Day out: Hillsborough Castle and Gardens, County Down

Step back in time at this official royal residence to enjoy a classic festive celebration brimming with rich furnishings, traditional music and fondant mice

Hillsborough Castle and Gardens, County Down

Explore Hillsborough Castle and Gardens in Northern Ireland this winter.

Do you love the spirit of Christmas, yet shy away from the commercialism of the modern age? Do you want to immerse yourself in a bygone era, surrounded by the opulence of royalty, while enjoying an intimate insight into one of Britain’s most recently restored stately homes?


If the answer to these questions is yes, consider a visit to Hillsbrough Castle in County Down. Occupying a late-Georgian mansion dating from the 1770s, this is Northern Ireland’s only royal palace. The official residence of both the British royal family and the Secretary of State, the castle was reopened earlier this year by HRH The Prince of Wales after a five-year refurbishment costing some £20 million.

The Prince Of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall attend the reopening of Hillsborough Castle and Gardens in 2019
The Prince Of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall attend the reopening of Hillsborough Castle and Gardens, Northern Ireland, in 2019 ©Getty

Christmas Tours

A tour of the house and a wander around the gardens is fascinating at any time of year, but the sense of immersion is most keenly felt in the run-up to Christmas. This is thanks to the unique festive tours laid on by staff. From 2 December to 5 January, visitors are guided by a costumed actor playing a historic figure from the castle’s past, providing an intriguing glimpse into Christmas traditions gone by.

The castle’s elegant state rooms, always festooned with opulent furnishings and paintings from the royal collection, are transformed by festive touches. Special installations illustrate the Twelve Days of Christmas, while musicians play traditional tunes and visitors can sample old-fashioned treats such as fondant mice and Twelfth Night cake. Father Christmas is even on hand to greet younger guests. The overall effect is charming, and educational in the most captivating way possible.

Tollymore Forest, Northern Ireland

Grounds and Gardens

Having seen the house, why not explore the 100-acre grounds? Four short, signed walks carry you past a host of outdoor landmarks, including ornamental gardens, temples, tree-lined avenues, a lake and woodlands. 


And even if the estate’s 18th-century walled garden is partly dormant in winter, fear not; you can still sample the produce in two castle cafés. Whether you enjoy hand-picked preserves with your afternoon tea, or seasonal vegetables with your roast pork, you’ll still be able to taste the garden’s bounty.