ticket from, I found the ticket office hidden at the back of it. There was nothing outside to indicate that this is where you bought your ticket from, and judging from the bemused looks on the other visitor's faces, I was not the only one to be confused by this. Would it have really been so difficult to mark the building as "gift shop and ticket office"?
Buying my ticket was an easy if rather painful experience. It turned out that the entrance prices stated on the current leaflets were in fact last year's, and they had gone up considerably since then. I was expecting to pay £5 for a student admission, but found it was in fact £6 - and a not insubstantial £7.50 for an adult ticket for that matter. The newly opened Queen's Gallery at the palace (which has exhibitions showcasing items from the royal collections) cost an additional £3 (£4 for adults), but as fascinating as the current exhibition sounded, funds would not stretch to buying entrance to that as well. Official guidebooks were priced at £4.50 - needless to say, I didn't invest in one of those, either.
Fortunately, the toilets were signposted a little better than the ticket office was! These toilets are the only ones open to visitors in the palace, but are thankfully sensibly placed for you to access them before you begin your tour. They are clean and well kept, although there weren't a great many of them as I recall. This is fine if you happen to be visiting in January when the place is mostly empty, but in the height of summer I could imagine you would have to que
ue for quite some time here.
The other visitor facility located in the courtyard is the café. However, I will not be able to tell you anything about this as it is currently closed for refurbishment until Easter 2004. I understand that such work does need to be carried out, and that it is better for it to be done during the quieter season, but it still remains that there is nowhere for visitors to even have a drink during their visit, as no alternative has been provided. Even a temporary coffee machine in the shop would have been helpful - it was a very cold day when I visited, and a hot chocolate would have gone down very nicely.
**The Palace Tour**
Leaving the courtyard to begin my tour, the first room you come across is the new "e-gallery". The room basically has half a dozen touch-screen computers (how long are they going to last once high season starts?) that you can use to find out more about the palace and the royal collections at your own pace. The information is pretty basic, but it is very easy to navigate around and filled with plenty of images, so it is accessible to both children and adults alike.
Moving on, the tour proper starts in the next room. Handing over your ticket, you have the option of an audio guide to take on your tour with you, thankfully at no extra cost. I know some people feel a bit uncomfortable with using such equipment, but I would highly recommend that you take it up - think of it as having your own personal tour guide that you can shut up when you want to stop and look at something more closely! The audio tour is available in several languages (sorry, I didn't catch which ones, all I know is that there is a language setting on the equipment) and consists of a small digital device about the size of a walkman and some headphones. The tour is recorded in numbered sections that are listed by location on the player's screen, so you listen to the part for the room you are in,
go into the next room and press play when you are ready, and so on - all very straightforward indeed. The text is all very clear and easy to understand, and for the most part interesting as well, as it explains exactly what you are looking at, the significance and historical relevance of rooms, and in places gives you the option to go further (such as "if you want to hear more about X, press 17 now"). This helps you to get the most out of your tour, so you are not just wandering aimlessly around looking at pretty things.
The tour takes you first of all up the great staircase that is hung with magnificent tapestries, then on into the royal dining room and the throne room used by George IV when he was crowned King of Scotland. You are led through the Great Gallery, one of the most famous and impressive rooms in the palace, where the walls are hung with 89 of Jacob de Wet's 110 portraits of the real and legendary kings of Scotland from Fergus I to Charles II. Various royal apartments are also included to reflect the changing tastes of successive monarchs, but the one I suspect most visitors will remember is the chamber of Mary, Queen of Scots (described as "the most famous room in Scotland"). This is not because of the grand nature of the rooms, but more because this is where the infamous murder of Rizzio took place right in front of the Queen. One of her apartment rooms now houses a small museum, which includes needlework done by Mary herself as well as a number of her possessions.
The tour lasts about 50 to 60 minutes (depending on whether you listen to the extras or not), and concludes outside in the ruins of Holyrood abbey. At this point, I was looking forward to having a wander around the gardens, but I found that they are closed to visitors between November and March, despite the fact that you pay the same price for entrance all year round. I was quite annoyed by this I must admit, as nowhere is this information p
resented to visitors before they buy their ticket. I am not hugely bothered about missing the gardens, but it is more that I felt a discount should be offered to winter visitors to allow for this, as you are getting poorer value for money than if you visited in the summer.
Overall, I did enjoy my tour around Holyroodhouse, but I left with a distinct feeling of "is that it?". There are no two ways that the history of this building is fascinating and well presented, but I really don’t think that the 70 minutes I spent at the site were worth the money I paid to get in. Holyroodhouse presents a poor first impression to visitors with bad signposting, and the other visitor facilities do little to redeem it, with the shop being overpriced, the toilets few and the café non-existent - the closing of the gardens in winter without informing visitors until they had already bought their ticket was also a bad practice, I felt. This poor consideration and over charging of visitors lets down what is otherwise a good (if shorter than I would have expected) tour.
On the balance, I would like to recommend Holyroodhouse to those amongst you who are very interested in (particularly royal) history, and who don't mind either no gardens (winter) or huge crowds (summer). I would say in its present condition it is unsuitable for families with young children due to the lack of café and the high price of taking a large group into the palace, though.
Directions - If on foot, walk east along the Royal Mile to the end of the street. If travelling by car, the palace is fully signposted from city centre and major roads into Edinburgh, with the car park based on the edge of Holyrood Park. Bus numbers 35 and 64 and the open-top city tour buses also drop off near the palace.
Opening hours - Opens 9.30am daily, closing at 4.30pm November to March and 6pm April to October. As it is a working pala
ce, Holyroodhouse is of course closed whenever the Queen is visiting Edinburgh. Details of days when the palace is closed to visitors can be found at: www.royal.gov.uk/output/page582.asp.
Entrance price - For the palace only, tickets cost £7.50 for adults, £6 for students and over 60s, £4 for under 17s and under 5s are free. For the Queens Gallery, the price is £4 for adults, £3 for students and over 60s, £2 for under 17s and under 5s are again free.
Disabled access - Quite limited, but some access for wheelchair users would be possible to the Queen's Gallery, some of the grounds and the ground floor of the palace. A lot of the palace will not be accessible to those who cannot manage stairs, though. It is recommended that visitors with disabilities contact the information office (0131 556 5100) for full information about access.
Contact details - Visit www.royal.gov.uk, email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 0131 556 5100.
* - A "rood" is another name for a cross, so the palace name means "the house of the holy cross" in reference to the abbey it grew up alongside.
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