The Royal Mile is the historic heart of the city, where characters from all walks of life were to be found throughout the ages. A mile provides a lot of places to uncover history, and you won’t be disappointed when you start to delve deeper into the stories behind the buildings. In this one-stop-guide to Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, I’m taking you right down the mile – from the Castle to the Palace, and EVERYTHING in between. Marvel in the beauty of Edinburgh and its hidden heritage and use this post to plan your next visit to the capital.
What is there to see on the Royal Mile?
The Royal Mile connects Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyrood – a historic street running through the centre of the city. Lining the streets are some of the oldest buildings in the city – large tenements, old shop fronts, intertwined with the new pubs, restaurants and tourist shops. The street is busy with tourists, and plenty of opportunities to spot street performers, join ghost tours or immerse yourself in the history of Edinburgh.
The Royal Mile is actually made up of several streets: Castlehill, the Lawnmarket, the High Street, the Canongate and Abbey Strand, so lets take a look at each of the streets that make up the Royal Mile in a bit more detail…
This section of the mile only stretches a short distance from the Castle, but along it you’ll find The Hub and Camera Obscura.
Edinburgh Castle: Situated at the top of castlehill, Edinburgh Castle is one of the most well-known sites in Edinburgh. Built on the plug of an extinct volcano, it rises above much of Edinburgh’s skyline. The castle has played its part in Scottish history, acting as an important stronghold, such as in the Wars of Scottish Independence. Visiting the castle, you’re able to explore many areas of the castle itself, including the Great Hall and St. Margaret’s Chapel (Edinburgh’s oldest building), and see the Crown Jewels and the Stone of Destiny for yourself.
Find out more about Edinburgh castle & buy your tickets here: Edinburgh Castle
Camera Obscura: In the 1700s, Thomas Short displayed his scientific instruments, including a ‘Great Telescope’, on Calton Hill. In 1851, Short’s daughter, Maria Theresa Short, helped find the telescope its home on Castlehill, bought additional property to create ‘Short’s Observartory, Museum of Science and Art’. The Outlook Tower remained the popular attraction, showing the visitors a ‘real-time’ image of Edinburgh. Today, the tower is still open to the public, and visitors enter through a ‘World of Illusions’, where interactive displays show optical illusions for the young and the young hearted.
For more information & to buy tickets: Camera Obscura & World of Illusions
The Hub: The tall spire of the Hub can be seen across Edinburgh and is an example of Gothic Revival architecture. Originally, this building was the meeting place for the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, used until the 1980s. Now, it houses ticket offices, information points and a venue for Edinburgh International Festival.
This area of the Royal Mile was originally a market place for items from the land (the name lawn derives from land market), such as yarn and clothes – and is one of the oldest parts of the Old Town.
Gladstone’s Land: this property is owned by the National Trust of Scotland, and is one of the oldest buildings on the Mile, at almost 500 years old. Here, you can experience and learn about the lives of those who lived here, including Thomas Gladstone who converted the building into apartments for the wealthy. Walk through the rooms and discover their stories, and marvel at the beautifully painted ceilings and walls. Visits are by guided tour, or you can book to stay in the Gladstone’s Land holiday apartments.
Find out more about & book here: Gladstone’s Land
The Writers’ Museum: this museum is dedicated to the lives of Scottish literary greats, Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. Inside you’ll discover stories about each writer – including stories from their childhoods and family photographs – view some of their own possessions and early editions of their works and manuscripts.
Follow this link to their website: The Writers’ Museum
David Hume Statue: right at the corner of High Street, you’ll spot the statue of David Hume, with his gold toe. David Hume was a philosopher (1711 – 1776) and lived in Edinburgh. Many rub the toe of the statue as they walk past, believing it brings luck, hence his golden toe.
St Giles Cathedral: In parliament Square, you’ll find St Giles Cathedral, the High Kirk of Edinburgh, founded in 1124. Although St Giles is a working church, visitors are welcome (check the opening times), and you can attend a guided rooftop tour at an additional cost. Its architecture is a prominent feature of the Edinburgh skyline, with a distinctive crown steeple. Inside the cathedral, you’ll find beautiful stained glass, and memorials such as Thistle Chapel – a chapel of The Noble Order of the Thistle, Scotland’s foremost Order of Chivalry.
Find out more here: St Giles’ Cathedral
Mary King’s Close: From walking down the mile, you’ll have spotted the many small winding streets that lead from and to the Mile. These streets are called closes, and down each one, you’ll find hidden gems. One of which is Mary King’s Close, which has been named after Mary King who lived in the close in the 17th century. Here you’re guided by costumed guides through the close and told of the stories and people that lived in each room. Find out what life was like for some of the poorer residents of the Royal Mile and explore this ‘underground’ close.
Book your tour here: Mary King’s Close
Tron Kirk: Built between 1636 and 1647, Tron Kirk is named after the the weighing beam that used to stand outside the building. Whilst once a working church, the building is now owned by Historic Environment Scotland. The Tron Kirk now houses an exhibition on Scotland’s World Heritage sites and explores Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns.
Museum of Childhood: This museum showcases toys, games and objects that epitomise childhood life. The museum has recently undergone a refurbishment, including an interactive area and has plans for more exciting additions. This museum is the first in the world to explore the history of childhood, and has always been a personal favourite of mine.
John Knox House: This house is one of the oldest in Edinburgh, and has a quirky architectural design. It’s unknown if John Knox did, indeed, live here, however it is popular belief that he died here. Inside John Knox house, you are able to walk through each of the rooms (including one with an incredible painted ceiling) and learn about the reformation and life 400 years ago.
Find out more here: John Knox house
World’s End: A gateway called the Netherbow Port marked the boundary of the city, and was situated at the crossroad of Jeffrey Street and St Mary’s Street. Past this part of the Flodden Wall, was the burgh of Canongate, and entry was marked by a toll. If you couldn’t afford this toll then this could literally feel like the world’s end. Now, brass studs mark where the Netherbow Port used to stand, and a nearby close is named World’s End, as is a pub on the corner of St Mary’s Street.
Canongate gets its name from ‘the canon’s way’, reflecting a time when it was used by the Augustinian canons of Holyrood Abbey.
Canongate Tolbooth: This building was built in 1591 and housed a courthouse, burgh jail and meeting place of the town council. The clock which can be seen today was added to the building in 1884. Today, the building is home to The People’s Story Museum, where you can explore floors filled with mannequins and displays showcasing life through the ages for the people of Edinburgh.
Visit their website here: The People’s Story Museum
Museum of Edinburgh: Inside the striking yellow building is the Museum of Edinburgh, which houses collections showcasing Edinburgh’s history. Learn about the city’s development and growth throughout the years. A particular favourite artefact on show is the collar and bowl of Greyfriars Bobby (a devoted wee dog who’s statue stands outside Greyfriars graveyard).
Discover more here: Museum of Edinburgh
Canongate Kirk: This church was built in 1691, and was used by the residents of the Canongate. The church still holds Sunday services, which visitors are welcome to attend. Interred within the graveyard are many notable Scots including Adam Smith, Dugald Stewart, David Rizzio and Robert Fergusson. A statue of Fergusson, a famous poet, stands outside the church, in bronze.
The Scottish Parliament Buildings: At the end of the Canongate you’ll find the Scottish Parliament Building, which was opened in 2004. The building, designed by Enric Miralles, has caused some controversy, due to its abstract and modern design. It now houses MSPs and civil servants and has seen many a debate. You can now have self-guided and guided tours throughout the buildings, learn about its architecture and art, or visit the exhibition ‘A Parliament for the People Exhibition’, to learn about the ways Scottish Parliament has developed and grown.
Find out more about their tours here: Scottish Parliament
The short stretch of the road running from the Canongate to Holyrood Palace is Abbey Strand.
Holyrood Abbey: The ruins of Holyrood Abbey stand next to the Palace of Holyrood. The abbey was built in 1128, and used as a church until the 17th century. At this site, James II, Margaret Tudor, Mary of Guise, Anne of Denmark and Charles I were all crowned, and the abbey also saw many weddings, including those of James II and Mary Guelders, James III and Margaret of Denmark, and James IV and Margaret Tudor. While walking around the ruins, you’ll see many grave stones, including the Royal Vault where some royals were buried.
The Palace of Holyrood: Holyrood Palace is the official home of the Queen whilst she is in Scotland, and has been home to Kings and Queens since the 16th Century. The Palace was built between 1671-1678, and has since seen the creation of new wings and towers. The Palace is still used by the Queen today, who stays at the Palace for a week during summer, and holds a garden party. Visits to the Palace are ticketed, and visitors can tour the greatly decorated rooms of the palace, and listen to headsets to find out about the history and significance of each room.
Find out more & buy tickets here: Palace of Holyrood
And so we’ve reached the end of our tour down the Royal Mile. With its many closes to explore, and historic sites to visit, a walk down the Royal Mile can easily fill a day. The Royal Mile, with its fishbone structure of closes and tall tenement houses captures the long and complex history of Edinburgh, where both the wealthy and poor made their homes, traded at the markets, and found work. Now a days, The Royal Mile showcases this history through the historic buildings and homes that you can visit, entwined with independent shops which boast of Scotland’s culture, through tartan, wool, whiskey and even Harry Potter.