The Royal Family

Inside Balmoral Castle, the Royal Family’s Scottish Retreat

Here’s your complete guide to the estate where Queen Elizabeth II spent her final days
Balmoral castle
The exterior of Balmoral Castle.Photo: Getty Images

Last September, Queen Elizabeth II took her last breath at her beloved Balmoral Castle in the Scottish Highlands with her son King Charles III, grandson Prince William, and other family members by her side. The 96-year-old British monarch had spent the end of the summer there for decades, and after her death, many wondered if King Charles would do the same. But royal traditions are not easily broken, and Charles and his wife, Queen Camilla, did in fact make the journey to Balmoral in late August of this year for the customary summer visit to the property. Since their arrival, the pair have watched on in the audience of the storied Highland games and have met up with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at a church service, so it’s already been a relatively eventful holiday. According to a palace spokesperson, no official public event commemorating the one year anniversary of the monarch’s death is scheduled, so the king and company may very well just be spending a quiet day of reflection at the Scottish retreat.

Long said to have been Queen Elizabeth’s favorite, the castle, located in Royal Deeside, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, is known as the site of the Ghillies Ball, an end-of-summer fête where the royals don tartan and celebrate with their staff, though more intimate family affairs are also held at the estate. The late monarch reportedly enjoyed hosting slumber parties at the castle with a number of her great-grandchildren in her twilight years. In a 2016 ITV documentary on her life, the queen’s granddaughter Princess Eugenie shared that the Scottish getaway held a special place in the queen’s heart: “I think Granny is the most happy there. I think she really, really loves the Highlands.”

The 2023 reception of King Charles III at Balmoral on August 21, 2023, his first summer holiday at the estate after Queen Elizabeth’s 2022 death.

Photo: Jane Barlow - Pool/Getty Images

Queen Elizabeth II did a good job of keeping the extravagant dwelling relatively private, but there are a few interesting design details that have slipped out over the years. It also served as the setting of an especially memorable episode in Season 4 of The Crown, aptly titled “The Balmoral Test,” which detailed the painstaking gauntlet of unspoken trials that served as a crucial assessment for outsiders, despite their social rankings as prominent political figures or otherwise esteemed guests of the family. (Princess Diana, reportedly, passed the test with ease, while Margaret Thatcher was said to have fared worse.) Below, we break down what exactly a design buff needs to know about the vacation palace, from its history and architecture to its opulent interiors and the surrounding property.

Where exactly is it?

The estate is located on the right bank of the River Dee in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, near the town of Ballater and not far from the Lochnagar Mountain, a popular hiking destination. Balmoral Castle is roughly 500 miles from Buckingham Palace, a nine-hour drive.

Who owns it?

Though official royal residences like Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace are owned by the Crown Estate, which is funded by British taxpayers, Balmoral is the personal property of King Charles III, as is Sandringham, located in Norfolk, England. King Charles inherited both of them upon the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II. Forbes reports that Balmoral is currently valued at a whopping $118 million. The King is not subject to paying any inheritance tax on the property due to a 1993 agreement with the government.

The Queen playing with her children Prince Charles and Princess Anne at Balmoral in 1952.

Photo: © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Queen Elizabeth II helps her son Prince Charles to take a picture of his sister, Princess Anne, at Balmoral, Scotland, 1952.

Photo: Lisa Sheridan/Studio Lisa/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

How long has the British royal family had it?

It was first rented in 1848 and was then bought in 1852. It was purchased by Prince Albert for himself and his wife, Queen Victoria, reportedly paying £32,000 to acquire the estate. He bought Balmoral six years after the couple first visited Scotland and it’s been passed down through the royal family ever since.

Balmoral has technically been around since the 15th century, but several additions and renovations over the years have transformed the home into something far different from the original version.

What’s important to know about its architecture?

Its style is considered to be Scottish baronial and Gothic revival. When Prince Albert purchased Balmoral, it was decided that it was too small for the royal family. The prince, Queen Victoria, and their children lived in the castle while a new one was being built. After the project was completed in 1856, the original castle was demolished. The replacement was built by father and son architects John and William Smith, who were both Scots. It was constructed from local granite and organized into two sections, each of which revolves around a courtyard space. A turreted clocktower remains an eye-catching feature to this day.

An aerial image of Balmoral Castle taken in 1954 shows the sprawling grounds, including several landscaped garden areas.

Photo: Daily Herald Archive/National Science & Media Museum/SSPL via Getty Images

Prince Albert was deeply involved in the design process. He was also responsible for a series of smaller additions to the property, such as the main farmhouse. After the prince’s 1861 death, Queen Victoria had a series of cottages built on the property which are still in use. She built the Garden Cottage for her children, Baile-na-Coille for her servant, and Karim Cottage for her Indian secretary. In 2019, Prince William, Kate Middleton, and their kids reportedly stayed in a three-bedroom cottage on the estate called Tam-na-Ghar during a visit.

One of the cottages at Balmoral, Birkhall, belongs to King Charles III and Queen Consort Camilla. The former inherited it when his grandmother, the Queen Mother, died in 2002, and the couple spent their honeymoon there in 2005.

Today, the 19th-century property is considered a Category A historic building, the highest-valued designation which is reserved for buildings “of national importance.”

What are the interiors like?

Though Balmoral Castle contains numerous rooms, some are particular standouts. One prime example is the ballroom. With gigantic chandeliers, mounted stag heads, and trefoil designs, it’s a masterclass in Scottish Highlands–inspired style.

Illustrations from the 1800s give some sense of what the rooms of Balmoral looked like during Queen Victoria’s heyday. Plaid upholstery, patterned wall coverings, fire screens, carved-wood cabinets, and framed landscapes proliferated. There were also plenty of candelabra—a practical necessity at the time. A study belonging to Prince Albert had a similar aesthetic, down to the plaid carpeting. That personal room also made great use of pretty white floral fabrics and a green wallpaper speckled with white blossoms. Apparently, Prince Albert believed that the interiors of Balmoral should be filled with Highland details such as tartans and chintzes, with trophies and weapons adorning the walls.

A drawing room in Balmoral Castle circa 1885 displays a bold mix of patterns throughout the space, from the wallpaper to the carpeting and the upholstery.

Photo: Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images

Photographs indicate that dark green appears frequently throughout the residence. There are also mirror-topped marble fireplaces, upholstered chairs with box-pleated skirts, and lots of leather-bound books. Despite the presence of stately clocks and light fixtures, it’s not without its modern-day conveniences—like flat screen televisions. Queen Elizabeth had her own study, which, during the 1970s, was carpeted in that same distinct plaid. That room also includes fine wooden furniture and floral drapes to cover bay windows.

Queen Elizabeth in her study in 1972.

Photo: Getty Images

Does it have lavish garden grounds?

As is typical of the royal family’s residences, Balmoral is surrounded by picturesque grounds. The estate is situated on 50,000 acres of land, both rugged Scottish landscape and neatly manicured garden areas. According to the Royal Collection Trust, work on the grounds began in 1855, with Prince Albert taking on an active role. A tradition of beautifying the property has been passed down throughout the dynastic line: Queen Mary, for example, created a flower garden. Nearby, Prince Philip contributed additions of his own.

Photos of the main grounds at Balmoral display meticulously manicured lawns with gardens planted in multiple locations along the property.

Photo: Universal Images Group via Getty Images

When Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip took over the estate, the late Duke of Edinburgh took a keen interest in the gardens. His contributions include a vegetable garden, a water garden, a floral walkway, and an oak-filled area. There’s one heartwarming hidden gem out in the wild: a statue of Queen Victoria’s beloved dog, Noble.

A statue commemorating Queen Victoria’s “faithful companion” Noble is located on the grounds at Balmoral.

Photo: Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

What is it used for today?

Royal family holidays. The Queen customarily visited Balmoral during the summer. Notably, King Charles III and Princess Diana ended their honeymoon with a stop into the royal residence, after enjoying a cruise around the Mediterranean. Years later in 1997, the queen was at Balmoral when she was informed of Princess Diana’s death. It’s also where King Charles III and the Queen Consort Camilla isolated toward the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Aside from being a royal family vacation escape, Balmoral opens its doors to the public from April to July every day, where guests can explore the grounds via guided tours.

The ballroom at Balmoral Castle

Photo: Getty Images

Queen Victoria at Balmoral with an unidentified woman

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The sitting room of Prince Albert

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Queen Elizabeth and her family photographed outside Balmoral Castle in 1960.

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The Queen at Balmoral in 2017. She is seen meeting with Canadian governor general designate Julie Payette.

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