Things to do in Edinburgh: St. Giles Cathedral

If you’re looking for things to do in Edinburgh, St Giles Cathedral is a fantastic place to spend an afternoon. Located in the heart of Edinburgh on the historic Royal Mile, the cathedral is a stunning display of iconic Gothic architecture that takes over Edinburgh’s Old Town.

Because St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh is served by a minister and not a bishop, it’s technically a church and not a cathedral. This is why it’s also referred to as the High Kirk of Edinburgh, kirk meaning “church” in Scottish. However, it was a cathedral for a brief time in the 1700s!

King David the First had St. Giles built on the edge of Edinburgh in 1124 and there are still some foundations that date back to the 12th century today. It’s interesting to think that at one time, the colossal cathedral stood on the border of the city, strange to think that Edinburgh didn’t go beyond this spot.

The history of the Royal Mile and how parts of it used to be considered the end of the world is a story for another day. But the St. Giles Cathedral history tells a tale of ups and downs. Being defended from terrible raids and horrendous fires, the cathedral has been destroyed then built back up and renovated several times throughout its history.

Exterior of St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh at sunrise

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Things to do at St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh

With a building steeped in so much rich, fascinating history, there are plenty of things to do during your visit to St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. Spend the day discovering the cathedral’s compelling past and beauty as you walk through the historic grounds. While you wander around the atmospheric building, take the time to visit the memorials and light a candle. It will make your day even more special and memorable.

Spend time in Thistle Chapel

Constructed in 1911 for the Knights of the Thistle, Thistle Chapel is located in the southeast corner of St. Giles Cathedral. The beautiful chapel features a Neo-Gothic design with flowers, animals and heavenly figures carved into the wood.

The wonderful place is filled with hidden gems that you can easily spot if you know just where to look. There are three angels depicted playing the bagpipes hiding somewhere inside the chapel, each of whom symbolizes Scotland. Be sure to search out all three!

You should also find the pelican carved straight into the ceiling. The pelican is an old Roman Christianity symbol that serves as a gentle reminder for the many different religious phases St. Giles went through.

Handcrafted Gothic Chairs of Thistle Chapel

During your time exploring Thistle Chapel, be on the lookout for the handcrafted Gothic-style chairs dedicated to the 17 members of the Knights of the Order. Each chair is finished off with a carving of the Knights of the Order’s helmet and their coat of arms.

Interior of St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh with the four columns, blue and gold ribbed ceiling and stained glass windows

St. Giles Cathedral Architecture

If there’s one thing that lures people inside of St. Giles Cathedral, it’s the incredible architecture. Not only is the exterior absolutely stunning, but the inside is even more remarkable!

The striking Rieger organ stands tall between the many pillars and walls set with incredible stained-glass windows. Four central pillars are all that remains of the original chapel constructed in the 12th century. Be sure to gaze up at the impressive vaulted blue and white ceiling, enhanced with gold-leaf details inside both the cathedral and the chapel.

The Musical Bells of the Crown Spire

One of the most unique designs of St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh is the steeple topped with a 16th-century crown spire. What makes this stunning display of beautiful architecture even better? The musical bells tucked inside the spire.

The Impact of John Knox on St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh

John Knox played an integral part in St. Giles Cathedral’s history — it was strictly for Catholics until he stepped in and became the minister. John was responsible for the Scottish Reformation which converted people from Catholicism to Protestantism with the Presbyterian Church.

You can find a statue of John Knox to the left side of the nave and his grave in the parking lot (car park) of the High Court of Scotland behind the cathedral, under parking space number 23. I mean, he was a pretty important man to Scotland, so why not have his memory live on forever under a parking lot?

One really cool thing about the history of John Knox is his ties to dogs being allowed inside St. Giles Cathedral. John had a friend, John Craig, whose life was saved by dogs while he was overseas.

Although I’m not sure how he was actually saved, the story inspired John Knox so much that he allowed dogs inside the cathedral. They’re still permitted to roam inside the church to this day.

Inside St Giles Cathedral Chapel, rows of seating and a bright stained glass window

History is told through St. Giles Cathedral’s Stained-Glass Windows

St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh is covered in stunning stained-glass windows, many of which are donned with Scottish saints and authors who’ve had a big impact on Scottish history, like poet Robert Burns.

Visit the Memorials

St. Giles Cathedral is filled with memorials of historically important people who made big changes in St. Giles throughout the years, one of whom is author Robert Louis Stevenson.

As you walk around, you’ll see memorials to many other famous names from Scottish histories, such as the Marquis of Montrose and the Marquis of Argyll. They were two enemies involved in the National Covenant which they signed at the Greyfriars Kirkyard, the most haunted graveyard in Scotland. You can see a framed copy of the National Covenant inside St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh today.

Learn the History of St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh

St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh has been standing for 900 years, during which it has undergone many significant transformations in both design and religion. Once it was the neighbouring structure of Old Tolbooth Prison and was the storage location of Edinburgh’s guillotine!

The prison’s entrance is now marked by a mosaic of a heart located on the pavement just outside of the cathedral, better known today as the Heart of Midlothian.

Free Concerts

St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh is a working Protestant church with four services each Sunday. The church also opens its doors at 6 pm for an evening of music. Be sure to check it out and get ready to be awe-struck by the wonderful acoustics the church offers. You can also pick up CDs in the church’s gift shop to remind you of your experience.

Take a Guided Tour of St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh

If you want to learn more about the history of St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, be sure to stop by on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 14:30 for a guided tour. The tour costs £5.50 and it’s one that you definitely shouldn’t miss if you’re a history fan.

If you’re not interested in booking a tour, St. Giles Cathedral always has volunteers milling around who are knowledgeable and will be happy to answer any questions you have.

Take a Rooftop Tour

I love taking tours because they often lead to places not normally open to the general public! When you take a rooftop tour, not only do you get to climb the clock tower of St. Giles Cathedral, but you also get to see views of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, rarely seen by others!

Visit St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh

Hours: Saturday – 10:30-16:00 & Sunday – 13:30-16:00

Visiting St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh is free, but if you want to take pictures or enter Thistle Chapel, there is a charge. If you want to book a tour, be sure to book via their website here: Tours at St Giles Cathedral

Hours: High Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1RE (Next to the Mercat Cross)

Address: Monday – Saturday 09:00-17:00 & Sunday 13:00-17:00

Website: St Giles Cathedral

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