A fabulous and largely complete ruin with parts dating back more than 600 years, Craigmillar Castle is a little out of the way; two and a half miles south of the city centre, give or take. However, there's an advantage to its relative isolation: visitors can get a taste of the city's history with none of the Old Town queues. Some 200 visitors during a peak summer day constitutes 'busy'. Sometimes, you could be here on your own.
The L-shaped tower house at the castle's core dates to around 1400, and was built by a notable local family called the Prestons. They later added a mighty curtain wall and, in the early 16th century, yet more layers of defence and protection. After it was captured by the English in 1544, the castle got another makeover, and it was in this condition that it greeted its most famous guest: Mary, Queen of Scots, who stayed here in 1563 and 1566. Mary had been born in Scotland, but spent the majority of her childhood in France. When she came to Craigmillar Castle, she brought a large French retinue; it's this that explains why a nearby hamlet came to be known as Little France, a name that persists to this day.
The castle later passed out of the hands of the Prestons. In the 18th century, it was abandoned and left to decay, a sad state of affairs that persisted until the state stepped in just after World War II. Today, it's the responsibility of Historic Scotland. The castle is a shell, with none of the museum ambience that defines Edinburgh Castle. However, the atmosphere and the views make the detour worthwhile.