ivy heart wall edinburgh
Europe,  scotland

Hidden gems of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile: A self-guided tour of things to see

My blog post about ‘The funniest negative TripAdvisor reviews of Arthur’s Seat’ has recently seen a spike in traffic. Like all content writers, I felt it would be silly not to capitalise on this little boom and, so, went off to cast my net across some of the other tourist attraction TripAdvisor slams.

I checked out all the obvious spots in Scotland and (I’m going to be honest) a lot of the rants were pretty dull. However, what did catch my eye was the bulk grumbling directed at Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.

Now, from a locals perspective, this was to be expected, at first glance, the street is littered with novelty tourist shops. Want an overpriced cashmere scarf? You’re on the right trail pal! However, the reviews seriously highlighted that these people just hadn’t done their Edinburgh homework.
My enthusiasm for the Royal Mile stretches so far that I could easily build a half day tour around all its secret spots and historic nods. And that’s exactly what I’ve done – starting at the bottom and zigzagging its way up towards the famous castle at the top.

So, here I go, to set the record straight and introduce all the haters to the Royal Mile’s hidden gems …

THE 24 QUOTE INSCRIPTIONS ON HOLYROOD WALL

Let’s just start right at the bottom, shall we? The Scottish Parliament building was a controversial one as it shot up in between the buildings in the old town. It’s ‘modern’ architecture was labelled ugly and inappropriate and a lot of the locals still deliver a fair amount of hate towards its appearance. However, I really enjoy skimming across the famous quotes lining it’s north facing wall (right at the start of the Royal Mile). The inscriptions include those from renowned Novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, and Poet Robert Burns.

Holyrood wall quotes Edinburgh

WHITE HORSE CLOSE

The first time I nipped into this 17th century close, I met an old man who lived in the houses there. He told me that, “Women like me”, would sit on the wooden stairs, waiting for customers from the old tavern to stumble out and purchase their ‘services’. I must have that look? Much of the unusual architecture had been maintained, giving visitors a glimpse into the sights once bestowed upon travelers to Edinburgh’s Old Town.

white horse close edinburgh old town
white horse close edinburgh

DUNBAR’S CLOSE

One of the best things about Edinburgh’s Royal Mile are the surprise pockets of serenity nestling behind eerie looking alleyways. Just a shuffle up the Mile from White Horse Close sits the immaculately groomed gardens of Dunbar’s Close. Sheltered by a canopy of trees and protected by an old church wall, this patch of land was developed by the council to mimic the 17th century gardens of times gone by. It’s rare to find more than a handful of people here at a time and (so) is a wonderful place to make a pit stop and enjoy the greenery.

dunbars close edinburgh

THE ARCHITECTURE AT THE BACK OF HOLYROOD SCOTTISH PARLIAMENT BUILDING

A quick dart down Reid’s Close (on the left, just after you head up from the Holyrood quotes) and you’ll find yourself at the back of the Scottish Parliament building. This is a fast little stop for those with an interest in architecture (or those who simply want a cool building snap for the gram).

SCOTTISH PARLIAMENT BUILDING ARCHITECTURE

BAKEHOUSE CLOSE, AKA, ROYAL MILE OUTLANDER LOCATION

I’ve never watched the Outlander series, but I’ve met a lot of tourists that have. For fans of the show, Bakehouse Close plays a pivotal part in the story of Jamie and Claire in Series 3 (so I’m told).

Outlander close Edinburgh Royal Mile

THE SECRET GARDEN IN THE MUSEUM OF EDINBURGH

The Museum of Edinburgh is often missed out or overlooked in favour of the city’s more famous museums or galleries. However, it’s my opinion that this free tourist attraction shouldn’t be forgotten when exploring the capital’s Old Town. Built within an old 16th century Scottish mansion, the house itself is a real historic find. However, even a lot of the locals don’t know about the little stone garden hidden down the stairs and out its back door. Here, in this quite little haven, you’ll find some of the most intricate and unique headstones from the capital’s history. Many of these have been rescued from their original (now demolished) homes.

museum of edinburgh garden

THE HIDDEN IVY HEART WALL OF CHESSELS COURT

The hidden Instagram spot of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. Mounted against the old brickwork of Chessels Court is a perfectly-kept crawling ivy, trimmed neatly into the shape of a heart. Despite its Insta worthy setting, I’ve very rarely seen anyone else here when I’ve nipped in to capture a photo. It’s not a long stop, but it’s a smug little find.

royal mile ivy heart wall

THE HEAVE AWAY HOUSE, PAISLEY CLOSE

Without a doubt, this is the best kept secret on the Royal Mile. Every day, hundreds of people walk past the archway of Paisley Close without giving its detailed carvings a second thought. Across the stonework you’ll find the words, “Heave away chaps, I’m no dead yet”. The inscription nods back to the 1800s, when the old tenement here collapsed, crushing all of its residents. As rescuers worked to find survivors, they heard the voice of a small boy hollering this very line from beneath the rubble. The 12 year old, Joseph McIvor, was one of only 35 survivors and you’ll find his face carved into the decoration as a reminder.

Paisley Close Royal Mile Edinburgh

JK ROWLING’S GOLDEN HANDPRINTS

I’m not a Harry Potter fan, but let’s give the people what they want. J.K Rowling’s golden handprints tend to be regarded as the most famous in a display of prints resembling those of Hollywood’s Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Rowling’s imprints were recently vandalised (but then cleaned up) in support of the trans community. Looping around the stones in the courtyard of Edinburgh’s City Chambers, you can also find golden hand prints of Sir Chris Hoy and Ian Rankin (to name a few).

JK Rowling golden handprints Edinburgh

ADVOCATES CLOSE

A quick stop, but a great one for a city landscape photo opportunity. Advocates Close is a tight little lane, once a popular housing area for professionals and Scottish gentry. It’s one of the most popular closes to snap a quick photo from, on account of its views across the Gothic looking Scott’s Monument.

Advocates close Edinburgh

ST GILES’ CATHEDRAL’S CEILING

Whilst St Giles’ itself is certainly not a ‘hidden gem’, I’m often surprised by the number of people that aren’t aware of it’s incredible tierceron-vaulted ceiling. The contrast between its blue and gold starry design and the building’s intricate stained-glass window makes for a great snapshot – worthy of a venture inside in its own right.

The old church (technically not a cathedral, as it doesn’t have a Bishop), also has a great timeline board that gives visitors a real insight into Edinburgh’s history, highlighting key global constructions and events in relation to the construction of St Giles’ in 1124. Did you know that it pre-dates the Taj Mahal by 500 years?

St Giles Catherdral ceiling

THE HEART OF MIDLOTHIAN

There’s nothing funnier than watching the tourists as they spy a local spitting on a group of cobblestones arranged into the shape of a heart. Why are we gobbing on this specific patch of public space? There’s two stories and both revolve around the heart being built on the site that once housed the old Edinburgh hanging gallows.
The first tale explains that the locals are spitting for the people who committed awful crimes (and were executed for their sins). The second, more woeful tale, suggests that it’s done in disgust for the women who were wrongly hung for witchcraft. Oldey-time Edinburgh LOVED a witch hanging and it’s thought that around 200 women were hung as a result.

Royal mile heart cobblestones

LADY STAIR’S CLOSE

Duck down Lady Stair’s Close to Lady Stair’s House, a 400-year-old building famous for its romantic turrets and fairy-tale stonework. After being earmarked for demolition in the late 1800’s, the home was saved and greatly altered, though a lot of the original features still remain. In 1907, the house was gifted to the city, and is now know as The Writer’s Museum. It displays the works of Scottish literature heroes such as Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Lady Stair's Close Edinburgh

RIDDLES COURT

Riddles Court is thought to house of one of the oldest tenements still standing on The Royal Mile. Parts of the building dates back to the late 1500s. Its reputation and standing has yo-yo’d drastically, playing host to a banquet for King James VI in 1598, and then becoming an overcrowded slum building that housed 247 people by the 1800s.

Now in the hands of the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust (SHBT), Riddles Court has received a £6M overhaul and acts as a visitor attraction, learning centre, and cultural venue.

Riddles Court Edinburgh

THE SCOTCH WHISKY EXPERIENCE BASEMENT BAR

The Scotch Whisky Experience is far from a secret. The enormous building houses 3,384 whisky bottles and sits outside the entrance to Edinburgh Castle. Their interactive tour is one of the most popular in Scotland – so why am I calling it a hidden gem? The basement bar!
With a floor to ceiling line up of pretty much every Scottish whisky you can think of (and drams raging from £3 up to £180+), you won’t find a better whisky bar. For the full experience, be sure you make use of the knowledgeable whisky team, they have a different suggestion for me every time I go, always based on my favourite flavours.

Scottish Whisky Experience bar

Now, tell me again about how Edinburgh’s Royal Mile is all tourist shops and lacking in substance.

Travel writer, marketing adviser and blogger based in Edinburgh, with a focus on budget and vegan travel. 39 countries to date, with extensive knowledge of travel within Asia, particularly within Thailand.

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