Edinburgh is one of my favourite cities. It has so much history, so much character, and so much to do when you visit. I have now been there several times and there are always different things on offer.
This trip I decided to do something I had never done before – explore Edinburgh underground by taking the 2 most popular Edinburgh Vaults Tour Options.
⇒ Book Your Edinburgh historic vaults walking tour
Edinburgh as a city used to be literally just the royal mile area or what is now the Old Town Edinburgh. The city is built on hills so when it began to fill up the only way to accommodate people was to go up and down.
Streets known as Closes began to be filled with houses literally on top of each other. And thus began the creation of a city under Edinburgh.
As those who could afford it moved out of the centre of Edinburgh to the new town roads were built between the royal mile and the new town – literally over this populated underground city in Edinburgh Scotland.
To support the bridges arches were created underneath – which led to the creation of underground vaults and the Edinburgh underground streets which became the centre of life for many of the poor of the city.
⇒ Edinburgh is also home to some fantastic boutique hotels. Click here to find out some fantastic places to stay in Edinburgh.
Edinburgh Vaults Tour – Lost and Then Found
Table of Contents
- 1 Edinburgh Vaults Tour – Lost and Then Found
- 2 5 Ways to Explore Underground Edinburgh
- 3 Edinburgh Vaults Tours
- 4 Getting to Edinburgh
- 5 Edinburgh Ghost Tour
- 6 Don’t Miss When You’re in Edinburgh
- 7 The Best Place to Stay – and Eat – in Edinburgh
- 8 Edinburgh Underground City Tour Map
- 9 Who Paid for What in this Post
Alas, disease broke out in the Edinburgh old city underground which led to an evacuation of this underground village Edinburgh and the vaults being sealed.
The underground hidden city Edinburgh was then forgotten – until a pub owner discovered a vault in the 1980s. The Edinburgh Scotland underground vaults were excavated and have now been turned into a major tourist activity as well as function rooms etc.
Underground Edinburgh is also renowned for apparently having many ghosts………….and now just as many Edinburgh ghost tours.
5 Ways to Explore Underground Edinburgh
There are several ways to explore Edinburgh Underground City. The Edinburgh vaults have been essentially divided up amongst tour companies, tour guides, pubs and other interested organisations.
Most tour groups have some type of exclusivity around their vault – and I believe there are circa 120 vaults or rooms in the Edinburgh city underground.
There are 5 key ways to see the Edinburgh vaults depending on what time of year you are in Edinburgh:
1. Edinburgh Vaults Ghost Adventures Tours
The underground ghost tour is one of the best-known uses of the vaults. There are many stories of ghosts – and some dreadful stories around what life was like living in the Edinburgh vaults – and the fate of some of its inhabitants.
These Edinburgh tours underground are generally held as an evening tour – adds some atmosphere. [separator type=”thin”]
⇒ Edinburgh Ghost Tours [separator type=”thin”]
2. Edinburgh Underground Tour or Edinburgh Vaults Tours
These are the subject of this post. The two best known are the Mercat and Mary King’s Close. Read further on for my reviews of both.
3. Pubs and/or a Pub Crawl
Or why not go on a pub crawl specifically designed to visit multiple pubs in Edinburgh with vault rooms in the one session?
4. Private Function
The southbridge vaults of Edinburgh old have an area that hosts weddings, live music, private dining and the occasional club night. Check out the Unusual Venues Edinburgh website if this is of interest.
There are some fantastic UK City and Sightseeing passes which offer free entry to all must-see attractions & great deals.
5. Edinburgh Festival
The Edinburgh Festival is one of the biggest arts festivals in the world and is held every August. During this time the vaults that are currently used just for private functions, as well as several unused vaults, are turned into venues for Edinburgh Festival events.
Heading to Edinburgh for just one day? Make sure you don’t miss anything by reading this great One Day in Edinburgh Guide
Edinburgh Vaults Tours
1. Mercat Tours Edinburgh
Mercat Tours offer a range of ghost walk Edinburgh, 18th-century history and private tours of Edinburgh. One of their most well known, and the tour that I took, was the Historic Edinburgh Underground City Tour.
This tour has exclusive access to the Blair Street Underground Vaults – the largest system of underground caverns in Edinburgh.
⇒ Book your Edinburgh historic vaults walking tour
The ghostly underground vaults tour Edinburgh begins outside – at the Mercat Cross (see planning & logistics further down). I had a brilliant French guide. An unexpected nationality but she was fabulous and super knowledgeable.
She provides all of the backgrounds on what was happening in Scotland in the 18th century that led to the creation of the vaults. There are lots of fantastically gross and icky stories about Edinburgh Scotland.
After an overview overground we walked a short distance to the Blair Street Underground Vaults and headed for our underground vaults tour.
Mercat Tours have done a great job of keeping these ghostly underground vaults authentic. They are pretty much untouched and lit by candles. Only the most necessary safety measures have been put in when it comes to modernization.
The guide on this Edinburgh tour did a brilliant job bringing the era – and especially its smells – to life. I could almost hear the roaring of voices in the tavern vault – and smell the excessive amount of Claret being drunk.
⇒ Heading to London? Check out my posts on 13 Unusual Experiences in London, the best London Food Tours, my virtual London Travel Blog, some great Earlsfield restaurants, 14 Things to do in Notting Hill, restaurants near Clapham Junction and Victoria Station restaurants, 16 Famous Landmarks in Europe, a mad hatter afternoon tea party and a day trip to Brighton, 18 Landmarks of London from a local, 15 Places to see Sunsets in London, 9 Places to watch the Sunrise in London, 10 Bridges in London Not to Miss and Cotswolds tour from London options. [separator type=”thick”]
I had two favourite stories. One involved Judge Newton and his unique approach to contemplating judgments. The second is that for the first time I now actually understand what a body snatcher is and how that term came about.
I also realise that it was a fabulously lucrative occupation at the time. I won’t ruin your tour by telling you anything more…………..
The Mercat tour finishes in the Discovery Room which features a mix of different types of exhibits with various levels of interactivity.
I really enjoyed this Edinburgh south bridge vaults tour. The stories were enthralling and the telling was done particularly well. My only comment would be that it could be quite a bit to ask a kid to pay attention over this time duration.
British Rail Passes for Overseas Visitors
Rail is a brilliant way to get around Scotland. The BritRail Central Scotland Pass covers the key central cities in Scotland – Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stirling and Fife Station. If you’re planning on exploring the Highlands and the islands of Scotland then a better option is the BritRail Scottish Freedom Pass.
Mercat Tours Edinburgh Planning & Logistics
I booked online the day before but if you are in Edinburgh during the summer – particularly August – I would suggest booking at least one week ahead.
November-March there are 2 tours a day: 2pm and 4pm April-October there are 4 tours a day: 11am, 12pm, 2pm & 4pm The tour starts at The Mercat Cross which is in front of St Giles Cathedral and literally just off the Royal Mile.
About Mercat – this tour company was started by a history teacher which makes a lot of sense after you have completed the tour. Tours are conducted in English.
The tour finishes not far away at the Blair Street Underground Vaults. The tour runs for about one hour and 15 minutes
2. The Real Mary King’s Close
The Real Mary King’s Close is perhaps the most famous Edinburgh underground Tour. The Real Mary King’s Close tour is quite a different type of tour to the Mercat Tour. It is far more interactive and theatrical.
A key thing to know: You cannot take photos on this tour (you can on the Mercat Tour)
Your Mary Kings Close tour will be led by a character guide who has been based on a real person who lived in Edinburgh’s Closes in the 17th century – it could be the maid, the merchant, the plague cleaner or the doctor.
He or she will be dressed in keeping with the time and provide their own perspective on the goings-on in the close. You will move through different rooms and areas within the close and see recreations.
These vary from rather realistic-looking miserable statues of people in bed with the plague to some pretty cool video projection within mirrors.
This tour very much brings the time to life and has some memorable moments. If you are taking the tour with your family (kids 5 years and over can go on the tour),
I would definitely recommend the Mary King’s Close tour ahead of Mercat. However, the Mercat Tour offers a more in-depth understanding of the time of the vaults, how life in the vaults worked and why life in the vaults ended.
Mary King’s Close Tour Planning & Logistics
As above, I booked online the day before but if you are in Edinburgh during the summer – particularly August – I would suggest booking at least one week ahead.
Mary King’s Close is open every day apart from Christmas Days, with tours tending to run every 15 minutes.
Opening Hours are: December-March Sun-Thu: 10am-5pm Fri-Sat: 10am-9pm April-October Mon-Sun: 10am-9pm November Sun: 930am – 6:30pm Mon-Thu: 9am – 5:30pm Fri-Sat: 9:30am – 9:00pm
Mary King’s Close is located on the Royal Mile – next door to the City Chambers and opposite St Giles’ Cathedral – literally steps away from the Mercat Cross where the Mercat tour meets.
Top Tip: If you are really interested in Underground Edinburgh it is quite easy to do both tours virtually in a row – which is what I did. They are very different experiences and I am quite glad that I did both.
If I had of had more time I also would have probably added in an underground vaults pub tour.
Hmm, I am starting to wonder if I have a bit of an underground infatuation???? And check out Auld Reekie Tours for some more Edinburgh ghost tours and some that also include the Edinburgh vaults stone circle.
Getting to Edinburgh
A quick and cheap way to get from the airport to the centre of Edinburgh is to take Edinburgh Airport to City Centre Bus Transfer
Edinburgh Ghost Tour
If the Edinburgh Vaults Tour has left you wanting more you might enjoy taking one of Edinburgh’s ghost tours. Hop on the Ghost Bus Tour of Edinburgh and you’ll get a sightseeing tour of Edinburgh as well as some amusing ghostly tales.
Don’t Miss When You’re in Edinburgh
I must confess the only thing I knew about the Royal Yacht Britannia before I visited was what I had seen of it in The Crown. However, this produced enough interest for me (as tv tends to do!) to get me to visit.
I am so glad that I did. Visiting the Royal Yacht Britannia is a very unique and special experience.
I started my visit to the Royal Yacht Britannia with afternoon tea. Many choose to end with this but I was starving so I kicked off by enjoying some delicious sandwiches and even more delicious scones in the lovely lovely tea room.
The tea room has floor to ceiling windows overlooking the water which is just lovely. And then on to the Royal Yacht tour.
You will receive an audio guide which is particularly well done. They have really got that balance between too much and too little information correct.
After taking the tour I really felt like I had a sense of what life was like on the Royal Yacht Britannia. I most enjoyed being able to see and in some cases walk through the private areas of the royal family.
It felt so special being, in one case, in a room where most of the major players of the 20th century had visited at least once.
⇒ Planning a trip to England or Wales? Don’t miss my posts on the 40 Top English Landmarks, The Crown Filming Locations, Most Beautiful Castles in Cornwall and Boutique Hotels in Cornwall, Boutique Hotels in Kent, Where to Stay in the Cotswolds, 61 Magnificent Landmarks of the UK, Places to Visit in South Wales, Fun Things to do in Cardiff, Luxury Hotels in Yorkshire, Spa Hotels in the South West, Day trip to Brighton, Things to do in Exmouth, Cafes in Exeter, Pubs with Rooms in the New Forest, Ockenden Manor Spa and the Best Things to do in Winchester.
How to find the Royal Yacht Britannia
The Royal Yacht Britannia is located as part of the Ocean Terminal shopping centre in the Leith area of Edinburgh. If you are driving there is free parking in the shopping centre and it is very well signed.
Once you’ve parked head into the shopping centre and follow the directions.
⇒ Book Your Royal Yacht Britannia Tickets
The Best Place to Stay – and Eat – in Edinburgh
I rather fell in love with 21212 – a restaurant with Rooms! 21212 is a wonderful boutique hotel in a wonderfully central yet quiet part of Edinburgh.
The hotel is literally 4 rooms. Oh, but what rooms they are! Wonderfully stylish, incredibly comfortable, beautifully designed – I could wax lyrical for quite some time.
I even had a mini corner couch in my room at 21212 – love a corner couch – and such a comfortable bed. I slept incredibly well. And the sloe gin in the room was a particularly nice touch. The room was magnificent.
And then there was the food at 21212. Wow wow wow! The restaurant is named 21212 because of the structure of the menu. There are 3 choices for a starter. Then there is 1 soup. 3 Choices for main. 1 cheese. 3 choices for dessert. And an amuse-bouche to begin.
I started with the “Haggis it’s Risotto” which featured aubergine and onion. It was amazing. If haggis always tasted like this I would never stop eating it.
The soup sounded simple – spring vegetables. It was a taste sensation. It felt wrong to call it a soup as it was so much more flavourful and complex than any soup I have ever eaten.
I can’t resist a surf and turf on a menu so I had the Piatto a base di Carne Pesce as my main. The beef was just ridiculously good. My eyes closed involuntarily with each bite as I so so enjoyed it. And wow the scallops – amazing.
I then finished off with the “Ooh Bee Hive” (did I mention everything at 21212 Edinburgh has a fabulous name?) which featured honey, chocolate and mango.
And a tiny shot of banana smoothie which was multi-layered and really I don’t know exactly what it was but gosh it was so so so good.
21212 is a really special, wonderful, unique place to visit and I highly recommend at minimum eating here – but gosh so nice when you just have to walk up the stairs to go to bed – in a luxe super-stylish boutique hotel.
Top tip: Work off some of that Michelin star food with a walk up Calton Hill – it is literally less than 100 metres from the hotel to the start of the path. You will also be rewarded with stunning views over Edinburgh.
Edinburgh Underground City Tour Map
Who Paid for What in this Post
Luxury Scotland was kind enough to help me to plan my trip, organise my hire car, cover the costs of my hotels and most of my dinners and breakfasts. I paid for my flights and the tours in this post.
If you click through on most of the links in this post and make a purchase I will receive a small commission. This will not affect the price that you pay. I just wanted to let you know.
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