Old Town Walking Tour (Self Guided), Edinburgh

With a lot of famous museums, art galleries, theaters, old churches, countless historic landmarks, shopping avenues and amazing architectural and recreational attractions all over the city, Edinburgh can seem quite daunting when it comes to sightseeing. The Old Town of Edinburgh, the oldest part of Scotland's capital, has preserved much of its medieval street plan and many Reformation-era buildings. The area is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site. This self-guided tour will take you to the top attractions The Old Town has to offer.
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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: 14
Tour Duration: 2 hour(s)
Travel Distance: 3.5 Km or 2.2 Miles
Author: Helen
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Usher Hall
  • Traverse Theatre
  • Edinburgh Farmers' Market
  • St. Margaret's Chapel
  • Edinburgh Castle
  • Camera Obscura and World of Illusions
  • Grassmarket
  • Parliament House
  • Magdalen Chapel
  • Augustine United Church
  • Greyfriars Bobby's Statue
  • Greyfriars Church
  • McEwan Hall
  • Telfer Wall
1
Usher Hall

1) Usher Hall

Just before he died in 1896 Andrew Usher, a prominent brewery owner, donated £100.000 to the city so that a concert hall, named the Usher Hall in his memory, could be built.

The hall is a mixture of Victorian Gothic and Beaux Arts style and was built by Stockdale Harrison and Howard Thompson. It was opened by Andrew’s widow in 1914 and King George V and Queen Mary laid memorial stones on each side of the entrance on Cambridge Street.

The building was renowned for its innovative curved walls and domed roof. Two figures by Harry Gamley represent Inspiration and Achievement. The three other figures on the exterior of the hall are by Crossland MacClure and symbolise “Music of the Woods”, “Music of the Sea” and the “Soul of Music”.

Inside, the plaster panels are also by Harry Gamley and they depict literary and musical personages: Robert Louis Stevenson, Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott among the literati and Bach, Brahms, Grieg, Handel and Mozart among the musicians.

When it opened, the hall was the favourite venue for classical concerts, with its wonderful acoustics. Today you can still enjoy classical music here, as well as rock, pop, Jazz and Blues concerts. The Freedom of the City ceremonies are held in the hall, which is also used for school concerts and conferences.
2
Traverse Theatre

2) Traverse Theatre

This theater has a great reputation for the highest quality productions, staging many major new plays and encouraging the work of young writers. The theater was built in 1963, specializing in the development of puppetry and animation, where visitors can relax in the café while watching the show.
3
Edinburgh Farmers' Market

3) Edinburgh Farmers' Market

What to buy here: Cairn O'Mohr Wine.

Cairn O'Mohr outstanding Scottish fruit wines constitute a great gift for those who enjoy a glass of good wine. Made from berries, flowers and leaves that grow in the region, this award winning drink brings out distinctive flavors and an aromatic juicy taste.

Only the freshest ingredients are used to produce these wines, such as: strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries, oak leaves and brambles. Nothing sumptuous, just the best ingredients they grow, fermented in the traditional way.

This Scottish alcoholic drink attracts curious and discerning wine lovers from all corners of the globe and constitutes a great accompaniment for dinner. Price: $7–$20.

Operation hours: Saturday: 9:00 am - 2:00 pm
4
St. Margaret's Chapel

4) St. Margaret's Chapel (must see)

Edinburgh Castle is on the “must” list of every visitor to Scotland’s capital city and St Margaret’s Chapel is perhaps the highlight of the tour due to being the oldest building still standing in the entire complex.

St Margaret was a princess of the House of Wessex. Her family moved to Scotland after the Norman invasion of England. She married King Malcolm III of Scotland and was renowned for her piety and charitable works. According to legend, she prayed every day in the chapel that bears her name, but actually, it was built in her honour by her son, King David I at the beginning of the 12th century.

The chapel was built in the Romanesque style, a 3 metre wide, rectangular building with a 4 metre long nave, a sanctuary 3 metres long and walls 61 centimetres thick. Between the nave and the sanctuary is a beautiful round arch with chevron mouldings.

In 1314 the castle was captured by the Earl of Moray after a long siege. As was the custom, once the earl gained the castle, he destroyed all the buildings in it, but for some reason he spared the chapel. In 1329, Robert the Bruce left a small sum of money for the chapel’s up-keep.

Between the 16th and the mid 19th centuries, the chapel fell into disrepair and was used as a gun powder storeroom. In 1853 it was restored under the patronage of Queen Victoria. The stained-glass windows representing St Margaret, St Ninian, St Columba, St Andrew and William Wallace were installed in 1929. After further restorations, the chapel was re-consecrated in 1934.

Tip:
Try to visit when it's not too crowded as it can get claustrophobic in there.

Opening Hours:
Mon-Fri: 10am-6pm
5
Edinburgh Castle

5) Edinburgh Castle (must see)

Edinburgh Castle has overlooked the city since the 12th century and is the second most visited building, after the Tower of London, in the United Kingdom. The very history of Scotland is deeply etched into its ancient stones.

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

As a fortress it was virtually impregnable, but it had one drawback: the basalt rock on which it stands doesn’t capture or hold water, so a 28-meter well was sunk, but in droughts or during long sieges, it dried out, and its denizens were then faced with either surrender or dying of thirst.

It was largely destroyed during the Lang Siege in 1573 and the only building from the 12th century still standing is St Margaret’s Chapel. In the 17th century, it became a military base and the garrison remained there until the 1920s. The few remaining members hold administrative or ceremonial posts.

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

In the Crown Room, you will see the Royal Scottish Crown, Scepter and Sword of State and actors in period costume re-enact 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 many women were burned at the stake for witchcraft.

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

Tip:
The entry is cheaper if you book online, and more importantly, you avoid the oftentimes long line.
Take free guided tour – they go every hour at least. Otherwise, the audio guide is £3 and is quite useful.
It could get windy, being at the top of the mountain, so definitely bring layers if visiting in cold weather.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 9:30am-5pm
6
Camera Obscura and World of Illusions

6) Camera Obscura and World of Illusions

Located just below Edinburgh Castle is a Camera Obscura and Outlook Tower. The Camera Obscura gives an amazing live moving panorama of the city of Edinburgh. The Camera Obscura show is a fascinating and highly amusing way to see the city and learn about its history.
7
Grassmarket

7) Grassmarket (must see)

One of the best places for shopping or relaxing over a pint or a meal in Edinburgh is undoubtedly the Grassmarket.

It is a historic market nestled in a small valley so that it is lower than the surrounding street levels. Between 1477 and 1911 it was the most important horse and cattle market in the city, and because it drew large crowds, it was also the place where public executions were held.

According to legend a woman was hanged here and lived to talk about it afterwards! Maggie Dickson was a fishwife accused of murdering her child and she was sentenced to be hanged for her crime. In those days “until you are dead” didn’t figure in the sentence proceedings.

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

The market was a poor area until the 1980s when it began to become popular with students – perhaps because of its numerous pubs and clubs. The area was renovated with many of the pubs setting up outside terraces and installing dining rooms. A lot of shops moved into the market and it is a great place to find good clothes and souvenirs at bargain prices.

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

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.

Tip:
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 Str. which is also well worth a visit, together with Royal Mile (further up) which has lots of cool independent shops and restaurants/cafés.
8
Parliament House

8) Parliament House

You really must visit the Parliament House which you will find just off the Royal Mile in Edinburgh’s Old Town.

The building was the gathering place for the Pre-Union Scottish Parliament and was built on the orders of King Charles I in 1639. It was used by the Governors of Scotland and also as court rooms and judge’s chambers. Today it houses the Supreme Courts of Scotland.

Parliament Hall is the main hall and the oldest part of the building. It has a magnificent hammer beam ceiling of Scandinavian oak, softly lit by small chandeliers. Part of the Great South Wall is taken up by a huge stained-glass window that throws multi-coloured patterns onto the tile floor.

This central hall is full of paintings and sculptures and you will find statues of Duncan Forbes of Culloden, President of the Court of Session in 1737; Henry Dundus, Viscount Melville, 1st the first Secretary of State for War in 1794; Henry Cockburn the Solicitor General for Scotland in 1830, and Sir Walter Scott the Scottish novelist, famous for Ivanhoe.

While Parliament Hall is open to the public, the court-rooms are not open for casual tours, although you can visit them if you sit in the public gallery during one of the trials in progress.
9
Magdalen Chapel

9) Magdalen Chapel

Magdalen Chapel is located on Cowgate Street and was built in 1541. Visitors are welcome to discover the 16th century stained glass windows and the tomb of its founders. Not far from the chapel is a bookshop that offers interesting literature and postcards about it.
10
Augustine United Church

10) Augustine United Church

Located on the George IV Bridge, the Augustine United Church was inaugurated in 1861 and for 150 years it has opened its doors to everyone in search of spiritual succour. Visitors are welcome and are invited to leave a small donation if they wish.

Augustine’s is a member of the United Reform Church and today is called Augustine’s Church Centre, as it hosts charities and other Christian projects including Christian Aid. During the week, apart from the usual Christian services and prayer meetings it is used for community and political meetings and musical groups.

One of the most important roles Augustine’s Church Centre plays is in its membership of the Edinburgh Inter-Faith Association. In these troubled days of xenophobia and fear of terrorism, the church invites people from every religious confession, including obscure beliefs and pagans, to monthly meetings where everyone can discuss their religion and their hopes for a future religious harmony. Another group, for women, meet to watch a film and to talk about their place in society and in the diverse religions they follow.

The church also gives help to the poor, the homeless and addicts visit the sick and take part in community projects. A soup kitchen is run by volunteers during the week and they run skills classes which include gardening, weaving and woodwork activities.
11
Greyfriars Bobby's Statue

11) 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 and you will find the Greyfriars Bobby's Statue 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 the 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.

Tip:
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!
12
Greyfriars Church

12) Greyfriars Church

It is easy to find ancient buildings in Edinburgh as the whole city is divided into two quarters: Old Town and New Town. You will find Greyfriar’s Church in the former.

The construction of the church started in 1602 and it was consecrated in 1630, making it one of the oldest buildings in the Old Town district, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was built on the site of an abandoned Franciscan monastery and took its name from the monks who wore grey cassocks and were called the “Grey Friars”.

In 1718 a dividing wall separated the nave for the worshippers of Old Greyfriars and New Greyfriars so that the Covenanters were separated from the Roman Catholics, while worshipping in the same church. In 1845 part of the church’s roof and interior was destroyed by fire.

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

The adjoining graveyard is supposed to be haunted by the ghost of George Mackenzie, called the “Bloody” Lord Advocate as he was responsible for the persecution of the Covenanters. According to legend, you will have cuts and bruises wherever his hand has touched you.

Today the church hosts fashion shows, exhibitions, lectures and drama productions. The church museum is full of artefacts found in the area and you will find a comprehensive history of the Covenanters there.
13
McEwan Hall

13) 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 eighteen nineties the University of Edinburgh asked the City Council for funds to build a graduation hall, but they were 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”.
14
Telfer Wall

14) 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, but it protected the denizens of the area around the High Street. After the Battle of Flodden, the people realised that only part of their town was protected and in 1513 they built the Flodden Wall.

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

Unfortunately, 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. The remains of the humans disintegrated when attempts were made to remove them from the “coffins”, but the deer’s skull can be seen in the Royal Scottish Museum.

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