Nicknamed ‘Auld Reekie’, Scotland’s capital Edinburgh is both ancient and scenic. The winding, characterful cobbled streets of the Old Town give way to stunning Georgian architecture of the New Town, and both are full of historic gems that reflect the city’s multi-faceted and varied past. Together, the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh have been awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
Nestled amongst the bustling city are hidden gems such as Mary King’s Close, which offers an insight into the lives of some of Edinburgh’s poorest residents until the 18th century. In contrast, regal gems such as Edinburgh Castle and Holyroodhouse Palace stand as prominent landmarks that have hosted some of the most famous figures in Scottish history, and are now popular tourist spots.
Here’s our selection of 10 of the best historic sites that Edinburgh has to offer.
1. Holyroodhouse Palace
Holyroodhouse Palace in Scotland has a fascinating history stretching back to the 12th century, and is now the official Scottish residence of the Queen. Perhaps the most famous chapter of Holyroodhouse Palace’s tale is linked to Mary, Queen of Scots however. Not only was the palace Mary’s main home between 1561 and 1567, it was where she married two of her husbands – Lord Darnley and the Earl of Bothwell. It was also at Holyroodhouse Palace that she witnessed the brutal murder of her private secretary David Rizzio, when a group of nobles led by Darnley burst into her apartments and stabbed him multiple times.
In the 20th century George V modernised Holyroodhouse, before in the 1920s it was formally designated as the royal family’s official residence in Scotland. Today, Holyroodhouse Palace is open to visitors to explore its eminent halls, with most of what remains dating from the 17th century. The State Apartments may be viewed that contain a host of stunning furniture, portraiture, and other artwork, including a collection of Renaissance frescos bought by Prince Albert and a number of French tapestries bought by Charles II.
2. Mary King's Close
Reopened to the public in 2003, Mary King’s Close is an historic close located under buildings on the Royal Mile, in the historic Old Town area of Edinburgh. Named after Mary King, a merchant burgess who lived on the Close in the 17th century, the close was once the bustling home of Edinburgh’s working class residents, who lived and worked in poverty there. Partially demolished and buried due to the building of the Royal Exchange in the 18th century, the area was later excavated and reopened.
In the years since it closed, Mary King’s Close became shrouded in myth and legend, with tales of hauntings and ghostly happenings abounding. Today, Mary King’s Close is open for tours.
3. Dalmeny House
Located to the north west of Edinburgh, Dalmeny House is a Gothic revival mansion designed by William Wilkins and completed in 1817. Home to the Earl and Countess of Rosebery, Dalmeny House was the first in Scotland to be built in the Tudor Revival style, and is a category A listed building, while the grounds are included in the Inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes in Scotland.
Today, the house remains private, but in the summer months is opened to the public. Amongst a collection of stunning paintings, the house is also home to the world’s largest collection of Napoleonic memorabilia.
4. Edinburgh Castle
A royal residence, vital stronghold and iconic structure, Edinburgh Castle is one of the most famous castles in the world. Known by its English name since the invasion of the Angles in 638AD, the first mentions of Edinburgh Castle occurred in 600 when it was called “Din Eidyn” or “the fortress of Eidyn”. However, even before the Angles Edinburgh Castle’s location had served as a vital stronghold for centuries. Archaeologists have found evidence of human settlement on the rock on which the castle sits as early as 900 BC, during the late Bronze Age. Over the following centuries, Edinburgh Castle continued to play a role as a crucial defensive structure as well as becoming an integral part of Scotland’s history.
Today, visitors to Edinburgh Castle can explore the castle’s history through a series of guided tours and exhibitions. Amongst its many attractions are the Scottish National War Memorial and National War Museum, that give an insight into Scotland’s fascinating military history.
5. Greyfriars Kirk and Kirkyard
Greyfriars Kirk traces its history to the south-west parish of Edinburgh, which was founded in 1598. In the wake of the Scottish Reformation, the grounds of the abandoned friary were repurposed as a cemetery, upon which the current church was built between 1602 and 1620. Greyfriars Kirk is equally, if not more famous for its Kirkyard, which has been dubbed ‘the most haunted cemetery in the world’. In the 1670s, Lord Advocate to Charles II, George ‘Bloody’ Washington, imprisoned 1200 Covenanters on an adjoining field for 4 months, treating them so inhumanely some view it as the first-ever concentration camp.
Bloody Mackenzie was himself buried in Greyfriars’ ‘Black Mausoleum’ which was broken into by a homeless man in 1999. Since then, visitors complain of unexplained physical attacks, some leaving with bruises, scratches, bite marks and even burns. Bloody Mackenzie and his Covenanter enemies have seemingly united in the spirit world to torment the living. The Kirk is also known for having inspired some of the names of characters from Harry Potter – look out for Thomas Riddle’s grave.
6. St Giles’ Cathedral
St Giles’ Cathedral is located on the famous Royal Mile, in the heart of the Old Town of Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh. St Giles’ foundation is normally dated to 1124 and attributed to David I, King of Scotland. It is dedicated to Saint Giles, who was a hermit active in the Rhone in the 6th century. The first church on the site was a small, Romanesque building, of which only a few fragments remain. In the 14th century it was replaced by the current building, which was enlarged between the 14th and early 16th centuries.
Today, St Giles’ Cathedral is a popular tourist attraction that holds regular religious services as well as a plethora of cultural events such as organ recitals. Volunteer guides are available to answer questions, and can conduct guided tours upon request.
7. Scott Monument
Located in Princes Street Gardens in the heart of Edinburgh, the Victorian Gothic style Scott Monument was built from 1838 to commemorate the author Sir Walter Scott. From 1832, a competition was held for its design and was entered under a pseudonym by 45-year-old joiner, draftsman and self-taught architect George Meikle Kemp. It is the second-largest monument to a writer anywhere in the world.
Standing at 200ft tall, the Scott Monument features a series of viewing platforms the whole way up which offer stunning views over Prince’s Street Gardens and towards Edinburgh Castle. The viewing platforms also allow the viewer to appreciate the 64 sculptures adorning the monument, which depict 64 figures of characters from Scott’s novels. The very top is reached by 287 steps.
8. Rosslyn Chapel
Rosslyn Chapel near Edinburgh in Scotland is the beautiful 15th century creation of the third Prince of Orkney, William St Clair. Begun in 1446 and with its foundations completed in 1450, Rosslyn Chapel was actually named the “Collegiate Chapel of St Matthew”. Whilst Rosslyn Chapel may seem like a finished church, it is actually thought to be incomplete, with William intending it to be a cross-shaped church rather than a rectangular one.
Part of what makes Rosslyn Chapel such a masterpiece is its collection of stone carvings which cover virtually every inch of its walls. From depictions of what has been interpreted by some as Indian corn to more local rural images and, of course, many of prominent religious figures – there is something to see in every nook and cranny of Rosslyn Chapel. However, it is the carvings linked to the Knights Templar which have gained the most attention for Rosslyn Chapel, particularly following the release of the 2003 novel “The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown, in which the church played an important role. Infused with mystery and legend, these carvings draw tourists, artists and even royalty to Rosslyn Chapel. Guided tours are available to explain their meanings.
9. Hopetoun House
Owned by the Hopetoun House Preservation Trust, Hopetoun House is a country house near Queensferry and Category A listed building. The house was built between 1699 and 1701, but was hugely extended in 1721. The famous and magnificent entrance hall dates from 1752. The south wing of the house is lived in by Adrian Hope, 4th Marquess of Linlithgow. Indeed, the same family have lived there for 300 years. The house interior, complete with opulent gilding and classical motifs, reflects early 18th century aristocratic grandeur.
The magnificent building is recognisable as a filming location of the television series Outlander. Also on the estate is Midhope Castle, which was used as Lallybroch, the Fraser family home. The castle exterior is in good condition, though the interior is derelict. Today, the house is open to the public.
10. House of the Binns
The House of the Binns, or simply the Binns, is a historic house in West Lothian and the seat of the Dalyell family. Written records of a house on the site begin in 1335. There was certainly a manor house there by 1478. The house today is principally reflected in its extensions of the mid 18th and early 19th centuries, and the house is generally regarded as being in the Scottish baronial style with elements of Gothic.
The estate spreads over 200 acres of parkland with views to the north, across the River Forth to the Highlands, and south over the Pentland Hills. The house is home to a collection of furniture, porcelain and portraits which trace the family’s lives and interests. The house is open daily, and particular highlights are plaster ceilings which date from 1630.