Dropping in on the Queen

In 1848, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited the Scottish Highlands and fell in love with this remote part of Britain. In that same year — as the rest of Europe was ensnared in anti-royalist, pro-democracy revolutions — England’s Queen purchased Balmoral Castle on a vast 50,000-acre estate. The Queen proceeded to embrace the Highland culture, which led to something of a renaissance in the local way of life in this northern part of Scotland.

Today, Queen Elizabeth II and her family still spend a good part of their summers here at Balmoral. And, for much of the season, the palace welcomes the public. However, access is limited: You can roam the gardens, see some exhibits in the stables, and visit a single big room in the palace. The admission fee includes a self-guided audio tour, which I enjoyed.

Visiting Scotland, you’ll inevitably visit a few royal palaces — but consider expanding your sightseeing to the castles of clan nobility. It seems each clan has a “spiritual heart” where ancient artifacts, documents, and lots of battle-dinged weaponry are archived, and much of it accessible to the public. I toured every palace-like castle we came upon, and I enjoyed them all. And if you’re a Mac-this, a Mac-that, or a Campbell, these ancestral homes can be particularly interesting. For example, Inveraray Castle (popular for its Downton Abbey connections — their Christmas special was filmed here) bristles with the weaponry of Clan Campbell.

This is Day 96 of my “100 Days in Europe” series. As I travel with Rick Steves’ Europe Tours, research my guidebooks, and make new TV shows, I’m reporting on my experiences across Europe. Still to come: Germany, Switzerland, and more. Thanks for joining me here on my blog and via Facebook.