If you’re the type of person that enjoys a small group tour, but have had enough of Harry Potter tours and Stonehenge tours, then how about a Highclere Castle visit, the real Downton Abbey?
Luckily, if you’re into the series Downton Abbey, then you’ve stumbled on the right article!
If you’re not, I recommend going back to season 1, episode 1, and giving it a chance.
Even if you don’t like period dramas, you’ll find the cinematography, music, scenery, scripts, character development, and acting are of a much higher quality than most content you’ll find streaming today.
If your grandmother or mother is dragging you on one of the Highclere tours, at least take a few hours and watch a Downton Abbey film. That way, you’ll have some understanding of what they’re talking about.
Don’t worry, you’ll have a good time exploring the abbey even if you’ve never seen an episode or movie.
In real life, Downton Abbey is named Highclere Castle. It’s about an hour outside of central London in Berkshire. You’ll need a car or bus to get there, but more on that later.
No, the Earl and Countess of Grantham don’t live there. But, the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon do, and they’re quite nice.
When is Highclere Castle Open?
Timing may be the trickiest part of your Highclere Castle visit. The castle isn’t open very much throughout the year.
You really can’t blame the earl and countess, since they do live there. Would you like to have your castle open to the public all the time?
Open public dates tend to revolve around guided tours, a private members club, themed holidays, the annual Highclere Show, and an extended summer calendar.
To give you an idea, the summer dates in 2022 were 10 July to 5 September.
If you’re really into Downton Abbey, you can even book weddings or stay at one of their exterior lodges for a night or two.
I personally recommend visiting during the annual Highclere Show. Sure, Christmas in the castle is nice.
But if you’re traveling from outside England, spring and summer weather is much better. You’ll also enjoy the gardens much more during a spring or summer visit.
The Highclere Show is like a county fair, generally the last weekend in May. Don’t worry, the 5,000-acre estate is big enough. You won’t even see the castle from the parking area or show grounds.
In fact, you might start to wonder if you’re in the right place. We knew we’d found it when we saw the countess walking around at the back of Jackdaw’s Castle.
By combining the Highclere Show and castle tour, you’ll spend the entire day on the estate. Not bad if you’re a fan of the show.
Visiting Highclere Castle
First, you have to get there. Once you have your Highclere Castle tour dates you can book your travel arrangements. If you’re only doing the castle tour you can stay in central London.
For pro tips on planning your trip to England see our article “Things to do in London.”
We book travel with Tripmasters whenever we can. You can do everything yourself on the computer and still get discounted rates negotiated by a travel agency. If you ever need assistance, just give them a call.
Since you’re planning ahead, purchase your tickets online before you go. They’ll actually mail them to you in the States.
Make sure to include everything you want to do. For example, if you’re taking our advice and visiting during the Highclere Show, buy tickets for the show, garden, and castle tours.
Sometimes the website says the castle is closed during the show, but you can contact them to verify.
We’ve also bought garden and castle tickets at the front gate, and gone in without a line in the afternoon. They make it very easy either way.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
The plane part is over, but now you need ground transportation to get to Highclere Castle. If you’ve ever driven in the United Kingdom, you’ll understand my recommendation to take a bus.
Public transportation really isn’t available to get to the castle, so you’ll need to book with a Highclere Castle tours charter service such as Tourist England.
If you’re fearless and want to try driving, I recommend upgrading to an automatic and picking your rental car up from Heathrow Airport.
You’ll have to take the Tube to Heathrow, but you’ll avoid driving in London this way. You’ll also get more time at Highclere Castle.
Should you decide to drive, I also recommend a few days in central London prior, and then picking up your rental car at the airport and spending a few days in the Cotswolds after your Highclere Castle visit.
Also, know that the GPS is wrong. So, follow the signs to the castle when you get close.
We Made It, Now What?
The car park, that’s what the Brits call a parking lot, is conveniently located by the main gate. If you don’t already have tickets, that’s where the ticket booths are as well. With your ticket in hand, you’re ready to make your grand entrance.
Once you step through the gate, you’re on the main drive that you’ve seen in the show. It’s not far to the front door, but if you’re like everyone else, you’ll probably spend a few minutes taking pictures as you get closer.
There’s a rope corral at the front door to manage the queue, British for line. If you arrive on opening dates or times, there’ll probably be a line.
You’ll have a chance to take more pictures of the elaborate front door and ask about the dragons before they let your small group in.
Take as many pictures as you want outside because you’re not allowed to take pictures inside. You’ll also be politely told that the dragons you see at the front door and throughout the house, aren’t dragons. Silly me, they’re wyverns?
Inside the Castle
The first thing you’ll notice is that the castle is smaller than it appears on screen. If you watched the series, you’ll be very familiar with the first floor. It’s just like you’ve seen on the show and in the movies.
You enter, turn left, and suddenly you’re in Lord Grantham’s library. It’s a bit surreal.
They have pictures from Downton Abbey in each room, along with a guide that can answer your questions and give you inside information.
Throughout the castle, there are plenty of rooms that don’t appear on TV or screen. You’ll also discover that the downstairs scenes weren’t filmed at the castle.
Just like the various exterior filming locations, interior filming took place at multiple locations.
There was also an Egyptian Exhibition set up in the basement when we visited. It covered some of the archeological work of the 5th earl back in the 1920s.
The estate is beautiful and meticulously manicured. They have a gift shop at the back of the castle where you can buy Her Ladyship and His Lordship coffee mugs, along with all sorts of memorabilia.
There’s a large tent set up for refreshments, afternoon tea, or lunch. An added benefit is the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon are gracious hosts. They’re actively engaged in the castle tours and events.
Look at their pictures online ahead of time, so you know what they look like if they ask to sit down and sip a refreshment with you.
Some people visit the estate just to tour the gardens. The castle sits on 1,000 acres of parkland, with gardens that date back to the 13th century. Among the gardens are six 18th century “follies.”
The most recognizable folly is Jackdaw’s Castle, made famous by Downton Abbey. There’s also an Etruscan Temple, the Temple of Diana, and several others as you walk around the castle grounds.
Downton Abbey Filming
Downton Abbey filming locations were in various locations and studio sets.
I won’t spoil the behind the scenes information you’ll get on your Highclere Castle visit, but if you want to see the Dower House, the Downton village, or Yew Tree Farm, you’ll need to travel beyond the Highclere estate.
The Dower House is in Surrey. Its real name is Byfleet Manor. The Downton village and Yew Tree Farm are in the Cotswolds.
Luckily, plenty of tour companies are willing to help. Tourist England offers one- and two-day Downton Abbey small group and private tours from London.
You’ll even find Winston Churchill’s birthplace, Blenheim Palace, tacked onto some of the Cotswolds’ tours.
Tour dates and times vary, but numerous companies offer Downton Abbey day tours, so shop around.
Letting someone else do the driving in England, especially on narrow countryside roads, really is a stress-free way to enjoy the behind-the-scenes locations of one of your favorite shows.
Visiting Highclere is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that you’ll enjoy, even if you’ve never seen Downton Abbey. Call it a bucket list item and convince your friends or family to go. You won’t regret it.