The Royal Mile is a series of connected streets traversing Edinburgh’s Old Town. Most will find themselves strolling along its sidewalks at least once during their visit to the Scottish capital. The Royal Mile stretches between Edinburgh Castle in Castlehill and down through High Street, Abbey Strand and toward the Palace of Holyroodhouse. You can walk it in around 20 minutes, but you’ll want to allow much longer to see everything.

The Royal Mile offers a clue into the city’s ancient geography. Edinburgh’s castle sits on top of the plug of a long-extinct volcano. Many thousands of years ago, the ice sheet that covered it retreated. As it did so, it left behind a line of glacial debris to create what geographers call a “crag and tail” formation. As you climb steadily upwards along the Royal Mile to the castle, you can imagine what the landscape might once have been like.

The Royal Mile in Edinburgh - one of the highlights of 12 Best Things to Do in Edinburgh and 5 Things to Do For New Year's Eve in Edinburgh (Read all about Edinburgh here)

A brief history of the Royal Mile

Writer WM Gilbert coined the term ‘the Royal Mile’ in 1901 when he wrote Edinburgh in the Nineteenth Century. However, the buildings on this historic thoroughfare date from much earlier times, with the oldest at either end. The 12th-century St Margaret’s Chapel predates the rest of the castle – the Great Hall, for instance, dates back to only 1510.

At the opposite end of the street, you’ll find the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. Construction began in 1501 on the orders of James IV of Scotland, who chose this spot not far from Arthur’s Seat, the highest of the city’s hills.

Infilling quickly happened between the castle and the palace. Today, these 16th- and 17th-century tenements and mansions house shops, restaurants and visitor attractions, as well as St Giles’ Cathedral. Sometimes the name of the street gives us a clue to its original use, as with the Lawnmarket. In 1477, a charter was granted making this the marketplace for items coming from inland producers, such as cloth and wool. Initially, it was dubbed the Land Market, which over time evolved into Lawnmarket.

What can you see along the Royal Mile?

Beside the Palace of Holyroodhouse stands the substantial ruins of Holyrood Abbey, built in 1128. A short stroll away, the architectural style couldn’t be more different at the Scottish Parliament Building. Guided tours are available of its striking oak and granite interior. Confusingly, it’s not located in Parliament Square, which is also located adjacent to the Royal Mile but closer to the castle and is where you’ll find Scotland’s Supreme Court.

Another must-do while exploring the Royal Mile is to potter along the alleyways that branch off on either side. Known as wynds or closes, these were once residential lanes. The most unusual is Mary King’s Close, partially demolished and buried during the construction of the Royal Exchange in the 18th century and now accessible on an underground guided tour.

Other places along the Royal Mile worth a stop include the Museum of Edinburgh, Canongate Kirk, the Museum of Childhood, John Knox House and the Scotch Whiskey Experience. There’s the Lawnmarket, among the oldest parts of Old Town, and the Canongate that forms the main eastern length of the mile. Keep your eyes peeled for the Heart of Midlothian Mosaic, embedded into the sidewalk to mark the location of the Old Tolbooth, once the city jail.

The Camera Obscura and the World of Illusions claims to be Edinburgh’s oldest visitor attraction. Since 1853, this 17th-century tower has welcomed visitors to its camera obscura – an image of a scene, in this case, the streets of Edinburgh below, passes through a pinhole and is projected inside. Exhibits based around optical illusions – including a popular mirror maze – occupy the lower floors.

What are some good things to know about the Royal Mile?

The Edinburgh International Festival and its famous Fringe, the world’s largest art festival, take place in August. The Royal Mile heaves with street performers and buskers, not to mention the crowds that gather on the street to watch. The city’s hotels fill quickly and it’s advisable to book early if you want to be close to the action.

Rail travelers will be pleased to know that the Royal Mile is within easy walking distance of the city’s main train station, Edinburgh Waverley. The station also houses a handy luggage storage facility – head to platform 2 close to the Calton Road entrance.

The Royal Mile in Edinburgh

Location: Royal Mile, Edinburgh EH1 1SG, UK

Open: 24/7

Julia Hammond | Contributing Writer