Best Historic Sites in Edinburgh

10 Best Historic Sites in Edinburgh: Step Back in Time and Explore the Past

It’s not easy to know where to start when you visit Edinburgh. The city is steeped in a history so rich you can feel its echoes to this very day. The center of the city is very compact so it’s ideal for walking around and exploring, but there is an awful lot to see. The medieval Old Town and the Royal Mile, culminating in Edinburgh Castle, and the Georgian New Town were named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. That was in recognition of the unique and mesmerizing architecture on display.

We discussed a possible historical itinerary for Edinburgh before, suggesting a few unmissable attractions for visitors with an interest in the past. This time we are going to run through a top ten list of the best historic sites in Edinburgh. If you’re going to spend a couple of days or more in the city then you should make sure you see them all.

Once called the “Athens of the North” Edinburgh has fascinated tourists for centuries. We know there has been a settlement here as far back as the Bronze Age and the city has grown in a layered fashion with an exciting mixture of structures pointing back to various points in the past. So, get those comfortable walking shoes on, cameras at the ready and umbrellas on standby, as we take a look at some of the wonderful historic sites Edinburgh has to offer.


In 1688 King James VII of Scotland (also King James II of England) ordered the construction of the Kirk of the Canongate and it was completed in 1691. Residents nearby had been using the Abbey Church but the King wanted to us that as a Chapel for the Order of the Thistle. The Kirk is architecturally unusual for Scotland with a Dutch-style end gable and a cruciform layout inside. It has been renovated and reorganized many times over the years. It is a Church of Scotland church which means it is Presbyterian and it still serves an active congregation today. In the kirkyard beyond it you'll find the last resting place of Adam Smith.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: The Canongate kirk is a beautiful building, steeped in the history of the city of Edinburgh

Simon's expert tip: Visitors are welcome to join worship on Sundays at 10AM.

Read more about Canongate Kirk →

The neo-Gothic St. Mary's Cathedral is a striking building set in large grounds. Designed by George Gilbert Scott, it was consecrated in 1879. St. Mary's is the largest ecclesiastical building to be built in Scotland since the Reformation. St. Mary's is an episcopal church and so it has a Bishop with responsibility for the Edinburgh Diocese. You'll find various interesting things inside such as The Rood Cross, The Paolozzi Window, and a stunning painting called The Presence. It is also still a working place of worship. The Sunday Eucharist is at 8am, the Service at 10:30am, and the Choral Evensong at 3:30pm.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: St Mary's is a beautiful and historic church which is well worth a look.

Simon's expert tip: The Choir of St Mary's Cathedral has a great reputation and there are daily choral services.

Read more about St. Mary's Cathedral →

Outside the City

Inchcolm Island is a few miles East of the Forth Rail Bridge and is often called the Iona of the East. The well-preserved, Inchcolm Abbey dates back to the 12th Century. It was founded by King David I, after his brother King Alexander I was forced to seek shelter there during a very stormy crossing of the Forth in 1123. The Abbey and it's grounds are all fully open to the public to explore and you can even climb up to the top of the tower for a spectacular view of the tranquil island. You'll also find some old wartime fortifications to explore on the island and it's a great place for a trip.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: Inchcolm Island is home to one of the best preserved monastic sites in Scotland and offers a fascinating insight into monastic life

Simon's expert tip: Between May and August access to the island is limited as the nesting gulls can become rather aggressive.

Read more about Inchcolm Island →


The Palace of Holyroodhouse was built in 1128 and served as the main residence for the Kings and Queens of Scotland from the 15th century onwards. It is in fact still the Queen's official residence when she visits Edinburgh. When she is not residing here, you can tour the home. This palace contains much of the history of Mary Queen of Scots. There is a plaque put up in recognition of her secretary, David Rizzio, who was stabbed by her jealous husband. There is a collection of portraits of Scottish monarchs, although artist Jacob De Witt may have taken a few liberties! You'll also find a wide collection of relics from the 16th and 17th centuries, each possessing a piece of Scotland's history.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: Residence of the Scottish Monarchy from the fifteenth century, the Palace of Holyroodhouse is a site of great historical significance.

Simon's expert tip: Make sure you get the audio guide to uncover the secrets of Holyrood Palace.

Read more about Palace of Holyroodhouse →

St. Giles' Cathedral
Photo courtesy of Colin Smith

There has been a church on the site of this cathedral since the 9th century. St. Giles' Cathedral was built in 1120, and it has served an important role in Scottish religion as the Mother Church of Presbyterianism. John Knox led the Scottish Reformation from St. Giles and it is still in use today. The pre-Raphaelite stained glass is amazing. It is also well worth seeing the chapel of the Order of the Thistle, the highest Scottish chivalric order, established in 1910. When you are finished exploring you can also descend into the crypt, where there is an unpretentious coffee shop. You can't miss its famed crown spire on the Royal Mile and entry is free.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: St Giles lies at the heart of Edinburgh, and it's religious and social history

Simon's expert tip: The stained glass and incredible ornamentations inside St. Giles Cathedral can hardly fail to capture your imagination. If you want to film or take photographs then you should pick up a permit at the Information Desk, it only costs £2.

Read more about St. Giles' Cathedral →

Greyfriars Kirk is a beautiful sixteenth century church located in the heart of Edinburgh's Old Town. It is surrounded by a churchyard in which over 80,000 people have been interred since it was dedicated in 1561. One of its most famous residents is Greyfriar's Bobby, a loyal Skye terrier who refused to leave the grave of his owner and who was cared for by local people until his death. He is immortalized in a lovely statue located just outside the entrance to the churchyard. Greyfriars also has a darker history. The church was the site of the signing of the National Covenant in 1638 and the churchyard the site of "Covenanter's prison" where hapless soldiers on the losing side of the Battle of Bothwell Bridge in 1679 were interred and executed on the orders of Lord Advocate Sir George Mackenzie (aka "Bluidy Mackenzie") whose poltergeist now reputedly haunts the area.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: Greyfriars is a serene oasis which has seen much of Edinburgh's sometimes gruesome history

Simon's expert tip: If you are of a daring disposition you can visit the covenanter's graveyard at night with one of Edinburgh's ghost tours and brave the Mackenzie poltergeist.

Read more about Greyfriars Kirkyard →

Discover how the wealthy lived in 18th century Edinburgh. This stunning townhouse was designed by the supremely talented architect, Robert Adam, in 1791. Charlotte Square was an exclusive New Town address and it has been carefully restored by Scotland's National Trust. The home combines Greek and Roman influences in architecture, as was the trend at the time, and all the home furnishings mirror the Georgian period. In the bedroom, you will find a four-poster bed with an original 1700's canopy. The kitchen is adorned with Wedgwood china. You'll feel as though you've stepped back in time when you enter The Georgian House and it really does offer a fascinating insight into Edinburgh's past.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: The Georgian House is a fascinating window into Edinburgh's history

Simon's expert tip: This attraction offers something for the whole family and kids will enjoy the opportunity to dress up.

Read more about The Georgian House →

Outside the City

Rosslyn Chapel is a beautiful and fascinating fifteenth century church situated in the town of Roslin, just south of Edinburgh. The church was founded in 1456 by William Sinclair, who had been the protector of James I of Scotland and was both Lord High Admiral of Scotland and Lord Chancellor of Scotland. It has many iconic and mysterious design features, most notably The Apprentice Pillar, the so called "music boxes" (213 intricately carved cubes which protrude from the stonework which some consider encode a secret of some importance) and references to Celtic mythology (such as the "Green Men"). It is even claimed that numerous representations of a plant which resembles American maize prove that Sinclair crossed the seas to America before Columbus! The chapel has also featured prominently in speculative theories concerning Freemasonry and the Knights Templar, most recently in "The Da Vinci Code".

Recommended for Historic Sites because: Rosslyn Chapel is a fascinating and enigmatic building waiting to be explored

Simon's expert tip: There are numerous books claiming to explain the mysteries of the chapel, or you can attend one of the introductory talks held in the chapel itself.

Read more about Rosslyn Chapel →

One of Edinburgh's most renowned monuments is this Victorian Gothic structure completed in 1844. It honors the world famous writer Sir Walter Scott. This structure consists of a spire that is over two hundred feet tall. Sitting inside the spire is a statue of the famous author and his dog, Maida, accompanied by sixty-four carved representations of the characters in his novels. Visitors who make the 287-step climb to the top of the monument will enjoy the spectacular views afforded over the city. There are various viewing platforms as you make your way up the worn spiral staircase. It is the largest monument in the UK dedicated to a writer and it was paid for by donations from the people of Scotland.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: The Scott Monument is an awe inspiring edifice dedicated to one of Edinburgh's most famous sons

Simon's expert tip: Make sure you're feeling fit before you attempt to climb this worn spiral staircase because there are 287 steps.

Read more about Scott Monument →

Edinburgh Castle was a royal residence until the late 16th century and Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James VI there (he went on to be James I of Britain). The 12th-century, Norman-style St. Margaret's Chapel still stands in its original form. Inside the castle, you can see the Honours of Scotland (crown jewels), the French prisons, the Stone of Destiny and the most famous cannon in the UK, Mons Meg. Be sure to check out the Witches' Well at the entrance to the Castle Esplanade, where women were burned for witchcraft during the 16th and 17th centuries. Plan to take a lot of pictures while you are here, because the view of the city from the castle is spectacular.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: Edinburgh Castle is the city's top attraction, and a must for history buffs

Simon's expert tip: Make sure you are there to see the traditional One o'clock Gun being fired at 1PM every day except Sunday. If you want room to explore and capture some great photos then get there early because it can get very busy indeed.

Read more about Edinburgh Castle →


Meet Simon Hill

Simon has lived in various corners of Edinburgh over the last 18 years. He fell in love with the city as a small child after visiting the castle and returned to study Scottish History.

After...  More About Simon