The Old Town's winding streets are reminiscent of, and are said to have provided inspiration for, locations in the Harry Potter books. Taking a walk down Victoria Street to the Grassmarket, with its steep winding incline and tall buildings, you'll quickly realise why.
The Grassmarket itself affords stunning views up to the Castle, as it dominates above you in one of the city's most vibrant areas. Here, over 90% of the businesses are independently owned.
The Grassmarket meets the Cowgate, a street running parallel to the Royal Mile and connected by numerous steep closes, lined with exciting bars and restaurants popular with students and festival goers, with venues tucked away into the city's ancient vaults, hosting club nights and monthly parties.
History of the Grassmarket
You can learn a lot about the history of the Grassmarket and the rest of Edinburgh's Old Town on one of the many walking tours or ghost tours available in the area. City of Edinburgh Tours offer walking around some of Edinburgh’s most historically fascinating Old Town Closes, while Mercat Tours have a range of history walks and ghost tours, guaranteed to broaden your knowledge on Edinburgh’s past. If a tour on wheels is more your thing, The Ghost Bus Tours Edinburgh could be just up your street.
Named after the busy agriculture trade fares that took place here from the 14th century, trading in corn, cattle and horses, the area is still a home to a regular market now, although the stalls these days are mostly selling fresh produce, freshly baked bread and handcrafted local gifts. Open every Saturday all year round 10am to 5pm, The Grassmarket Market is a popular shopping destination for both local and tourists.
Because the street was a focal point for travellers, traders and immigrants, it has always been surrounded by taverns, cheap lodging houses and hostels. That remains the case even now – today you’ll find dozens of great pubs and bars, and cheap places to stay.
The darker side of the Grassmarket, and perhaps what it is most famous for, are the public executions which took place here from 1660 to 1784. This was also the site where, between 1661 and 1668, over 100 Covenanters were put to death during a period of conflict between the Kirk and the Crown. The Covenanters Memorial was erected in 1937 and commemorates those that died. Learn more about The National Covenant.
One of the most famous stories of the Grassmarket features "Half-Hangit" Maggie Dickson. Sentenced to execution by hanging in 1724, after being found guilty of murder, her family recovered her body from the gallows and took her to nearby Musselburgh for burial. However, on the way a mysterious knocking was heard coming from the coffin, the lid was lifted to reveal that Maggie was indeed alive! Unable to be convicted of the same crime, she went on to live for another 40 years. Her story lives on in the name of Maggie Dickson's Pub, one of the smallest in the Grassmarket, and well worth a visit.
It may be small, but the bronze sculpture of Greyfriars Bobby located at the top of Candlemaker Row is a listed Category A structure, the same as Edinburgh Castle! The monument is dedicated to the skye terrier who pined at his owners grave for years after his death, and is one of the most famous icons of the city.
The colourful buildings of Victoria Street are some of the most photographed in Edinburgh - and for good reason. This small winding street is full of charm and a must-visit during your stay in the capital.
Lothian Buses 23 and 27 stop within easy walking distance of the area's main attractions.
One way to get a great view of the castle is on a City Sighseeing Tour. Their Hop-on Hop-off tickets start from £16.00 per person and have 24hr unlimited use. Taking in numerous stops around the city, including all main sights and attractions, and with audio commentaries in 9 languages plus 'Horrible Histories' Kid's Commentary, they're a great way of exploring the city on 4 wheels.
In 2019 Edinburgh made history when it became the first city in the UK to join the Open Streets movement, which has seen cities around the world temporarily opening streets to people by closing them to cars, vans and other motorised vehicles on a regular basis. On the first Sunday of every month a number of streets in the Old Town, including the Canongate, Cockburn Street and Victoria Street, are closed to motorised traffic, letting the public enjoy the historic area on foot or by bike.