What to See On the Royal Mile in Edinburgh
Although Edinburgh is smaller than most European cities, the history within this town is really just as jam-packed. It is quite touristy along the Royal Mile for good reason, but not all activities and venues are created equal. So here are my tips on What to See On The Royal Mile in Edinburgh.
The End of the Royal Mile at the Palace
There are several streets along the Royal Mile that each has their own unique treasure of history. The streets that make up the Royal Mile are Castle Hill, Lawnmarket, High Street, Canon-gate and Abbey Strand (which leads to the Holyrood Palace). These streets are an excellent example of what life in the 16th and 17th century would have been like.
The side streets between houses or 'closes' housed the livestock for those inhabitants in the skyscraper-like apartments.
Building Edinburgh & its History:
King David in 1124 was the first to recognize the hill as an ideal place for protection, he built a fort and named it the Burgh of Eiden. This later gave rise to Edinburgh Castle, I like to think it was someone who was dyslexic that just got the name mixed up somehow.
In 1544 King Henry VIII burned much of the city because of Scotland's refusal to allow him to marry Mary Queen of Scots, who was an infant at the time. King Henry VIII was historically a bit weird, so it is a good thing that did not happen.
The year 1645 saw as many as 70,000 people living within the Royal Mile. Some of the housing units were 14 stories high, and up to 10 people sharing a single room!
Renovations were initiated in 1865, with new housing built on Blackfriars street and St Mary's street. Cockburn street also connected the Royal mile to the Train Station.
Patrick Geddes then remodeled the Canongate and top of the mound to look more like the original Royal Mile 500 years earlier.
Now that I have spouted off much of the data and dates associated with Edinburgh and Royal mile, hopefully, I haven't lost all my readers ;) It is important to know this backdrop of history, as it allows you to realize what a dark history of war this area has had over time.
St Margaret's Chapel:
The tiny Norman chapel built in the 12th century is the oldest surviving part of Edinburgh Castle. Named St.Margaret's chapel after the saintly wife of Malcolm III, it can still be used today by the castle guardians for weddings.
The Great Hall, with its ornate hammerbeam roofing, built by James IV in 1510 holds a fine collection of armor and weapons. Don't ask me what hammerbeam means, because I really have no idea. I'm assuming it is the shark tooth like appearance of the arch itself.
The Stone of Destiny:
Not only was the castle of great importance during Scotland's Wars of Independence but it was also the seat of the Scottish Kings. Be sure to take a gander at the Stone of Destiny, a tradition of the Scottish Kings that would sit on this stone during their coronation.
It is believed that this is the stone that Jacob (of the Bible) dreamed about Jacob's ladder. Thus the stone is considered sacred, and likely why in 1296 Edward the I built it into his throne. Make sure to watch the movie associated with the stone, uniquely called, The Stone of Destiny.
The Stone of Destiny can be found and viewed along with the Scottish Royal Crown and Jewels at Edinburgh Castle. A ticket is required to view these items, so be sure to plan accordingly.
Ancient Royal Apartments:
You can still see the little room in the Royal Apartments where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to her son James who would eventually become James VI of Scotland and James I of England.
Vaults and Graves:
Among the other things to see at the castle are its eerie vaults. The Scottish United Services Museum is a humbling thing to witness. There is also a gallery in hospital square, the Witches Well (where women were burned for witchcraft), Mons Meg ( a 15th-century cannon ).
My favorite part was a little cemetery towards the summit of the castle where the regimental pet dogs are buried. This is the part where I knew I was truly Scottish, my love for dogs was evident in the honor they give their dogs. It made my heart burst knowing that these animals will forever hold a place in the history of Edinburgh Castle.
Tickets: £16.50 Adults with discount rates for seniors and children, free for children under 5 years of age. Opening Hours: Monday to Sunday: 9.30am – 6pm
The Royal Mile is home to the Edinburgh University's School of Divinity and Library. John Knox will promptly greet you at the doors, as he did in his sermons of old. You will read more about John Knox in the St. Giles Cathedral section.
This School of Divinity is one of the most renowned universities for post-graduate theology studies with programs coming from 30 different countries. Established in May of 1843 after one-third of the ministers left the Church of Scotland. They left the church out of protest and striving for their spiritual independence.
An assembly of the Free Church Representatives decided this college was to be used for the training of Free Church ministers. This University continues to be used to teach theologists of our day. An excellent example, of many you will see in Scotland, of the past meeting the present.
A Personal Moment at this University
I didn't know what this building was, and likely shouldn't put this part in writing. A door was slightly open and I wandered inside to this courtyard. The statues I encountered appeared to be people of importance, but I didn't know why. I have to admit that I did feel a sense of peace in this place.
The need to explore more to find out why I felt so peaceful, won out my brain telling me it was wrong.
I tried to climb some of the stairs, but young adults with backpacks on were attempting to pass each other on the narrow stairs. This is when I realized I was actually in a school of some sort & left.
It was interesting researching what this building actually was after I came home as I felt such peace there. Scotland was the first place I had ever traveled alone. Ironically it was also 4 months after I had endured significant trauma. (See: When you try to keep it together, but some days you just can't - post for more on that). I wandered into this building within the first two hours of arriving in Scotland
St Giles Cathedral
Saint Giles is actually the saint of cripples and beggars. You will find a few of the beggars on the Royal Mile, but they are not aggressive like in many of the cities in the USA. This church was built in 1126 but was destroyed by the English in 1385. The Scottish Reformation came about and so did the great minister John Knox who served here from 1559 to 1572.
There are several important Scottish people buried here including James Graham, Marquis of Montrose (who was incidentally hung at Mercat Cross).
If you head to the West side of the Cathedral you will find the Heart of Midlothian within the cobblestone street. This marks where Parliament was held in the 15th century until the 19th century. It was also the commonplace where executions took place. For some reason unknown to me, Scottish locals will spit on the heart as a way of obtaining good luck (so just be aware of the spitters).
Mercat Cross is actually just at the opposite end of where St Giles Cathedral is. People were often tied up and whipped, tortured, and killed due to their crimes. It did not matter if they were real, witchcraft or false claims.
Real Mary King's Close
Take a tour underground, visiting the bowels of Scotland underneath the towering buildings along the Royal Mile. You will descend into the dark depths of the city and be transported into the Real Mary King's Close (or alleyway).
Tour the homes and the streets of the 17th century. Dive into your imagination as you learn of those who were afflicted with the plague. Learn what the centuries-old medical management of the Plague was like. The historical content of this tour is fantastic. The creepy factor for this tour, on a scale of 0 to 10, is only about a 3. I would hesitate to take young children on this tour. It is, however, a fantastic tour for all those who work in the medical field or are fascinated with ancient medicine.
This is truly one of the highlights of your self-guided tour of the Royal Mile in Scotland, a place where old meets new. Be delighted by the Royal Art Collection at Holyrood Palace, where I was able to see several Vermeer paintings. Here you will find special collections that are favorites of the royals. Take a tour of the many rooms of Holyrood Palace and the history that accompanies it.
This is the place where, in the 16th Century Mary, Queen of Scots had her official apartments. Both the Queen of Scots apartments and the State Apartments are open to the public year round. Keep in mind that the Queen of England comes to stay in Scotland at the first month of Summer every year (June to July) and holds ceremonies and banquets for her Holyrood Week with Garden Parties. This Palace and it's grounds have been home to Scottish Royalty for over 500 years.
There are several options for tours of the Palace available so be sure you know which one you would like to participate in. You can visit just the State Apartments, or you can include the Queens Royal Art Collection and the Palace Grounds. I personally did the Royal Visit (includes State Apartments, Royal Collection which housed many Vermeer paintings, and the Garden tour).
Why Choosing the Royal Tour is the Best Idea
While touring the palace you quickly realize you can only walk on the sidewalks. Walking on the grass at any time for any reason is prohibited unless accompanied by a Palace Warden. Do not test the Warden's people, you may find yourself in hot water if you do.
The Royal Tour, which includes the gardens and palace grounds, will give you a unique view of the Palace. Walking on the pristine grass is allowed on the Royal Tour. You also hear the funny stories about why certain items are kept on the grounds. There is also a story of sibling rivalry that taught me that family feuds never change no matter the century, there is always one....you know who you are. :)
Other Travel Hacks for Edinburgh
There are not a whole lot of public restrooms I found along the Royal Mile itself. I happened to be staying at the Castle Rock Hostel which is right at the base of Edinburgh Castle. You can go into a restaurant and use their facilities, but typically only if buying a meal. There is one public Toilet at the backside of the Castle in Old Town, but it only has 1.5 stars on google, so utilize this at your own risk. Here is a map of other public restrooms in Edinburgh.
Weather & What to bring
During the day the cobblestone streets hold the heat really well. When the sun sets the temperatures drop quickly and with the water being so close to this area, it can get rather chilly, even with warm blankets. The restaurants will fill up quickly after the sun sets and will be difficult for you to get a table. There are some restaurants that allow reservations, but most are a 'first come, first serve' basis.
It will not matter what time of day it is, when the sun sets, most people head indoors because of the cold. Make sure to bring gloves, slouchy beanie, and a Winter Coat as it gets quite windy. I will typically layer my clothing with a Fleece sweater (that is breathable), then a rain jacket. I know many travelers want to look cute in their photos. When you start freezing you will wish you had the proper gear.
How Long Do I need to see everything on the royal mile?
These are just a few of the things you can see along the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. I would give yourself at least two days to see everything on the Royal Mile properly as there is a lot of walking you are going to have to do.
Edinburgh is one of my favorite cities in the world. I have ancestors who are from Scotland. Pedestrians have easy access to all the major sites within 20 minutes of walking. Making friends is incredibly easy in Scotland due to how helpful, kind and jovial most of them are. Basically, you need to go to Scotland right now or move it to the top of your bucket list.
Where To Stay in Edinburgh
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My name is Janiel, I specialize in solo female travel, cultural connections, sustainable adventures, food and history to help make your travel experiences fun, meaningful, and delicious. My experience in travel, and my personal story have allowed me to get published in Fodor's Travel, Atlas Obscura, Metro.co.uk, Trip Advisor, and multiple Podcast interviews. You can find me on pretty much every social media channel YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, TikTok. To read more about me and my story click here. If you are a brand and would like to work with me, click here.