King James IV established this palace at the beginning of the 16th century adjacent to an abbey that a distant predecessor, King David I, had founded in 1128. What you see today was mostly built for Charles II in the 1670s. The northwest tower is the oldest part of the palace still intact and this wing provides the most interesting part of the tour inside. Here was the scene of Holyroodhouse's most dramatic incident. Mary Stuart's closest courtier, David Rizzio, was stabbed repeatedly (allegedly in front of the pregnant queen) on March 9, 1566 by accomplices of her jealous husband, Lord Darnley. There are several diverting Stuart relics, curios, and bits of history in Mary's Outer Chamber. One of the more curious exhibits is a piece of needlework done by Mary depicting a cat-and-mouse scene. (Her cousin, Elizabeth I, is the cat.)

The palace suffered long periods of neglect, but it basked in brief glory during a ball thrown by Bonnie Prince Charlie in the mid-18th century, during the peak of his feverish (and doomed) rebellion to restore the Stuart line to monarchy. Today the royal family stays here whenever they visit Edinburgh. When they're not in residence, the palace is open to visitors, and you see the various reception rooms where the queen dines, entertains, and meets Scottish government leaders. Some of the rich tapestries, paneling, massive fireplaces, and antiques from the 1700s are still in place. In addition to daytime hours, visitors can book exclusive evening tours at £30 per person, where you get your own expert guide.

More recently, the modern Queen's Gallery (additional admission) opened to display works from the royal collection, whether Mughal art or Dutch paintings. All that remains of the original Abbey is the ruined nave: still, you can imagine its grandeur and see a few tombstones, as well as the vault where the remains of King James V were once kept. On the path behind the nave, remnants of the foundations of other ecclesiastical buildings are apparent.

Behind Holyroodhouse is Holyrood Park, Edinburgh's largest. With rocky crags, a loch, sweeping meadows, and the ruins of a chapel, it's a wee bit of the Scottish countryside in the city, and a great place for a picnic. If you're fit and ambitious, climb up to the summit of 250-m (823-ft) high Arthur's Seat, from which the panorama is breathtaking. The name doesn't refer to King Arthur, as many people assume, but perhaps is a reference to Prince Arthur of Strathclyde or a corruption of Ard Thor, Gaelic for "height of Thor."