How to plan an architecture walking tour along Edinburgh’s Royal Mile

The Scottish capital was heralded as the pinnacle of European urban planning when, in the 18th century, its neo-classical New Town was built as a harmonious compliment to the Medieval fortress and lanes of the historic quarter.

By Megan Lily Dickson
Published 25 Nov 2020, 08:45 GMT
Edinburgh Castle dominates the city’s skyline and its stone walls house St Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest ...

Edinburgh Castle dominates the city’s skyline and its stone walls house St Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest surviving building in the city.

Photograph by Getty Images

A tale of two cities, Edinburgh’s distinctive Old Town and New Town are both recognised by UNESCO for their exceptional historic and architectural gems. Bejewelled with gothic monuments and ramshackle medieval alleys, the Old Town offers a journey back in time; it collides and contrasts with the order of the planned Georgian-era New Town, replete with neo-classical town houses. From the dramatic cathedral to avant-garde modern additions, in this city, the architecture tells a story — and much of this drama lies along the historic Royal Mile. Here are the key buildings to seek out on a walking tour.  

1. Edinburgh Castle

Start at the most famous of Edinburgh’s historical sites: perched on top of Castle Rock lies the majestic Edinburgh Castle. This fortress dominates the city’s skyline and its stone walls house St Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh, parts of which date back to the 12th century. Because of modifications and restorations over the course of its life, this castle makes for an exciting mix of architectural styles; a true reflection of the city. It also houses various attractions, including the Honours of Scotland (the country’s crown jewels), and guided tours are provided by castle stewards. Timed ticketing is in operation at the castle.

2. Riddle’s Court

Moving down the Royal Mile, it’s clear to see why Edinburgh is renowned as a city of architectural interest. Old Town is full of surprising twists and turns with its narrow streets and steep stairwells. Stop off at Riddle’s Court, a Category A-listed merchant house built in sumptuous fashion in 1590. It’s been the focus of an extensive restoration project by the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust, completed in 2016. Join a tour to learn about its famous occupants, from philosopher David Hume to actor Dame Maggie Smith. Tours will resume after lockdown.

A medieval masterpiece, St Giles' Cathedral sports dramatic angles and intricate carved figures, making it one of Edinburgh’s most photographed attractions.

Photograph by Getty Images

3. St Giles’ Cathedral

A regal cluster of spires towers above the Royal Mile, with the crown steeple prominent at 145ft. True to Edinburgh, a variety of architectural styles are on display at St Giles’ — but it’s the cathedral’s Gothic characteristics that prove most distinctive. A medieval masterpiece, the cathedral sports dramatic angles and intricate carved figures, making it one of Edinburgh’s most photographed attractions. St Giles’ Cathedral is temporarily closed to visitors.

4. Scottish Poetry Library

Fine architecture can provide inspiration for other art forms, so it’s unsurprising to find one of the UK’s most distinctive poetry libraries in the Scottish capital. This award-winning building, designed by Malcolm Fraser Architects in 1999 and recently extended by Nicoll Russell Studios, features glass and wood panelling for a calm, light space that still complements the historic structures surrounding it.  

Designed by Spanish architect Enric Miralles, the futuristic style of the controversial Scottish Parliament Building offers a note of contrast against a backdrop of Edinburgh’s more historic structures.

Photograph by Getty Images

5. Scottish Parliament Building  

Often compared to Marmite or haggis, this is a building you’ll either love or hate — and most definitely one you’ll talk about. The modernist structure (famous for being over budget, overdue and controversially designed by a non-Scot) has been the seat of Scottish politics since 2004. Designed by Spanish architect Enric Miralles, the futuristic style offers a note of contrast against a backdrop of Edinburgh’s more historic structures. It’s made from materials selected to reflect the city’s landscape, and contemporary features include abstract curves that mimic waves and leaves. A winner of numerous architectural awards, the building's public areas are open to visitors, or you can book a tour. Visits to the parliament’s interior have been suspended due to coronavirus.

6. Holyrood Abbey

At the east end of the Royal Mile, on the north edge of Holyrood Park, you’ll find the eerie remains of what was once a grand medieval monastery in the Gothic style. Founded in 1128 by King David I after a divine vision, the abbey was later incorporated into a Renaissance palace that housed Scottish royals and nobles, including the ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots between 1561-1567. Book a tour of the opulent State Apartments of the Palace of Holyroodhouse to discover more. Having stood witness to parliamentary meetings, wars and the Scottish Reformation, the abbey fell into ruin in the 18th century. Now without a roof, the surviving remnants include arched windows and an impressive Romanesque door — a haunting tableau that’s inspired writers, poets and travellers ever since.

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