Created by Craig Smith. Last updated on February 20th, 2021
St. Giles Cathedral has been a focal point for religious activity in Edinburgh for over 900 years although the present structure that we see today can trace its roots back to the 14th century.
Due to its central location on The Royal Mile, St. Giles has become a popular tourist attraction and it’s an ideal stop-off point between excursions to Holyrood Palace and Edinburgh Castle.
Review of St. Giles Cathedral
If you’ve ever looked through photographs of Edinburgh on the internet there’s no doubt you’ll have come across a picture of Saint Giles Cathedral dominating The Royal Mile.
This historic attraction’s distinctive 15th-century crown steeple is one of the most viewed features of any building in Edinburgh and it must surely take its place alongside Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace as one of the most historically significant buildings in the city.
The cathedral has been a focal point for religious activity in Edinburgh for over 900 years, although the present structure that we see today can trace its roots back to the 14th-century.
The cathedral (like most in Scotland) is covered from floor to roof with richly detailed carvings and ornate stonework and while not quite up to the standard of British icons like York Minster it can comfortably hold its head up high when placed against its sister cathedral in Glasgow.
St. Giles is still an active place of worship so entrance might not be possible during times of prayer but during the week tourists are free to enter and explore the grand internal chambers and nose around in the wee chapels that line the north and south walls.
There are five services every Sunday and on average fourteen acts of worship take place in St Giles every week, often with the St. Giles Cathedral Choir singing in full voice.
The choir is acclaimed throughout Europe and America and it’s one of those spine-tingling moments you won’t forget if you’re lucky enough to be able to listen to them during the leading of the worship. They’ve released several CDs that can be purchased from the gift shop, alongside many other souvenirs which can be picked up to remind you of your time in Edinburgh.
As you walk around the cathedral-like (well it would be, wouldn’t it?) main hall you’ll notice four substantial 12th-century central pillars that are acknowledged as being the oldest parts of the entire building.
Historic records show that a fire gutted the majority of the original building in the 14th-century which led to the rebuilding of the cathedral into its current form and those gargantuan pillars are pretty much all that remains of the original stonework.
Interestingly, although St. Giles has been officially designated as an A listed building and is of the greatest historical importance to Scotland, it’s not in the truest sense of the word an actual cathedral.
As the Church of Scotland does not officially have either bishops or cathedrals, St. Giles is often referred to in its much older title as the ‘High Kirk’, which means a place where a congregation of the Church of Scotland worships.
If you’ve explored some of the other historic buildings that lie along the length of The Royal Mile you’ll likely have visited John Knox’s house which lies just a short distance from the cathedral in the direction of the palace.
The link between the two buildings derives from John Knox being the chosen minister at St. Giles for much of his life during the 16th-century and it was at the cathedral where he preached his rebellious Protestant sermons against the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots.
Knox continued preaching at St. Giles until the end of his days, but not before becoming instrumental in forcing the Queen to flee Edinburgh.
At the time it was claimed that Mary had conspired with the Earl of Bothwell to kill David Rizzio – her secretary and suspected lover. Knox seized the opportunity to call for her death in a series of thunderous sermons, and eventually in 1568 the Queen had to flee Edinburgh in fear for her life.
Today the legacy of the great reformer is told through a magnificent 19th-century stained-glass window at the south end of the cathedral where he forever stands preaching to the masses at the High Kirk.
Things to do at St. Giles Cathedral
This is a historic attraction that absolutely HAS to be visited if you’re in Edinburgh for a quick city break.
You’ll find it nestled next to the city chambers around half a mile south of the castle and it’s impossible to miss as it sits squarely next to the cobbled paving stones of the city’s historic High Street.
Before you make your way through the doors though, I suggest taking a quick walk around the outside of the building to marvel at its architecture.
Stained-glass windows soar overhead and gothic spires rise so high you’ll hurt your neck trying to look up at them all. It’s an impressive sight so I hope you remember to take your camera with you when you visit.
Towards the back of St. Giles is a car park that’s nothing out of the ordinary but take a moment to look for the plaque that marks the final resting place of John Knox.
Head through the large entrance doors and you’ll find yourself presented with an information desk and a helpful guide or two (don’t worry about digging your cash out as entry is free) and disabled ramps which lead into the grand inner hall.
Here you’ll be presented with lots of statues, memorials, tapestries, a colossal church organ and of course the vast vaulted ceilings that St. Giles Cathedral is most famous for.
The central chamber is stunning – especially when sunlight floods in through the myriad stained glass windows – and the entire place comes alive in an ever-changing light display from the multi-coloured glass.
If you get the chance you might consider joining one of the free guided tours that are organised throughout the day as they are by far the best way to learn about this incredible city and the part its cathedral played throughout its history.
If a tour isn’t running when you arrive you’ll still have an enjoyable visit, although without really knowing all the interesting things to look at you’ll be in and out in around half an hour, though you will easily double that if you get on a tour.
Unlike many historic attractions in Scotland, this one allows you to take as many photos as you like although you might be asked to turn off the flash in small areas like the Thistle Chapel that was founded in 1687 for the Knights and Ladies of The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle – you can read about it on Wikipedia if you like a bit of royal history.
And don’t forget, if you’re not able to visit the cathedral in person you can always have a virtual wander around it by clicking the ‘Virtual Tour’ image further down this page.
- This is one of the most distinctive historic buildings in Edinburgh and seeing as it lies between Holyrood Palace at the bottom of The Royal Mile and Edinburgh Castle at the top you kind of HAVE to visit it, don’t you?
- It’s also free to get in (although donations are welcome) and there are free guided walking tours if you get there between 10.30 and 14.30 midweek.
- The sense of history in the place is spine-tingling and the vaulted ceilings are mightily impressive. Don’t forget to look up to view all the elaborate details in the walls and ceilings.
- If you want an idea of how Edinburgh developed outwards from The Royal Mile I highly recommend taking a 5-minute walk down the street to John Knox House. You’ll discover the full history of the protestant reformer as well as the history of his dealings with Mary Queen of Scots. For a glimpse into Edinburgh at the time of the black plague cross the road from the Cathedral and visit Real Mary King’s Close.
- If you can, join one of the free guided tours. The guides occasionally do rooftop tours as well so ask at the information desk when you arrive to see if there are any running that day.
- Due to its central location on the Royal Mile, St. Giles Cathedral gets crazy busy at the weekend, especially in summer. Take a tip from a local – visit mid-week and get there as early as possible to avoid the crowds.
Things to do near St. Giles Cathedral
- Real Mary King’s Close. Warriston’s Close, 2, High St, Edinburgh EH1 1PG. 1-minute walk. An underground historic attraction that takes visitors on a subterranean guided walk through a 17th-century preserved street. It features educational displays, a shop and a café.
- The Royal Mile. 1-minute walk. Historic street in Edinburgh that connects Holyrood Palace to Edinburgh Castle. The Royal Mile is famed for its medieval architecture and narrow closes and wynds. Contains a wide selection of tourist attractions, shops, restaurants and cafés.
- John Knox House. Scottish Storytelling Centre, High St, Edinburgh EH1 1SR. 5-minute walk. 15th-century preserved townhouse that is believed to have been the home of the Protestant preacher John Knox. Includes historic displays and exhibitions that can be viewed on a self-guided tour. Joins onto The Scottish Storytelling Centre which features a café and gift shop.
- Camera Obscura and World of Illusions. Castlehill, Royal Mile, Edinburgh EH1 2ND. 4-minute walk. A Victorian tourist attraction that displays a collection of optical illusions across multiple floors. Directly opposite The Scotch Whisky Experience.
- The Museum of Childhood. 42 High St, Edinburgh EH1 1TG. 4-minute walk. Free to visit museum which celebrates childhood through displays of toys from recent memory to the 1800s. Set in an 18th-century building on The Royal Mile with five galleries inside.
Address and map
Click the map for directions
Tickets and opening times
Monday – Saturday: 10.00-14.00
St Giles Cathedral is free to visit but there is a voluntary donation to take photographs.
Telephone: +44 (0)131 226 0674
Website: St. Giles Cathedral
Photos and video
More places to visit in Edinburgh
- Cramond Island near Edinburgh: The Complete Visitor GuideSituated just over 3/4 of a mile into the Firth of Forth, Cramond Island is a tidal landmass located close the village of Cramond near Edinburgh.
- Edinburgh Butterfly and Insect World: The Complete Visitor GuideEdinburgh Butterfly World is a fascinating tourist attraction on the southern outskirts of Edinburgh that showcases some rather incredible, beautiful, and very creepy-crawly insects and reptiles from across the globe.
- The Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh: The Complete Visitor GuideIf you’re embarking on a visit to Edinburgh then your trip won’t be complete without a visit to The Scotch Whisky Experience, located just a short walk from Edinburgh Castle Esplanade on the Royal Mile.
- The Royal Yacht Britannia in Edinburgh: The Complete Visitor GuideThe Royal Yacht Britannia is the former royal yacht of HM Queen Elizabeth II which now takes pride of place at the Ocean Terminal shopping centre at Leith in Edinburgh. Over the course of her working life Britannia was the official residence of the Royal Family and sailed over one million miles around the world.
- The Scott Monument in Edinburgh: The Complete Visitor GuideIn the centre of Princes Street gardens, not far from Waverley train station, stands one of the grandest man-made landmarks in Europe – the 200-foot tall Scott Monument.