John Knox House
Address: Scottish Storytelling Centre, High St, Edinburgh EH1 1SR
Phone: 0131 556 9579
Website: John Knox House
John Knox’s house in the middle of the Royal Mile is a historic building that was reputedly lived in by the infamous Protestant reformer in the 16th century.
Although John Knox only supposedly lived in the house for a short time it’s his association with the building that prevented it from being demolished in 1840, a time when many other derelict buildings in Edinburgh were being torn down.
The house was built around 1470 which makes both it and the adjoining Moubray House the only surviving medieval buildings on the Royal Mile.
Today, the house is highly regarded for the museum exhibits inside which include time capsules from the 1840s that describe how the house was saved from destruction, as well as retelling the story of the Scottish Reformation and the part that John Knox played in it.
Whether or not Knox spent much time in the house is a matter of debate. However, it’s known that during the time he was alive the house was owned by a wealthy Catholic, so it’s unlikely that the Protestant Knox would have chosen to live there.
Even so, the building would have been well-known to Knox while he was alive mainly because it’s situated so close to St. Giles Cathedral where he spent his latter years preaching sermons to the great and the good of Edinburgh.
There’s a lot of history in this house
The house has a lot of features that were popular amongst the wealthy residents of Edinburgh in the 15th century including a beautiful wooden gallery and ornate hand-painted ceilings, but these are unlikely to have been commissioned by a religious man like Knox.
Instead, it’s more likely that they were installed by the 16th century goldsmith James Mossman, the loyal supporter of Mary Queen of Scots who was hung, drawn, and quartered for creating counterfeit coins during the ‘Lang Siege’ at Edinburgh castle in 1573. After his death, the house was handed over to James VI of Scotland and was lived in by many wealthy residents until it gradually fell into disrepair.
Today, the house has fascinating tours that will take you around its perfectly preserved rooms while telling you all about the history of one of the most critical times in Scotland’s history, and if you’re walking along the Royal Mile and notice the heavens start to open you could do a lot worse than spending a couple of hours inside the John Knox House.
I personally love this part of Edinburgh, and if the weather isn’t too bad I recommend you get away from the usual tourist places on the Royal Mile and just go exploring the nearby side streets and closes. Much of the architecture is hundreds of years old and there’s no better way to experience the Old Town than to simply get lost in its maze of alleyways and footpaths.
Address: 477B Lawnmarket, Edinburgh EH1 2NT
Phone: 0131 226 5856
Website: Gladstones Land
If you want to know how the residents of Edinburgh lived in the 16th century, Gladstones Land on the Royal Mile will give you a glimpse into their lives in this remarkable medieval building.
The ‘Land’ is actually an old townhouse situated close to Edinburgh Castle which is owned and managed by the National Trust who have taken painstaking measures to renovate the interior so it looks just the same as it would have in the early 1600s.
While the Georgian House in Edinburgh’s New Town provides a glimpse into the life of the wealthy in the 1700s, Gladstones Land transports you back in time even further to when both the rich and poor shared apartments in the ramshackle tenement buildings of the Old Town.
If you’d like to visit more Scottish historic buildings like Gladstones Land for free I recommend getting a membership for the National Trust for Scotland. See the advert below for details.
The history of Gladstone’s Land
The building is known to have been built in 1550 but it was only after extensive refurbishment in 1617 by the merchant Thomas Gledstane that it was marked out as a home for Edinburgh’s wealthy residents.
Gledstane had the foresight to rent out parts of the building and we know from public records that merchants, ministers, and guild officers lived there before the construction of the New Town.
The obvious popularity of the building can be seen in its size, rising six storeys above what would have been the foul-smelling streets of 16th century Edinburgh, although it’s likely that the rooms inside were much smaller than those we see today.
In the cramped conditions of those times there would have been entire families crowded into single rooms, with the city tradespeople and merchants taking residence on the lower floors and the wealthy living on the middle levels.
The very poorest had to suffer with living at the top where every bucket of water had to be laboriously carried up all those flights of stairs. The height of the Old Town buildings meant that the poor resorted to chucking their buckets of human waste out of the window instead of carrying them downstairs, which was accompanied by a cry of ‘gardyloo!’, followed by a deluge of raw sewage.
The streets of Edinburgh back then must have absolutely stunk!
By the time the 20th century came along Gladstones Land had been condemned and was listed for demolition, but thankfully the National Trust recognised the importance of the building and over the course of the following years it was restored to its former glory.
As a tourist attraction, Gladstones Land has become one of the most popular in the city for anyone with an interest in history, and for a small fee you’ll be guided around the rooms and told about the history of each feature inside.
From the flagstone floors in the kitchen to the elaborately painted ceilings in the bedroom, each room has a tale to tell which will transport you back into 17th century Edinburgh life, and I think it’s worth visiting this attraction whatever the weather is doing outside.
St. Giles Cathedral
Address: High St, Edinburgh EH1 1RE
Phone: 0131 226 0674
Website: 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 on the Royal Mile.
Its distinctive 15th-century crown steeple is one of the most-viewed features of any building in the city and it easily takes its place alongside Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace as one of the most historically significant buildings in Scotland.
The 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. Due to its central location in the Royal Mile, St. Giles has become a popular tourist attraction and it’s an ideal stop-off point between walks to Holyrood Palace and Edinburgh Castle.
Although this cathedral has been officially designated as an A listed building and is of the great historical importance, it’s not in the truest sense of the word an actual cathedral. As the Church of Scotland doesn’t officially have either bishops or cathedrals, St. Giles is often referred to in its much older title as the ‘High Kirk’.
There’s a huge amount of history in this building but while you’re walking round it take a look at the four enormous 12th-century central stone pillars which are thought to be the oldest parts of the cathedral, and also some of the last remaining structures from a fire which gutted the majority of the original cathedral in the 14th-century.
A place of worship that’s still in use
St. Giles is still an active place of worship so entering it might not be possible during times of prayer, but during the week tourists are free to explore its chambers and halls. There are five services held every Sunday and around fourteen services take place every week, often with the St. Giles Cathedral Choir singing.
The choir is acclaimed throughout Europe and America and it’s impressive to listen to them sing in full voice during the weekly leading of the worship.
They’ve even released a few CDs which can be purchased from the gift shop alongside other souvenirs which can be picked up to remind you of your time in Edinburgh. St. Giles Cathedral also has an excellent café with top-quality home-baked cakes which are perfect for enjoying after a busy day of sightseeing.
The Georgian House
Address: 7 Charlotte Square, Edinburgh EH2 4DR
Phone: 0131 225 2160
Website: The Georgian House
The Georgian House is a National Trust managed townhouse that was originally built in 1796 as part of Edinburgh’s fashionable New Town development. The New Town is considered to be a masterpiece of town planning design and has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site for the quality of its Georgian architecture.
In the late 17th-century the high-rise tenement buildings of Edinburgh’s Old Town were becoming diseased and filthy, with the city’s poor and destitute mixing alongside the wealthy gentry in the crowded residences, so James VII created a new residential area to the north to encourage wealthy traders to settle down and make permanent homes in the city.
It was left to the architect James Craig to come up with a design for the New Town and he proposed a simple grid style with the main road of George Street (named after King George III) linking two large gardens at either end.
To the west end of George Street is Charlotte Square, a large area of private gardens that mirrors St. Andrews Square to the east, and it’s within the buildings that surround the square where you’ll find the Georgian House at building number 7.
This 18th-century townhouse was built to accommodate the wealthy Edinburgh residents who could afford to escape the dilapidated Old Town, and over the course of 170 years from 1796 to 1966 a total of 5 wealthy families called 7 Charlotte Square their home.
Today, however, it’s owned and managed by the National Trust for Scotland who have accurately restored the interior so that it closely resembles the layout of how it would have looked when it was first used as a family home over 200 years ago.
Take a step back in time at The Georgian House
The museum is set over five levels from the basement to the third floor and you’re free to walk around the house at your own pace and head in any direction you like, but it makes sense to start at the bottom and work your way up through each floor.
The décor and furniture on each level are just as they would have been back in the early 19th century and it really gives you a feeling of walking back in time as you wander through each room.
Inside the building you’ll see lots of original pieces of silverware, bone china, glassware, and paintings, and you can see just how opulent the lifestyles of the rich were back then with dining and drawing rooms laid out ready for one of the many cocktail parties they would have held.
There are also glimpses into the lives of the servants who would have worked tirelessly in the basement and kitchens, while interactive touchscreen displays help to bring the stories of the inhabitants of 7 Charlotte Square back to life.
The Georgian House is yet another fascinating step back in time to discover the real-life stories behind the history of Scotland’s capital city.
Address: Canongate, Edinburgh EH8 8DX
Phone: email only
Website: Palace of Holyroodhouse
The Palace of Holyrood House (as it’s officially known), is the main residence of the British monarchy in Scotland and is located at the opposite end of the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle.
The palace has a long history dating back to the 12th-century and it’s still used to host state occasions to this day. Queen Elizabeth II spends one week at the palace at the beginning of each summer, and many tourists wait excitedly for the royal flag to be raised which indicates she’s in residence.
The palace offers lots of activities to visitors, including viewing the official state apartments of Mary Queen of Scots, the Throne Room and the Great Gallery, as well as exploring the ruins of Holyrood Abbey and the beautiful palace gardens.
There’s also an excellent cafe, one of the best shops of any attraction in Scotland and an exhibition of master paintings in the Queen’s Gallery.
As you enter the front courtyard via the ticket office you’re immediately presented with the palatial entrance to the front, glimpses of Holyrood Park to the right, and the ruins of the Holyrood Abbey to the left. But moving forwards through the main door will give you your first views of the palace interior and an inclination of the sights to come.
A palace fit for a king (and a queen)
As you wander through the palace rooms you’ll be amazed by the intricacy of the needlework on the tapestries and the beautiful paintings that cover every available space on the walls. The level of opulence is astounding, and fine china, beautiful artworks, and rich fabrics seem to cover every surface.
The king’s bedchamber in the east wing is well worth visiting just for the artwork that’s been carved into the ceiling plasterwork, so while you’re looking around the room remember to look up as well.
The most substantial room in the palace is the Great Gallery which is decorated with over 100 paintings of various Scottish monarchs from throughout history. Although it’s mainly used for banquets today, in years gone by it was used as a chapel, a place where Scottish peers were elected, and even as a ballroom.
After you’ve explored the inside of the palace it’s time to walk around the outside (as long as those pesky rain clouds have cleared…). Set over 10 acres they feature a stunning collection of roses, manicured lawns and examples of Scottish plants laid out in the formal style of the 19th-century, while the ruins of Holyrood Abbey will probably be the last section you walk through.
Although the abbey roof has long gone the size of the building is still impressive. Constructed in 1128 by King David I, the abbey staged many important events throughout its life including the parliament of Robert the Bruce, the marriage of King James II, and the marriage of King James III. It’s a great attraction to visit and very, very atmospheric.
And finally, no visit to an attraction like this would be complete without a visit to the cafe which is, of course, top-notch. The quality of the food on offer is amazing, and although it’s a little pricey it’s well worth the expense. Holyrood Palace is definitely worth the price of entrance whether you want to see one of Scotland’s most historic buildings or just want to hide from the weather.
Infographic about Edinburgh
Well I hope this list of the ten best things to do in Edinburgh when it’s raining has given you some good ideas for places to visit when the weather closes in, and I hope I’ve shown you that you don’t have to plan a trip to Scotland around what the weather may or may not do.
This list really is just the tip of the iceberg for things to do in Edinburgh and there are a huge number of other attractions you can duck into when it starts to pour, so please check out the rest of the website for more ideas.
If you’ve got any suggestions for other attractions you think I should include in this article please leave a comment in the box below, and if you manage to visit any of these recommendations I’ll keep my fingers crossed the weather holds out for you.
Thanks for reading, Craig 🙂
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