Best Things to do in Edinburgh Old Town
Edinburgh is one of the greenest and most beautiful cities in the UK. There is a strong contrast between the Edinburgh Old Town (centred on and around the Royal Mile) and the newer part of town or commercial shopping district at the bottom of the hill and the other side of Edinburgh Waverley station.
The bustling medieval Old Town of Edinburgh, Scotlands capital city, has a great deal to offer in the way of tourist attractions and sites. Edinburgh Old Town has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1995, and attracts visitors from all over the world.
Spend at least 3-5 days exploring the Edinburgh highlights on offer, but you can enjoy the handful of sites in old Edinburgh in a single day. If you’re visiting in the winter months remember to wrap up warm – Edinburgh can get rather chilly!
Check out my top things to do in Edinburgh Old Town.
#1 Edinburgh Castle
Home to the Scottish Crown Jewels, Edinburgh castle is not to be missed, but enjoy a full day here to get the most out of your tour of the castle. This iconic historic landmark is set on top of the Edinburgh Old Town hill known as Castle Rock, and can be seen from the lower modern shopping areas of the city.
Entering the Portcullis gate, you will pass through a 450-year-old gateway, with a raised portcullis to let visitors inside. Inside the castle, you can stand on the six-gun Argyle battery that was built in the 1730’s. The canons were made in around 1810 at the time of the Napoleonic wars. Inside, you can learn from the Prisons of War Exhibition, the Royal Scots Museum and the National War Museum. For those of you into dark history, check out the Victorian military prison where offending soldiers were kept in solitary confinement.
Current Edinburgh Castle admission is £17 and £10.20 for children. A commission rate is available for over 60’s and unemployed.
#2 St Giles Cathedral
St Giles Cathedral or the High Kirk dominates the centre of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh Old Town and dates back to the 15th Century. It’s a fine example of Edinburgh Old Town history and Church of Scotland Architecture, and this Church was the focal point of the Scottish Reformation. In 1560, Scotland branched away from Catholicism and became officially Protestant, bringing the Pope’s influence over Scotland to an end.
If you’re lucky, you will catch a Scottish wedding leaving the Church, or the playing of bagpipes inside. It’s free to enter, although donations are advised, and you will need to purchase a photography permit if you would like to take photos. Inside the Church, don’t miss the Knights Chapel or the Thistle Chapel, where you will see elaborately carved gothic stalls topped with helms and arms of the 16 Knights of the Most Ancient & Most Noble Order of the Thistle. The Knights chapel was built in 1911, and an additional £3 donation is suggested to view this part of the Church.
#3 Real Mary Kings Close
Mary Kings close is an underground Labyrinth that runs underneath the city chambers in Edinburgh Old Town. It has been opened and re-designed as a tourist attraction to give an insight into life 17th Century Scotland and the times of the Black Death. You will be taken on a tour by a character guide in traditional historical costume, to learn first hand what it was like to be alive during these times from gravediggers and plague victims. The tour gives you a real insight in to 17th century Edinburgh, which was dark in more ways than one. This Edinburgh Old Town attraction is well worth a visit.
#4 The Edinburgh Old Town Royal Mile
The Royal Mile itself is Edinburgh’s most famous street and lies at the heart of Edinburgh Old Town. This steep cobbled street joins Edinburgh Castle to the Scottish Parliament. The Iron Kirk (Church) is no longer a place of worship (worship ceased here in 1952) but has been cleverly converted into an indoor arts and crafts market. It’s also home to Parliaments and Courts of law, both old and new. The Palace of Holyrood house on the Royal Mile is still the Queen’s official residence in Scotland.
#5 Greyfriars Kirk
Greyfriars Kirk is home to the graves of Greyfriars Bobby and his master. The story of a dog so faithful and loyal to his master that he guarded his grave for 14 years after his master’s death captured the hearts of the people of Edinburgh and beyond. It later became both a novel and film. You will see the Greyfriars Bobby statue opposite the Greyfriars pub in Edinburgh Old Town. Tourists have been rubbing his nose for good luck since it was unveiled in 1981. When you enter the Church grounds, you will immediately see Bobby’s grave – it is easy to identify as tourists from all over the world bring sticks and gifts to remember the faithful little Skye Terrier. Every day they are cleared by the council, and every day they return!
The Graveyard around the back of the Church is well worth a visit. You will recognise some of the names that influenced J. K. Rowling in the writing of Harry Potter, including the grave of Tom Riddle.
#6 National Museum of Scotland
In 2006, the Museum of Scotland and the Royal Museum were combined into one family-friendly museum in Edinburgh Old Town – The National Museum of Scotland. Explore the exhibits on the natural world, world cultures, science and technology and art. Some of my favourite exhibits included ancient Egypt and Islam. The museum is free to enter, just be prepared to pay for certain featured exhibitions.
#7 The Meadows
As I mentioned previously, Edinburgh is one of the greenest cities in the UK. If you fancy escaping the hustle and bustle of the Edinburgh Old Town Royal Mile and other main attractions, head towards the University of Edinburgh buildings on George Square that spread out into the Meadows. The park is massive and perfect for walking, jogging and relaxing. It’s one of the most relaxing things to do in Edinburgh Old Town but it becomes busier and much more lively during the season of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
If you are heading to the Scottish capital, you might also like to check out my recent article on Where to Stay in Edinburgh, including Edinburgh Old Town hotels.
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About the Author
Amy Trumpeter is the blogger behind www.templeseeker.com, a travel blog with a focus on religious and cultural places of interest. Amy loves Old Towns and is particularly interested in the history of the Reformation. You can follow her on social media Facebook and Instagram.