Edinburgh’s Old Town, named as such to differentiate it from the 18th-century Georgian New Town to the north, has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1995. Wandering around this historic centre, you could easily believe you have stepped back in time. There are some obvious standout attractions, with the castle getting top billing, but as well as the stars of the show there are also some often-overlooked activities and sights that will give you an insider’s insight into the ancient quarter of this spellbindingly beautiful city.
Dark, brooding and omnipresent, Edinburgh Castle looms over the city on its dramatic rocky crag. Home to the oldest crown jewels in Britain, worn by Mary, Queen of Scots for her coronation, it is also the seat of the Stone of Destiny (used to anoint Scottish kings, and still brought down to London for royal coronations) and Mons Meg, a 15th-century cannon. The castle also houses the oldest building in Edinburgh, the 11th-century St Margaret’s Chapel. Come here at lunchtime when the 1 o’clock gun is fired from the ramparts and soak up the gorgeous 360-degree views.
This quirky exhibition, which claims to be Edinburgh’s oldest tourist attraction, offers visitors a gallery of optical illusions thanks to some very clever Victorian technology. Using no cameras or projectors, an image of the city is beamed onto a table. This is virtual reality, 19th-century style. You can also enjoy panoramic views of Edinburgh from the rooftop.
Take a tour of the Palace of Holyroodhouse, home to the Queen when she’s in town, to see how the other half live. Palatial rooms are stuffed full of priceless portraits, tapestries and antiques, while the gardens are a bucolic delight. Visit the chambers of Mary, Queen of Scots, where her courtier Rizzio was stabbed and then thrown down the stairs by her jealous husband. In summer, you can tour the beautiful ruins of the nearby abbey.
A favourite with the Instagram crowd, Victoria Street, with its steep curve of pastel buildings, links George IV Bridge with the Grassmarket and is said to be the inspiration behind Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley. Browse the eclectic shops, from milliners and jewellers to homeware outlets, then wander down to the picturesque Grassmarket. The spot, which was originally a marketplace for horses and cattle, regularly staged public executions, but today, the only ones making a killing here are the tourist touts.
Get into the clan spirit and have your very own kilt made up at Gordon Nicolson Kiltmakers in the Canongate. This traditional outfitter is passionate about the heritage and craft of kiltmaking and will rustle you up a bespoke Highland costume using only the very best local materials. The staff here can also help you track down your family tartan, and they certainly know their stuff, having set up the Edinburgh Kiltmakers’ Academy to teach the craft.
The Old Town is packed with some of Edinburgh’s very best boozers. Gird your loins, line your stomach with a fish supper and get the wee drams lined up. Kick off the evening in the Ensign Ewart, Edinburgh’s highest pub, while The Bow Bar, a stone’s throw away, has a vast selection of single malts in town. The White Hart Inn in the Grassmarket is one of Edinburgh’s oldest pubs and is reputed to have been frequented by infamous grave robbers Burke and Hare, while Sandy Bell’s is the place for folk music. If you’re still thirsty, check out the best traditional pubs in Edinburgh.
You’ll need a strong constitution to enjoy the fascinating Surgeons’ Hall Museums. Exhibits include antique surgical and dental equipment, medical photographs, and various gruesomely preserved and pickled body parts. One of the most grisly exhibits is a book made from the skin of the infamous grave robber William Burke.
Near the bottom of the High Street sits this very pretty church – or kirk, as it’s known in these parts – dating back to 1688. It’s where the Queen worships when she’s in the city and where her granddaughter Zara Phillips tied the knot with England rugby player Mike Tindall back in 2011. It has an unusual Dutch-style end gable and is the resting place of many Edinburgh luminaries, including the economist Adam Smith.
Greyfriars Bobby, the loyal skye terrier who sat by his master’s grave for 14 years until his own death in 1872, has been immortalised on the silver screen and in numerous books. His statue sits on the corner of Candlemaker Row, while his grave – and that of his master – is in the neighbouring Greyfriars Kirkyard. Rub his nose for good luck.
Step back in time to the 17th century to find out what life was like 400 years ago for the residents of Mary King Close. The close was buried underneath the Royal Mile in the 19th century, after the Royal Exchange was built on top of it. Despite hundreds of years of wear and tear, it has been perfectly preserved, and is brought back to life by costumed guides who will regale you with gripping yarns of murder, mystery and intrigue. It is also said to be haunted.
This is an updated version of a story by Alex MacKay.