Author: Craig Neil
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Last updated on March 7th, 2023.20 minutes to read.
Edinburgh is one of the world’s top-rated tourist destinations and each year over 4 million people flood into the city to explore places like Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace and St. Giles Cathedral.
There’s much more to these beautiful buildings than first meets the eye, and many of the city’s buildings have fascinating histories.
Discover the stories behind the top historic attractions in Edinburgh with this article which delves into the beginnings of the city as Scotland’s capital and its transformation into a world-leading tourist hotspot.
Historic attractions in Edinburgh
Edinburgh is frequently voted among the world’s top ten tourist destinations, and if you ever get the chance to visit it you’ll quickly understand why so many travel writers like to wax lyrical about this atmospheric city nestled on the southeast corner of Scotland.
From the dramatic peaks of Holyrood Park (a long-extinct volcanic plug) to the impressive Edinburgh Castle, the city offers a dazzling collection of tourist attractions, many of which are hundreds of years old.
There are two parts to the city – the Old Town and the New Town – and while the New Town is worth visiting for its shopping, bars and restaurants, it’s the Old Town that’s the main draw for tourists.
This part of Edinburgh oozes history from every nook and cranny, with The Royal Mile (the medieval street that connects the palace to the castle) housing the majority of Edinburgh’s most historic buildings.
But why is there so much history in this small part of the city? The answer lies in Edinburgh’s geology which sees two ancient volcanic plugs rise above the landscape which are surrounded on one side by the peaks of the Pentland Hills and the other by the waters of the Firth of Forth.
While the pinnacle of Holyrood Park offered ancient Scottish tribes some protection it was the mighty Castle Rock that proved to be the ultimate defensive position, which is why one of the most powerful tribes in Scotland – the Gododdin – built a fort on the rock over 1,300 years ago.
By the 12th century the beginnings of Edinburgh Castle as we know it was under construction and shortly afterwards David I, the first king of Scotland, established Edinburgh as a royal borough.
From then on the city grew around the castle, with the royal palace being constructed one mile away and the cathedral positioned between them.
There’s over a thousand years of history in Edinburgh’s Old Town and even today it remains one of the best-preserved medieval city districts in the world, with most of the antiquated buildings open to the public as tourist attractions – some of which are detailed below.
If you feel inspired to visit Edinburgh you’ll no doubt spend many hours exploring these beautiful historic attractions, so if you’d like to pre-book your tickets and skip the famously long queues you’ll find bargain-priced tickets at the Tiqets website.
Discover things to do in Edinburgh on the Edinburgh Attractions page.
Map of historic attractions in Edinburgh
1: Edinburgh Castle
2: Holyrood Palace
3: Camera Obscura
4: National Gallery of Modern Art
5: Scottish National Portrait Gallery
6: Scottish National Gallery
7: Scottish Parliament Building
8: John Knox House
9: Gladstone’s Land
10: St. Giles Cathedral
11: The Georgian House
Top historic attractions in Edinburgh
Edinburgh wouldn’t be the city it is today without the enormous castle that dominates the surrounding streets from the top of Castle Rock.
Not only is it one of the oldest places in Edinburgh it’s also the most-visited tourist attraction in Scotland and ranks with Stonehenge and York Minster as one of the top-rated historic attractions in Britain.
As mentioned earlier, there has been a fortified dwelling on top of Castle Rock for well over a thousand years and most likely even longer, though it’s the fort created by the Gododdin around the 7th century that is considered the beginnings of Edinburgh Castle.
This fort was called ‘Etin’ by the Gododdin which later changed to ‘Edin’, and when English forces captured the fort in the 700s the name was changed again to the ‘Borough of Edin’, also known as ‘Edin’s borough’.
It was actually English nobles from Northumbria who first decided to use the fort on Castle Rock as a permanent home, no doubt thankful for the protection of the immense slab-sided rock.
By the 10th century the fort had become strengthened with fortified walls and was described as one of the best defensive positions in the country, so by the time the first Scottish King David I was ordained, Edinburgh Castle was an obvious choice for the Scottish seat of power.
For the next 500 years the castle was extended with various military buildings and royal accommodation, but when Holyrood Palace was built in the 1600s the castle was fully converted into a military garrison, although it changed hands between English and Scottish rule several times.
In fact, there was so much upheaval in Scotland at the time that Edinburgh Castle became one of the most besieged castles in the world, succumbing to 26 sieges in total.
That’s why when you visit it today you’ll see the huge defensive turrets and cannon batteries on almost every side with one of the biggest cannon’s in Britain – Mons Meg – glowering over the castle’s western side.
The six-tonne Mons Meg was built in the 15th century and in its prime it was capable of firing 150 kg cannonballs over two miles, but sadly it was made inoperable after a misfire in 1680.
In later years Edinburgh Castle changed its role to a military prison with the enormous vaults used to house prisoners from several wars including the American Wars of Independence and the Napoleonic Wars, but following a mass escape of prisoners in 1811 it was decided to retire the castle as a prison and instead use it as a national monument.
Today, the castle is proud to house the National War Memorial and the Honours of Scotland, and large sections of it are managed by Historic Environment Scotland who allow the public to visit it on guided and self-guided tours.
After you’ve visited Edinburgh Castle you’ll no doubt want to explore the medieval street that runs through the centre of the Old Town, especially as there are so many historic attractions on it.
From Mary King’s Close and St. Giles Cathedral to John Knox House, The Royal Mile has a huge amount of striking architecture, but the highlight of them all is located right at the very bottom of the High Street opposite the Scottish Parliament building.
Holyrood Palace (also known as the Palace of Holyroodhouse) is a relative youngster when compared to Edinburgh Castle but one part of it – Holyrood Abbey – is one of the oldest buildings in the city.
The abbey was founded in the early 1100s for Augustinian monks, and being so close to the castle it soon rose in importance as an administrative centre for the Scottish kingdom.
Some of the first Scottish parliaments were held in the abbey by Robert the Bruce and several Scottish kings were buried there in later years, while adjacent buildings were built as an official royal residence.
However, it was James IV who decide to build the first fortress that would later become the royal palace we recognize today.
The original palace was built around a quadrangle with a chapel, a gallery, royal apartments and a great hall.
These areas can still be seen today during tours of Holyrood Palace but the majority of the buildings were constructed in the 17th century including new royal accommodation on the east and west sides, a large gallery and a council chamber.
In the late 1600s, a Catholic chapel and college were built in the palace but they were destroyed by anti-catholic mobs a few years later.
Then in 1707 England and Scotland were joined together as one union and the royal family moved to London, which in turn meant Holyrood Palace lost much of its purpose.
No British monarch used Holyrood Palace as their main residence after the Acts of Union although the royal apartments continued to be used during visits to Scotland, and even today they are used by The Queen for one week annually.
The rest of the year the palace is open to the public for viewing courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust which also manages the excellent on-site shop and café.
The Camera Obscura
In the early 18th century an Edinburgh telescope maker called Thomas Short built a display for his work on Calton Hill, with his largest telescope eventually passing to his daughter Maria Theresa Short in 1827.
Maria continued exhibiting her father’s instruments on Calton Hill for many years, but in 1851 she was forced to relocate the collection after the city authorities demolished her observatory.
She then moved the exhibits to their present location on Castlehill where they were a popular visitor attraction until her death in 1869.
The site then passed into the ownership of Patrick Geddes, a Scottish urban planner and entrepreneur who saw the potential of the ‘Camera Obscura’ as the centrepiece to an exhibit demonstrating the science of urban planning.
The site was renamed the Outlook Tower and was rebuilt with each floor showcasing a different theme related to the science of town planning.
At the very top was the attraction’s premier exhibit – the camera obscura – which still exists today in the same location as it did over a hundred years ago.
The camera wowed crowds through its use of light and mirrors which projected an image of the city onto a whiteboard – at least on those rare days in Edinburgh that were bright and sunny.
Even so, the camera obscura pulled in thousands of visitors each year and to this day it remains the highlight of the attraction.
Thomas Geddes died in 1932 and for a time it was uncertain whether the instruments in the tower would be lost to the public forever, but in 1966 Edinburgh University took ownership and maintained the building for the next sixteen years before handing it over to private ownership in 1982.
The Patrick Geddes exhibits were scaled back and the development of the ‘World of Illusion’ began, although there’s still an exhibit devoted to Geddes on the fourth floor.
Thankfully the current private owners have stayed true to the origins of the very first attraction so that not only are there amazing visual illusions on every level but there’s an element of education about the study of light, photography, and the history of Edinburgh.
The National Galleries of Modern Art
The National Gallery of Modern Art is located a mile to the west end of Princes Street on Belford Road. Although it’s a little further out than the other attractions in this article it’s still easy to find and you should be able to walk to it from The Georgian House (see below) in around 15 minutes.
There is also a regular free bus that takes tourists between the National Gallery in Princes Street to the Modern Art Gallery.
The gallery (actually, galleries) are divided into the Modern One and the Modern Two, and both buildings have interesting histories.
While the very first gallery of modern art was located at the Edinburgh Botanic Garden, it soon became apparent that much bigger premises would be needed to house the growing collection.
In 1984 the gallery moved to its first location (Modern One) on Belford Road and then expanded into another building (Modern Two) in 1999.
Modern One is famous for its ever-changing exhibits and the permanent collection includes pieces from renowned artists like David Hockney, Tracey Emin and Andy Warhol.
Like many of the grand Georgian buildings in the west end of Edinburgh, Modern One has two large wings linked by a central hall with an exterior that features Roman-style columns.
It was originally the John Watson School, an institute for fatherless children that had been designed by William Burn in 1825, before being taken over by the modern art gallery.
Over the road, Modern Two houses artworks from the permanent collection as well as a continually updated catalogue of exhibits, and interested members of the public can also view the history of modern art media in the library and archives.
The building was designed by Thomas Hamilton in 1831 as a hospital for orphans and it was later used as an education centre before being converted into its present use as a home for a collection of modern surrealist artworks.
Both buildings feature large grounds but the highlight has to be the sculpture park created by landscape designer Charles Jencks which dominates the lawn of Modern One, where a huge serpentine mound surrounds a crescent-shaped pool of water.
While walking around the grounds you’ll be able to get up close and personal with artworks including the bronze sculpture ‘Master of the Universe’ by Eduardo Paolozzi which is based on a drawing of Sir Isaac Newton, and the neon installation on the façade of Modern One by the artist and musician Martin Creed.
The National Portrait Gallery
Before the National Portrait Gallery was built many Scottish portraits had been collected by the 11th Earl of Buchan, but having no official public home for them it was decided that a national gallery should be built in Edinburgh so that ordinary men and women could connect with their culture and history.
Although the London government refused to step in and fund the construction of the gallery, the owner of The Scotsman newspaper, John Findlay, donated the entire cost of the gallery (£50,000) at his own expense. Note that this donation was given in 1856 and £50,000 in today’s money is over £5.5 million!
As the construction was in private hands and not under government control the architects were given free rein with its design, and it’s for this reason that one of the grandest portrait galleries in the world now resides in Edinburgh (and thanks to an extensive renovation in 2011, it’s also one of the largest).
Edinburgh’s portrait gallery opened in 1889 which makes it the oldest purpose-built portrait gallery in the world and since that time it has been extended several times so that it now comprises 5,672 square metres and houses more than 850 portraits at any one time.
The gallery also contains one of the largest collections of early photographs in the world and in total there are over 38,000 photos from the earliest days of photography, many of which document the construction of some of Edinburgh’s most famous tourist attractions including The Scott Monument.
If you would like to visit the Scottish National Portrait Gallery you’ll find it on Queen Street a couple of blocks behind St. Andrews Square.
You can’t miss it as the red sandstone stands out against the dark grey granite of the surrounding buildings but if you’re not sure where to go you can hop on the gallery bus which runs every hour between 11 am and 5 pm.
The Scottish National Gallery
The present Scottish National Gallery building was designed by celebrated architect William Playfair to house the national art collection of the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA), and in 1850 Prince Albert marked the beginning of its construction by laying the first foundation stone.
Playfair died in March 1857 so he never got to see his completed masterpiece as the gallery didn’t officially open until 1859, but it housed the national collection until 1912 when the RSA moved into the adjacent Royal Scottish Academy building.
After extensive remodelling, the National Gallery re-opened with an emphasis on displaying a collection of Scottish and European art, and it continues to display many of the same artworks to this day.
By 1970 it was decided that additional storage space would be required for the ever-growing collection so an extensive series of basement galleries were constructed, and in the early 2000s an underground connection was made to the RSA so that the separate buildings in effect became one gallery complex.
This underground area is particularly popular with both tourists and locals as it houses an excellent restaurant and café and a shop that sells copies of some of the artworks that can be seen in both galleries.
The Scottish Parliament Building
The Scottish Parliament Building is situated opposite Holyrood Palace at the bottom of The Royal Mile.
It’s not quite a ‘historic’ building because it was only formally opened in 2004, but its history stretches all the way back to 1707 when the Acts of Union meant Scotland’s parliament moved from Edinburgh to London.
It took 290 years of political pressure to return Scotland’s parliament to its home city, but the building was mired in controversy from the start due to its unusual architecture and the huge over-run of its budget which was a ten-fold increase in its original estimate.
Initially, three sites around Edinburgh were considered as possible locations for the building, but a last-minute entry from the site of the Scottish and Newcastle brewery eventually won favour with the city council.
An international competition was subsequently organized in 1998 to create a design for what would become one of the most important buildings in Scotland and eventually the Spanish architect Enric Miralles was chosen.
Although many people were in favour of Miralle’s unusual abstract design the cost of the building’s construction spiralled from an initial estimate of £40 million to a final cost of £430 million, with a completion date that was three years behind schedule.
Even so, the building won several international awards for its architecture and tourists are allowed to explore it year-round.
On non-sitting days (usually Monday, Friday, and weekends), visitors can view the main hall and access the public galleries of the debating chamber and the main committee rooms.
Guided tours are also available on non-sitting days which allow visitors to access the floor of the hall, the garden lobby and the committee rooms. If you’re thinking of visiting please note that due to security restrictions some areas may be cordoned off without notice.
John Knox House
John Knox House is one of the oldest medieval buildings on The Royal Mile, located almost midway between the castle and the palace. If you’re not aware of John Knox, he was a Protestant preacher who gave sermons at St. Giles Cathedral and he was very critical of Mary Queen of Scots.
The house contains a museum that contains artefacts from the time of Knox as well as informative displays about the house’s other famous inhabitant, James Mossman.
Visitors can explore the restored building across two floors with the bottom half containing the Scottish Storytelling Centre and exhibitions about Edinburgh in the 1500s, and the upper floor featuring restored furniture and artworks from the time of Mossman and Knox.
The house has a lot of embellishments that were popular amongst the wealthy residents of Edinburgh in the 15th century including a beautiful wooden gallery and ornate hand-painted ceilings, but these are unlikely to have been commissioned by a religious man like Knox.
Instead, it’s more likely that they were installed by the 16th-century goldsmith James Mossman, the loyal supporter of Mary Queen of Scots who was hung, drawn, and quartered for creating counterfeit coins during the ‘Lang Siege’ at Edinburgh Castle in 1573.
After his death, the house was handed over to James VI of Scotland and it was lived in by several wealthy families until it began crumbling from lack of attention between the 1600s and 1800s.
Thankfully, the historical significance of the building meant it was saved from demolition in the late 1800s and it was taken under the management of the Church of Scotland.
Today, the house offers self-guided tours around its restored rooms where visitors will discover the story of one of the most critical times in Scotland’s history. See the official Scottish Storytelling Centre page for the latest opening times and admission prices.
You’ll find this attraction tucked away on the Lawnmarket area of The Royal Mile near the Castlehill roundabout.
It’s managed by the National Trust for Scotland and admission is free if you have a membership, so you might consider joining if you would like to combine a visit with The Georgian House (listed below) which is also NTS-managed.
Join the National Trust for Scotland
Gladstone’s Land was built in 1550, but it was only after extensive refurbishment in 1617 by the merchant Thomas Gledstane that it was marked out as a home for Edinburgh’s wealthiest residents.
Gledstane had the foresight to rent out separate parts of the building and we know from public records that merchants, ministers, and guild officers lived there before the construction of the New Town.
The popularity of Gladstone’s Land is reflected in its size, rising six storeys above what would have been the foul-smelling streets of 16th century Edinburgh, although it’s likely that the rooms were much smaller than the ones we see today.
In the cramped conditions of those times there would have been entire families crowded into single rooms with tradespeople and merchants taking residence on the lower floors and the wealthy living on the middle levels.
The very poorest had to suffer with living at the top where every bucket of water had to be laboriously carried up all those flights of stairs.
The height of the Old Town’s buildings meant that the poor resorted to chucking their buckets of human waste out of the window instead of carrying them down to ground level, which was accompanied by a cry of ‘gardyloo!’, followed by a deluge of raw sewage.
Hence the reason Edinburgh gained the nickname ‘Auld Reekie’.
By the time the 20th century came along Gladstone’s Land had been condemned and was listed for demolition, but thankfully the National Trust recognized the importance of the building and over the course of the following years it was fully restored.
As a tourist attraction, Gladstones Land has become one of the most popular in the city for anyone with an interest in history, and for a small fee you’ll be taken on a tour around and told about the building’s history.
From the flagstone floors in the kitchen to the elaborately painted ceilings in the bedroom, each room has a tale to tell which will transport you back to life in 17th century Edinburgh, making this attraction one of the most interesting in the Old Town.
Discover more Edinburgh facts in this article: 22 Interesting Facts About Edinburgh.
St. Giles Cathedral
St. Giles Cathedral is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Edinburgh and its huge Gothic spire is one of the most recognizable features of the city skyline.
The cathedral dates back to 1124 when it was founded by King David I and it was actually built on the very edge of Edinburgh, but of course, the ‘edge’ of Edinburgh is now several miles away.
According to legend, St. Giles was a Greek hermit who lived in the forests of the south of France. He was injured by the king of the Visigoths while hunting for deer, and so impressed was the king after speaking to the injured man that he persuaded St. Giles to become the abbot of a monastery.
After St. Giles was canonized he became the patron saint of lepers and Edinburgh’s cathedral was dedicated to him, most likely because leprosy was so prevalent in Scotland at the time.
The original building was almost entirely destroyed by a fire in the late 1300s but the large central pillars survived and the building that we see today was built around those original stone columns.
At that time St. Giles had not achieved cathedral status and was instead a collegiate church, and it wasn’t until 1633 that Charles I made it the cathedral of the Diocese of Edinburgh.
The building was later extended several times and new chapels were added including the Thistle Chapel which is reserved for use by an ancient chivalrous order, and a memorial chapel for the victims of WWII.
St. Giles is still an active place of worship so entering it might not be possible during times of prayer but during the week tourists are free to explore its chambers and halls.
There are five services held every Sunday and around fourteen services take place every week, often accompanied by the award-winning St. Giles Cathedral Choir.
The Georgian House
The Georgian House is located a few blocks north of the junction of Princes Street and Lothian Road on the northern edge of the private gardens of Charlotte Square.
Like Gladstone’s Land, The Georgian house is managed by the National Trust for Scotland and is open to the public for viewing, although it served as a private home for nearly 200 years.
The origins of the building began with The New Town which was built north of the dilapidated Old Town in the 18th century.
This beautiful part of Edinburgh was designed by the architect James Craig in a grid system which consisted of two large squares (St. Andrews Square and Charlotte Square) connected by George Street, Queen Street and Princes Street.
The Georgian House was primarily designed as an exclusive townhouse for Edinburgh’s wealthiest residents and it’s certainly an impressive building, even by today’s standards.
It was built in 1796 and is typical of townhouses of the era, with five floors including a kitchen and a servant’s room at the bottom and large dining rooms, drawing rooms and bedrooms on the floors above.
The museum is set over five levels from the basement to the third floor and you’re free to walk around the house at your own pace and head in any direction you like, but it makes sense to start at the bottom and work your way up through each floor.
The décor and furniture on each level are just as they would have been back in the early 19th century and it really gives you a feeling of walking back in time as you wander through each room.
Inside The Georgian House you’ll see lots of original pieces of silverware, bone china, glassware and paintings, and you can see just how opulent the lifestyles of the rich were, with dining and drawing rooms laid out ready for one of the many cocktail parties they would have held.
There are also glimpses into the lives of the servants who would have worked tirelessly in the basement and kitchens and interactive touchscreen displays help to bring the stories of the servants back to life.
Discover more places to visit in Edinburgh with: The Best Places to Visit in Edinburgh – Ultimate Visitor Guide.
Planning a weekend getaway? Check out: Affordable Ways to Enjoy a Weekend in Scotland.
Frequently Asked Questions
What should I not miss in Edinburgh?
Some of the top historic tourist attractions in Edinburgh are:
1. Edinburgh Castle
2. Holyrood Palace
3. St. Giles Cathedral
4. The Museum on The Mound
5. Greyfriars Kirk
6. John Knox House
7. Gladstone’s Land
8. The Georgian House
9. Mary King’s Close
10. The Scott Monument
Can you walk around Edinburgh Castle for free?
Edinburgh Castle is managed by Historic Environment Scotland which charges an admission fee to enter. A HES membership allows free unlimited re-admittance throughout the year.
What is the oldest building in Edinburgh?
The oldest building in Edinburgh is St. Margaret’s Chapel which is located in Edinburgh Castle near the Mons Meg cannon. The chapel was built by St. Margaret’s son, David I, in the 12th century.
Is Edinburgh built on an old city?
Some parts of Edinburgh were built on top of old buildings and streets due to the Flodden Wall which enclosed the Old Town.
Unable to build further outwards, the city built high-rise tenement blocks and due to the lack of building space some buildings were constructed on top of existing streets. These can still be seen at Mary King’s Close and The Vaults near The Royal Mile.