The Royal Mile is the heart of Edinburgh's Old Town, being the main street along which the city originally developed. Stretching from the castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse it is a little over a mile long, and is broken into five separately named stretches, each with its own unique character, attractions and history.
The route of the Royal Mile follows the ridge of volcanic rock which once flowed from the nearby volcano, and was shaped by the passage of a glacier which swept across the area during the last ice age, approximately 10,000 years ago. The force of the glacier wore away softer rock, but couldn't erode the volcanic plug of what is today the Castle Rock. As it moved eastwards, the glacier drew out the 'spine' of the lava flow. This feature is known geologically as a crag and tail formation, and the Royal Mile follows the line of this 'tail'.
Immediately outside the Castle, as soon as you leave the open area of the Esplanade, you're onto the cobbled street of the Royal Mile - this is Castlehill.
On the north side of the street is the Tartan Weaving Mill and gift shop, with an active tartan weaving manufacturer in the basement. The building itself was formerly a purpose-built reservoir to store and supply water to the Old Town, piping water from the Pentland Hills, a few miles to the south of the city. Across the road from it is Cannonball House, now opened as a cafe, restaurant and ice cream shop, named for the two cannonballs lodged in the western wall, facing the castle. These balls were deliberately inserted into the wall to mark the water level of the distant spring which fed water to the reservoir.
You'll also find the Camera Obscura and World of Illusions, a great indoors attraction with an outdoor viewing platform for views across the city, and the Scotch Whisky Experience, offering an insight into the processes of making Scotland's national drink, as well as an extensive shop and restaurant. Next door is the famous Witchery restaurant, a fine dining (and reputedly haunted) restaurant named for the people executed as witches on the Castlehill during the 16th and 17th centuries, with boutique hotel rooms which frequently house celebrities.
During the summer Castlehill is largely pedestrianised, and is often populated with a variety of street performers and buskers, including bagpipers and William Wallace (aka Braveheart), who will happily have his photo taken with you, wielding a variety of authentic weapons, in exchange for a charitable donation.
Castlehill runs down to the junction with the church building with the highest spire in the city (c.240ft) - formerly St John's Highland Tollbooth church it was one of very few churches which provided services in Gaelic. Today the building is the administrative centre of (and box office for) the Edinburgh International Festival.
At the junction with Johnston Terrace, notice the small lane of Upper Bow. This steep and narrow lane was for a long time the primary road up to this part of Edinburgh from the outer Grassmarket area, accessible today via a short staircase to Victoria Street.
The Royal Mile continues down the road, over the junction, as Lawnmarket.
Explore the Royal Mile in more detail with my Royal Mile walking tour, or book a fully customised Edinburgh tour!
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