Postcards & Passports

Take a Tour of Edinburgh to Learn its Stories

The minute you see it, you will understand why you have to take a tour of Edinburgh. Within just a square mile or two are some of the oldest neighborhoods in Europe. Every building, every close (alley), and every street name has a story just waiting to be told. You can read a lot about Edinburgh before arriving, but it’s not the same. I wanted to hear the stories and have everything explained to me as I was seeing the medieval city in person. It’s amazing to learn all the stories!

Why I Chose Mercat Tours
Mercat Cross of Edinburgh

Edinburgh’s Mercat Cross

I chose Mercat Tours for their ‘Secrets of the Royal Mile’ walking tour. If you don’t know much about the Royal Mile, it is the street between the Edinburgh Castle at one end and the Holyrood Palace and Abbey ruins at the other end. It’s basically the medieval main street of Edinburgh. Near one end was their market plaza (mercat). In the middle stands the mercat cross, a raised platform with a cross and unicorn statue. From this platform, all important public events have been announced, including royal weddings, criminal punishments, and everythng in between.

tour guides, take a tour of Edinburgh

Mercat tour guides

So it was pretty fitting that Mercat Tours asked my husband and I to meet at the Mercat Cross to start our ‘Secrets of the Royal Mile’ tour. We were introduced to our guide, Simon, and given headsets to wear so that we could always hear Simon over the street noise around us. Our tour would be 1 1/2 hours long…and every minute of it was fascinating!

There’s no way I can duplicate for you all that Simon shared with us. And I highly suggest you take a tour of Edinburgh (especially this one!). But I will give you a general idea of what you’ll learn.

1.Geology of Edinburgh

A walking tour of a city that begins with a geology lesson? In this case, yes! You’ll learn how a volcano and the erosion of ice sheets formed an area that was easily inhabited and defended. Geology actually played an important role in making Edinburgh what it was in medieval times.

2. Why Edinburgh’s rich and poor lived side-by-side

The only safe place to live was within the medieval city walls, and there was no room for Edinburgh’s residents to spread out. Simon explained that the only way to grow was up, so this created some of Europe’s oldest “skyscrapers” — some as high as 14 stories.

The rich generally lived on the higher floors where they couldn’t smell the stench of the street. But rich and poor rubbed shoulders in the closes (the tiny alleys between buildings).

3. Stories of colorful characters in Edinburgh history

During our tour, Simon told us a lot of stories about the people of Edinburgh — some infamous and some ordinary…and some who were brilliant. People like Daniel Defoe (a spy for London) and David Hume (who ushered in the Enlightenment Era). Do you know why everyone stops to rub David Hume’s big toe?

Have you heard of Susannah Kennedy and her seven daughters who were the “Kardashians” of her time? So many fascinating true stories!

We learned about the inspiration for Jekyll & Hyde – a man named Brodie Deacon, who was a cabinetmaker to the rich by day — and a thief by night. He was finally caught in his great deceit and unfortunately hung on the gallows he himself had designed and built.

It really made Edinburgh come alive for us and it’s why I suggest you also take a tour of Edinburgh and learn the stories you can’t learn by just walking through the town.

4. Stories behind the houses and street names

On this tour, you’ll see where John Knox lived and probably died…and also the unique place where he’s buried. You’ll get to see the first luxury medieval apartment complex and its lovely courtyard, too.

There is so much rich history about the medieval city of Edinburgh! Most of the buildings and closes were named after the people and the events of the times.

Simon took us to the quaint Makars Court and Writers’ Museum, where we learned about the three great writers who all lived in Edinburgh at the same time: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson.

On this tour, you’ll discover how Blackfriar Wynd got its name. And learn what “Fleshmarket Close” means (it’s not what you think). See the ‘End of the World’ pub and learn why its name was so appropriate.

You’ll see portions of the medieval city wall and the best preserved “sedan” shed in Edinburgh.

Really, there is so much to see and learn, I can’t include it all here. That’s why I love taking walking tours!

5. Edinburgh traditions

Do you know why Edinburgh waits three days after an important royal announcement to repeat the decree from the Mercat Cross? It has something to do with how long it takes to ride a horse from London to Edinburgh!

Perhaps you can guess why everyone wore ‘high-heel’ shoes in Edinburgh’s medieval streets? And what did the people shout as they tossed the contents of their chamber pots onto the street below, every morning? It began as the French “gardez l’eau” (watch the water) but was eventually corrupted to “Gardyloo!”

And why does everyone spit on the mosaic ‘Heart of Midlothian’ near the St. Giles church?

These are all things I didn’t know (and didn’t read anywhere before coming to Edinburgh), so it really was entertaining to take a tour of Edinburgh with Mercat Tours.

How you can take a tour of Edinburgh

You can book the same tour I took at Mercat Tours’ website. This tour ends at the Edinburgh Castle and you can add a castle tour ticket to your purchase and get even more information from Simon (or any Mercat Tours guide), as he’ll accompany you into the castle grounds and give you an overview.

Mercat Tours has other tours as well, including the only tour in Edinburgh of the secret underground tunnels. I wish I could have taken them all (except the Ghost tours — those scare the bejeebies out of me!), but I wasn’t in Edinburgh long enough.

What we learned wasn’t just limited to the actual tour we took. Simon gave us ideas of other areas we might want to explore, too — I loved his tip to check out the great hall in the Parliament Building and its beautiful stained glass windows.

The ‘Secrets of the Royal Mile’ tour gave me a much richer appreciation of medieval Edinburgh and how it has evolved into the Edinburgh of today. I hope you get to visit Edinburgh soon and take a walking tour, too!

**Note: As is common in the travel industry, I was hosted by Mercat Tours so that I could share my experience with you. I chose Mercat Tours for their unique and interesting tours, and I have given you an honest review.**

Interested in other walking tours I’ve taken? See Discovering Toronto with Urban Expeditions, A Walking Tour of Downtown Los Angeles, or Three-Day Getaway to Quebec City.

15 thoughts on “Take a Tour of Edinburgh to Learn its Stories

  1. Heather Young

    Wow! What a rich history just waiting to be uncovered while exploring the city! Wish we could have made it to Edinburgh on our last trip to Scotland.

  2. Jenn and Ed Coleman

    I’ve heard the ghost tours of Edinburgh are pretty dang good. Maybe make an exception on this one? The Mercat tour looks like they did an excellent job of bringing the city to life. There’s just so much history, it’s hard to take it all in without context.

  3. Carol Colborn

    That tour must have been very entertaining. I didn’t know Burns and Stevenson were also in Edinburgh. I just saw the Sir Walter Scott Monument. I should have gone inside the Parliament Building then! He didn’t take you to the restaurant where Rowling wrote Harry Potter on a table beside the window with a view of the Castle?

  4. Linda (LD Holland)

    We had a one day stop in Edinburgh on our last cruise. It simply was not enough time. We did the Royal Mile on our own. But I am sure you learned far more than we were able top pick up on your walking tour. We only ran across a few of the interesting characters of Edinburgh! We actually learned about “Gardyloo” during a trivia game on our cruise ship! Next time we visit we will definitely check out Mercat Tours.

  5. Shreya Saha

    Well, I didn’t know much about Edinburgh but your blog is very useful for me and I would like to visit next year. Moreover, I will take Mercat tour. They seem to be so nice and entertaining! Thanks for you blog.

  6. Kathleen

    We’ve been to Edinburgh and really loved it. Now I wish we had known of this tour so we could love it even more. It’s so fun to learn the secrets of a place as you’re seeing the actual things they are talking about. If I get back there, I will check out this tour for sure.

  7. Adonis A Villanueva

    I’m always down for learning about history, especially from an older city like Edinburgh. The Secrets of the Royal Mile tour sounds just like the thing I want. The various landmarks mentioned and covered in the tour would be easily missed by the uninitiated and myself if I visited the city.

  8. Patricia

    I love the idea of the ‘Secrets of the Royal Mile’ tour!! It’s exactly the kind of thing we love to do — a bit of history, a bit of architecture, a bit of intrigue and a lot of fun. I had no idea that Jekyll & Hyde was based on a real person. I’m bookmarking this tour right now!

  9. Suruchi Mittal

    That was such an interesting post on Edinburgh. I absolutely loved it. The secret tour which you took surely gives an insight into so many interesting stories. I too would love dong the tunnel tour along with this one.

  10. Eric Rafael Gamble

    Darcee & I LOVED Edinburgh! Our first meal was in the Deacon Brodie Tavern cause she is a Literature lover and we had to explore the inspiration of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. We loved taking a few walking tours too, though most were not as extensive as yours sounds.
    Definitely want to go back and learn more. Such a cool place!

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