Grey skies and mercurial weather are no match for the grandeur of Scotland’s capital. Edinburgh boasts a rich and layered history marked by imposing architectural feats, award-winning cuisine, and elite museums; flanked to the east by Arthur’s Seat, a rugged dormant volcano said to be the possible site of King Arthur’s folkloric Camelot.
Historically dubbed the ‘Athens of the North,’ Edinburgh was the seat of Scottish Enlightenment ideals, which prompted an outpour of scientific discovery, cultural curiosity, and philosophical musings between the 18th and 19th centuries. While Edinburgh’s history is undeniably dominated by men, Unearth Women has conjured a tour of this extraordinary city through the lens of some notable female residents.
Holyrood Palace and The Queen’s Gallery
Her Majesty, The Queen’s official Scottish residence is comprised of historic apartments, the ruins of a magnificent 12th-century abbey, and manicured royal gardens. The Palace of Holyroodhouse—also referred to as Holyrood Palace—was most famously occupied by Scotland’s legendary, ill-fated monarch: Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary lived in Holyrood Palace between 1561 and 1567. Ascend a narrow staircase to reach her royal chambers, five centuries old and the site of a ferocious murder.
Original 16th-century oak paneling and a painted mural remain on view in Mary’s bedchamber, while it’s said that the 500-year-old bloodstains can still be found down the corridor. In 1566, Mary witnessed the brutal assassination of her private secretary, David Rizzio, who was stabbed 56 times by her husband, Lord Darnley, and a gang of Scottish lords in the nearby Supper Room. Drops of Rizzio’s blood allegedly stain the floor of her Outer Chamber, where Mary conferenced with politicians and religious leaders. The Outer Chamber also houses the exquisite Darnley Jewel. In 2002, Queen Elizabeth II opened The Queen’s Gallery, an exhibition space in the Holyrood Palace complex that displays pieces from the Royal Collection, as well as a rotating program of special exhibitions.
Grassmarket and Half-Hangit Maggie
On a sunny day, Edinburgh’s cobblestoned Grassmarket is flooded with al-fresco diners and wandering window-shoppers. Carbon dating found that this region of the city has been inhabited by human settlers for over 3,000 years; but more recently, the Grassmarket was the official site of innumerable public executions. The 1660s became known as ‘The Killing Time,’ during which over 100 Presbyterians belonging to a group called the Covenanters were martyred for their religious beliefs.
Just behind the Covenanters’ Memorial, pour one out for a woman who miraculously survived her execution at the eponymous Maggie Dickson’s Pub. Dickson was sentenced to death in 1724 after her baby was found lifeless in the River Tweed. Post-mortem records failed to indicate the cause, but Dickson was arrested, found guilty of murder, and unsuccessfully hanged in the Grassmarket. She would live for another 40 years known as “Half-Hangit Maggie.”
Enjoy a Feminist Walking Tour
Edinburgh-based “social enterprise,” Invisible Cities, hosts alternative, hour-long feminist walking tours of the Scottish capital. Meet at Maggie Dickson’s Pub in the Grassmarket, and proceed to hear tell of the women who contributed to Edinburgh’s rich culture and history, from pioneering suffragist, doctor, and founder of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, Elsie Ingles, to J.K. Rowling, the visionary author behind Harry Potter.
With a deep commitment to improving contemporary life in Edinburgh, Invisible Cities tours also lead participants through current community projects, ending at the first addiction recovery café in the United Kingdom. Tours are offered through Airbnb, Expedia, and Visit.org. Proceeds benefit Invisible Cities tour guides, all of whom have been affected by homelessness.
Pay Homage to J.K. Rowling at The Elephant House
The illustrious J.K. Rowling is known to have penned Harry Potter at cafés across Edinburgh, where she’s been one of the city’s most cherished residents since her catapult to literary stardom in the ’90s. But The Elephant House, a charming coffee shop on George IV Bridge, claims to the be the site in which Rowling first conceived of “The Boy Who Lived.”
While the accuracy of this proclamation is contested, Rowling indeed spent a great deal of time writing Harry Potter in The Elephant House. It’s not hard to imagine why, the menu offers a strong selection of hearty fare, while a back window seat offers meditative views of Edinburgh Castle. Following Rowling’s success, the bathrooms were overtaken by Harry Potter-themed tags and notes to Rowling.
Visit the Female-Owned Lovecrumbs
The ladies behind Lovecrumbs serve up innovative treats and warming elixirs inside a shabby-chic West Port café. Choose from an expansive selection of cakes—from pear and cardamom to bramble and vanilla and spiced orange—and don’t forget to peruse The Outpost before you go, an in-store shop selling homewares, stationery, and more.
Learn about Scotland’s Witches at The Witchery
This award-winning restaurant and inn is a titular nod to the untold number of convicted witches burned just beyond the gates of Edinburgh Castle. Housed within a 16th-century building, The Witchery opened in 1979 and has since become Edinburgh’s most prized gastronomic establishment.
The opulent dining room boasts luxurious oak paneling, historic tapestries, and gilded accouterments; while the Secret Garden provides a brighter, al-fresco atmosphere for summer diners. Just above the restaurant, nine magnificent hotel suites are available for booking.
Budget: The Leonardo Royal Hotel
Located in the business district of Haymarket just outside the city center, the four-star Leonardo Royal Hotel is the first in Scotland to offer rooms specifically designed for female guests. Women-friendly rooms offer typical amenities like free wifi, with the addition of makeup mirrors, extra-powerful hairdryers, and a particular emphasis on safety.
The hotel’s feminist foray is a response to feedback provided by businesswomen seeking an alternative to cold, corporate hotel chains. “The Leonardo Royal Hotels present rooms which are oriented to meet the needs of the modern business woman,” according to the hotel’s website.
“The proportion of lone female business travelers is on the rise; indeed every fourth hotel guest is a businesswoman,” Operations Manager Lucy Basnett told The Scottish Sun. “We wanted to offer accommodation which not only addresses any concerns women traveling alone may have, but also creates a comfortable environment where they can relax after a busy day.”
Splurge: Balmoral Hotel
The prestigious Balmoral Hotel offers the lushest five-star hospitality in Edinburgh with stately Scottish suites, unparalleled views from its coveted Princes Street location, even a Michelin-starred restaurant on the premises. Housed within a sublime landmark edifice built at the turn of the century, the Balmoral Hotel offers a range of accommodations, from the tasteful Classic Room to the palatial Scone & Crombie suite.
The J.K. Rowling Suite, in which the author completed the final Harry Potter book in the series, will set die-hard fans back upward of £1,000 a night. The spacious, 55-square-meter room comes with enviable views of Calton Hill; a marble bust of Hermes, the god of travel, signed by Rowling; and a brass owl door knocker. Those lodging elsewhere can stop by the Balmoral for afternoon tea at the decadent Palm Court, enjoy a quintessential tipple at the hotel’s whiskey bar, Scotch, and indulge in a luxurious treatment at an on-site spa.