Series – Family Adventures Across Great Britain
Welcome to Edinburgh, Scotland, and the next stop on our family adventures across Great Britain. Explore with us as we spend three days in the Old Town section of this centuries-old capital city. It is a destination long on history, steeped in tradition, and full of Scottish charm and culture. And the occasional kilt or two!
Imagine it! Humans have inhabited these lands since the Bronze Age. Centuries of life and plenty of strife have occurred here, long before Edinburgh became what it is today. Follow along as we experience several of its most iconic sites. Our adventure into Old Town Edinburgh’s history, hidden gems and local culture is about to begin. Let’s go!
Meandering Along The Royal Mile
Welcome to Edinburgh’s iconic Royal Mile! Some might say it is full of tourist traps. And, well, yes, it is. But it is also chock full of history, action, and plenty of charm and interest worthy of dodging the crowds. A visit to Edinburgh isn’t complete without walking this cobblestoned street from top to bottom, bottom to top, and along a few side streets too.
Stand before Holyroodhouse Palace at one end, and Edinburgh Castle at the other. Meander past centuries-old buildings with stunning architecture. Check out the Scotch Whiskey Experience, Camera Obsura and World of Illusions. Spot a few options for lunch, and dinner too. Never a dull moment along the Royal Mile!
A Royal Mile experience is as much about street shows and characters met along the way as it is about history! One day, it might be a wizard floating in the air. Another time it may be a street performer juggling flames in the air. And pretty much every day, one is practically guaranteed of spotting at least one bagpiping, kilted Scotsman.
Stand before magnificent St. Gile’s Cathedral at the end of the day, admiring the sun setting across the sky, glinting off its spires. Step within to view memorials to famous Scots and incredible stained glass before heading off to a nearby pub for dinner and a pint as nightfall overtakes Old Town Edinburgh.
Travel Tip: Make time to watch the afternoon street shows. A section of the Mile is closed to traffic most afternoons for these free, fun, and entertaining shows.
Exploring History at Edinburgh Castle
Next up? Edinburgh Castle, set high atop Castle Rock. Over its 1100 year history, this castle has seen its fair share of conflicts, including 26 sieges, making it one of the most attacked places in the world. Today, it is one of Edinburgh’s top tourist attractions, no longer under threat of siege. Unless one considers the tourists that flock here every day!
History runs deep atop Castle Rock! The castle grounds have served as home to Scottish royalty and as a military garrison. Wander as high as the road goes for a commanding view across Edinburgh, much as Scottish kings once did. Stand next to Mons Meg, one of the greatest guns in medieval Europe. Explore the National War Museum, The Great Hall, and vaults that were once home to prisoners of war.
Step into tiny 12th century St. Margaret’s Chapel, Edinburgh’s oldest building. Examine each of the five stained glass windows representing pivotal people in Scotland’s past. Gather outside for the shooting of the One O’Clock Gun, a tradition dating back to 1861!
Travel Tip: Buy tickets in advance, either online or at kiosks outside the castle entrance. The line can be deceivingly long if you wait to purchase tickets at the gate.
Hiking Up Arthur’s Seat
Take a walk on the wilder side at Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park. Did you know there’s an extinct volcano in the middle of Holyrood Park? Tackle the hike to the summit of Arthur’s Seat, and you’ll be standing on top of it! How cool is that!
Several trails wind their way up to the summit, allowing hikers to pick the challenge that best suits their style. Those wishing a more challenging hike can head straight up the right side of Salisbury Crags. Others may chose a less challenging path to the left. Don’t worry! The trails are well marked. Salisbury Crags, here we come!
Fabulous views across Edinburgh are the reward, even on a cloudy day! Take time to revel in a successful climb, soaking in the views. Ponder why is it called Arthur’s Seat? Some believe this site may have been home to the legendary Camelot!
Take a detour on the way down to visit St. Anthony’s Chapel, long ago abandoned and left for ruin. Though its age is uncertain and its history incomplete, the chapel is thought to date back to at least the 1300’s. Soak in one last commanding view of Edinburgh spread out below before heading on down the final stretch.
Travel Tip: Plan at least 2 hours to complete the hike and explore the ruins.
The National Museum of Scotland
Witness thousands of years of history within the walls of the National Museum of Scotland! Analyze ancient Celtic stone carvings, Roman headstones and Viking artifacts. Meander through medieval wooden structures and past mysterious miniature coffins found on Arthur’s Seat. Marvel upon modern day inventions, science and technology.
Meet a few famous residents, like the incredible Scandinavian chess pieces known as the Lewis Chessmen. Dating to the late 12th or early 13th century, these intricately carved walrus ivory chessmen must have been someone’s prized possession. Which begs the question. Why was the set left buried in a bag on a Scottish beach?
Stand beneath a 15th century painted ceiling that was once part of a family burial chamber. Search for the Tomb of Mary Queen of Scots and other artifacts once part of her intriguing life. Though the original tomb resides in Westminster Abbey, this replica from the 1600’s remains a testament to her status. Take a break in the beautiful Grand Gallery before departing this most impressive museum
Travel Tip: Plan at least a half day to explore the museum. If rain is in the forecast, the museum is a wonderful respite for a rainy day!
Underground at Mary King’s Close
Mary King’s Close provides an intriguing introspection into life in a 17th century Edinburgh close. Those who brave the experience go underneath today’s city streets to walk this cluster of subterranean 17th century alleys and tenements frozen in time beneath the Royal Mile. It is as if life has stood still here in Mary King’s Close!
Some consider the close to be haunted, which adds to the mystery and intrigue. Others simply find it a fascinating glimpse into a 300+ year old time capsule of Edinburgh. Listen up as the guide regales stories of those who once lived and worked in this hidden close.
Travel Tip: Tours run several times a day, but don’t wait until the last minute to book! Groups are small and may fill up. It’s a perfect rainy day activity too.
Exploring Side Streets & Scottish Pubs
In between castles, hikes, and museums, adventure off to other parts of Old Town. Explore side streets. Walk through an old cemetery, reading headstone inscriptions along the way. Step into a Scottish pub to sample local fare and and perhaps a dram of Scotch whiskey or two. It’s a great way to finish off a day in Edinburgh!
Check out The Elephant House, notable for hot teas, tasty treats, and the Birth Place of Harry Potter. Famed author J.K. Rowling wrote much of the early Harry Potter series within these walls. Grab a chair, savor a cup of tea, and let the creative thoughts flow!
Savor a tasty meal, a pint of cider and a shot of fine whiskey in a local pub. With plenty of interesting and eclectic pubs in all price ranges to choose from, there’s sure to be one to please! Like the historic Tolbooth Tavern, built in 1591 to collect tolls from travellers. Or find a seat at the trendy Deacon Brodies Tavern for more upscale fare and ale.
Sample traditional Scottish fare like haggis, neeps and tatties, bangers and mash, or the classic fish supper at The Royal Mile Tavern. Or head over to The Holyrood 9A for their fine selection of gourmet burgers and beer. No matter the taste buds, there’s a pub to rest those weary feet and fill those empty stomachs.
Travel Tip: If you have your heart set on a specific pub, consider an earlier or later meal time. The more popular places fill up quickly.
That’s A Wrap in Old Town!
Though our time was short and our experiences limited to Old Town Edinburgh, they were long on good, simple family fun! But now, it is time to move on to the next phase of this family vacation. Join us for our next Scottish adventure as we head outdoors into the wild and wonderful Scottish Highlands. See you there!
One Last Travel Tip: Traveling from London to Edinburgh as we did? Consider taking the train! It was a nice, relaxing ride through the countryside, and the train stops within walking distance of the Royal Mile.
Read more about our adventures across Great Britain at:
- Snippets of a Fabulous Family Vacation in Great Britain
- Tackling a Highlands Hillwalk – Maell a’ Bhuachaille, Cairngorms National Park
Stick around as there’s more to come!
All photos by C.Biederman