There’s no better introduction to Edinburgh — the historical, cultural, and political capital of Scotland — than a walk straight down the spine of the old town. Stretching from a hill-topping castle to a queen’s palace, this ramble is appropriately called the Royal Mile (though it’s actually 200 yards longer than a mile). Despite being crammed with tourists and kitschy shops, it’s also lined with some of the city’s top sights. Look closer and you’ll notice narrow lanes leading to tiny squares, where you’ll find a few rough edges surviving from the area’s medieval heyday. Altogether it’s one of Europe’s best sightseeing walks.
I begin my stroll on the bluff where Edinburgh was born and where a castle now stands. Over the centuries, this mighty fortress was home to many of Scotland’s kings and queens. Today it’s well worth touring to see the old buildings, stunning views, and crown jewels.
As Edinburgh grew, it spilled downhill along the sloping ridge that became the Royal Mile. Back in the 1600s, this was the city’s main street, bustling with breweries, printing presses, and banks. With tens of thousands of citizens squeezed into the narrow confines of the old town, there was nowhere to go but up. So builders lined the street with multistory residences called tenements — some 10 stories and higher. My next stop, Gladstone’s Land, is a rare surviving original tenement that was acquired by a wealthy merchant in 1617. The costumed docents and an almost-lived-in, furnished five-room interior helps me picture those days.
Though much of the Royal Mile is now a touristy mall filled with tartans, shortbread, and Scottish kitsch, it’s still packed with history. Exploring back alleys and side lanes, it’s easy to imagine Edinburgh in the 17th and 18th centuries, when visitors scurried through these alleyways, buying and selling goods and popping into taverns.
Everywhere I turn, the Royal Mile is littered with symbols of Scottish pride — from a statue of philosopher David Hume, one of the towering figures of the Scottish Enlightenment of the mid-1700s, to its very own Church of Scotland, embodied by St. Giles’ Cathedral. Filled with monuments, plaques, and stained-glass windows dedicated to great Scots and historical moments, St. Giles’ serves as a kind of Scottish Westminster Abbey.
St. Giles’ is also the home church of John Knox, whose fiery sermons helped turn once-Catholic Edinburgh into a bastion of Protestantism. Knox’s influence was huge. His insistence that every person should be able to read the word of God firsthand helped give Scotland an educational system 300 years ahead of the rest of Europe. A dramatic stained-glass window shows the commotion that surrounded Knox when he preached. With his hand on the holy book, Knox seems to conduct divine electricity to the Scottish faithful packing the church.
Just down the road from St. Giles’ is the John Knox House, long considered to have been Knox’s home (though many historians now doubt he ever lived here). Regardless, the place has good information on Knox and his intellectual sparring partner, Mary, Queen of Scots. It features atmospheric rooms, period furniture, and a fun little dress-up corner that lets me play out my great reformer fantasy. Attached to the Knox House is the Scottish Storytelling Centre, where locals with the gift of gab perform regularly. And a little farther down the street is another enjoyable stop: Cadenhead’s Whisky Shop.
Whisky is high on the experience list of most visitors to Scotland, and distillery tours abound in the Highlands and islands. But right in the middle of the city, a visit to a fine whisky shop like Cadenhead’s offers connoisseurs a chance to buy a small bottle filled directly from the cask of their choice.
Founded in 1842, Cadenhead’s prides itself on bottling pure whisky without watering it down or adding cosmetic colouring. Popping in, I’m shown a shelf of aged wooden casks. The shop owner explains, “A single-cask whisky is like a football team where all the players come from the same town.” Those drinking from Cadenhead-bottled whiskies will enjoy the pure product as the distilleries’ owners themselves do, not as the sorry public does. I leave with my own bottle to enjoy night after night in my B&B room.
I make quick stops in two worthwhile (and free) museums. The People’s Story Museum traces the working and social lives of ordinary Edinburghers through the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. And the Museum of Edinburgh, another house full of old stuff, offers an interesting look at early Edinburgh history.
Just across the street is the 1688 Canongate Kirk, where the Queen and her family worship whenever they’re in town. Luckily, a volunteer is on hand today, so I’m able to step inside the lofty blue and red interior, while the greeter explains that royal money is behind the church’s excellent renovation.
Finally, after centuries of history, I’ve reached modern times: the Scottish parliament building. After 300 years of being ruled from London, the Scots regained their own parliament in 1999, and a few years later built this striking, eco-friendly home for it. This soaring building mixes wild angles, lots of light, bold windows, oak, and local stone into a startling complex that seems to be surging right out of the rock of Arthur’s Seat, the craggy summit just beyond the base of the Royal Mile. Visitors are welcome in the public parts of the building, including a small exhibit on the parliament’s history and function, and a viewing gallery overlooking the impressive Debating Chambers.
My last stop is the Palace of Holyroodhouse, one of Queen Elizabeth’s official residences and the home of Scottish royalty, including James IV and Mary, Queen of Scots. The Scottish monarchs also kept a home at the top end of the Mile, but they preferred the cushier Holyroodhouse to the blustery castle on the rock.
I’ve soaked up plenty of Scottish history on my walk from castle to palace. But no Royal Mile walk is complete without dropping by a pub — and there’s no shortage of them — where a bit of live music and whisky await.
Rick Steves (ricksteves.com) writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public TV and radio, and organizes European tours. You can email Rick at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his blog on Facebook.