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Exploring Edinburgh with City Sightseeing

If you read our recent blog about City Sightseeing's Seville bus tour you'll know how much we love using the open top bus to explore a city. We were delighted to team up with City Sightseeing again on their Edinburgh route.

Edinburgh, or Auld Reekie (Scottish for Old Smokey, after the pollution and smog that hung in the 17th century air) is one of our favourite cities in the world. Scotland's capital has a Medieval old town and a Georgian new town (both UNESCO protected!), an ancient castle perched on an extinct volcano, a royal palace, ghostly graveyards and is also famous for being the birthplace of the Harry Potter series! More than enough reasons to spend a long weekend exploring.

Despite being in the Scottish Lowlands, Edinburgh is incredibly hilly, so give your legs a rest and take advantage of City Sightseeing's hop on hop off service. You'll spot their iconic red double decker buses all over the city, but we'd recommend starting your journey either at stop 3, Grassmarket (right in the centre of Old Town on the Royal Mile) or at the beginning of the route, stop 1, at St Andrew Square just behind the main shopping street of Princes Street over in the New Town.

City Sightseeing Edinburgh has 12 stops close to Edinburgh's main attractions including:

  • Edinburgh Castle

  • Greyfriars Kirkyard

  • Holyrood Palace

  • Calton Hill

  • National Museum of Scotland

  • Our Dynamic Earth

A red tour bus drives past Edinburgh castle
Heading down Princes Street past Edinburgh Castle

Starting at Stop 1, St Andrew Square, the bus takes a scenic cruise past the Scott Memorial along Princes Street with glorious views of Edinburgh Castle overlooking the city from Castle Rock, a volcanic plug dating back 350 million years. As you turn the corner, look out for the 19th century watch tower belonging to the graveyard of St Cuthbert's church, built to keep out the likes of Burke and Hare, so called 'resurrectionist men' or body snatchers. Undercover of darkness, they would sneak into a cemetery, find a new grave and dig up the body to sell to hospitals for their anatomy training. When demand exceeded supply, Burke and Hare turned to murder, killing 16 people in 10 months. When the police eventually caught up with them, Hare was offered immunity and turned against his partner in crime, confessing to everything. He went free, while Burke was convicted, hanged and dissected in an anatomy class. The irony...

Stop 3 is Grassmarket, a vibrant area of Edinburgh full of shops and restaurants. Pop down winding cobblestone Victoria Street with its colourful shopfronts and hidden staircases, supposedly JK Rowling's inspiration for Diagon Alley (it also has 2 Harry Potter themed shops), or stop for a drink in one of the many pubs lining the main Grassmarket square - a round memorial marks the spot where the public gallows used to stand and a few of the pubs are named after Grassmarket's history of public execution, such as the Last Drop, and Maggie Dicksons.

We then stayed on the City Sightseeing bus for a few stops enjoying the audio commentary (it's available in 9 languages, plus a Horrible Histories edition for kids) as the bus wound its way past George Heriot's (a beautiful 17th century independent school famous for providing free education for fatherless children and is rumoured to have provided the inspiration for Hogwarts) and Edinburgh Castle, ending up at the top of the Royal Mile for Stop 6, Lawnmarket, where we hopped off to check out Edinburgh's stunning UNESCO listed Old Town and visit Greyfriars Cathedral, the head of Scotland's Presbyterian Church. This is also a good jumping off point if you're planning on visiting Edinburgh Castle, Real Mary King's Close or the Scotch Whisky Experience, they're all a short walk from stop 6.

Winding round Castle Rock and into the Old Town

Catch a lift to Stop 7 for the National Museum of Scotland, an absolute treasure trove (with free entry!) that's like London's British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, Natural History Museum and Science Museum all mashed together. The collection is absolutely vast, from dinosaurs and geological wonders to fashion throughout the ages and Scottish historic treasures like the Lewis chessmen and a carved cradle said to be used by Mary, Queen of Scots for her baby son, the future King James VI (James I of England). Other exhibits of interest include the taxidermied remains of Dolly the sheep, who made the news when she was cloned in 1996, and the Maiden, a fearsome looking guillotine style device used for public executions in Edinburgh between the 16th and 18th centuries. Its innovative flatpack style design made it easy to transport around the city!

Greyfriars Bobby- the world's most famous dog?

From stop 7 you can also back track slightly across the road to pay homage to one of Edinburgh's most beloved historic alumni, Greyfriars Bobby. Walk up the side of the pub named after him (a bronze statue of the little dog sits outside with a well rubbed nose) and turn into Greyfriars Kirkyard, said to be the most haunted graveyard in Scotland! Immediately in front of the entrance is another memorial to Bobby and a gravestone marking where the faithful Skye Terrier was buried. Nearby, down a path to the right, is the grave of his owner, John "Jock" Gray. According to legend, Bobby guarded this spot for 14 years until his own death, and has since become a symbol of loyalty.

The most notorious burial site in Greyfriars Kirkyard is the black tomb of "Bloody Mackenzie", or George Mackenzie, Lord Advocate during the rule of King Charles II. Sent to ruthlessly persecute and suppress the Presbyterian Covenanters (those who resisted ), he imprisoned 1200 of them in very cruel conditions in a corner of the kirkyard. Hundreds died. His dramatic domed mausoleum is now one of the churchyard's most famous, as it is said to be haunted by Mackenzie's violent spirit - people have reported being shoved and scratched. The entrance to the tomb is locked after several break ins, but you can still peer through the grill in the front door if you dare...

David dares to take a peek in Mackenzie's Mausoleum

Harry Potter fans also like to visit Greyfriars Kirkyard as several of the stones depict names similar to characters from the books, including Black, McGonagall and Tom Riddle - perhaps JK Rowling took a walk through for inspiration while she was writing in Edinburgh?

We have a complete guide to visiting Greyfriars Kirkyard here.

Jumping back onboard, stay on the bus until Stop 10 for Holyrood Palace, passing Canongate Kirk where the Queen's granddaughter Zara Phillips married former England rugby captain Mike Tindall in 2011. Can you spot the Royal Standard above the round window?

Still a working Royal residence (the Queen stays here while visiting Scottish Parliament), Holyrood has been the home of many famous Scottish royals including King James IV (he married Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII's sister, in the abbey next door), Mary, Queen of Scots and Charles II, who designed the current building. Inside, you can explore state rooms used today by the royal family to receive visitors, living and dining rooms used by Queen Victoria, and Mary, Queen of Scots' rooms. Her bedroom has a beautiful wooden ceiling, and in the room next door, a dubious looking red stain marks the floor where her personal secretary Rizzio was murdered by her husband's men...

Your Holyrood Palace ticket includes an audio guide

Outside, you can walk around the dramatic abbey ruins and gardens, overlooked by Salisbury Crags and Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh's famous volcanic peak. Weather and daylight permitting, you could end your bus trip here and climb Arthur's Seat this afternoon (it's a moderate/steep climb that will take about 45 minutes on the way up, and slightly longer on the way down) or save it for another day, hop back on board and get off at Stop 12 to climb Calton Hill instead!

This easy hill only takes about 10 minutes to climb and is scattered with interesting monuments like the half finished Greek Temple style National Monument and the Nelson Monument, dedicated to Horatio Nelson and designed to look like a telescope. From up here you will have spectacular 360 degree views of the city of Edinburgh, Holyrood, Arthur's Seat and the Firth of Forth - on a clear day you might even see the Forth Bridge!

Abraham Lincoln in Old Calton Cemetery

Across the road from the steps up the hill is Old Calton Cemetery, full of very old graves and tombs. A huge obelisk is dedicated to five political reformers who were transported to Australia in 1974, and a nearby statue of Abraham Lincoln is a memorial to Scottish American soldiers in the American Civil War. Erected in 1893 at American expense, it is the only monument to the American Civil War outside of the States, and the only statue of Lincoln in Scotland!

If you're leaving Edinburgh here, you're only a 5 minute walk from Waverley train station. Otherwise, if they're still running (the last bus leaves Stop 1 at 17:54), why not hop back on a passing City Sightseeing bus and catch a lift back past stop 1 into the Old Town (stops 3 or 6).

You can book your tickets to the Edinburgh City Sightseeing Bus Tour here!

Tickets are valid for 12 months and can be cancelled for free up to 24 hours before your chosen date. Plus KIDS GO FREE until March 31st 2023! You can add up to three free kids' tickets per adult ticket when you order online.

We used the 24 hour "iconic" ticket, but City Sightseeing also offers a 48 hour "Value" ticket, which includes a boat trip to see the Firth of Forth plus access to other bus routes so you can visit further afield attractions like the Royal Botanic Gardens and the Royal Yacht Britannia. Alternatively, the 48 hour "Ultimate" ticket covers all three routes but swaps the Forth of Firth boat trip for entry to Edinburgh Castle, the Royal Yacht Britannia and Holyrood, which will save you a serious chunk of cash! Visiting more of Scotland? the "Essential" ticket pairs a 24 hour Edinburgh bus tour with City Sightseeing's Glasgow bus tour!

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Disclosure: we were gifted two 24 hour tickets for the Edinburgh City Sightseeing Bus Tour in return for a blog and Instagram content, but we were not paid to post and as always, all opinions are our own!


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