As Northern Ireland’s only royal residence, Hillsborough Castle in pretty special.
Set in 100 acres of gorgeous gardens, this historic home is the official residence of the Queen and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
Those that visit Hillsborough Castle can tour the palace, explore the gardens and drop into the award-winning cafe for a cuppa and a cake.
In the guide below, you’ll find info on everything from the Hillsborough Castle tours to the history of this beautiful building.
Some quick need-to-knows about Hillsborough Castle and Gardens
Although a visit to Hillsborough Castle and Gardens is fairly straightforward, there are a few need-to-knows that’ll make your visit that bit more enjoyable.
Hillsborough Castle is located on The Square in Hillsborough, 12 miles southwest of Belfast along the M1/A1. It’s a 10-minute drive from Hillsborough Forest Park, a 15-minute drive from Lady Dixon Park, a 20-minute drive from Colin Glen.
There is free onsite parking for visitors; just follow the signs from the A1 to the car park entrance and Weston Pavilion. There is no access from the village.
Toilets can be found at Weston Pavilion, Pineapple Yard and the Gardens. They all have disabled access and baby-changing facilities.
4. Opening hours
The castle and gardens are open in summer on Wednesdays through Sundays from 10am to 6pm. Last admission is 5pm. Hillsborough Castle (the building) is open from early April to the end of September. The gardens are open all year round as above.
Ticket prices for the castle and 100 acre royal gardens are £14.20 for adults and half price for children. Members of the charity Historic Royal Palaces have free admission.
History of Hillsborough Castle
Hillsborough Castle was built as a grand Georgian country house for the Hill family (Earls of Downshire) around 1760.
It was owned by successive Marquesses until 1922 when the 6th Marquis sold it to the British government. This created a home and office for the Governor of Northern Ireland following the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.
After some renovations, the first Governor, 3rd Duke of Abercorn, took up his official residence in the castle and it was renamed Government House.
In 1972, the role of Governor was abolished and direct rule was moved to London. A new role of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was created in place of the Governor and Prime Minister of Northern Ireland.
As the representative of the Queen, the castle became his official residence. The gardens were opened to the public in 1999.
Hillsborough Castle has hosted many important meetings and royal visitors. The Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed there in 1985, the Queen stayed at the castle in 2002 during her golden Jubilee Tour.
US President George W. Bush was a guest in 2003 along with British PM Tony Blair. In 2014, the Prince of Wales hosted the first investiture in Northern Ireland at the castle. The same year, management of the castle was contracted to Historic Royal Palaces.
Things to do at Hillsborough Castle
There’s plenty to see and do at Hillsborough Castle and Gardens, making it a great place to escape to if you’re staying in Belfast.
Below, you’ll find info on everything from the gardens and the castle tour to the lake and much, much more.
1. Ramble through Hillsborough Castle Gardens
Hillsborough Castle Gardens are beautifully tended by a team of gardeners all year round. Enjoy the formal ornamental gardens which give way to woodland trails, meandering waterways and beautiful glens in the surrounding estate.
Established in the mid-18th century, the stunning gardens now have many mature trees, specimen plants and rare species.
A Garden Explorer Map is available and gives details of the highlights. These include the Walled Garden, tranquil Yew Tree Walk, Moss Walk, Lake and Lady Alice’s Temple. Granville Rose Garden was created in the 1940s by Lady Rose Bowes-Lyon, wife of the second governor.
2. Explore the Castle
Now managed by Historic Royal Palaces, this elegant Georgian country house has some stunning State Rooms used for official functions. These include the Throne Room, State Drawing Room, Lady Grey’s Study. State Dining Room, Red Room and Stair Hall.
You can learn more about the history and see the opulent interiors on a guided tour. Timed tickets are issued and need to be booked on arrival.
3. Stroll around the Walled Garden
Once an 18th century kitchen garden sheltered by high stone walls, the four-acre Walled Garden still produces fruit, vegetables and flowers for the castle.
Restored and presented as a productive working area, it has a dipping pond, colourful herbaceous borders in late summer and seasonal crops.
The orchard has espaliered fruit trees, some planted over 100 years ago. Irish apple varieties include Kilkenny Pearmain and Bloody Butcher.
4. Soak up the views at the lake
Hillsborough Castle has its own stream-fed lake and Mill Race that powers a hydro-electric turbine providing power for the estate. This secluded lake area is home to kingfishers, swans and their cygnets.
The lake is surrounded by mature trees including Giant Sequoias (Redwoods) in the Pinetum. They were planted in the 1870s along with other mature trees that have stood here for over 140 years.
Things to do near Hillsborough Castle
Below, you’ll find a handful of things to see and do a stone’s throw from the castle (plus places to eat and where to grab a post-adventure pint!).
1. Hillsborough Forest Park (7-minute drive)
Close to Hillsborough Castle and the local village is the scenic Hillsborough Forest Park. Covering 200 acres, it is a peaceful spot for bird-watching, walking and nature-spotting. Graded way-marked routes, lakeside views and a playground are complemented by Percy’s Cafe at the car park.
2. Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park (17-minute drive)
Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park is an award-winning 128-acre public park on the outskirts of Belfast. It has something for everyone – three walking trails, forests, a café, playground and formal gardens including the International Rose Garden.
3. Colin Glen Forest Park (30-minute drive)
Colin Glen is the leading Adventure Park in Ireland. Close to Belfast city, it has sports pitches, an indoor sports dome, archery, laser tag, the Black Bull Run (Ireland’s first Alpine Coaster) and River Rapid, Ireland’s longest Zipline. It’s also home to the official Gruffalo Trail to feed youngsters’ imagination.
4. Belfast City (20-minute drive)
Belfast City is crammed with things to do. Visit museums, the Belfast Cathedral Quarter and Titanic Experience or go shopping at historic St George’s Market. It has an excellent food scene with pubs, cafes and upscale bistros lining the streets and providing a hub of nightlife.
FAQs about Hillsborough Castle and Gardens
We’ve had a lot of questions over the years asking about everything from can you stay in Hillsborough Castle (you can’t) to can you get married at Hillsborough Castle and Gardens (you can).
In the section below, we’ve popped in the most FAQs that we’ve received. If you have a question that we haven’t tackled, ask away in the comments section below.
Has the Queen ever stayed at Hillsborough Castle?
Yes. It was in March of 1946 that Queen Elizabeth (a princess at the time) stayed in Hillsborough Castle.
How much is it into Hillsborough Castle?
Ticket prices for the castle and 100 acre royal gardens are £14.20 for adults and half price for children.
What are the opening hours for Hillsborough Castle?
The castle and gardens are open in summer on Wednesdays through Sundays from 10am to 6pm. The building) is open from early April to the end of September.
Elisha is a freelance writer, content creator and blogger and her work can be read in Lonely Planet, Remote Lands and Matador Network. You’ll usually find her travelling in offbeat places or hiking wherever there are mountains; always with a camera in hand.