Old Town Walking Tour, Edinburgh

Old Town Walking Tour (Self Guided), Edinburgh

The historical center of Edinburgh, popularly known as the Old Town, is indeed the oldest part of the Scottish capital. Most of the buildings here, made of stone and characterized by numerous tall windows, have been around since the Middle Ages and are covered with soot, left over from the days long gone, when houses were heated with hard-coal and wood. Hence the prevailing gray color in the area.

Despite age, much of the Old Town medieval and Reformation-era architecture has survived intact from the time of its construction, largely preserving the original street plan, and, together with the 18th/19th-century New Town, now forms a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site, established in 1995.

The Old Town as such is located between Edinburgh Castle (home to Scotland’s crown jewels) and the former Holyrood Abbey (now replaced by Holyrood Palace), with its main artery – the Royal Mile – consisting of a series of medieval streets and dead ends converging on both sides of it like a fish backbone. In addition to the Royal Mile and Edinburgh Castle, the Old Town comprises several other distinctive areas, such as Grassmarket (to the south-west), famous for its numerous pubs.

Other landmarks in the historic center are just as plentiful and include: Telfer Wall – part of the ancient Edinburgh fortification; Surgeons' Hall Museums; the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street; Greyfriars Bobby's Statue – a tribute to selfless loyalty; Greyfriars Church – one of the oldest buildings in the Old Town (1630); and many more.

The abundance of attractions in this part of Edinburgh may seem quite daunting when it comes to sightseeing. If you're keen on visiting some of the most prominent locations in Scotland's capital city, all in a single go, follow this self-guided walk!
How it works: Download the app "GPSmyCity: Walks in 1K+ Cities" from Apple App Store or Google Play Store to your mobile phone or tablet. The app turns your mobile device into a personal tour guide and its built-in GPS navigation functions guide you from one tour stop to next. The app works offline, so no data plan is needed when traveling abroad.

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Old Town Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Old Town Walking Tour
Guide Location: Scotland » Edinburgh (See other walking tours in Edinburgh)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 11
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.5 Km or 1.6 Miles
Author: Helen
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Edinburgh Castle
  • Grassmarket
  • Telfer Wall
  • McEwan Hall
  • Surgeons' Hall Museums
  • Chambers Street
  • National Museum of Scotland
  • Greyfriars Bobby's Statue
  • Greyfriars Church
  • The Elephant House
  • Victoria Street
Edinburgh Castle

1) Edinburgh Castle (must see)

Edinburgh Castle, presiding over Edinburgh since the 12th century, is the second most visited attraction in the United Kingdom, after the Tower of London. The history of Scotland is deeply etched into its ancient stones.

The castle stands on top of the Castle Rock, the basalt ventilation pipe of an extinct volcano eroded by glaciers. People have inhabited this area since the 9th century BC. The first castle on the site was constructed by King David I of Scotland, and had remained a royal residence until 1603.

As a fortress, it was virtually impregnable, except for one major drawback: the basalt rock on which it stood didn't hold water, so a 28-meter well quickly dried out during droughts or long sieges, leaving the denizens either to surrender or die of thirst.

The first castle was largely destroyed during the Lang Siege in 1573; the only remainder from that 12th century structure still standing is Saint Margaret’s Chapel. In the 17th century it became a military base, with the garrison quartered there until the 1920s.

Presently, the castle houses the Scottish National War Memorial, the National War Museum of Scotland and several smaller regimental museums. It is also home to the One O’Clock Gun, which is fired six days a week at precisely 1 PM, and the city’s clocks are set by it.

In the Crown Room, you will see the Royal Scottish Crown, Scepter and Sword of State, with actors in period costume re-enacting important events of the castle’s history. In August, the Edinburgh Military Tattoo takes place on the castle’s esplanade. In the north-east corner of the esplanade is a small iron fountain, called the Witches’ Well. It marks the spot where, in the past, many women were burned at the stake for witchcraft.

Why You Should Visit:
The views from the castle are some of the best in Scotland, and the walk up visiting all the little places herein makes it a really good experience.

The entry is cheaper if you book online, and more importantly, it allows to avoid the often long line.
Take a free guided tour – available every hour. Otherwise, consider audio guide at £3, quite useful.
Being at the top of the mountain, it may get windy, so definitely bring layers if visiting in cold weather.

2) Grassmarket

One of the best places to shop or relax over a pint or a meal in Edinburgh is undoubtedly the Grassmarket. This historic place, nestled in a small valley set below the surrounding street level, between 1477 and 1911 was the most important horse and cattle market in the city. And since it drew large crowds, it was also often used as the place for public executions.

“The Shadow of the Gibbet”, dark paving stones laid out in the form of a gibbet next to the Covenanter’s Monument, are a sombre reminder of that practice. The Bow Well on the one side of the market dates back to 1681.

According to legend, a woman named Maggie Dickson, a fishwife accused of murdering her child and sentenced to death for her crime, was hanged here but miraculously survived the ordeal! Apparently, in those days, the “until dead” provision didn’t quite yet settle in the sentence proceedings.

Maggie was duly hanged and then her body, cut down, was taken away for burial; but on the road to the cemetery, she woke up. She couldn’t be re-tried and therefore was considered having paid her debt to society fully and set free. There is a pub in the market that bears her name.

The market had been a poor area until the 1980s when it grew popular with students – perhaps due to its numerous pubs and clubs. Duly renovated, with many of the pubs setting up outside terraces and installing dining rooms, it saw a lot of shops move in, making the market a great place to find quality clothes and souvenirs at bargain prices.

Why You Should Visit:
Quirky, safe and interesting; great for those who need a regular change of scenery, as there is a variety of shops and pubs for every wallet and taste of music.

Check out Carnivàle Vintage for a wonderful selection of fun vintage clothes, Tasty Buns for a pastry and a coffee, Hula Juice Bar for a healthy meal, and Mary's Milk Bar for pure indulgence.
Up the road from Grassmarket goes Victoria Street which is also well worth a visit, together with Royal Mile (further up) which has lots of cool independent shops and restaurants/cafés.
Telfer Wall

3) Telfer Wall

If you would like to see a real part of ancient Edinburgh, you should go to Heriot Place where you will find one of the only remaining stretches of the Telfer Wall.

The Old Town once had three defensive walls. The first wasn’t very extensive and protected the denizens of the area around the High Street. After the Battle of Flodden, the locals realised that only part of their town was protected, and so in 1513 they built the Flodden Wall.

By the 17th century, the wall had showed signs of ageing, shoddy workmanship and was too small to defend the growing town, so the last fortification – the Telfer Wall – was built to the south of the Flodden Wall in 1630.

Sadly, today not much of these fortifications remain, and the gateways, or ports as they were called, have been knocked down. Parts of the Flodden Wall can be seen in the Royal Scottish Museum, but the Heriot Society managed to preserve one corner tower from the Flodden Wall and a long stretch of the Telfer Wall along Heriot Place.

During excavations at the base of the Wall in 1850, a well-preserved bronze Roman coin, dating back to the time of Constantine the Great, was discovered. Further excavations revealed two coffins fashioned out of oak trunks; the exterior of the coffins was rough wood, but the interiors were hollowed out to receive the head and arms of a man and a woman.

Between the coffins, the skull and antlers of an enormous deer were discovered, along with a spearhead made of horn. The burial site is thought to date back to the 3rd century AD. The remains of the humans disintegrated when attempts were made to remove them from the coffins, but the deer’s skull is intact and displayed in the Royal Scottish Museum.
McEwan Hall

4) McEwan Hall

The McEwan Hall has been described as being ostentatious and in bad taste, but you should visit it yourself and make up your own mind about it.

In the 1890s the University of Edinburgh asked the City Council for funds to build a graduation hall, but the request was turned down as the Council didn’t think they needed one. William McEwan, the master brewer, stepped in and offered to have a hall built if it bore his name.

The building was designed in the Italian Renaissance style by Sir Robert Rowand Anderson. It is a D-shaped structure with a semi-domed roof. The exterior is sober and nothing seems showy about it. The hall was finished in 1897 and duly presented to the University.

The most remarkable feature about the interior is the double helix stairway that leads to the semi-circular galleries. One stairway is climbed from the exterior of the hall; the other is inside the hall. This concept is unique in Scotland.

The reputation of being in bad taste comes from the beautifully elaborate wall panels within the tiered auditorium. These were created by William Palin and they represent the academic disciplines and the Virtues. One panel depicts William McEwan, wearing a smug, “holier-than-thou” expression presenting the hall to Minerva in the Grove of Academe.

William McEwan was given an honorary doctorate in 1898 and some unkind tongues suggested that he built the hall for the sole purpose of “furthering his education without having to get his head out of the ale barrel”.
Surgeons' Hall Museums

5) Surgeons' Hall Museums

Owned by The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (RCSEd), Surgeons' Hall Museums (SHM) incorporate the Wohl Pathology Museum, the History of Surgery Museum, and The Dental Collection.

The RCSEd was established in 1505 and saw its museums' collections grow significantly from 1699 after “natural and artificial curiosities” were publicly sought. In the 1800s, the original collection expanded to embrace the remarkable items garnered over the years by prominent surgeons and anatomists, Sir Charles Bell and John Barclay.

Originally envisioned as a teaching institution for medical students, SHM have among their exhibits a wealth of bone and tissue specimens, plus numerous artefacts and works of art. Open to the public since 1832, SHM are among Scotland's oldest museums. The Wohl Pathology Museum is also home to one of the largest and most historic collections of surgical pathology in the world.

SHM also exhibit interpretation that inspires public engagement through interactive computer simulation, audience participation devices, film and user-friendly textual explanation and encourages them to think about health and well-being.
Chambers Street

6) Chambers Street

Chambers Street lies to the south of the Old Town. It was named after the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, William Chambers of Glenorminston, a statue of whom stands in the centre of the street.

Chambers is lined with beautiful old buildings of great interest among which is the Old College of the University of Edinburgh built in 1791, predating the street itself. It now houses the Talbot Rice Gallery, with temporary exhibitions in the White Room, the Torrie Collection of Old Masters in the Georgian Gallery, and small exhibitions and experimental projects in the Round Room.

In the Royal Museum, which was built in 1888, you can admire the Wylam Dilly steam locomotive that dates back to 1813. Adam House is also open to the public and it holds the Discover Science family experience created by the University of Edinburgh.

Chambers Street is also home to the marvellous Museum of Scotland. Among its exhibits there are part of the Saint Ninian’s Isle Treasure, 11 of the Lewis Chessmen (the others are kept in the British Museum), a collection of Pictish stones, Celtic brooches, and an early form of guillotine named “The Maiden”. You will also find the perfectly preserved body of “Dolly”, the first mammal in the world to be cloned.
National Museum of Scotland

7) National Museum of Scotland (must see)

The National Museum of Scotland, situated on Chambers Street near the George IV Bridge, is the principal depository of Scottish and worldwide collections of artefacts, antiques, science and technology in the country.

It was created in 2006 when the Royal Museum and the Museum of Scotland merged and were linked internally by opening former storage areas and the creation of the Grand Gallery. The display areas spread from the basement to the roof and the vaulted Entrance Hall is huge and truly amazing, covering an area of 1400 square metres.

The central space of the Grand Gallery contains large objects that don’t fit into the smaller exhibitions, so it is a potpourri of wonderful items. The “Window on the World” is an impressive 20 metres high and contains over 800 diverse objects. Each side of the Grand Gallery displays “Discoveries” made by Scottish inventors.

There is something to interest everyone here; from one of Elton John’s more extravagant outfits to ancient Egyptian mummies with CT scans next to them, showing everything that is hiding under their wrappings!

The antiques collection is amazing and provides insight into history and past cultures. The kids will love the Natural History section with its display of dinosaur bones and extinct animals.

With 16 new galleries, opened in 2011, and a further 8,000 original objects exhibited, a visit to the National Museums is an excellent way to spend the day.

Why You Should Visit:
Not a typical museum – a blend of exhibits catering to everyone's interests.
Following a hefty £47-mln refurbishment/extension, the building is amazing both inside & outside.
There's a café & bistro if you are feeling peckish or just want to take a break from exploring. And best of all, the entry is free!

Go early, start at the top and work your way down, or try a private guided tour.
There are some great 'hands-on' exhibits, so take your time if you are with kids.
Check beforehand for exhibits that may cost extra (usually not much).
Greyfriars Bobby's Statue

8) Greyfriars Bobby's Statue (must see)

Everyone loves a nice, weepy story about love and loyalty, especially if there is an animal involved! In Edinburgh, the people have erected a statue to their favourite four-legged hero, Greyfriars Bobby, at the south end of the George IV Bridge.

The beginning of Bobby’s history is a little vague: he was either a policeman’s dog or a stray adopted by a “bobby” on his rounds, which would account for his name. The policeman’s name was John Grey and he kept Bobby for two years before dying of tuberculosis in 1858.

Whether Grey lived alone or whether his widow kicked Bobby out after his master’s death, isn’t clear; but the little Skye Terrier found himself without a home, so he made one for himself – on his master’s grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard, where he stayed for the next fourteen years until his death.

Usually, dogs aren’t welcome in churchyards, but the curator took pity on him and fed him. Other people also gave him food and William Chambers, the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, paid every year for his dog license, without which he would have been destroyed as a stray.

When he died, Bobby wasn’t allowed to be buried on consecrated ground, so he was buried beside the Greyfriars Kirkyard gate. One of the rich ladies of the city had a memorial erected in his name with a double fountain below his statue – the upper one for humans, the lower for animals.

Many versions of the story exist, and a lot of books and films have been made about him. The race of the dog often changes, but Bobby’s character remains the same – a dog who remained loyal to his master beyond the grave.

Visit the Greyfriars Kirkyard behind the statue for some incredibly interesting local history and, if you're a Harry Potter fan, you can find Lord Voldemort's gravestone there, too!
Greyfriars Church

9) Greyfriars Church

With a clear division into the Old and New Town, it's not hard to locate ancient buildings in Edinburgh. One such building – Greyfriar’s Church – is part of the Old Town.

Construction on the church began in 1602 and it was consecrated in 1630, becoming one of the oldest buildings in the Old Town. It was put up on the site of an abandoned Franciscan monastery and took its name from the monks who wore grey cassocks and were called “Grey Friars”.

In 1718, a dividing wall split the nave between the Old Greyfriars and New Greyfriars, so as to separate the Covenanters from the Roman Catholics worshipping inside the same church. In 1845, parts of the roof and the interior were destroyed by fire.

During restorations in the mid 19th century, beautiful stained-glass windows were added. It was the first time that such windows appeared in a Presbyterian church and it caused a bit of a scandal. A little later, an organ was added, causing yet another scandal. In 1929, the church was further renovated and, this time, the dividing wall was removed.

The adjoining graveyard is said to be haunted by the ghost of George Mackenzie, called the “Bloody” Lord Advocate for being responsible for the persecution of the Covenanters. According to legend, wherever his hand touches a living person, it leaves cuts and bruises.

Today the church hosts fashion shows, exhibitions, lectures and drama productions. The onsite museum showcases artefacts found in the area and recounts a comprehensive history of the Covenanters.

***Literary Landmarks & Harry Potter Tour ***
Hidden behind the Elephant House Café lies the historic Greyfriars Kirkyard which is now a place of interest for avid Harry Potter fans. Found here the grave of Thomas Riddell is said to have inspired JK Rowling to create the Tom Riddle (aka Lord Voldemort) character. Also, visible from here George Heriots School is said to be the template for fictional Hogwarts.

In addition to the gravestones of Robert Potter, Tom Riddell and William McGonagall found in the cemetary, there are others with potential links, such as Elizabeth Moodie (Mad-Eye Moody?) and Margaret Louisa Scrymgeour Wedderburn (Rufus Scrimgeour, the Minister of Magic in the final Harry Potter book?).

Starting August 2019, there is a Greyfriars Kirkyard map available to buy, locating all of the Harry Potter-themed gravestones. Proceeds from sales go to the upkeep of the grounds.
The Elephant House

10) The Elephant House

Established since 1995, The Elephant House in Edinburgh has been renowned as one of the top destinations for tea and coffee connoisseurs. At some point, the place also grew famous through its association with J.K. Rowling, author of the bestselling Harry Potter series, who used to frequent this place, as an emerging writer, and wrote her early novels while sitting in the back room overlooking Edinburgh Castle.

Other literary patrons of The Elephant House, over the years, have included Ian Rankin, author of the Rebus novels, and Alexander McCall-Smith, author of The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency, 44 Scotland Street and other novel series.

So, if you consider a writing career for yourself or seek inspiration, or simply want to savor a nice cup of tea or coffee prior to venturing out into historic Edinburgh, feel free to pop in and enjoy the place!
Victoria Street

11) Victoria Street

Perhaps one of the most photographed locations in Edinburgh, Victoria Street in the Old Town, gently curved and adorned with colourful shopfronts, is indeed a much loved spot for tourist photos, postcards and TV adverts.

Built between 1829 and 1834, this street is the brainchild of architect Thomas Hamilton, the one who masterminded Edinburgh’s network of neo-classical wonders. On this occasion, though, he deviated from his habitual neo-classical stamp, being ordered to create architecture mimicking the Old Flemish style. For this purpose, many of the medieval buildings were torn down, while the notable arches, lining the new terrace, were turned into shops.

Lately, Victoria Street and the West Bow have had a certain amount of notoriety attached to them as possible prototypes for Diagon Alley, the wizards' market, featured in the Harry Potter books.

As the home base of JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, Edinburgh is famed as a Potter pilgrimage destination. Packed with the higgledy piggledy medley of vibrant buildings, shops of all sizes and descriptions, noteworthy arches, cobblestones and general air of eccentricity, it’s no wonder that Victoria Street is seen as an inspiration for the ever-so fabulous Diagon Alley after all.

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