As promised, over the next few weeks Alex and I will describe in detail the layout of Edinburgh and the city’s major sights and attractions. These “Best of Edinburgh” guides are designed for first-time visitors to the city. So sit down, relax and let us help you plan your next vacation.
Edinburgh is divided into two districts: the medieval Old Town and the slightly more modern New Town, where most of the architecture was built in the 18th and 19th centuries (see comment below). In today’s post, we explore the must-see sights of the Old Town.
Old Town Highlights
No trip to Scotland would be complete without a stop at the magnificent Edinburgh Castle on Castle Rock. First erected in the 12th century, the fortress sits on top of an extinct volcano and is the most breathtaking part of the city’s skyline. Within the castle walls you see impressive views of most of the New Town, including the Princes Street Gardens, Arthur’s Seat and the Salisbury Crags and more. You can also explore the various rooms, chapels and compartments of the fortress and through interactive displays discover what living and working there might have been like in the medieval era. The highlight of any tour of the castle is the Honors of Scotland (the crown jewels), on display in the Crown Room of the castle’s Royal Palace. These include the ancient crown, sword and scepter, which date back to the 15th and 16th centuries. Here you can also see Scotland’s most famed treasure: The Stone of Destiny, otherwise known as the Coronation Stone. This has been used in the crowning of Scottish and English monarchs (much to dismay of many Scottish nationalists) for hundreds of years.
The Royal Mile, which runs from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Abbey, is by far Edinburgh’s most popular tourist street. It is composed of a series of windy cobblestone roads which include Castle Esplanade, Castlehill, the Lawnmarket, High Street, Canongate and Abbey Strand. Stroll along the picturesque Royal Mile to peruse the dozens of tourist shops and niche museums, including the Writers’ Museum – featuring the work of Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott, Scotland’s most famous authors. Other highlights include the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre, situated near the foot of the castle. The centre boasts a motorized barrel ride that takes you through its replica distillery. After sampling some whisky, continue on to High Street – the home of many of the Old Town’s main sights. High Street also becomes a haven for wacky street performers during the annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
St. Giles’ Cathedral is the mother church of the Presbyterianism Church of Scotland and is located at the midpoint of the Royal Mile. The interior central pillars date as far back as 1124, and the church boasts some of the most exquisite stained glass windows in the United Kingdom. On the exterior, it is distinct for its traditional Scottish crown steeple.
On the ground near the church is the Heart of Midlothian, a heart-shaped carving on the site of the former Tolbooth Prison. Legend has it that the prisoners used to spit before entering the jail, and locals carry on this tradition by spitting on the heart for good luck. Also, the local football team Heart of Midlothian has this same heart-shaped badge on its uniform. As a show of contempt, fans of rival team Hibernian have taken to spitting on the mosaic as well.
Greyfriars Kirk (church) sits just outside the Old Town above the Grassmarket. It is one of the oldest surviving buildings from the 1600s and is famous for two legends associated with its kirkyard (graveyard): Greyfriars Bobby, a Skye terrier from the 19th century that supposedly sat loyally next to its master’s grave for 14 years, and the infamous Mackenzie poltergeist. George Mackenzie was a Scottish lawyer from the 17th century, who brutally murdered approximately 18,000 covenanters – nationalists rebelling against the English monarchy’s interference in the Church of Scotland. When he died, Mackenzie was buried in a black mausoleum in Greyfriars Kirkyard.
In 1998, a homeless man broke into Mackenzie’s tomb to find shelter during a storm and disturbed the malicious lawyers’ remains. Since the incident, violent paranormal activity is alleged to have occurred in the graveyard and visitors have reported being bruised, scratched, cut and even knocked out by some unseen force either near Mackenzie’s mausoleum or in the Covenanters Prison, an area of the kirkyard where Mackenzie is said to have tortured and killed his victims. Tourists can try their luck with the poltergeist on a nighttime ghost tour of the kirkyard (including the Covenanters’ Prison, which is kept locked during the day to prevent daring tourists from being injured), run by the City of the Dead tour company. It meets in front of St. Giles Cathedral on Royal Mile at 8:30pm and 10:00pm from Easter to Halloween, and at 8:30pm from Halloween to Easter. The tour costs £9.50 or £7.50 concession.
WARNING: The Mackenzie Poltergeist can cause genuine physical and mental distress. Join the tour at your own risk.
Holyrood Palace is the official residence of the Queen of England when she visits Scotland. It is located at the bottom of the Royal Mile and across from the new Scottish Parliament building. Tours of the palace are available throughout most of the year except when the Queen is in town.
The Real Mary King’s Close is an incredible tour of the long-forgotten underground streets of Edinburgh dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, which were paved over as the city grew. Guides dressed in period costumes walk you through these hidden closes, homes and streets while describing what life may have been like for the residents, particularly during the plague. The closes are thought to be haunted as well, and tourists can take either a normal walking tour or a supernatural history tour.
Located on Chambers Street right in the heart of the Old Town, the National Museum of Scotland is an excellent museum that describes the history of Scotland from the Stone Age to modern times. This museum is a must visit for those interested in the early Celtic and Pictish history of the country.
Next up, navigating the New Town.
[Photo credits: Map of Edinburgh by Jonathan Oldenbuck; Edinburgh Castle by Christina Paschyn; Royal Mile by dsmoljanovic; St. Giles' Cathedral by Mackenzie and John; Heart of Midlothian by Sean McClean; Greyfriars church by keepwaddling1; Greyfriars cemetery by keepwaddling1; Holyrood Palace by Hedavid cropped by Jpatokal; Real Mary King's Close by company website; National Museum of Scotland by yekim eleets]