Edinburgh Old Town
Visit the medieval town that gives Edinburgh its unique character
Visiting the Old Town of Edinburgh is one of the most fascinating experiences Scotland's Capital City has to offer to its tourists. Walking down the narrow wynds and closes, visiting historic buildings and coming into contact with the occult are just some of the things to do in the Old Town.
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This medieval town is famous for its intimate pubs, restaurants and specialised shops but also for the bustling life during the Edinburgh Festival when the Old Town literally comes to life.
How Edinburgh's first skyscrapers came to be
Nearly 25.000 people used to live in this small area in the 1700s with people of all classes living together. The buildings on the Royal Mile were inhabited by rich and commoners alike until the development of the New Town began. The Old Town was then left with an ever growing population of poor and knew its worse time of decay and disease.
Many of the buildings on the Royal Mile are hundreds of years old and are Europe's original skyscrapers. The overcrowding in the limited space of the Old Town led to buildings being expanded upwards. That's how medieval Edinburgh got its first 6-7 storey high buildings. With them closely built together, it is said that people on the upper floors could reach out and shake hands.
The lower floors would be inhabited by merchants who had their own shops, at the very top floor you would find the poorest of Edinburgh and in between you would find the middle class, lawyers, doctors, etc.
Nowadays, the Old Town is a World Heritage Site thanks to its extraordinary historical and cultural character. Buildings have been refurbished and turned into tenements and the Old Town now has 8.000 residents. But the ghosts and stories of the past still haunt the narrow winding streets known as wynds and closes.
Exploring it in detail takes you at least a couple of days but no other part of Edinburgh has so many attractions and places of interest in such a limited space.
Highlights of Edinburgh Old Town
The Old Town includes most of the City Centre south of Princes Street: Edinburgh Castle and the buildings forming the city's skyline, both of which you can see from Princes Street Gardens. The Old Town stretches south via the Bridges -- South and North Bridge as well as George IV Bridge.
The Royal Mile -- a mile long street -- runs through the heart of the Old Town connecting two royal buildings - Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyrood, the Queen's residence in Edinburgh. Along with shops and pubs there are countless closes, each with its own name and story to tell. One of the Royal Mile's most famous closes is Mary King's Close.
St. Giles Cathedral, the High Kirk (Church) of Scotland, is located on the Royal Mile and is an impressive architectural achievement. Many famous Scottish figures are linked to St Giles but perhaps the most famous of all is that of John Knox.
The Old Town is also home to some of Edinburgh's most interesting kirkyards (graveyards). Greyfriars Kirkyard is a peaceful place, where people come to relax at lunchtime. Greyfriars is allegedly the home of a poltergeist -- Bloody MacKenzie -- and is also famous for the story of Burke and Hare, the bodysnachers, and that of Greyfriars Bobby.
Victoria Street is an interesting street in the Old Town thanks to the colourful shop facades and flowers. High above the street, Victoria Terrace not only has great views all around but there are also restaurants and open air terraces where you can get something to eat. Victoria Terrace is a popular location for BBC Scotland's interviews.
Edinburgh Old Town Fire
In December 2002 a fire broke out in an Old Town nightclub called La Belle Angelle. The Cowgate fire spread to several nearby buildings and there was a lot of damage to this historic part of the city. The Gilded Balloon theatre as well as some of the buildings worst damaged by the fire had to be demolished.
Old Town Tourist Tips
It is unlikely that you will get lost in the Old Town and a map might therefore not be necessary although there are several available. The streets in the Old Town of Edinburgh can be somewhat steep especially the Royal Mile, Candlemaker Row and Victoria Street.
There are small pubs and restaurants spread throughout the Old Town, while Princes Street Gardens and the Meadows are easy to reach if you wish to have a picnic. There are also seats in the Grassmarket and some on the Royal Mile.
» Back to Royal Mile guide index