Old Town is where Edinburgh began: Edinburgh Castle to the west, the Palace of Holyroodhouse to the east, and the Royal Mile connecting the two.
Edinburgh Castle, the twelfth-century stronghold and favored residence of Scotland’s kings and queens, towers over the city. Although archaeological evidence suggests the first settlers were Bronze Age around 1000 BC, the site had developed into a mighty fortification and royal residence by the middle ages.
The Scots and English struggled to control the castle during the Wars of Independence from 1296 to 1328 and 1332 to 1357. The wars became one of the most defining moments in the nation’s history. At the end of both wars, Scotland retained its status as an independent nation.
Walking up the hill and through the massive castle gate, I find buildings all around me, each representing a different chapter in Scotland’s history. By veering right and spiraling up the outside wall and then cutting up the middle, I can see most of the castle and many of its buildings, including several military museums.
The oldest surviving part of the castle, built in the twelfth century, is the tiny St. Margaret’s chapel dedicated to the wife of Malcolm III. The Great Hall, by comparison, is animated and showy. Built by James IV in 1510, it houses a fine collection of armor and weapons.
The castle sheltered many Scottish monarchs, including Queen Margaret, later St. Margaret, and Mary Queen of Scots, who gave birth to James VI in the Royal Palace in 1566.
The Scottish Crown Jewels and the Stone of Destiny, where previous Scottish Monarchs were crowned, are on display.
The view from the castle is spectacular as well. All of Edinburgh stretches to the horizon — thousands of buildings arranged along city streets, ornate cathedrals and public buildings, and the pale blue North Sea beyond.
From the castle, I walk to the Palace of Holyroodhouse along the Royal Mile. On either side of the street are towering tenements. Due to space restrictions imposed by the street’s narrowness and the desire to stay safe within the defensive walls, the buildings were built higher as housing’s need grew.
Residents occupy upper floors while street-level real estate is occupied by restaurants, shops, and other businesses, much as it was 500 years ago. Narrow passageways jut out from the street, adding mystery and romance to the scene.
The Palace of Holyroodhouse
The palace has served as the Kings and Queens of Scots’ principal residence since the sixteenth-century.
Best known for Mary, Queen of Scots, today the State Apartments are used regularly by Queen Elizabeth for State ceremonies and official entertaining. The queen spends one week in residence at the palace at the beginning of each summer, carrying out official engagements and ceremonies.
Holyrood Abbey ruins are located at the end of the palace tour. Founded by David I, King of Scots, it became an important administrative center in 1128 as a royal institution. In 1189 a council of nobles met at the abbey to discuss a ransom for the captive king William the Lion. Parliament was held here, and by 1329 it may have been in use as a royal residence. James II was born at the abbey in 1430 and later crowned, married, and laid to rest here.
Edinburgh was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the contrast between Old Town and New Town.
New Town was constructed between 1767 and 1890. This is where the upper classes moved when it was finally deemed safe to leave Old Town’s security and survives virtually intact.
If possible, plan to stay three days in the city. Other attractions include the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Scottish National Gallery, Scottish Parliament, National Museum of Scotland, Museum of Edinburgh, and the Royal Yacht Britannia.
Other than a flight, the easiest way to get to Edinburgh is by train. You can use your BritRail pass to travel from other parts of Scotland and England to this magnificent city.
If you ever have the opportunity, I highly recommend you visit this historic and charming city at Scotland’s heart.