No trip to Edinburgh would be complete without a visit to the Royal Mile, so appropriately enough, that was one of my first stops. I arrived on an uncharacteristically sunny day, and everyone wanted to be out to enjoy it.
Street view at the top of the Royal Mile (photo credit: canuckrunningamuck.com)
The Royal Mile starts at the top of Castle Hill, crowned by Edinburgh Castle, and makes its way down High Street all the way to Holyrood Palace. I approached it from the back side of the castle, along a winding walk that leads up the steep hill and affords excellent views of some of Edinburgh’s skyline. Edinburgh Castle is imposing on the rocky outcrop of the hill, although I found the amphitheatre built at its entrance to be an eyesore. (It obscures what would otherwise be an awe-inspiring glimpse of the castle, dominating the top of the Royal Mile.) Anyway. My climb led me to the base of a wide staircase that seemed to be cut into the rock itself. Huff and puff your way up that, and you find yourself right at the start of the Royal Mile.
Entrance to Edinburgh Castle (photo credit: canuckrunningamuck)
You come out on a wide cobblestone thoroughfare, the castle behind you, tartan weaving mill to your left, Scotch Whisky Experience to your right. And ahead of you stretches all of the Royal Mile; you can see the tops of the myriad grey Victorian buildings and the unmissable dome of St. Giles’ Cathedral popping up. Further out is the water of the Firth of Forth. Shops rub shoulders with one another all along the way, enticing you with thoughtful displays of their whisky, their tweed, their pewter, and any number of souvenirs ranging from tacky to exquisite.
50 shades of grey on the Royal Mile- Victorian buildings dominate the high street (photo credit: canuckrunningamuck.com)
The Royal Mile will be busy any day you visit it, as it is home to a number of attractions, as well as being one itself. Get in the mood by stopping to listen to one of the many buskers who entertain the street; there is something so right about the tunes of the bagpipes drifting down as you wander past the shopfronts and along the cobblestones.
Highland bagpiper (photo credit: canuckrunningamuck.com)
Do not- and I cannot stress this enough- DO NOT walk past Mackie’s ice cream shop without stopping in. There is ice cream, and then there is Mackie’s, so thick and creamy and wholesome that you can almost chew it. The Scotch tablet flavour was a definite winner, and strolling the Royal Mile in full sun with an ice cream cone in hand makes it all the better.
Looking down the Royal Mile (photo credit: canuckrunningamuck.com)
Also worth a visit? The tartan weaving mill. Skip past the tourist trap of a shop that you encounter immediately when you walk in, and start your way on the bottom floor to work your way up. There, you can see the looms in action, as well as kiltmakers fashioning beautiful items by hand. The majority of the floor space is occupied by tartans of all colours and weaves, but some tucked away corners house custom-made bagpipes and pewter goods. There is an option to have your photo taken in traditional highland dress, but it will cost you 20 quid and is so painfully a ploy for tourists’ attention. Be advised as well that photography is not permitted inside the mill.
The tartan weaving mill actually extends down four floors and is absolutely massive inside (photo credit: canuckrunningamuck.com)
I found the Royal Mile gets quite crowded on a day with good weather, as one would expect. The teeming crowds, gaggles of selfie-takers, and fashion bloggers were getting to be too much, so St. Giles’ Cathedral was a retreat into which I gladly escaped. As it is a functioning place of worship, I avoided photography of the interior, but the exterior is an architectural delight. The crown steeple is its most recognisable feature, but if you look closely, you will also see medieval carvings of green-men and heraldic symbols. There are many hidden gems inside the cathedral as well, including 17th century memorials and delicate works of stained glass. Pay attention to the layout; you will note that the floor plan is not like those of other cathedrals. St. Giles’ Cathedral, after all, is not a Catholic institution. One of the guidebooks will prove useful as you take yourself around this magnificent church.
The crown steeple of St. Giles’ Cathedral is one of Edinburgh’s most recognisable landmarks (photo credit: canuckrunningamuck.com)
If history is your thing (it’s mine), head to the John Knox House to brush up on your knowledge of this pivotal religious figure. John Knox was a key figure of the Scottish Reformation and a thorn in Mary, Queen of Scots’s side. Controversial and sometimes inflammatory in his time, his ideas still resonate with some today. His house is wonderfully recreated and maintained, and the museum is thorough in its narrative. It is not grand but maintains an authenticity in capturing the Protestants’ ideals; as you move from room to room, reflect on how revolutionary John Knox’s ideas were during such a tumultuous time in history.
The John Knox House, interior (top) and exterior (bottom) (photo credit: canuckrunningamuck.com)
Meal options abound on the Royal Mile, but consider getting off the high street and venturing down one of the many twisting lanes that shoot off from it. If you’re looking for tea in a cosy nook, The Wall Coffee and Design House on Cockburn Street is lovely. Warmly-lit and accented with stacks of books as table centrepieces, it invites you to duck in out of a downpour to enjoy yourself. They have a variety of interesting tea flavours (strawberries and cream, anyone?), served up elegantly in porcelain.
Rose tea from The Wall (photo credit: canuckrunningamuck.com)
The best way to experience the Royal Mile is simply to wander it. Bring your raincoat; it’s even moodier and more beautiful against a grey sky. And if you need to get out of the rain, there’s plenty to do. It is worth indulging your curiosity and popping into shops that catch your eye, if only to look. As an added bonus, many of the whisky shops will offer free or very inexpensive tastings. What better way to start your Edinburgh adventure than with a wee dram?
The Royal Mile on a rainy day (photo credit: canuckrunningamuck.com)