The Royal Mile runs from Edinburgh castle to Holyrood Palace, but is it possible to discover the heart of the city on one of its most famous streets? Sarah Freeman finds out.
The Royal Mile boasts more landmarks than your average small town. At the top there is Edinburgh Castle, at the bottom is Holyrood Palace and the Scottish parliament and in between there’s the impressive gothic cathedral of St Giles.
It’s not all architectural grandeur. The Royal Mile is also home to a dense concentration of souvenir shops selling tartan stag do outfits and, during August, when Edinburgh is in the grip of festival fever, lost under a mountain of flyers.
However, at its best, this famous street provides a snapshot of one of Europe’s most beautiful capital cities.
The place to stay : Numerous courtyards lead off the Royal Mile. Some are owned by the university and double as student digs, others house office space, but a few have been snapped up by canny developers. Old Town Chambers (0131 510 5499, lateralcity.com) is one of them. These serviced apartments are spacious, tastefully designed and with a full kitchen there’s the option of doing a little self-catering. Just a few minutes walk from the castle, the Chambers is both the perfect base for exploring both Edinburgh’s old and new town and a bolt hole, which makes you feel as though you are living in the city rather than just visiting. As an added bonus, the hike up the hill means you can exercise while sightseeing.
The restaurant: The Royal Mile’s most famous restaurant is The Witchery (0131 225 5613, thewitchery.com). The wood panelled, dimly lit dining room is a little slice of Hogwarts and the food rarely disappoints. However, it’s not the only eatery worth checking out. Heading towards Holyrood, just as the crowds begin to thin out a little, is the Wedgwood (0131 558 8737, wedgwoodtherestaurant.co.uk). The Wee Tour of Scotland tasting menu (£50 per person) includes spiced monkfish with pancetta, lentils and herb yoghurt and loin of Scottish lamb, braised new potatoes, broad beans and samphire and is great value. Also, no tables are turned, which means you can linger as long as you want over dessert or that post-dinner liqueur.
The pub: Anyone who has read Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels knows that one thing Edinburgh is not short on is old-fashioned pubs. The detective’s favourite haunt, The Oxford Bar, is the other side of Princes Street, but the Royal Mile is also home to one of the city’s drinking gems. The Jolly Judge (0131 225 2669, jollyjudge.co.uk), tucked down another of those alleyways, has remained refreshingly unchanged since I was a student in Edinburgh back in the mid- 1990s. This basement pub is apparently a favoured haunt of Scottish MSPs, so you might just be served a titbit of political gossip with your pint.
A wee dram: While Scotland is home to 98 active malt whisky distilleries there are none within the city limits. However, if you want to explore the history of whisky making head to the Scotch Whisky Experience (0131 220 0441, scotchwhiskyexperience.co.uk). It’s a bit like York’s Jorvik museum only with a glass or two of single malt. A ride takes visitors on a journey through the distillation process, along with a quick guide to the country’s main whiskey producing areas. Ending in the tasting room, a scratch and sniff card helps you decide which type of whisky you prefer (little ones or non-drinkers get a glass of Irn Bru). The tour ends in the impressive Diageo Claive Vidiz Whisky room, home to 3,384 bottles of golden spirit, and the chance to try a sample of your favourite.
The museum: The Writer’s Museum (0131 529 4901, edinburghmuseums.org,uk) is bijou, but worth a visit. When we were there, the Ian Rankin exhibition amounted to little more than a small display case of first editions, but there are decent tributes to those twin pillars of Scottish literature – Walter Scott and Robbie Burns, as well as rooms dedicated to Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s not fancy, and some of the information boards are a little dry, but the personal effects of the three are worth a look. Try to time your visit to coincide with one of the regular Book Lovers Tours. It takes in the favourite haunts of Arthur Conan Doyle, JM Barrie, Alexander McCall Smith, Ian Rankin, and JK Rowling.
The main attractions: Wherever you are on the Royal Mile, the castle (0131 225 9846, edinburghcastle.co.uk) looms large and it’s worth putting aside a morning or afternoon to explore. It is the most-visited paid tourist attraction in the country, so it’s worth getting their early. Just a little further down the street Real Mary King’s Close (0131 225 0672. realmarykingsclose.com) serves up another slice of history. Partially demolished and buried under the Royal Exchange building, the area became shrouded in myths and tales of hauntings and murders abounded. A one hour guided tour takes you into the warren of hidden streets.
■ Sarah Freeman travelled with Virgin Trains East Coast which operates regular services between Yorkshire and Scotland. For details of ticket prices go to virgin trainseastcoast.com.