Edinburgh’s Royal Mile — the steep street leading from the Queen’s Palace of Holyroodhouse up to Edinburgh Castle, capping the bluff at the top of town — mesmerizes tourists. It’s atmospheric, historic, and studded with a mix of great landmarks and “tartan tat” souvenir shops. While researching for our upcoming Rick Steves Scotland guidebook, I enjoyed some of the Royal Mile’s offbeat details.
You can’t come to Edinburgh without touring its historic castle. But you’re not the only one. Rushing through the castle to update our guidebook details, my heart sank at the long line of tourists waiting to see Scotland’s crown jewels. I prepared myself for a long wait. Then I remembered that I was using a good guidebook, which told me this: “In summer, there’s a second option that avoids the line: Head to the left as you face the main entrance and find another entry. This route takes you through the Honors of Scotland exhibition — an interesting, Disney-esque series of displays (which often moves at a shuffle) telling the story of the crown jewels and how they survived the harrowing centuries.” Following this tip, within minutes, I was standing in front of the crown, sword, scepter, and Stone of Scone. When training our guidebook researchers, Rick emphasizes that clever line-beating tips are like gold. From a purely practical perspective, it may be the most important thing we can do for travelers.
Standing at a Royal Mile corner, a local pointed out how aggressively drivers — particularly cabbies — plow through the cross-intersections. Visitors, enjoying the mostly pedestrianized Royal Mile, don’t always notice the traffic lights. And motorists, who can’t get from one part of the city to the other without crossing the Mile, have zero patience for daydreaming tourists. It only makes things worse that traffic comes from the opposite direction than we foreigners are used to. “I’ve actually seen cabbies speed up when they get a careless tourist in their sights,” the local told me. “Every year you hear about many people who get clipped or knocked down by cars here.” Don’t be paranoid… but do wait for the green light.
At Gladstone’s Land, a fascinating 16th-century “skyscraper”-turned-museum, a live owl was posing for photos out front. A local falconry center solicits donations with their birds of prey here each summer — and it’s a huge hit with Royal Mile-wandering tourists.
The dated but endearing People’s Story Museum in Edinburgh works hard to describe the lifestyles of people from various walks of life throughout the city’s history. Dioramas of Dickensian homes offer insight into the congested conditions back when the city was called “Auld Reekie.” Less successful is the museum’s attempt to sum up the city’s punk culture in the 1970s: “Rodney Relax, a 17 year old punk, has recently left school and is unemployed. Like all punks, Rondey enjoys being different and shocking people by his appearance. … His parents do not approve of the way he dresses or that he drinks and takes drugs.” Thanks, Dad. Tell me what you really think. (I can’t wait to see them try to explain hipsters.)
The Canongate Church is where the Queen and her clan attend services whenever they’re in town. Entering the church, I was warmly greeted by a pair of old gents who were really enjoying catching up with each other — and chatting up tourists who happened by. When I tried to confirm the church’s hours for our book, they explained that it’s open whenever volunteers from the congregation sign up. This is their sign-up list. I found it sweetly small-town that even here, in one of the Queen’s home churches, it’s a community affair.