Old Town & The Royal Mile
Start: Edinburgh Castle Esplanade.
Finish: Holyrood Park.
Time: About 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
Best Time: Daytime.
Worst Time: Late at night.
This walk takes place in the historic heart of Old Town, the medieval city established as a royal burgh by King David I in the 12th century. Situated on a mile-long hill, Old Town (whose protective walls were knocked down and refortified throughout history) is, for many visitors, the most evocative district in Edinburgh. In large part, the city's current reputation for beauty and romance rests upon the appearance of the Royal Mile and its surrounding streets.
Start the walk at the esplanade of:
1. Edinburgh Castle
The esplanade (now a parking lot) of Edinburgh Castle has the most accessible views of the city in practically all directions. Evidence of buildings here dates to the 11th century, although fortifications of some kind on this mount, known as Castle Rock, may go back as far as the 6th century. In 1542, the castle ceased being a royal residence, becoming an ordinance factory. Today, military barracks are still on the grounds, although it is mainly a tourist attraction.
At the northeast corner of the esplanade is:
2. Ramsay Garden
Not a garden but an innovative and charming set of buildings that date to the end of the 19th century, this bright and cheerful place was the brainchild of Sir Patrick Geddes. A polymath and city planner, Geddes almost single-handedly revived the fortunes of Old Town, working to rid it of squalid living conditions while saving it from total destruction and redevelopment. Ramsay Garden's architecture is a mix of Scottish baronial and English cottage, combining corbels (the cantilevered round extensions), conical roofs, crow steps, and half-timber gable construction beautifully.
Move from the esplanade to:
3. Castle Hill
Although the road that runs from the castle to the palace is generally called the Royal Mile, it has various names along the way. The first short section is Castle Hill, followed by the Lawnmarket, High Street, and Canongate. On the right as you move away from the castle grounds are Cannonball House and Castlehill School, the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre, and then Boswell's Court, which was originally built around 1600 and now is the site of a sumptuous restaurant called the Witchery. Across the street is Geddes' observatory, which has his camera obscura, for unique views of the city.
At the roundabout, which marks the end of Castlehill, is the Tolbooth Church (now called the Hub). Completed in 1844, it doubled as a meeting hall for the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
Continue down the Royal Mile to the Lawnmarket and:
4. Gladstone's Land
Lands are buildings, and between the 14th and 15th centuries, the plots (or tofts) on the Royal Mile were subdivided into forelands and backlands. Just past the entrances to James Court, Gladstone's Land dates to at least the 16th century and was purchased by Thomas Gladstone (then spelled Gledstane) in 1617. He expanded the building upwards and forward toward the street. Inside, you can see both the original frontage as well as a painted ceiling of the once "new" addition in the second-floor front room. Nearby, Lady Stair's Close has the early-17th-century Lady Stair's House, the remnants of which now contain the Writer's Museum with exhibits dedicated to Burns, Scott, and Stevenson.
Across from Gladstone's Land is:
5. Brodie's Close
Edinburgh's history has its fair share of rather infamous characters. None more so than craftsman William Brodie: upstanding gentleman and deacon of trades by day but thief and ne'er-do-well by night. Once captured, Deacon Brodie escaped arrest and fled to Holland, where he betrayed himself by his letter writing. Brought back to Edinburgh, in 1788 he was hung, ironically, on gallows of his own design. Robert Lewis Stevenson is said to have had a childhood nightmare about the two-faced Brodie, which later became inspiration for his character Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Lest you worry about the morality of Edinburgh, the close is actually named after Brodie's father, Francis, a gifted cabinetmaker who obeyed the law.
Continue down the Royal Mile, crossing Bank Street on the left and George IV Bridge on the right, to:
6. St. Giles Cathedral
You're now on High Street. There is nearly as much history around St. Giles, or the High Church, as the city itself. Its origins date to the 12th century. It was burned by the English when they overran the city in 1385. Here, in the 1500s, John Knox laid down his uncompromising Protestant reforms, and, later, zealous followers destroyed and removed alters and relics. It's been rebuilt and renovated repeatedly. All that really remains of the 15th-century church is the spire, a familiar landmark of the city. Around St. Giles are the Law Courts of Parliament Square, featuring (since 1838) the designs of Robert Reid, though they were inspired by drawings by the great architect Robert Adam. In the sidewalk near the Royal Mile, note the heart-shaped arrangement of cobbles. This is meant to mark the site of the old tolbooth (where taxes were collected) and a city prison, the latter of which was made famous by Sir Walter Scott's The Heart of Midlothian. Spitting in the heart is said to bring good luck. Farther down and across the street is Edinburgh City Chambers, beneath which is Mary King's Close where tours reveal the Old Town underbelly: buildings as they looked before the mid-1700s. Nearby in the Anchor Close, the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica was printed.
Continue down the Royal Mile to:
7. Cockburn Street
Curving down the hill to the left, Cockburn Street is a relatively recent addition to the neighborhood, built in 1856 to improve access to Waverley railway station. Like Bank Street earlier, it interrupts the old closes and steps (such as those in the macabre-sounding Fleshmarket Close) that descend precipitously down the northern side of the hill. Cockburn Street has a variety of bars and restaurants, CD shops, tattoo parlors, and art galleries. Across High Street is the Tron Kirk, a center for Old Town information. A tron was the beam used to weigh goods. The church was built atop a very old lane that today has been excavated.
Continue down the Royal Mile, crossing North Bridge on the left and South Bridge on the right to Blackfriars Street and:
Take a Break -- Spoon Cafe (15 Blackfriars St.; tel. 0131/556-6922) is no greasy spoon, that's for sure. It's a modern and casual cafe with a talented chef in charge of the small and open kitchen. Sure, the selection is fairly modest -- salads, soups, and sandwiches, plus cakes -- but it's all freshly prepared using some excellent and tasty ingredients.
Return to High Street, turning right to:
8. John Knox House
Jutting out into the wide sidewalk on the left side of High Street is this apparently genuine 16th-century house, although any real link to the firebrand Protestant reformer (who surely resided in a church manse) has been discredited over the years. Still, the connection to John Knox, however tenuous, is probably what has ensured that this attractive building was preserved. Next door (to the left) is Moubray House, which has some of the same details of Gladstone's Land. The rear portion (not open to the public) might actually date to 1530, making it perhaps the oldest surviving dwelling in the city. Across the street, Tweeddale Court leads to Tweeddale House, a 16th-century survivor with the Doric porch added in the 18th century just before the printers Oliver & Boyd (whose name remains on the facade) occupied the building.
The patio is also the site of the infamous robbery and murder of one William Begbie in 1806. Apparently most of the stolen money was quickly recovered -- but the assassin escaped justice. Nearby is the World's End Close, the final alley on this stretch of the Royal Mile and indeed historically the last before the city's old wall, which protected the world within it.
Continue down the Royal Mile to:
9. Canongate Tolbooth
Now, having crossed an intersection with Jeffrey Street on the left and St. Mary's Street to the right, you are on the Canongate. The original settlement of the same name was only formally incorporated into the city of Edinburgh in 1856. Most of the buildings along the Canongate have been rebuilt over the years. The tower of the Tolbooth was built in the 1590s, however. The attractive clock that extends out over the street was added to the building in the 1880s. You can see a bit of the interior, which has been made into a not-terribly-impressive museum called the People's Story.
Next door is:
10. Canongate Church
The original parish church for the Canongate burgh was in Holyrood Abbey . But eventually a new kirk became necessary, and this one, with its bell-shaped roofline, was christened in 1691. It remains the church that today's royal family attends when staying at Holyrood Palace. The churchyard, with good views of the Royal High School on Calton Hill, has numerous monuments. Pioneering economic philosopher Adam Smith is buried here and possibly the murdered secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots, David Rizzio (whose body had to have been moved here more than 100 years after his death). Aficionados of the poet Robert Burns will know that he wrote the tribute on the headstone of fellow poet Robert Fergusson and that Mrs. Agnes McLehose (whom Burns addressed in umpteen letters as "Clarinda") was laid to rest in this cemetery, as well.
Continue on down the Royal Mile to the:
11. Parliament Building
Subject to seemingly endless debate -- much delayed and way over budget -- the Parliament Building for Scotland was designed by Enric Miralles, a Barcelona-based architect who died of cancer shortly after work on the building was started. The controversial complex was initially intended to open in 2001, but didn't host its first session until autumn 2004. In 2006, the bedeviled building suffered another setback when a beam in the main debating chamber came loose. The abstract motif, repeated on the facade along the Canongate, was apparently inspired by Raeburn's painting of Reverend Walker skating on Duddingston Loch, which hangs in the National Gallery of Art.
Continue to the foot of the Canongate and the:
12. Palace & Abbey of Holyroodhouse
Rood means cross, and the abbey (now in ruins) on the grounds of Holyroodhouse dates to King David I and 1128. The residence for royalty followed in the 15th century. Between 1426 and 1460, James II was born, crowned, married, and buried at the Palace. Later, James IV expanded the buildings, as did his heir -- all to be redone again in the 17th century by King Charles II, who never apparently visited. A critical episode in the fraught reign of Mary, Queen of Scots was played out here: the assassination of her loyal assistant David Rizzio. Young Pretender Bonnie Prince Charlie stayed at the palace briefly in 1745 during his nearly successful, but ultimately disastrous, rebellion. For many years, the palace remained empty most of the time, and only since the first visit by Queen Victoria in 1842 have its lodgings been regularly used by members of the royal family. In 2002, the Queen's Gallery was opened for public displays of the royal collection of art.
13. Holyrood Park
If you have any energy left, these 160 plus hectares (400 acres) of open space allow plenty of ground to roam. From here you can scale Salisbury Crags and mount the high hill known as Arthur's Seat, which rises some 251m (825 ft.) above Edinburgh. Nearby is the science- and family-oriented tourist attraction, Our Dynamic Earth.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.