Impregnable and Most Famous Icon of Scotland
One of Europe’s loveliest capitals owes much of its character and good looks to its showcase landmark, Edinburgh Castle. Most of the city’s history is clustered in and around the medieval castle and the Royal Mile, the west-east pedestrian thoroughfare from Castle Hill to High Street, that links it to Holyrood Palace, once occupied by Mary Stuart and royal residence to the present queen and Prince Philip for one week every year.
Edinburgh Castle sits atop the collapsed crater of an extinct volcano, its earliest traces dating to the tiny 12th-century Chapel of St. Margaret, the oldest structure in Edinburgh. The sprawling castle has played many roles: fortress, military garrison, state prison. But its highlight was as royal palace, and today the Honors of Scotland (the Scottish crown jewels) are displayed here. The oldest regalia in Europe, they include the Scottish crown, scepter, and sword of state. In the palace, the royal chambers used until the king permanently moved to England in 1603 can also be visited (Mary,
Queen of Scots, gave birth here to James VI of Scotland, who would rule England as James I). The Royal Mile and its offshoots were confined by the old city walls, so many tenements grew vertically; the back streets and winding passageways in this section of the Old Town are still redolent of the Middle Ages. Across the chasm that separates the high Old Town from the lower New Town sits the classic Caledonian Hotel, known for its own royal accommodations and views of the castle, most romantic when brightly illuminated at night. Dripping in Edwardian splendor, any rooms at “the Caley” with views of the medieval skyline and Gothic spires of the Royal Mile are something special. Its longtime friendly rival, the Balmoral Hotel, sits gracefully at the opposite end of mile-long Princes Street, Edinburgh’s shop- lined Fifth Avenue.