The Royal Mile (you guessed it, it is literally a mile long) in Edinburgh, Scotland earned its regal nickname in the 16th century when the King and his procession used it to travel between the castle on one end, and the Palace of Holyroodhouse on the other. Located high above the rest of the city, the mile is always a hub of activity, and a favourite haunt for tourists. You could spend an entire day exploring the many sites along the mile, but most of the major stuff can be covered in a few hours.
The best place to begin your stroll is bright and early at Edinburgh Castle — the castle fills with tourists by mid-morning, and starting here means that the rest of your stroll will be downhill. The imposing black crags of Castle Rock are the main reason why the city exists. This hill was the most easily defended spot on the invasion route between England and central Scotland that was followed from as early as the first century AD. Over the years, it has been both the home to the royal family, and an important military stronghold.
You can enter the main gates of the castle and enjoy the stunning views of the city without paying admission, but to move further into the castle and explore the relics, history, and architecture, it will cost you about £16 (you can pre-purchase tickets online). Don't miss the Cemetery for Officer's Dogs, the Castle Vaults, and the storied Stone of Destiny.
Once you leave the castle, you will find yourself on a cobblestone street, lined with historic stone buildings that are filled with museums, tartan scarves, pubs, coffee shops, and all sorts of curiosities. There are catacombs to explore, ghost tours to take in the evening, and street performers of all sorts to enjoy.
I passed by the National War Museum, Camera Obscura, and the Gladstone's Land historic building, but spent a good hour in the Scotch Whisky Experience. Basically a grown-up Disneyland ride, the tour begins with a roller-coaster like journey through the whisky making process, four samples of whisky from the different regions in Scotland, a tour of the magnificent collection of malt whiskys (the largest in the world!), and a chance to purchase more samples in the whisky bar. Well worth the hour spent and the £12.50 admission price!
I always love visiting churches in Europe, as they are usually free (though a donation of some sort is encouraged), relatively quiet, and contain a wealth of art and architecture to marvel over. St. Giles Cathedral is no exception. The present church was built in the 15th century and was the heart of the Scottish Reformation. It also contains the interesting Thistle Chapel (pictured below right), which was built for the Knights of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle (thought to be associated with the Knights Templar) and is full of fascinating details and symbols.
The next few blocks contain the Real Mary King's Close where you can tour the catacombs, and the free museum of Edinburgh. This is also a great spot to grab a snack, shopping or entertainment break before you continue on. Oh, and there is also a Starbucks nearby if you are looking for a quick fix!
Other than a bunch of stunning photo ops, the next major site to check out is the Scottish Parliament Building (pictured below) near the end of the mile. Spectacular, controversial (it is home to the devolved Scottish parliament), and completely modern, the building was opened in 2004. All of the unusual shapes on the building's exterior are symbolic, and the building's ground plan is in the shape of a "flower of democracy rooted in Scottish soil." Tours of the building, and access to the public spaces are free.
Last, but not least, is the final site on the mile — the Palace of Holyroodhouse. This palace is the royal family's official residence in Scotland, and is one of Edinburgh's must-see sites. Be sure to plan your visit carefully though, as members of the royal family tend to visit in the summertime making everything but the gift shop inaccessible to the public. Trust me. I know. Sigh.
If you are able to visit, I hear that the portrait gallery is stunning, and the Mary, Queen of Scots bedchamber (where the ill-fated queen lived) is quite the sight. You can also tour the historic ruins of the Holyrood Abbey in the summer months.
If you still have any energy left after you mile-long stroll filled with historic sites, whisky, and souvenir shopping, the steep, 45-minute hike up Arthur's Seat (the remains of a long-extinct volcano) in Holyrood Park gives breathtaking views of the city.