You’re on a road trip, heading for the most remote of Scotland’s magical isles. Nonetheless, no trip to the “best small country on Earth” (as Scots proudly boast) is complete without a tour of its historic capital city.
Edinburgh is compact and quaint, but there’s still a lot to see. Most tourists start with the journey from Edinburgh Castle to the palace, called the Royal Mile. If you’re not into conventional tourist sites, you might think of skipping the Mile all together. After all, it can seem like an endless barrage of wool and whiskey shops, staffed by eager clansmen ready to find your ancestors’ historic (and no doubt pricey) tartans. But if you look a bit harder, there are better ways you could spend your time - and money - on the Mile. Learn a bit of Scotland’s history, culture and climate on these five unmissable stops along the Royal Mile.
1. Holyrood Park and Arthur's Seat
Starting at the bottom of the Mile, visit Holyrood Park. Although it surrounds the Queen’s home in Scotland’s capital, the Palace of Holyroodhouse, you’re not here to spot royals. Instead, climb the hill to Arthur’s Seat, the mythical earthen throne of King Arthur and the highest vantage point in the city. Don’t mind the near-constant mixture of wind, sprinkles and chills - it’s the best way for you to feel like a Scot. If you visit Edinburgh without making this climb, you’ve missed the city completely.
2. Clarinda's Tea Room
Skip the tourists at the palace and start your walk up the Mile. This lower end, called Canongate, is home to a traditional tea house that rivals the best in Britain. Nip in to Clarinda’s Tea Room, cloaked in doilies and staffed by chipper grannies, for a cheddar cheese and apple sandwich and a pot of traditional black or herbal tea. Finish off with one of the myriad of homemade desserts, displayed prominently on a Victorian-laced, tiered cart. You won’t find pastry chef snobbery here: these traditional British desserts (Victoria sponge cake, sticky toffee pudding and shortbread cookies, to name a few) ooze with the telltale signs of home cooking.
That means they’re made with love, not perfection. And everyone knows love has the sweetest flavor.
3. Scottish Storytelling Centre
As you travel up the Mile, it’s name changes (again!) to High Street near the Scottish Storytelling Centre. If you’re not in Edinburgh during the renowned Fringe Festival, this is your opportunity to see Scottish art and performance at its best. The Storytelling Centre’s mission is to keep the Scottish traditions of oral history, music and dance alive and well.
Situated in the home of Scottish Protestant reformer John Knox, one of the city’s oldest buildings, history comes alive through the celebration of Scotland’s favorite poet Robert Burns, as well as contemporary artists and storytellers who perform frequently. Fans of New York’s The Moth will recognize the simple story-telling format and the audience’s voracious appreciation of unadulterated honesty.
4. The Real Mary King's Close
Continue up High Street, which is a mostly-pedestrian thoroughfare, to the only real “tourist site” that’s not to be missed. The Real Mary King’s Close, in spite of the cheesy marketing, is a pretty informative look into life in the capitol during the 16th and 17th centuries. As you’ll notice, the Mile heads uphill to the Castle, but on both sides of it, the city streets slope down sharply. This landscape of hills and valleys used to be even more pronounced, as you’ll learn in Mary King’s Close, a medieval neighborhood that now lies under a concrete grave surrounding the Royal Mile.
Along the tour, led by a period-costumed guide and populated by actors portraying peasants of the time, you’ll learn about the poor folks who existed at “the bottom of the hill,” which was then the margins of Scottish society.
5. Scotch Whiskey Experience
At the top of the Royal Mile, known as Castlehill, reward yourself with the Scotch Whiskey Experience. Refine your taste buds with over 400 whiskey varieties and learn about the history and specificity of Scotch, Scotland’s unique take on the liquor, along the way. Skip the one-hour educational tours, which are more or less meant for school kids, and head to the Amber Restaurant for whiskey tastings and pairings. If you’d feel cheated without a tour, opt for the Morning Masterclass or a Taste of Scotland, which pairs a more adult tour with modern Scottish cuisine.
No wool on the Royal Mile
From wind to whiskey, Edinburgh’s Royal Mile is a walk worth savoring. Forgo the tourist traps and head to the spots that reveal the real Scotland. In one day, you’ll experience the unwieldy weather, underground history and modern-day sips and sweets worthy of the best small country in the world.
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