Edinburgh: A Mid-Winter Stroll Down the Royal Mile

Last Christmas we decided we should make the most of our time off and visit Edinburgh! I’ve never been to Scotland either so it was nice to tick another country off the list.

As it was only a city break, we decided to go for 3 nights and drove up on Boxing Day. It’s only a 5hr drive from Nottingham so we left home fairly early in the morning to give ourselves some time to explore that afternoon.

Being winter, I was really hoping for snow but disappointingly there was none 🙁 However, it didn’t rain too much but there also wasn’t really any sunshine to speak of!

Day 1:

After arriving around midday, we wandered up along the Royal Mile to find a place for lunch, all while checking out the many souvenir shops along the way.

Unfortunately, being Boxing Day there wasn’t really a lot open but good old Caffe Nero got us through!

Edinburgh City Walking Tour

We actually did two walking tours on our first day in Edinburgh. One in the afternoon and one in the evening.

We chose to go through Sandeman’s Free Tour of Edinburgh during the afternoon so we could actually see the city better and get our bearings a bit. This would make it easier to look for Harry Potter related places!

It starts outside Frankie & Benny’s on the Royal Mile and winds through the streets of Edinburgh Old Town, ending at the Museum of Scotland. Our tour guide was very knowledgeable and it was a good way to learn some of the history of the city.

Even though the tour is free, you are expected to give tips to the tour guide at the end. They do say you don’t have to, but it’s the only way they get paid for doing a job they enjoy. Otherwise why would you be outside in the freezing cold!

That evening, we did Sandeman’s Edinburgh Dark Side Tour. It starts in the same place, outside Frankie & Benny’s on the Royal Mile but covers the other side of the city and costs £12 per person.

As you go around, you’ll hear about all the dark, twisted stores that happened through the history of Edinburgh like the witch burning, body snatchers, murders and vampires! It was a really fascinating tour, made all the more creepy by travelling the city at night.

Diagon Alley

First place on the list was Diagon Alley! Known as West Bow / Victoria Street to you Muggles.

Ok so my mouse-drawing skills need some work but at least you can see how to get to it from the Royal Mile. At the end of the short, steep street there is a staircase that takes you down to Diagon Alley below.

There are a number of Harry Potter shops along the road, but they all the have the same merchandise for the same expensive prices! But take some time and check them out anyway, even if you don’t plan to buy anything!

Do make sure you stop by Museum Context, believed to be the inspiration for Ollivanders and Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes. There is a lot of cool stuff to check out in there though it can be busy and it is only a small shop, despite being over 3 floors!

Greyfriars Kirkyard

We actually went to Greyfriars a couple of times but the first time we went was to find the inspiration for He Who Must Not Be Named and Professor McGonagall. We also looked around for some more names as I’ve heard there are a few there but we were only able to find these two.

To save you from looking through the whole cemetery (it’s huge!), head past the church and through the wall to the very back section, take a right down the first row and head pretty much to the end. You’ll find Riddle’s grave on the right.

Then to find McGonagall’s grave, it’s in the same back section but instead of heading down the rows, carry on straight towards the gates straight ahead, and you’ll find it on the left. It’s up high on the wall and not very large.

George Heriot’s School

You’ll be able to see the school from the grave of McGonagall. The gates near the grave are the back gates to the school.

Maybe you’ll spot Dumbledore walking the corridors or the Thestral’s flying through the air!

Day 2

We devoted most of Day 2 to exploring Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood House. Located at either end of the Royal Mile, we decided to start at the top at the Castle then walk down the Mile to the Palace.

Edinburgh Castle

It’s not the cheapest castle to visit in England but if you have English Heritage membership or the Scottish Heritage Pass you won’t have to pay anything. You can’t use the passes online though, you have to do it at the front gate. Doing this saved us about £40! Tickets at the gate are more expensive than buying tickets online, so I would recommend purchasing tickets before hand.

Tickets are purchased once you go through the outer gates, then you have to pass through another set of gates to start your tour of the actual castle. Once you’re through the second set of gates, there is a place to get audio guides which cost £3.50 per person. They’re a great source of information to have as you explore.

The castle site is huge and it took us around 4-5hrs to get through it – and we even skipped some bits! There are a number of small museum exhibits in different buildings and while they’re not huge, they do take time to go through. We decided to only go through the Prisons of War, Military Prison, Royal Palace and The Great Hall.

The castle was built in the 12th Century by King David I and has been used as a royal residence, military garrison, prison and fortress since then.

The infamous Mary Queen of Scots lived at Edinburgh Castle for a time and even gave birth to her son, and future King of England & Scotland – James I & VI. You can actually enter the room where she gave birth, it’s tiny and only fits about 4 people in at a time so there could be a wait.

While you’re in the Royal Residence you can check out the Honours of Scotland (the Crown Jewels) but be prepared to wait. We were there at a time of year that is usually quiet quite but we had to wait in a line that shuffles through the palace, snaking past small displays of royal life before reaching the jewels. No photos are allowed though and there are people there watching to make sure you don’t take a sneaky snap!

While you’re in the area of the Royal Residence, check out the Great Hall as well. It’s pretty impressive and still used today for state affairs and special occasions.

Over the centuries, the castle has been used as a military base by the Scottish Army and has seen a lot of action, including during the Jacobite Rising and the Napoleonic Wars. It’s still in use today by the army so there are a few buildings that you can’t enter as they’re barracks or other administration buildings.

The castle defences include the awesome Mons Meg – the greatest medieval cannon ever made! It has been decommissioned now but it’s still incredibly impressive to see as it sits on one of the upper defence walls keeping sentry over the city.

If you look down over the wall where the Mons Meg stands, you’ll see a small grassy area that has been dedicated to the Dog Cemetery. This was an area for the unit mascots to be buried, most of the mascots were dogs but I believe there are a couple of headstones for other animals. Apparently they once had an elephant for a mascot which was housed in the stables!

As I mentioned earlier, we also checked out the prisons while we were there. They’re only small exhibits so they can be done quickly if you’re short of time but they’re incredibly interesting to see. They have a bunch of wooden doors on display showing graffiti from different prisoners during their time locked away.

Holyrood House

After we finished up at Endinburgh Castle, we stopped by a little cafe for lunch that had homemade sandwiches! So yum! I don’t remember the name of it, but it’s about halfway down the steep street that leads to Diagon Alley.

Nice and full, we decided to walk down the Royal Mile to Holyrood. The palace is still used by the royal family so it does cost to enter and you’re not allowed to take photos at all while you’re in there. Adults are £16.50 each so it’s cheaper than the castle which I guess is something haha!

They have audio guides as well which I think were free. I highly recommend them as there isn’t really any information boards around the place. I guess this is because it’s still in use for royal functions.

Originally built in 1503 by James IV, it has been used continuously since then though by the time of Queen Victoria’s reign it had fallen into a state of disrepair.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert spent a lot of time at Holyrood and as a result they spent a lot of time renovating the palace. Most of what you see now in the apartments and gardens is from the couple’s time there.

The Queen doesn’t stay here very often anymore, only for a week or two a year so it’s unlikely you’ll run into any royals while you’re looking around!

If you go out the side of the palace you’ll see the ruins of an Augustinian Abbey built in 1128 by David I. These are the original buildings from the site and stood alone here until 1503 when James IV decided to build the palace by extending the royal chambers.

Mary Kings Close

Instead of a ghost walk around the city, we decided to explore Mary Kings Close. A sealed off street off the Royal Mile that has been almost perfectly preserved for 400 years!

The site is open to guided tours only from 10.15am – 9pm (the last tour) and costs £16.95 per adult. The tour lasts around an hour and winds through the homes and businesses that line the street.

It was rumoured to have been walled up with plague victims inside as a last ditch effort to stop the spread of the black death. However, this isn’t entirely true but I don’t want to give anything away!

I didn’t see any ghosts or feel anything supernatural but it was incredible seeing the old houses and the narrow street. Imagine walking along a street that narrow with buildings high on either side, trying to dodge the toilet buckets being thrown into the street around you. It would have been a nightmare!

Day 3

Our third day in Edinburgh was full of more walking sightseeing as well as more Harry Potter related things!

Calton Hill

First up was Calton Hill. A World Heritage Site, it is situated in the New Town and while it’s not massively tall it does have a good vantage point for 360˚ views of the city.

It doesn’t cost anything to go up there and there are three different monuments located at the top. The National Monument is probably the most familiar looking one though as it is the one that resembles the Parthenon in Greece. It was built to commemorate the Scottish soldiers who died during the Napoleonic Wars but unfortunately it was never completed so what you see today is as far as they got.

You’ll also find the Nelson Monument, built in 1816 to honour the death of Admiral Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. It looks like an upside down telescope, I’m guessing as a nod to his life in the Navy. It actually has a proper use as well – a ball was added to the top in 1852 to enable ships anchored in the Firth of Forth to accurately set their clocks. Since 1852 the ball has dropped at 1pm everyday, 6 days a week!

The City Observatory is also up here which makes sense really – it’s a good place to see the stars from! They seemed to have continued with the Greek theme as it looks like a Greek temple and was built in 1818. You can’t go in, but you can go up to it. We didn’t spend too much time there as the wind was horrendous that day and we could walk straight! Didn’t want to risk getting blown over the edge!

The Elephant House Cafe

We couldn’t go to Edinburgh and not visit The Elephant House Cafe! This is where JK Rowling spent a lot of time while writing the first few books.

It’s a popular place so if you can, book a table otherwise you will have to wait in line for a seat. We waited about 15 mins for a table and got to admire all the cakes while standing in line. There was a lot of them!

Make sure you check out the bathroom while you’re there. You can actually go in and check it out without sitting down to eat but I wanted to spend some time soaking up the atmosphere … and I wanted cake!

Hold JK Rowling’s Hands

Ok so you can’t actually hold her hands but you can get your Walk of Fame on and put your hands in her handprints!

Located in the courtyard of the City Chambers on the Royal Mile, you’ll find a few handprints of a few different famous Scots so take your time to check them all out while you’re there as you might find someone else you want to place your hands on!

The Writer’s Museum

After our Harry Potter lunch and hand holding, we headed to the Writer’s Museum – makes sense right?

The museum is located in a really cool looking building in a courtyard that runs parallel to the Royal Mile. It’s not the easiest place to find and we went down a couple of different alleys before locating the correct one!

It’s free to enter and is a small collection so it shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours to go through if you’re reading everything.

The museum covers the lives and careers of Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson and includes rare books and personal objects of each writer including Robert Burns’ desk and the rocking horse Sir Walter Scott used as a child.

Ghost Tour in the Underground Tunnels

We carried on our ghost tours for our last evening and decided to join one that took us into the underground tunnels.

The tunnels, or vaults, were built in the arches of the South Bridge in Edinburgh Old Town in 1788. They were used for about 30 years to house taverns, workshops for cobblers and other tradesmen, as well as storage space for merchants. In later years, the vaults became a popular place for the homeless and for criminal activity such as illegal gambling taverns, illegal whisky distillery and according to legend – body-snatchers stored corpses there overnight.

The tunnels were closed and covered up sometime in the mid-late 1800’s and weren’t rediscovered until the 1980’s when Scottish International Rugby player Norrie Rowan found a tunnel leading to the vaults. The tunnels and vaults were excavated in the 1990’s and would go on to become a haunted attraction.

If you’re a fan of Ghost Adventures with Zak Bagans, you might recognise the tunnels! The GAC investigated them in Season 1 (2008) and had some interesting encounters along with some other haunted spots in Edinburgh.

We went with Mercat Tours which is the only company that can go in there as they own the tunnels or at least the right to use them. The tour starts at the Mercat Cross on the Royal Mile and we were led to a few different spots to listen to some of the ghost stores in the area before we went into the tunnels.

As we walked through we heard all the stories but didn’t really see or hear anything while we were down there though it does have a very creepy atmosphere.

Our creepy experience was noticed later on – I bought my husband a nice watch for Christmas and he was wearing it that night we went into the vaults. Didn’t think anything of it, but the next morning we realised that it was EXACTLY 2hrs behind! Still working perfectly just 2hrs behind for some strange reason. Now I know this could possible be explained by logic but it was a brand new watch, never had any problems like that again and it was still running, just running behind and when I say exactly, I really mean exactly!

Day 4

Unfortunately, this was our last day in Edinburgh and it was time to head home, but we decided to take in a couple of nearby castles on our way back to really make the most of our trip away.

Craigmillar Castle

Also know as Edinburgh’s other castle, it’s only a mile outside the old city walls (not that we could see the city walls) and set on the side of a hill, surrounded by countryside.

The castle is a Scottish Heritage site so if you have the pass or are a member of English Heritage you’ll be able to enter the site for free, otherwise it will cost you £6.00 per adult.

Originally built as a tower house in the late 1300’s, it has been remodelled and added to over the centuries it was occupied. To the point where it is difficult to figure out which bits belong to which building/time period! I got very confused at times looking at windows that have been bricked up or stairs that lead to nowhere.

The main tower is still intact so you’ll be indoors while exploring inside. There is also a walled garden with private chapel that still holds the burials of the family who owned the castle and out the back you can see the remains of the old pond and garden probably built in the 1500’s but then filled in, in later years.

The castle also has ties to Mary Queen of Scots – she stayed her for around a month in 1566. You can go into the “Mary Queen of Scots” Room but it’s unlikely that was where she stayed. It was more likely she slept in a multi-roomed apartment in an area of the castle that is no longer standing. Mary would also be held here for one night as a prisoner after she was captured in 1567.

It’s not a large castle so it should only take an hour to two to properly explore the site and read all the information. There is a small gift-shop on site too if you fancy buying a little sum’n sum’n for yourself 🙂

Tantallon Castle

Little bit further away from Edinburgh but still kind of on the way back to Nottingham. We only took a slight detour out to the coast to see this castle which looks out over the island used as inspiration for Azkaban Prison in the Harry Potter books!

Again, it’s a Scottish Heritage so if you don’t have membership it will cost you £6.00 per adult. The castle itself isn’t huge as most of it has fallen away but the site is large so it will take a little bit of a hike to get from the entrance to the castle. In the winter it’s likely to be muddy and slippery so be careful!

Built in the 1300’s by William Douglas who would become Earl in 1358. William’s descendants split into two “houses” in the 1380’s, becoming the “Black Douglas'” and the “Red Douglas’.” All very Game of Thrones haha! The Red Douglas’ inherited Tantallon and owned it for the next 300yrs.

Over those 300yrs the castle was attacked multiple times including attacks by King James IV, King James V and Oliver Cromwell. It was Cromwell’s army who destroyed the castle in 1651, forcing the Red Douglas’ to abandon the site. It has been slowly falling apart since, leaving the ruin that we see today.

If you stand at the edge of the cliff, you can look directly out at the island in the distance – Bass Rock. You’ll be able to see some buildings built into the side of the rocks.

During the 7th century it was used a retreat for Christian hermits and the ruins of a chapel still remain on the island. Apparently there used to be a castle on the island too, some of the remaining walls can still be seen under the lighthouse.

It later became a prison in the 15th century with James I sending several political enemies to the rock. It was then seized by Oliver Cromwell in 1671 who continued to use it as a stronghold for political and religious prisoners. I can’t imagine life on the rock would have been easy or pleasant!

You can see why it was used as the inspiration for Azkaban!

Tantallon Castle was the ending to our Edinburgh mid-winter city break, now all we had to do was drive the 5hrs back to Nottingham!

Take care!

Chel xx

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2 thoughts on “Edinburgh: A Mid-Winter Stroll Down the Royal Mile

  1. Chris says:

    Great post, I love Edinburgh and can’t wait to get back once lockdown ends, I’ll be travelling up from Lincoln so a pretty similar journey! Are the underground tunnels worth the visit? We have always stayed away from them

    • walkingonforeignchels@gmail.com says:

      It’s a long drive but a nice one. I enjoyed the underground tunnels but I’m not sure I would do them again. You don’t get much time down there and as it’s a group tour, you don’t get any chance to explore on your own. Though maybe a different type of tour will spend more time in there

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