Edinburgh’s Old Town has some of the oldest history and most popular tourist spots making it a must for any vusitor to the city. As someone who grew up in the City, I enjoy walking around the old town checking out the sights and finding some hidden gems most people never see! This walking tour can be done in about two hours or much longer if you want to stop and visit many of the attractions on the way.
This walking tour will include steep slopes and s lot of steps. Some comfortable sneakers or boots would be useful.
From the Waldorf to the Castle
Starting from the Waldorf, we’re going to walk up Lothian Road – with the castle visible on your left. You’ll see the Sheraton at Festival Square as you walk up, but we won’t get that far. Stay on the right side of the road (the hotel side) and we’ll cross over in a moment.
As we come to the first junction look left and you will see a small round tower with a castellation on it. Looks like a rook on the chess board.
That is the ‘Body Snatcher’ Tower. built in 1827 on the edge of St. Cuthbert’s Cemetery this was a watch tower guarding the cemetery from ‘Resurrectionists’ or body snatchers who made money by providing cadavers for the local medical schools to dissect. You can pop back to take a look in the cemetery and pop into the Parish Church next to Princes Street Gardens if you get time.
We’re taking the high road, left onto Castle Terrace, with the castle on your left. You’ll pass the NCP car park with not much to see, so carry on until you see the codebase building in front of you.
We’ll take a left and head up Johnson Terrace at the base of the castle. Look over to the right and you will see the beautiful architecture of George Herriott’s School and over towards the Pentland Hills. We’re not taking the steps straight up to the castle but instead keep walking to the junction of Castle Hill and the Royal Mile.
Turn left and head up the cobbled street towards the castle in front of you. I can already hear the bagpipes playing as walk up to the Witchery on your left, down Boswells’s Court.
Stop for a minute and look down the corridor towards the restaurant, maybe even see if they’ll let you in for a picture. The Witchery is a small hotel with two restaurants – the Secret Garden at the back of the building is the one you want to see. A beautiful old room with plenty of atmosphere and a secret garden. Book as soon as you can if you want any chance of table there for dinner. (The front restaurant is OK but nothing like the Secret Garden.)
OK, let’s go past the Scotch Whisky Experience and onto the esplanade. You can come on here for free and take in some great views of the city. If you wish to visit the castle, you can explore the various exhibitions, notably the Crown Jewels and the Stone of Destiny – legends of Scotland’s monarchy. Buy a ticket and head on in. As a regular, I’ll skip the castle and just take some time to enjoy the views.
The views aren’t so great around the Festival time in August as the huge stands for the Edinburgh Tattoo will dominate the space. I couldn’t get in (June 2023) because they were constructing the stands.
You can still get in to the castle if you book a castle ticket online.
Once we’re done with the castle we’ll head back down the Royal Mile.
The Camera Obscura is a fun attraction but we’ll leave that for a rainy day. (Ramsay Lane to the left takes you down to Ramsay Gardens which are some of the finest small homes in the city if you want a quick detour.)
Keep walking down the Royal Mile, over the roundabout we came up on, and past the Tartan shops until we get to the junction with George IV Bridge. Look for the Blue Dragons at the entrance to Wardrop’s Court as you go past just before Deacon Brodie’s Tavern on the left hand side of the road (we’ll need to cross over on that junction.) Take a right and wander down the bridge (stay on the right hand pavement) until we come up on Victoria Street in a a moment. This cobbled street is now one of Edinburgh’s most Instagrammed spots complete with charming coloured buildings and independent shops. We’re heading down the Grassmarket. Just watch it gets slippery in the rain!
We’re heading down the hill to the Grassmarket at the bottom. Thought to get its name from the cattle market that provided gras grazing for animals, it took on a darker history as the place where people were hanged (hung?) Now a cool studenty place, many of the pub names reference the gruesome history. ‘The Last Drop’ and ‘Maggie Dicksons’ in particular. A fisherwoman accused of murdering her child, she was hung but survived the noose. You can see a story about her on the pub wall. In front of Biddy Mulligan’s pub (a place I spent way too many evenings) you’ll see a small area to mark the hanging spot.
Feel free to poke around the shops or stop for a drink in the pub before we head on.
With Victoria Street behind us, and the pubs to the right we are walking briefly into the Cowgate before heading right up Candlemaker Row, named because it was where all the candles were made! At the top of the gentle hill you’ll see the pub name – Greyfriar’s Bobby. In front of the pub (just over a bit to the left) you will see the small statue of a dog. This is Greyfriar’s Bobby, a Skye Terrier who became known in 19th-century Edinburgh for supposedly spending 14 years guarding the grave of his owner John Gray until the dog itself died on 14 January 1872.
Harry Potter fans may want to pop into Greyfriars Kirkyard behind the pub to find the grave of Thomas Riddle. Check out this guide on how to find his grave location.
Back on the walking tour we’ll retrace our steps back to the Royal Mile, turning right (and staying on the right side of the road) we’ll head down to the glorious St. Giles Cathedral.
As we walk across the cobbles look down at the Heart of Midlothian. If it looks a little ‘tarnished’ don’t worry. Spitting on it is supposed to bring you good luck. This is one of my five ‘hidden’ Edinburgh gems that most tourists don’t notice.
Now, the Cathedral is a Gothic Presbyterian place of worship where John Knox once preached. Do take some time to pop in and look at the glorious interior. It is worth breaking here and taking a look inside.
We’re not going to walk all the way down to Holyrood Palace because it’s quite a walk. If you are interested in visiting then you can plan a separate trip and maybe take in the Scottish Parliament and the base of Arthur’s Seat whilst you are down there.
Back on the Royal Mile, we’ll walk past the three red telephone boxes, taking a left down Cockburn Street.
Like Victoria Street this is another Instagrammable street with a number of independent record shops (and a great Fopp! record store.) Sadly I caught it on bin day, so the photos don’t look so good!
We’ll cross the road and head up towards Waverley, the main railway station in Edinburgh. Walk up to the edge of Princes Street and turn left into Princes Street Gardens. Around 1460, James III ordered this area to be flooded to offer even greater protection to Edinburgh Castle. This ‘Nor Loch’ helped the castle defences but brought disease and plague to the Old Town of Edinburgh, In the 1800s, it was drained and transformed into this wonderful space for everyone to enjoy.
We’re going to walk back through the Gardens, walking parallel to Princes Street. The imposing ‘rocket shaped’ structure is the Scott Monument, erected to celebrate the Scottish author, Sir Walter Scott. If you have a head for heights, and don’t mind squeezing up many steps you can get to the top for more views of the city. Details and tickets can be found here.
Ahead of us in the Mound with two grand art galleries. This area is always a great spot for buskers, preachers and performers – especially during the Edinburgh Festival. There is also a cool bronze 3d map of the city which helps you understand the layout of old and new towns. It is undergoing some reconstruction at the moment so it doesn’t look as photogenic as it used to be! The Royal Scottish Academy (RSA). This elegant, neoclassical building has been a hub of Scottish art and architecture since 1826. Inside, you’ll discover a rotating series of exhibitions showcasing the best of contemporary art from Scotland and beyond.
Crossing back into the Gardens, we’re going to stop for a moment and admire the see the flower clock at the top of the steps., another hidden gem of Edinburgh! Originally planted in 1903 it was the first ever floral clock in the world ! On the hour you can see a little cuckoo pop out and make a sound. I used to love this as a child so it still brings bang warm memories when I stop to see it! Do note this is a summer thing – it doesn’t look so good in the winter months!
Just down from the clock we can see the charming gardeners cottage. There’s not much I can tell you about the cottage but it’s another hidden gem in the city and worth a few pics before moving in.
With the castle to our left we’re heading towards the beautiful Ross Fountain. Made in France, it was exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1862 before being purchased by a Scottish gunmaker Daniel Ross who gifted it to the city.
And we’re coming to the end of our Old Town walking tour. You can head leftish towards St. Cuthbert’s and the Body Snatchers watchtower, or you can head right and up onto Princes Street. Ahead of you is the Hotel, we are back!
I was blessed with wonderful weather on this Old Town Walk, I hope you are too!