The historic Royal Mile in Edinburgh connects the Palace of Holyrood at the bottom to Edinburgh Castle at the top on a road that’s one mile in length (hence the name).
The road runs through the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town and is one of the top tourist destinations in the city thanks to the number of tourist attractions, shops, restaurants, pubs and events – including the Edinburgh Fringe Festival – that can be found along its entire length.
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Review of The Royal Mile
There aren’t many streets in the world that are a tourist attraction in their own right but Edinburgh’s Royal Mile easily takes that title on account of its fascinating mix of architecture and history.
It’s easy to find as all you really need to do is point yourself in the direction of the castle which dominates the skyline for miles around, and there are enough adjoining roads that you’ll no doubt end up on The Royal Mile whichever way you walk through the city centre.
Top-tip – from Waverley train station follow Cockburn Street or Market Street and Ramsay Lane to view those iconic medieval high-rise tenement buildings you see on every single shortbread tin in Edinburgh’s tourist
tat gift shops.
While most tourists view The Royal Mile (known locally as The High Street) as simply a means to walk between the castle and the palace, the road has its own interesting history and is an integral part of Edinburgh’s heritage.
Not only will you see St. Giles Cathedral, Mary King’s Close, Gladstones Land and John Knox House as you meander up the gently sloped street, you’ll also pass many hidden-away places that will give you a glimpse into Edinburgh’s fascinating past.
The Royal Mile has been described as looking like a fishbone when viewed from the air, with the main road as the spine and the myriad closes, alleyways, and wynds as the ribs.
If you haven’t spent much time in this part of the city I recommend leaving behind the tourist hordes to explore some of these hidden alleyways for yourself, but if you’d rather be shown around by a professional you should sign up for a tour with one of the guides hanging around the rear of St. Giles Cathedral near the Mercat Cross.
These tours are reasonably priced and are the best way to discover the history of the murders, plagues and riots that were part of everyday life in the Old Town in years gone by.
If history doesn’t really interest you you’ll be pleased to know The Royal Mile is also a tourist hub for a variety of shops, pubs and restaurants that sell the best merchandise and food that Scotland has to offer.
If you want to purchase genuine Scottish cashmere and Harris Tweed clothing, drink Scottish-brewed beer or buy a bottle of premium Scotch whisky, the Royal Mile will have something to offer you.
I’ve created a Complete Guide to the Best Scottish Souvenirs if you’d like more ideas for gifts from Scotland.
There are also a few restaurants offering quality Scottish cuisine with the jewel in the crown being The Witchery located just below the Castle Esplanade on your left as you walk up.
If you decide to sample the food there be sure to try their legendary haggis, neeps, and tatties with whisky sauce but bear in mind it’s a bit of a tourist trap and the prices are quite steep compared to restaurants elsewhere in Edinburgh.
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If shopping isn’t really your cup of tea you could always just wander around the Old Town and use The Royal Mile as a point of reference for your travels. To the north is Princes Street (the main shopping street in Edinburgh) and the New Town, with the pubs and bars of Rose Street nestled between the upmarket restaurants and shops of George Street.
The immediate west of The Royal Mile beyond the castle doesn’t have a huge amount to offer tourists but if you head in the opposite direction you’ll find the enormous green expanse of Holyrood Park to the east.
The park is located around an extinct volcano (how many other cities have a volcano in their centre?) and is a miniature slice of the Highlands in a 650-acre green space that features a couple of lochs, sweeping cliff faces, the oldest building in Edinburgh (St. Anthony’s Chapel) as well as Arthur’s Seat – the 822-foot peak that offers fantastic views of Edinburgh, the Pentland Hills to the south, and the Firth of Forth and the Kingdom of Fife to the north.
If you’re limited for time and just want to explore the Old Town I recommend visiting Greyfriars Kirk which is the final resting place of Greyfriars Bobby before walking across the George IV Bridge road and spending the rest of the day in the National Museum of Scotland.
The national museum is rightly regarded as one of the finest in Europe and is a treasure-trove of Scottish historical objects as well as exhibitions of art, natural history and science from all over the world.
It’s one of my favourite tourist attractions in Scotland and if you’re here for a short amount of time I thoroughly recommend you try to pack a visit in, especially if you’ve got bored kids in tow.
Heading back to The Royal Mile you’ll find more than enough museums and attractions to fill an entire weekend but I’ll list the best ones you might like to spend your hard-earned pennies on in the following section (although most of the museums are actually free to enter).
Things to do on The Royal Mile
There’s a brain-boggling amount of things to see and do on The Royal Mile and visitors can find attractions all the way along it, but for the sake of simplicity I’ll mention the best ones heading from the palace at the bottom to the castle at the top.
First, of course, is the Palace of Holyroodhouse. This sumptuous building is filled to the rafters with priceless works of art and royal memorabilia and also features a separate art gallery from the royal household as well as a superb café and gift shop. It’s a must-do if you’re in Edinburgh.
Across the road is the Scottish Parliament building which is actually quite an interesting place to visit as they have guided tours that will tell you all about Scotland’s parliament and its relatively new headquarters.
It’s free to get in but the security is a bit of a pain to get through, although that’s understandable as you’ll be able to view live debates in the main chamber.
Continue west and you’ll find Canongate Kirk on the right which is a beautiful old church with a graveyard that was favoured by the infamous Burke and Hare (read my article about Edinburgh’s Gruesome Murders for more information about those two).
On the same side of the road are the very photo-worthy Tolbooth Tavern and the People’s Story Museum which is dedicated to keeping alive the tales and culture of the city’s past residents. It’s completely free to visit and is well worth an hour of your time, just like the Museum of Edinburgh across the road that houses a collection of exhibits relating to the history and legends of the city.
The next point of interest is a hundred yards or so up the road where you’ll find The World’s End pub which is sited on the border of the infamous Flodden Wall. The pub is a nice wee place to stop off for a quick dram or two before crossing the road and exploring John Knox House next to the Scottish Storytelling Centre.
John Knox, if you weren’t aware, was one of the leading religious figures in Scotland’s history and he was well known for his political battles with Mary Queen of Scots. His house (it wasn’t actually his house, but it’s close enough) is one of the last remaining medieval buildings that survived the Victorian’s demolition of the Old Town and it’s quite an interesting museum.
If you’d rather get misty-eyed about your own lifetime you’ll find The Museum of Childhood located across the street in a nondescript building that’s easily overlooked.
The museum delves into the stories of the toys and culture of the last 100-odd years and you’re bound to find something that’ll bring back fond memories, whether it’s an original Stretch Armstrong, a boxed Buckaroo, or those creepy porcelain dolls with the eyes that follow you around the room. Have you seen the movie Annabelle? Yep, those ones.
Walk another hundred-or-so yards towards the castle and you can’t fail to miss St. Giles Cathedral which is another must-visit attraction in Edinburgh. The cathedral is quite beautiful inside and it’s yet another free attraction, although they do ask for donations and there’s a mandatory fee to take photos.
Opposite the cathedral is The Real Mary King’s Close attraction that will transport you back in time to another world where Edinburgh’s poorest residents lived in unimaginably bad slums.
Some of these underground dwellings have been unearthed and you can go on a tour around them, although I personally prefer the underground vaults tour offered by Mercat Tours (although that isn’t actually on The Royal Mile)
Outside St. Giles you’ll find the Heart of Midlothian which is a heart-shaped mosaic that marks the position of the 15th-century tollbooth where ever-increasing taxes had to be paid by the increasingly poor Edinburgh residents.
Such was the hatred of the residents towards the tollbooth the tradition of spitting on it began and continued even after the building was pulled down.
The Heart of Midlothian now sits on the tollbooth’s final resting place so don’t be surprised if you happen upon a few Edinburgh locals having a good clear out of their throats on it (although these days people spit on the mural for good luck). If you care to join in, feel free!
After you’ve had a hearty spit on the Heart of Midlothian cross back over the road to enter Makars Court which is a tranquil courtyard set back from the hubbub of the main road where you’ll also find the thoroughly underrated Writers Museum.
This museum displays exhibitions and original works from Scotland’s most famous writers – Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson, and it’s a really good place to visit if you’ve got any interest in literature and Scottish history.
After you’ve looked around the writer’s museum try to find the ornately carved paving stones in Makars Court and then tilt your head up to marvel at the architecture of the hundreds-of-years old multi-storey tenement buildings that are one of the defining features of the Edinburgh cityscape.
Continue towards the looming castle and you’ll pass Camera Obscura and World of Illusions which is a tourist attraction from Victorian times that features mind-bending mirror mazes, holograms and optical illusions, before reaching The Scotch Whisky Experience where you’ll be able to join a variety of guided tours that will explain the origins of the legendary spirit as well as give you a sample or two to try.
Although it’s a bit gimmicky (and expensive) it’s actually a great tourist attraction and there’s more on offer than you might expect. In addition to a whisky barrel ride there is an enormous whisky collection, tasting rooms, a very good café and one of the best whisky shops in Scotland. Just make sure you actually like the taste of the stuff before you decide to hand over your wallet.
The last port of call on this one-mile journey is Edinburgh Castle which doesn’t really need an introduction. The castle is Scotland’s top visitor attraction and regularly draws over two million tourists each and every year through its portcullis.
To be honest there’s more than enough to see and do at the castle to keep a family occupied for an entire day with museums, military exhibitions, priceless jewels, cafés, restaurants and shops nestled inside the walls of one of the world’s most formidable fortresses.
It’s pricey but it’s the crowning jewel of Edinburgh and is a fitting attraction to sit at the top of The Royal Mile.
- Where to begin? Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace top the list for most people.
- This road in the heart of the city allows easy access to the best sights. If you do nothing else you’ll have an enjoyable time just walking from the top to the bottom (or vice versa).
- The Old Town is one of the best-preserved medieval districts in Europe. Stunning architecture and a dizzying number of historic attractions can be found along each step of the way.
- You won’t fit everything into one weekend so if you’re visiting for a short time stick to the highlights of the Royal Mile – Holyrood Palace, St. Giles Cathedral, and Edinburgh Castle. If you have time include Camera Obscura and the Scotch Whisky Experience.
- The Royal Mile is busy at all times of the year but midweek up to 11am it’s usually reasonably crowd-free. During The Fringe in August it gets horrendously crowded though. If you like to keep to yourself leave a visit to The Royal Mile for another time of the year.
- The best way to experience The Royal Mile is to join a tour. You can turn up at the Mercat Cross outside St. Giles Cathedral and speak to the guides that hang about there or book online. Mercattours.com have been going for years and they’re very good at making Edinburgh’s history come alive.
The Royal Mile,
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Photo gallery and video
Things to do near The Royal Mile
- Edinburgh Castle. Castlehill, Edinburgh EH1 2NG. 8-minute walk from St. Giles Cathedral. Scotland’s most-visited tourist attraction. This 11th-century castle and barracks houses the Scottish crown jewels and is the location for the National War Museum. It also features popular attractions like the Mons Meg cannon and the One O’Clock gun.
- Holyrood Palace. Palace of Holyroodhouse, Canongate The Royal Mile, Edinburgh EH8 8DX. 13-minute walk from St. Giles Cathedral. Holyrood palace is HM The Queen’s official residence in Scotland. The palace is open to visitors who can explore the royal rooms on a self-guided tour. Tickets include a visit to The Queen’s Gallery and Holyrood Abbey.
- St. Giles Cathedral. High St, Edinburgh EH1 1RE. Grand, Gothic-style cathedral that is open to public viewing when religious sermons are not in session. Entry is free. Guided tours are available.
- The Scotch Whisky Experience. The Royal Mile, 354 Castlehill, Edinburgh EH1 2NE. 5-minute walk from St. Giles Cathedral. Popular tourist attraction on The Royal Mile that celebrates Scotland’s whisky traditions with tastings, a whisky barrel ride and guided tours. Shop and café on site.
- John Knox House. Scottish Storytelling Centre, High St, Edinburgh EH1 1SR. 5-minute walk from St. Giles cathedral. 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 has a café and gift shop.
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.