Historical attractions in Edinburgh are plentiful yet the colourful history of our capital city can be seen, felt and read about on almost every street corner.
Don’t be fooled by the serenity, Edinburgh is a city with a vibrant and violent history. It was once home to brutal murderers, grave robbers and cannibals who have left the locals with more than a handful of tales that will make your blood run cold…find out all about it at the Edinburgh Dungeon!
‘Auld Reekie’ (or ‘Old Smoky’, Edinburgh’s nickname as a result of the notoriously poor air quality in the past) is also a city of writers, inventors and royalty.
World-renowned authors Sir Walter Scott and Sir Arthur Conan Dolye were both born in Edinburgh as was Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone.
For history buffs, the first stop in Edinburgh should always be Edinburgh Castle. The crown jewel of our town has always been and always will be the most important of all the historical attractions in Edinburgh.
Having played a role in the key passages of Scottish history, such as the Wars of Independence and the Jacobite uprising, a visit to Edinburgh Castle is essentially a tour through Scottish history itself.
Sloping downhill from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace, the Royal Mile or High Street is the backbone of Edinburgh’s Old Town and the most famous street in Scotland. It is also your point of descent into Edinburgh’s dark past on one of our famous ghost tours.
At the bottom of the Royal Mile you will find the futuristic tent-like structure which houses Our Dynamic Earth, an amazing interactive museum which will fill your boots with the history of our planet if Edinburgh’s colourful history isn’t enough for you!
A short walk from the Royal Mile down George IV Bridge will take you to the National Museum of Scotland where you can learn all about the history of Scotland and its people. Historical attractions in Edinburgh appear around every corner.
The mile-long High Street has played a central role in the history of Edinburgh since the 12th century. Once the scene of an open-air trading market, the Royal Mile became home to thousands of people when timber buildings were put up. The gaps between these buildings were and still are referred to as ‘closes’. On your visit to the Royal Mile, be sure to explore the dozens of alleyways which branch off the main street.
After the destruction of the medieval township in 1544 by the English, stone housing was erected and the Royal Mile gradually became more and more overcrowded. By the mid 17th century, around 70,000 people called the Royal Mile their home.
Modernisation of the street took place in the mid-19th century and began to take on the appearance of the Royal Mile we see today. As you walk down this street, try to imagine what life was like back then, the squalor, the dirt and disease. It would be difficult to find a more distinctive street anywhere in the world. Of all the historical attractions in Edinburgh, it is certainly the most atmospheric.
The Old Town of Edinburgh
Effectively, the section of the city centre to the south of Princes Street Gardens and Edinburgh Castle is the Old Town. This part of Edinburgh along with the New Town is a UNESCO world heritage site.
Being situated on the slopes of the volcanic Castle Rock, the Old Town is laid out on different levels meaning steep streets, tight alleyways and small bridges are the norm. In my opinion, this makes the Old Town an excellent location to explore and get lost!
In the past thirty years, underground vaults have been discovered which at one time were used for storage and as living quarters for relatively poor tradesmen. It is also rumoured that serial killers Burke and Hare scoured the vaults for potential victims and also stored corpses there!
Edinburgh’s famous ghost tours will give you access to some sections of the vaults and also to underground streets like Mary King’s Close, which were reportedly closed off during the 17th century to contain the spread of the bubonic plague. Historical attractions in Edinburgh don’t come scarier than that!
Nowadays, the Old Town where 80,000 people lived in the 18th century, is extremely popular among locals and tourists looking to learn about 10 centuries of history and spend time in some of the countless pubs, bars and clubs which line almost every street corner.
Areas of the Old Town like the Cowgate and the Grassmarket, which was a place of execution in times gone by, are now partying hotspots. It is a special feeling relaxing with your friends in traditional pubs and modern hangouts surrounded by hundreds of years of history.
The story of Greyfriars Bobby is one which has touched the hearts of so many people around the world.
Bobby was a Skye Terrier who belonged to a Mr John Gray, a night watchman for the Edinburgh City Police. After spending two years almost permanently by his owner’s side, Bobby was left to fend for himself when Gray sadly died of tubercolosis in the winter of 1858.
The little Terrier spent the last fourteen years of his life guarding John Gray’s grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard in the Old Town of Edinburgh. Greyfriars Bobby died in 1872 and was buried near the gate of Greyfriars Kirkyard only a few metres from his owner’s grave.
This fourteen year-long display of loyalty and devotion touched the local citizens and Lady Burdett-Coutts had a small statue of Bobby set up on the corner of George IV Bridge and Candlemaker Row a year after his death. This statue has become one of the most popular and significant historical attractions in Edinburgh.
This story has spawned a number of books and films and Bobby’s statue and grave have become popular with tourists and locals wishing to pay their respects to the loyal creature.
Such is the importance of Bobby’s heart-rendering story to the people of Edinburgh, it is as much a part of Edinburgh’s history as any other key figure or event.
The Edinburgh Dungeon
Well, the Edinburgh Dungeon isn’t for the faint-hearted! In fact, it is definitely the creepiest, scariest yet arguably the most-entertaining of all the historical attractions in Edinburgh.
The Dungeon is located in Market Street, next to Waverley Train Station, a stone’s-throw from Princes Street and will transport you back into Edinburgh and Scotland’s dark and downright dangerous past! Even though most countries have a sinister, suspect history, Scotland really does stand out from the rest when it comes to murder, incest, cannibalism, theft, disease and bloody war….have I put you off yet?!
For some reason, we Scots actually like to talk about our murky past as if it’s something to be proud of….as a result, we have the Edinburgh Dungeon…an attraction packed with shows, special effects, hair-raising rides and frights which give you an all-too-real insight into our violent past!
You’ll find out about age-old torture methods, callous criminals, the fate of Scottish patriot William Wallace and the brutal crimes of some of Edinburgh’s most notorious murderers such as Burke and Hare and Sawney Bean’s family…
If you still have your stomach in check after all that, give the infamous Extremis ride a go….I’ll let you find out about that one yourself! Opening times vary throughout the year but the opening hours of the Edinburgh Dungeon are generally longer during the summer months and at weekends.
Please be warned however! If I regularly come close to loose-bowel syndrome at the Edinburgh Dungeon, young children could also find this attraction disturbing. Please use your own discretion…oh, and don’t try any of what you see at home!
Our Dynamic Earth
If you’ve learned all there is to learn about Edinburgh’s history, why not get started on the history of planet Earth?! Our Dynamic Earth is an incredibly interesting ‘museum’ situated next to the Scottish Parliament and Holyrood Palace at the foot of the Royal Mile.
I put museum in quotation marks because Dynamic Earth is in actual fact so advanced in terms of its scope and set-up, it almost goes beyond the definition of museum into an interactive universe of knowledge for the 21st century.
Housed in a white, futuristic, armadillo-shaped tent (a blunt, yet accurate description!) Our Dynamic Earth will take visitors from the dawn of time, presenting the big bang theory, through the creation of Earth, the time of the dinosaurs up to the world we know (or think we know) today.
Expect to experience the numerous climates of our planet through interactive displays and impressive technology. Face up to the possibly drastic changes in our way of life as you learn about population growth and climate change. Our Dynamic Earth is an attraction that will fascinate, excite, shock and inspire both young and older visitors.
The Edinburgh Museum of Childhood
What makes this museum so unique is the fact it was the very first of its kind in the world in 1955. No other museum had specialised in the history of childhood before the Edinburgh Museum of Childhood opened its doors.
The museum not only looks at the way children were brought up and educated in Scotland but also displays toys and games from around the globe to give visitors an international perspective on childhood.
Amongst the museums numerous multimedia exhibits are the 1930s classroom and the 1950s street-games exhibit where visitors can observe how children were taught and how they entertained themselves in decades long since passed.
One of the most popular historical attractions in Edinburgh among young children, families and young-at-heart adults, the Museum of Childhood has countless children’s toys, games and objects from the past and present on display and many audio recordings of children singing and playing as you walk through the museum.
Admission is free so it’s a great way to keep children (and yourself!) entertained without putting your hand in your pocket. The Edinburgh Museum of Childhood is open from Monday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm. During the summer months of July and August, the museum is also open on Sundays from 12 noon till 5pm.