With over 4,000 historic buildings and a multitude of other attractions, exploring the city can seem a daunting prospect, particularly if you’re only planning a short stay. While Edinburgh Castle, the Palace of Holyroodhouse and some of the other best-known sites should be on every itinerary, there are plenty of quirky and unusual things to do in Edinburgh too. Here are some of my favourites.
The Thistle Chapel in St Giles’ Cathedral
The Thistle Chapel in St Giles’ Cathedral, built in 1911, is tucked away at the east end of the Preston Aisle. This beautiful part of the cathedral was named after Sir William Preston who reportedly brought back an arm bone, said to be of the much-venerated St Giles, from France in 1454.
Lined with intricately carved knight’s stalls and a sovereign’s stall, it’s topped with the most magnificent ceiling. The chapel is littered with heraldic and religious symbolism, much of it Scottish in nature. The angels playing bagpipes are the highlight for many.
The exquisite, if very small chapel, serves as the home on ceremonial occasions, for the 16 knights, appointed by the queen, who are members of the Order of the Thistle, Scotland’s greatest order of chivalry.
St Giles’ Cathedral is located towards the top of the Royal Mile, not far from Edinburgh Castle.
Thistle Chapel Ceiling
image ©Marketing Edinburgh
After the Battle of Bothwell Bridge in 1679, over a thousand Covenanter prisoners were locked up in terrible conditions in the southern edge of Greyfriars Kirkyard, in Edinburgh’s Old Town. While some died there, some were subsequently deported to the American colonies and others were executed for treason.
While this part of the kirkyard is usually kept locked, there are occasional tours and when I asked at the adjacent Greyfriars Kirk, they kindly opened up just for me. I found it a really evocative place to explore.
Entrance to the University of Edinburgh’s New College
I’ve included this one simply because as you step through the entrance, the view is so unexpected.
The university’s New College was founded in 1846, following the ‘Disruption’, a schism in the Church of Scotland. Today the college is the site for the university’s School of Divinity. Within New College, the General Assembly Hall is home to the annual General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. It was this versatile hall that became the temporary home, in May 1999, to the Scottish Parliament (before Holyrood).
Returning to the view, don’t be surprised to see a rather stern John Knox surveying the scene.
You’ll find the college on the Mound which is close to the Royal Mile. To learn more about Edinburgh University’s history see my article on Truly Edinburgh.
University of Edinburgh, New College
To find a monument in Edinburgh dedicated to Admiral Lord Nelson, who died at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, may come as a bit of a surprise to you. But completed in 1816, it is now a familiar feature of the Edinburgh skyline. Initially the monument had a tenant who established a small restaurant and thanks to its prominent opposition it also proved handy for sending messages across the city.
However, in 1852 a time ball was installed at the top of the tower and would drop exactly at one o’clock as a signal to the ships on the Firth of Forth, allowing captains to check the accuracy of their chronometers.
While it obviously sounded like a good idea at the time the fact that there was only a visible signal and not an audible one meant that it just wasn’t practical on a foggy day. In 1861, the One O’clock Gun firing from Edinburgh Castle replaced the time ball.
Bearing in mind that the monument already sits on top of Calton Hill, the extra 147 steps to the top of the tower will take you to one of the best views in Edinburgh. Calton Hill is located beyond the east end of Princes Street.
Nelson’s Column on Calton Hill
St Mary’s Episcopal Church
Just off the well-worn tourist trail in the west end of Edinburgh, St Mary’s Episcopal Church, with its three Gothic spires is just a lovely place to visit.
The cathedral’s interior boasts a number of artistic treasures, among them a hanging rood (cross) with the figure of Christ shown crucified against a background of Flanders poppies. The cross, which was initially intended for the National War Museum in Edinburgh Castle, marks the division between choir and nave.
Also, the magnificent high altar flanked by statues of St Columba and St Margaret, wife of Malcolm III, king of Scotland. St Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh is named after this remarkable woman.
In February 2019, St Mary’s Cathedral was registered as an Eco-Congregation. They say, “Our commitment is to care for creation, make the link between environmental issues and the Christian faith…”
St Mary’s Cathedral website has more information.
St Mary’s Cathedral
Holyrood Abbey ruins
Holyrood Abbey, founded by King David I in 1128 stands in the grounds of the Palace of Holyroodhouse at the bottom of the Royal Mile. There are some wonderful stories attached to the abbey building, many of them rooted in legend. One of them tells that the king built the abbey in memory of a golden cross which contained part of the ‘true cross’ owned by his mother Margaret wife of Malcolm III.
When composer Felix Mendelssohn arrived at the abbey in 1828, he noted, “Everything was ruined, decayed and open to the sky.” And that’s pretty much the way it remains today.
A number of royals are buried in the abbey choir including David II, James II and James V, Mary Queen of Scots father.
You can visit the abbey as part of the entrance cost to the Palace of Holyroodhouse which is part of the Royal Collection Trust.
The Magdalen Chapel
The Magdalen Chapel stands on Edinburgh’s Cowgate. Although it’s part of the Old Town, it’s definitely not the prettiest part. But don’t let that put you off.
It was the last Roman Chapel to be constructed (1541-44) in Edinburgh before the Reformation and for that reason alone it’s definitely worth visiting. But there’s so much more. The fact that it was a woman, Janet Rynd who was the real driving force behind the chapel and accompanying almshouse adds to the story.
There are associations with Mary Queen of Scots and her mother Mary of Guise and the Incorporation of Hammermen a prominent Edinburgh trade body.
Inside, the only intact remaining pre-Reformation stained glass window and the same simple table used to lay out executed Covenanters before they were dressed in their grave clothes and buried at nearby Greyfriars Kirkyard.
To learn more about Magdalen Chapel see my article on Truly Edinburgh.