Walking around almost anywhere in Edinburgh will give you the feeling that you’ve been transported back in time. Whether it’s strolling through an old cemetery, hearing the thunderous boom of the one o’clock gun, or throwing back some whisky in a pub that hasn’t changed since the days of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, it’s perfectly normal to question the year you are in.
However, on one particular stretch of road in Old Town Edinburgh – known as the Royal Mile – time has seemingly stood still while the rest of Edinburgh (New Town) grows around it.
The Royal Mile is a series of short roads that connects two of the most important and impressive structures in Edinburgh: the Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyrood House. Starting from the castle and walking downhill is Castlehill, followed by Lawnmarket, High Street, and Canongate.
And if you’re wondering why the British, and their affinity for the metric system, would call it the Royal Mile, there is an explanation. In fact, it refers to the ‘Scots Mile,’ which is measured at approximately 5,950 feet, or 1.13 US miles and 1.81 km. The Scots Mile is an obsolete form of measurement now, but that’s where the street gets its namesake.
What to Do/See on The Royal Mile
The number one attraction in all of Scotland is Edinburgh Castle. The castle is built on top of an extinct volcano, and it is massive both outside and in. If you’re lucky enough to get some good weather, the surrounding views of Edinburgh are amazing.
Once inside the castle, you get access to a number of historic sites, including the Royal Scots Museum, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Museum, the National War Museum, St. Margaret’s Chapel (the oldest building in the castle complex), numerous artillery batteries, the oldest Crown Jewels in the British Isles, and the ever famous Stone of Destiny.
You can choose a guided tour (included in the price of admission) or do everything self-paced, but make sure you keep an eye on the time. Everyday, except Sunday, at exactly 1:00pm is the firing of the One O’Clock Gun. If you want a front row seat to some artillery fire, get there 20-30 min early.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Edinburgh in August, do NOT miss Military Tattoo. It features pipe lines, drum lines, and dance acts from all over the world. Truly a world class event, and it’s hosted inside the Esplanade at Edinburgh Castle.
For more info on Edinburgh Castle, including hours and ticket prices, click here.
Just a few steps from the castle’s esplanada is Camera Obscura. Since opening in 1835, Camera Obscura has been dubbed a world of illusions. There are many interactive displays suitable for kids, but the main attraction here is the Camera Obscura show. Here, a bunch of you gather around a viewing table while a live image of Edinburgh is projected on to the table using a giant periscope. You can see people walking and traffic moving in real time and you can warp it all however you want. All the while, your guide is providing a history of Edinburgh. It’s actually a great way to learn about the city and its people. There are also fantastic views overlooking the Royal Mile and the Edinburgh Castle from the rooftop chamber.
More information about Camera Obscura can be found here.
Scotch Whisky Experience
After wandering through a hall of illusions and listening to hyperactive kids, you might just need a hard drink. Well, you’re in luck! You can walk out of Camera Obscura and right across the street into the Scotch Whisky Experience. And boy, what an experience.
Here you learn about the whisky production process and the varying aromas of whisky. You also get to view the world’s largest collection of Scotch whisky and sample a dram of the good stuff (and take home a whisky tasting glass as well).
All this is part of the most basic package, the Silver Tour. You can also choose the Gold Tour (Silver + 4 additional whisky samples), Platinum Tour (Gold + extended viewing of the Scotch whisky collection), and Taste of Scotland (Platinum + Taste of Scotland menu at the in house Amber Restaurant – reservations recommended).
The Real Mary King’s Close
Centuries ago, some families in Edinburgh lived on narrow side street and alleyways, otherwise known as a close. Each close was often named after the most prominent figure or business on that street. Back in the 1630s, when Mary King lived here, it was rare for a close to be named after a woman. This goes to show that Mary King, a widow and mother of 4 who traded fabrics and sewed for a living, rose to the top of her field and became a prominent businesswoman.
The reason this close is so significant nowadays is because it’s one of the few remaining closes from that time and it’s almost completely underground! As Edinburgh grew, the narrow streets were walled off, and the new Edinburgh grew around and above these streets.
However, Edinburgh was hit hard by the plague and for those who lived and died there, Mary King’s Close became their tombs. Because of this, Mary King’s close is said to be haunted and has been featured on numerous TV shows and documentaries about haunted places.
Of particular note, and something you’ll see on this guided tour, is a little girl named Annie’s room. Legend has it she’s still there, and to make her stay more enjoyable people have left stuffed animals and toys…so if you feel so obliged, you may bring your own and leave it for Annie.
These days, the Royal Mile runs above Mary King’s Close, but the official entrance is right on the Royal Mile, across from St. Giles Cathedral. It’s an interesting tour, especially if you like ghost stories…just get out of the way if they yell “ballyhoo!”
For more information on Mary King’s Close, check out their website here.
St. Giles Cathedral
Across the street from Mary King’s Close is St. Giles Cathedral. You can’t miss it as the spire at the top looks just like a crown. St. Giles was founded around 1120 and is considered the Mother Church of Presbyterianism.
Rooftop tours are also available for a small fee, giving you views of the Royal Mile and beyond.
As you approach the Palace of Holyrood House, there are a couple more significant landmarks. One of these is Canongate Kirkyard (Churchyard). Here, in addition to the church itself, you’ll find several notable burial sites, including economist Adam Smith and poet Robert Fergusson.
One of the themes of the Royal Mile is its historic feel. That’s why the Scottish Parliament building feels so out of place. Its very modern architectural design just doesn’t fit in on the Royal Mile, especially with it being so close to the Palace of Holyrood House.
That being said, after you get over the fact that it looks so out of place, it’s worth exploring. You can either take a quick self-guided tour of the building or you can opt for one of the hour long themed tours (art, history, literature, or a general tour). Either way, it’s free and open everyday except Sunday.
For info on tours and visiting the Scottish Parliament, check out their website here.
Palace of Holyrood House
At last, we’ve made it to the end of the Royal Mile! Downhill from Edinburgh Castle, the Palace of Holyrood House anchors the east end of the Royal Mile.
The Palace of Holyrood House is The Queen’s official residence while in Scotland. She is typically there from late June to early July during Holyrood Week.
Visitors can tour select rooms throughout the residence, including the chambers belonging to Mary Queen of Scots, who lived there in the 1560s.
In addition, you can get a combined entrance ticket to see the Palace and the Queen’s Gallery, where you can see rotating exhibitions from the Royal Collection.
I’ve been fortunate enough to tour this palace, Buckingham Palace, Versailles, and several other high profile estates. One thing I’ve done at all of them is take the self-guided audio tours. You learn so much about the history and the significance of the building and the people that lived in them. Each room has its own story and the Palace of Holyrood House is no different.
What Else is there to do?
Throughout this page, I’ve highlighted some of the major sights you’ll see along the Royal Mile. However, there are other museums such as the Museum of Edinburgh, The People’s Story Museum, and the Museum of Childhood.
The Royal Mile is best enjoyed at a slow pace. In August, during the Fringe Festival, the Royal Mile is overtaken with buskers and street performers, easily distracting you from everything else around you.
There are lots of little shops, restaurants, pubs, and cafes along the way…even a freaking Starbucks. (let’s be serious for a minute…if it were a Dunkin’ I’d be perfectly okay with it!). Pop in to any one of the little cafes and ask for a deep fried Mars Bar, you’ll be really glad you did.
Where Old Town and New Town meet
I’ve focused mainly on Old Town Edinburgh and the Royal Mile here, but New Town is worthy of its own exploration as well. In fact, the convergence of Old Town and New Town Edinburgh has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Take a stroll down Princes Street and George Street. You’ll be in New Town but still have a commanding view of the castle.