Simply put, the Royal Mile never gets old. This famed stretch of cobbled road running through the heart of the Scottish capital is the traveler’s epicenter for all things Edinburgh. Stretching out from the Royal Mile like branches of a river, winding streets and narrow closes all begged to be explored. Even a short walk around Edinburgh will take you past cozy pubs, world-class museums, inviting inns, spooky graveyards, one very large castle and a royal palace straight out of a fairy tale.
In fact, much of Edinburgh belongs in a fairy tale. One of Europe’s most atmospheric cities, everything about Edinburgh seems magical. Innkeepers have tales of things that go bump in the night. Supernatural spirits still sip whisky in Royal Mile pubs. And true stories of the wicked and macabre are told on every tour. No matter where you go in this mesmerizing city, it won’t be difficult to imagine what life was like 100, 200 or even 300 years ago. In Edinburgh, the past is very much part of the present.
And while the past plays a major role in modern Edinburgh, the Scottish capital is one of the U.K.’s most progressive cities. With a vibrant arts scene that includes events like the cutting edge Fringe Festival and the high art of the International Festival, Edinburgh is a trendsetter. In short, there is always something going on that will satisfy the imagination of the most insatiable traveler.
Top Sights in Edinburgh
There’s no better place to start seeing the sights than on the Royal Mile, which got its name by connecting two of Edinburgh’s most historically important places, Edinburgh Castle, standing guard at the top of Castle Rock and Holyrood Palace, on the grounds of the scenic Holyrood Park.
One could easily spend an entire day exploring the Castle, home to the Scottish crown jewels. With buildings dating from the 12th century, the Castle is not only for history buffs. The views from atop Castle Rock, right next to Mons Meg, a massive cannon from the 15th century, are among the best in Edinburgh. Must sees include the Great Hall, St Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest building in Edinburgh and the Scottish National War Museum.
As you make your way down the Royal Mile, be sure to pop into the Museum of Childhood. Admission here, as at nearly all of Scotland’s museums, is free. You’ll come away wondering if Punch and Judy dolls could compete with today’s high tech toys.
Also within walking distance of the Royal Mile is the excellent National Museum of Scotland, which includes an exhaustive and fascinating look into Scottish history. Art lovers will want to visit the three museums that make up the National Galleries of Scotland. The Portrait and National Galleries can be found in the Princes Street Gardens while the Modern Gallery is a bit further afield but still walkable on the Belford Road.
Explore subterranean Edinburgh by visiting Mary King’s Close, an underground street that was discovered during one of the Royal Mile’s many facelifts over the years. The close was an inhabited street that sits under today’s Edinburgh. You’ll be surprised to learn that only a small percentage of the city’s underground has been explored or discovered. This little bit, with its stories of plague and hauntings, is a chilling introduction to what lies beneath.
At the bottom of the Royal Mile is the sublime Holyrood Palace. Well worth the price of admission, the Palace is still in use by the British royal family. Queen Elizabeth makes an annual visit and after taking a self-guided tour, you’ll understand why. As you roam from room to room you’ll get the inside scoop on Machiavellian tales of betrayal surrounding Scotland’s most famous daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots. There is also a fine art gallery and a selection of exhibitions that change throughout the year.
An often-overlooked bit of royal sightseeing is the Royal Yacht Britannia at Ocean Terminal in Leith. The yacht served as the British royal residence while at sea and touring the decks you’ll see the Queen’s sleeping quarters along with every other bit of pomp and circumstance she enjoyed while cruising the globe.
While in Leith, stop by the Port O’ Leith pub for a pint and a Trainspotting Tour. See the locales that Leith author Irvine Welsh brought to life in his gritty novel Trainspotting, about the city’s young, hopeless heroin addicts.
And if you consider yourself a bookworm, you’ll want to take part in a Rebus Tour that follows in the footsteps of Inspector Rebus, the character created by another of Edinburgh’s most famous modern authors, Ian Rankin.
While you are exploring Edinburgh’s modern literary icons, you’ll have to delve into the past by visiting the Writer’s Museum. Located in a lovely piece of Edinburgh architecture in a quaint close off the Royal Mile, the Writer’s Museum examines the three canons of Scottish literature: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson.
And no trip to Edinburgh would be complete without taking one of the evening ghost tours. Tours leave from outside the fabulous St. Giles Cathedral (go in and have a look at the stained glass dedicated to Robert Burns). Various tours go to different places but some destinations to keep in mind are Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, the famed cemetery where the McKenzie poltergeist lives, and the Edinburgh vaults, another spooky peak into subterranean Edinburgh.
Edinburgh’s Best Views
To get some of the best panoramas in the city, you’ll have to work up a bit of a sweat. But the physical exertion will be worth it when all of Edinburgh lays beneath you.
- Arthur’s Seat – located in the expansive Holyrood Park, Arthur’s Seat is the highest of seven hills overlooking the city. Plan on a couple hours on the trail that will take you up nearly 900 feet to the summit.
- Sir Walter Scott Monument – Edinburgh’s gothic ode to a favorite son of Scotland. Pay the nominal entry fee and climb 200 odd feet of steps for a commanding view of the Princes Street Gardens and beyond.
- Calton Hill – This spot, with its Acropolis-esque and unfinished National Monument, is one of Edinburgh’s best places for scenic photographs. Calton Hill also hosts festival shows and is a great place to watch Hogmanay (New Year) fireworks.
Written by Robert Lovik for EuropeUpClose.com