Edinburgh’s Old Town (Featuring West Bow & The Royal Mile)

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Edinburgh’s Old Town is a particularly striking one.

Or, perhaps, dominant is a more accurate word.

The way it rises above the city, castle perched on its rocky crags, is the sort of drama that leaves an impression.

The Old Town is also one of the busiest areas of Edinburgh, often THE busiest (and definitely during Fringe).

It makes sense.

It’s where many of the city’s popular attractions are, including two of its most distinctive and visited streets – The Royal Mile and West Bow (Victoria Street).

The Royal Mile

the royal mile edinburgh

The Royal Mile is Old Town Edinburgh’s focal street.

And it gets its name honest.

It literally runs between a castle and a palace.

At one end, you have Edinburgh Castle, sitting up on Castle Rock like a pure boss, while, at the other, you have Holyrood Palace, where the British monarch in Scotland resides. (Which maybe you have some opinions about… or not.)

In the past, the street has served as a processional route between the two.

It also runs an actual mile, or what was once an actual mile. 

A Scots mile, to be exact, which, like all other European miles, has gone extinct, but was still a thing when the road was given its name.

(Today, the Royal Mile is a little longer than what we think of as a mile, coming in at roughly 1.8 km instead of 1.6 km.)

As a tourist destination, Edinburgh’s Royal Mile is a hard thing to qualify.

When you’re there in August, it’s a bit of a hellscape, swarming from reasonably early until reasonably late.

Just people on people. Good luck finding room to breathe.

But when we were there in winter, or when we’ve gotten up early or been out late (not too late, once the busking and street performances stop at 9 pm – allegedly, let’s be honest they never quite do – the Mile clears out pretty quickly), the Royal Mile has considerably more space.

It’s on this mile where you’ll find some of Edinburgh’s most famous and important buildings, including St. Giles’ Cathedral (not one of my favorite UK churches, but it has some decent features) –

St Giles

the City Chambers…

and the prominent tower of the Tron Kirk –

Tron Kirk

As well as many a tourist attraction and souvenir shop, where you can buy these adorable little fellers to bring home with ya –

Edin cuties

(This photo was not even remotely taken in Edinburgh, but we had to include them, because can you even stand it? It took several shops for looking and two for actual purchase to land the entire flock.

Nessie was particularly elusive…)

The Royal Mile is also where you’ll find the most sigh-inducing view in the city. (In our humble opinions.)

It’s not the most sweeping view of Edinburgh. It’s more of a closed-in keyhole type of view.

But when you stand in the middle of the Royal Mile (High Street) at pretty much any point near or east of St. Giles, you can look down the length of High Street and see all the way to the sea. (and you should definitely pause to take in this view – Shawna)

It’s one thing to climb up one of Edinburgh’s many hills and see the water.

It’s a whole other feeling to stand in the middle of the main street in the city’s Old Town, watching the city slope gently down towards the sea.

Honestly, it’s beyond magical.

As stated in our Edinburgh Guide, we somehow have no picture of this.

It baffles the mind, it truly does, because I KNOW that we have taken them. But that’s sort of okay, I think.

So, no picture.

Just, when you’re on the Royal Mile, be sure to stop in the middle of the street and look east. (Ideally, only do this during the festival season when the street is closed, though you will have to contend with some foot traffic.)

Now, onto West Bow.

West Bow (Victoria Street)

Edinburh West Bow
West Bow caught in a surprisingly calm moment with a camera going mysteriously wonky.

If (IF) the Royal Mile is Edinburgh’s most famous street, West Bow is its trusty sidekick.

And it gets plenty of visitors.

Partly because it’s an adorable street, and partly because many people think it’s the real-life inspiration for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter books.

(For the record, J.K. Rowling says no real street was the inspiration for Diagon Alley, and she had never seen West Bow when she created it.)

(and there is a cutesy Potter-inspired gift shop here that’s always fun to pop into – Shawna)

Still, given Edinburgh’s close connection with the Potter series, you can see where fans might have gotten the idea.

For me, West Bow is just a little too sparkly to be Diagon Alley (I’ve seen a lot of European streets that would be far better contenders).

And that’s the thing.

Where the Royal Mile is Dark Europe, still dripping with plenty of Gothic grays, West Bow/Victoria Street is quaint Europe with its rainbow-colored buildings and sloping bend bringing a hefty dose of charm.

West Bow Victoria
Upper Victoria Street

It’s also a study in some seriously impressive (and unique) architecture, a visible display of Edinburgh’s propensity for building city on top of city.

Basically, it’s both cute AND impressive, and certainly worth the incline to see.

Be warned, though, that incline is for reals. Something that’s true for many of Edinburgh’s streets.

You’ll be walking up one, and suddenly you’re like, “Huh. This is a bit of a climb. I think I’ll stop to catch my breath.”

Anyway, when you’re done blinking at the adorableness of West Bow, you can follow it straight across Cowgatehead to Candlemaker Row, which has a similar vibe, just less curve.

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