Edinburgh’s Old Town
Roam cobbled streets, gaze at the beautiful architecture, and uncover hidden alleyways. Visiting Edinburgh’s Old Town is like stepping back in time, as you retrace streets walked by thousands before you.
Where is the Old Town?
The Old Town is the epicentre of Edinburgh, where the city first began. It covers the length of the Royal Mile, the street which runs from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Park. From north to south, it stretches out to Market Street on the north side, and Lauriston Place and Holyrood Road on the south.
Why is the Old Town important?
As the name suggests, the Old Town is the original Edinburgh, which began hundreds of years ago! It has been built, destroyed, and rebuilt countless times over the years, so there are buildings dating from many different time periods. The oldest of them that still stands today is St Margaret’s Chapel, inside Edinburgh Castle, built in the 12th century.
Edinburgh was built according to the landscape – as you’ll no doubt discover, hills form the basis of everything here! The Old Town runs along a particular type of hill known as a ‘crag and tail’ formation. The crag is Castle Rock, the extinct volcano where Edinburgh Castle now stands. The tail was originally a glacial ridge, running downhill from the rocky crag. Today, this is the Royal Mile, the high street of the Old Town, which leads down to the Palace of Holyroodhouse at the far end.
The rest of the city grew out around the Mile, and for centuries, was surrounded by a city wall for protection. During the 16-17th centuries, everyone wanted to live inside the walls, where it was safest, so the city got more and more overcrowded. This resulted in the tall buildings, narrow streets known as ‘closes’, and the unusual, messy layout we see today! The overcrowding eased with the construction of the New Town, in the 18-19th centuries, and the two areas together became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, because of their architectural contrasts. (To read our guide about Edinburgh’s New Town click here)
What are the top things to do in the Old Town?
The Old Town has had many years to accumulate lots of famous sights! Plus, being the city centre, all of the most important historic events took place around this area. Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse, at either end of it, were both once homes for the Scottish monarchs, including most famously, Mary Queen of Scots.
Also along the length of the Royal Mile, you can find the Mercat Cross, where public announcements were made; Mary King’s Close, a hidden underground street; the John Knox House, home to Scotland’s most important religious figure; and the Scottish Parliament, where politicians meet to run the country today.
There are many beautiful churches – or ‘kirks’ in Scots – in the area too. Most notably St Giles’ Cathedral, stands majestically in the middle of the Royal Mile – and also acts as the meeting point for Orange Tours! Others include Canongate Kirk, Tron Kirk, The Hub, and Greyfriars Kirk, which is home to the story of Edinburgh’s most famous dog, Greyfriars Bobby. Each kirk has a unique design, and its own history to discover.
The Old Town has an excellent collection of museums, most of which are free. The biggest is the National Museum of Scotland, which is the second most visited museum in the UK (after the British Museum in London) and the most visited tourist attraction in Scotland; even more than Edinburgh Castle or Loch Ness! You can also check out the Museum of Edinburgh, the Writers’ Museum, the Museum of Childhood, and the People’s Story, covering a range of topics to interest all.
The University of Edinburgh also has several campuses around the Old Town, including Bristo and George Squares, Old College, and New College, a variety of interesting buildings. Opened in the 16th century, the university has brought great scholars to the city for centuries, and is still highly ranked globally today.
You can find some more unique attractions in the area too, which do require an entrance fee. Surgeons’ Hall Museums contains the world’s largest collection of pathology artefacts and tissue specimens; Dynamic Earth is an interactive journey through the earth’s natural history; Camera Obscura has a fun exhibit of optical illusions and excellent views of the city; and the Scotch Whisky Experience is the perfect place to learn about how Scotch is made and try a few drams for yourself.
What about shopping and eating in the Old Town?
Once you’ve exhausted yourself with history and culture, you’ll find plenty of options for relaxing in the Old Town as well. There are dozens of great restaurants to choose from, many of which are open for meals all day. You can find traditional Scottish places, along with a variety of international cuisines. We’d recommend browsing along George IV Bridge or the Royal Mile; or, join the Orange Food Tour and we can show the best in the area ourselves!
Despite the New Town being the most commercial area of Edinburgh, shopping can be a fun activity in the Old Town too, as you’ll find lots of small, independent retailers in the area. The Royal Mile is good for souvenirs, but try Cockburn Street and Victoria Street for some more unusual items!
And when night falls, head down to Grassmarket and Cowgate to experience the Old Town’s nightlife – let us show you our favourite venues on The Orange Pub Crawl! You will find a large collection of pubs to enjoy live music, and treat yourself with an incredible selection of local craft beers and whiskies. You will also find many nightclubs, often in unusual underground venues, built into the city’s landscape. And if you’re lucky, you might even get to learn some traditional Scottish dancing at a ceilidh!
The Old Town continues to be the heart of Edinburgh, and is one of the most popular areas for visitors to explore. With dozens of attractions to see in the area, you’ll be immersed in Scotland’s culture and history!
To really discover all the Old Town has to offer, join us for one of our free walking tours of the area. Learn about the stories, culture, and historic events on the Free Edinburgh Tour, or take a stroll around the darker, creepier side of town on the Free Ghost Tour!
Due to the natural landscape of the area, we advise you to wear comfortable shoes. The Old Town is full of sloping streets and steep staircases going up and down the hillside!
OUR EDINBURGH TOURS
Free Edinburgh tour
- Daily at 11am
- 2 hours
- In English or Spanish
A tour to help you to discover the history and culture of the city, but also provide you with the best insider tips for making the most of your time there.
Free ghost tour
- Daily at 6pm
- 1.5 Hours
- In English or Spanish
Discover tales of paranormal activity, bodysnatchers, witchcraft, cursed locations, and the many ghost that roam these streets during this adventure! Dare to join us?
Free Harry Potter Tour
- Daily at 1.30pm
- 1.5 Hours
- In English or Spanish
Come along to our Free Harry Potter Tour and let us show you the real places where J.K. Rowling got the inspiration to write her impressive series!
edinburgh castle tour
- 12:30pm Sat & Sun
- 1.5 Hours
- English or Spanish
This tour includes skip-the-line tickets & expert local guides, to show you this must-see attraction, with over 3000 years of history inside! Discover it all with us!
edinburgh food tour
- Daily at 12:30pm
- 3.5 Hours
Discover the secret delights of Scottish cuisine! Join us for The Orange Food Tour of Edinburgh, as we show you some of the best that Scotland’s larder has to offer!
edinburgh pub crawl
- Daily at 8pm
- 6 Bars & Clubs
- All are welcome (18+ Only)
Our Edinburgh Pub Crawl is the perfect activity to complete your experience! With us, you will discover Edinburgh’s exciting nightlife after dark.