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Navigating Edinburgh is Easy With Organized Tours

Marilyn JonesJust down the street from my hotel, tour buses queue up on Waverly Bridge. There is a lot to see in Scotland’s capital city and five different tour operators make their way around the city every day stopping at major attractions.

Soon after boarding a bus advertised as focusing on the city’s UNESCO status, I’m riding along the Royal Mile with Edinburgh Castle at one end and the Palace of Holyroodhouse at the other.

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This is Old Town with towering tenements lining the street. Due to space restrictions imposed by the narrowness of the street, and the desire to stay safe within the defensive walls, the buildings were built higher as the need for housing grew. These multi-story dwellings were the norm from the 16th century on.

old town

Edinburgh Castle

My first stop is Edinburgh Castle, the most visited attraction in Scotland. The 12th-century stronghold and favored residence of Scotland’s kings and queens is like a small city. From the bus stop, up the hill and through a massive gate, throngs of tourists from around the world stream into the walled complex. 

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Archaeological evidence suggests that the first settlers here were during the Bronze Age around 1000 B.C. By the Middle Ages, the site had developed into a mighty fortification and royal residence. The Scots and English struggled for control of the castle during the Wars of Independence from 1296 to 1328 and 1332 to 1357. The wars became one of the most defining moments in the nation's history. At the end of both wars, Scotland retained its status as an independent nation.

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Standing high above the city, the castle is a magnificent sight. Not only is it a historic monument but also a working military base where the Scottish Division is headquartered.

The oldest surviving part of the castle, built in the 12th century, is the tiny St. Margaret’s chapel dedicated to the wife of Malcolm III. School children crowd into the small space snapping pictures of the altar and stained glass windows with their cellphones. Even with the commotion this is a serene place.

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The castle sheltered many Scottish monarchs including Queen Margaret, later St. Margaret, and Mary Queen of Scots who gave birth to James VI in the Royal Palace in 1566.

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The Scottish Crown Jewels and the Stone of Destiny, where previous Scottish monarchs were crowned, are here as well as the National War Museum, Regimental Museums and the Scottish National War Museum.

A visit to the castle unlocks volumes of Scottish history.

The Palace of Holyroodhouse

Another stop all the tour buses make is at the Palace of Holyroodhouse that has served as the principal residence of the kings and queens of Scots since the 16th century. The present palace was re-constructed in its present form between 1671 and 1679 to a configuration of four wings around a central courtyard.

palace

The tour of 14 historic rooms and the ruins of Holyrood Abbey is self-guided.

Best known as the home of Mary, Queen of Scots, today the State Apartments are used regularly by Queen Elizabeth for state ceremonies and official entertaining. The queen spends one week in residence at the palace at the beginning of each summer where she carries out official engagements and ceremonies.  

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The Abbey ruins are located at the end of the tour just as guests exit the palace. As a royal institution, it became an important administrative center. In 1189, a council of nobles met at the abbey to discuss a ransom for the captive king, William the Lion. Parliament was held here and, by 1329, it may have been in use as a royal residence. James II was born at the abbey in 1430 and later crowned, married and laid to rest here.

New Town

One of the reasons Edinburgh was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site is the beauty – and contrast – between Old Town and New Town.

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From the bus, passengers, especially those taking advantage of the upper level of the double decker, will see the architectural beauty, lush parks and broad avenues as they pass through. Inspired by the ideals of the Scottish Enlightenment (education, economic growth and science), the neat and ordered grid of New Town provides an elegant contrast to Old Town.

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New Town was constructed between 1767 and 1890. This is where the upper classes moved when it was finally deemed safe to leave the security of Old Town, and it survives virtually intact.

Georgian House is a popular attraction here. Showcasing elegant living of 18th-century New Town, from the grand and ornate drawing room and dining room to the functional servants’ domain, a tour of the museum offers insight into the social and economic conditions of the time.

Other attractions along bus tours include Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, Scottish National Gallery, Scottish Parliament, National Museum of Scotland, Museum of Edinburgh, and, available on Majestic Tour, the Royal Yacht Britannia.

Ghostly Interaction

After a busy day of sightseeing you may want to go back out into the night and learn a little about the darker side of Edinburgh. There are several tour operators specializing in otherworldly pursuits as well as the macabre. Mercat Tours (so named because tour participants meet at the Mercat Cross on the Royal Mile) offers several options including its Ghosts and Ghouls tour.

Just after sunset, a guide — part historian and part thespian — begins by talking about the Mercat Cross which was the central meeting place where Royal proclamations and other official announcements were read. It was also the scene of the infamous Edinburgh mob that enjoyed the entertainment of watching fellow citizens tortured for minor infractions.

As the tour continues through the darkening streets, the guide talks of the inhumane ways plague victims were dealt with including being shut away without any provisions until they died.

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The pinnacle of this tour, however, is a trip down into the said-to-be haunted Blair Street Underground Vaults. Described by the BBC as probably the most haunted place in Britain, the vaults, completed in 1788, were built under South Bridge. For 30 years, the vaults were used to house taverns and tradesmen, and as storage space for illicit materials, including, it is said, the bodies of people killed by serial killers William Burke and William Hare for medical experiments.

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As the conditions in the vaults deteriorated, mainly because of dampness and poor air quality, the businesses left and the very poorest of Edinburgh's citizens moved in. That people had lived there was only discovered in 1985 during an excavation, when toys, medicine bottles, plates and other items were found.

Whether a believer in ghosts or not, the vaults are eerie and the experience unforgettable as the tour goes deeper into the underground and the guide spins even more chilling stories.

Edinburgh is the culmination of centuries of struggle and survival; royalty and rogues. It is a destination for a weekend or a week, and with the assistance of its hop-on hop-off tour buses and walking tours, it’s an easy city to navigate.  

If you go:

Where to stay: Apex Waterloo Place Hotel, 23-27 Waterloo Place, is a half block from Waverley Train Station and three blocks from the tour bus queue at Waverly Bridge. Built in 1819, the boutique hotel offers understated elegance and a gracious staff.

For more information:

Complete hotel listings

Bus tour information

Mercat Tours

Edinburgh attractions

Scotland tourism information