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.
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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.
The cathedral’s distinctive 15th-century crown steeple is one of the most viewed features of any building in Edinburgh and it takes its place alongside Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace as one of the top attractions in the city.
St. Giles Cathedral has been a focal point for religious activity in Edinburgh for over 900 years although the building 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 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 lots of other souvenirs that can be picked up to remind you of your time in Edinburgh.
As you walk around the cathedral-like main hall (well it would be, wouldn’t it?) you’ll notice four substantial 12th-century central pillars that are the oldest parts of the entire building.
Records show that a fire gutted the majority of the cathedral in the 14th-century 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 historic attractions derives from John Knox being the minister at St. Giles for much of his life and it was the place where he preached his sermons against 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 from Edinburgh.
At the time it was claimed that Mary had conspired with the Earl of Bothwell to kill David Rizzio who was her secretary and suspected lover. Knox seized the opportunity to call for her death in a series of thunderous sermons and eventually in 1568 she had to escape 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 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. 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 stained-glass windows which makes the place comes alive in a multi-coloured light display.
If you get the chance you might consider joining one of the free guided tours that are organized throughout the day as they’re by far the best way to learn about Edinburgh and the part the cathedral played in its history.
If a tour isn’t running when you arrive you’ll still have an enjoyable visit, although without really knowing all the points of interest you’ll be in and out in around half an hour.
Unlike many historic attractions in Scotland, this one allows you to take as many photos as you like but you might be asked to turn off the flash in confined areas like the Thistle Chapel. The chapel has an interesting story which you can read about on Wikipedia if you like a bit of royal history.
If you’re not able to visit the cathedral in person you can always have a wander around it at home with the virtual tour 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 very 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.
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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.
More places to visit in Edinburgh
- Cramond Island – Edinburgh: 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: 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 – Edinburgh: 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 – Edinburgh: 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 – Edinburgh: 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.