Around Edinburgh's Old Town

Discover Edinburgh's ancient medieval heart – not far from the Royal Mile




4 miles (6.4kms)

197ft (60m)
1hr 30min

About the walk

Edinburgh is often thought of as an extremely respectable, rather genteel city. But as you'll find out in this walk through the city's ancient heart – the medieval Old Town – it has a darker, more mysterious side to its nature.

The Old Town, the original city, was enclosed by city walls, which protected it from the ravages of conflict – but also stopped it from expanding. This meant that as the population grew, the city became increasingly overcrowded, and was at one time the most densely populated city in Europe. The only solution was to build upwards. People lived in towering tenements known as 'lands', with the wealthy taking the rooms at the bottom, the poorer classes living at the top. Its main street, the Royal Mile, became a complicated maze of narrow 'wynds' or alleyways, which gradually deteriorated into a slum. Cleanliness wasn't a priority and residents habitually threw their rubbish into the street – as well as the contents of their chamber pots. When Dr Johnson stayed in the city with James Boswell, he wrote that they had been 'assailed by the evening effluvia' while walking home from a tavern one night.

However, in the progressive 18th century new public buildings were constructed along the steep slopes of the Royal Mile, using the walls of the old slums as foundations. As the city council chambers were extended over the next century, stories were told of cobbled lanes and long-abandoned rooms that still existed deep below in vaulted basements. It wasn't until late in the 20th century that one of these old lanes was opened to the public. Called Mary King's Close, it is full of atmosphere and, as you might expect, is said to be haunted.

Murder in the dark

There are more dark secrets in the Grassmarket, where the body-snatchers Burke and Hare used to lure their victims before murdering them. They sold the bodies to a local surgeon who used them in his research. Then there was Deacon Brodie, the seemingly respectable town councillor who had a secret nocturnal life as a criminal and gambler – and was eventually hanged. He was the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll, who turned into the vicious, amoral Mr Hyde under the influence of his self-created potion.

With such a history, it is hardly surprising that crime writer Ian Rankin sets his Inspector Rebus novels in Edinburgh. He often uses gory historical events in his tales, and has plenty to choose from – even an act of cannibalism (Set in Darkness, 2000). As Rankin says of Edinburgh, 'It's a very secretive place.'

Walk directions

From the main entrance to Waverley Station, turn left, go to the end of the street, then cross over and walk up Cockburn Street to the Royal Mile, where you turn left and walk downhill. Continue to the black gates of Holyroodhouse. Turn right and walk along to face the modern Parliament visitor centre.

Turn left and follow the road to the right, then turn right again past the Dynamic Earth science attraction (the building looks like a huge white woodlouse) and walk up into Holyrood Road. Turn left, walk past the new buildings of  The Scotsman newspaper and walk up to St Mary's Street, where you turn right and rejoin the Royal Mile. 

Turn left, to the main road, then turn left along South Bridge. At Chambers Street turn right and walk past the Royal and National museums. At the end of the road, cross and then turn left to see the little statue of Greyfriars Bobby, the dog that refused to leave this spot after his master died.

You can now cross the road and make the short detour into Greyfriars Kirk to see where Greyfriars Bobby is buried close to his master. Or simply turn right and walk down Candlemaker Row. At the bottom, turn left and wander into the Grassmarket – once the haunt of Burke and Hare, it's now filled with shops and lively restaurants.

When you've explored the Grassmarket, walk up winding Victoria Street (it says West Bow at the bottom). About two-thirds of the way up, look out for a flight of steps hidden away on the left. Climb them and when you emerge at the top, walk ahead to join the Royal Mile again.

Turn left to walk up and visit the castle. Then walk down the Royal Mile again, taking a peek into the dark and secretive wynds (alleyways) that lead off it. You eventually pass St Giles' Cathedral on your right, which is well worth a visit.

Next on your left you pass the City Chambers, under which lies mysterious Mary King's Close. Continue until you reach the junction with Cockburn Street. Turn left and walk back down this winding street. At the bottom, cross the road and return to the entrance to Waverley Station.

Additional information

City streets, some hill tracks

Atmospheric ancient city and brooding castle

Keep on lead; crowded pavements make this a poor experience for dogs

AA Walker's Map 27 Edinburgh

Several NCP car parks in Edinburgh

At Waverley Station

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About the area

Discover Edinburgh

Edinburgh is one of Britain’s most spectacular cities and both Old and New Towns have UNESCO World Heritage status. At its heart, the Old Town is a treasury of architecture stretching back to medieval times with its labyrinth of narrow lanes (‘wynds’ or ‘closes’). While the New Town's splendid district of squares, crescents and gardens are surrounded by impressive Georgian town houses.

It isn’t just a magnificent, bustling city, it’s surrounded by countryside – offering visitors the best of both worlds. Dominated by hills and the sea, with the rolling Pentland Hills to the south and the broad expanse of the Firth of Forth estuary to the north, it benefits from a rugged and varied landscape. So much so, the city has its own miniature mountain, Arthur’s Seat, which looms over the Old Town and the Palace of Holyroodhouse, dwarfing even Castle Rock and its crowning fortress, Edinburgh Castle.

A couple of miles east, Portobello is Edinburgh’s seaside area, with a long stretch of golden sand that attracts droves of city dwellers on sunny summer days. 


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