Edinburgh is one of my favourite cities! 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.
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Edinburgh as a city used to be literally just the royal mile area. 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.
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 these populated areas. To support the bridges arches were created underneath – which led to the creation of underground vaults which became the centre of life for many of the poor of the city.
Edinburgh Vaults Tour – Lost and Then Found
Alas, disease broke out in the vaults area which led to an evacuation of the area and the vaults being sealed. They were then forgotten – until a pub owner discovered a vault in the 1980s. The 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………….
Edinburgh Vaults Tour: The Options
There are several ways to explore Edinburgh Underground. The vaults have been essentially divided up amongst tour companies and pubs and other interested organisations. Most have some type of exclusivity around their vault – and I believe there are circa 120 vaults or rooms.
There are 5 key ways to see the vaults depending on what time of year you are in Edinburgh:
1. Ghost Tours
This 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 vaults – and the fate of some of its inhabitants. These tours are generally held in the evening – adds some atmosphere! Click here for some Ghost Tour options.
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 with vault rooms in the one session?
4. Private Function
The south sides of the vaults 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.
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 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 Underground Tour: Mercat Tours Edinburgh
Mercat Tours offer a range of ghost, history and private tours of Edinburgh. One of their most well known, and the tour that I took, was the Historic Underground Tour. This tour has exclusive access to the Blair Street Underground Vaults – the largest system of underground caverns in Edinburgh.
Click here to book your edinburghs historic vaults walking tour
The tour 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 that led to the creation of the vaults. There are lots of fantastically gross and icky stories!
After an overview overground we walked a short distance to the Blair Street Underground Vaults and headed underground! Mercat Tours have done a great job at keeping the 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 modernisation.
The guide 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!
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 tour finishes in the Discovery Room which features a mix of different types of exhibits with various levels of interactivity.
I really enjoyed this 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 period.
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.
The tour finishes not far away at the Blair Street Underground Vaults.
The tour runs for about one hour and 15 minutes
Edinburgh Underground City Tour: The Real Mary King’s Close
The Real Mary King’s Close is perhaps the most famous Edinburgh underground Tour. This 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 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:
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????
Getting to Edinburgh
Search here for Cheap Flights to Edinburgh.
A quick and cheap way to get from the airport to the centre of Edinburgh is to take the 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.
Keep up the perky mood with a visit to the Edinburgh Dungeon! Buy your edinburgh dungeon ticket here.
And don’t leave Edinburgh without visiting edinburgh castle ticket.
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! This is a very unique and special experience.
I started my visit 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 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 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!
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 Here!
Great Deals for those visiting Scotland from outside the UK
Visit Great Britain has some fantastic offers that are just for those who live outside the UK. It is possible to make significant savings if you book certain things before you travel – not to mention how much easier it is to already have tickets for things when you arrive!
If you have just moved to the UK you can buy these passes in your first six months of residency.
There are a number of Brit Rail passes available. Rail is a brilliant way to get around the UK – the train services are generally pretty good and there are good timetables. The most important thing to check is what kind of pass you need. The best way to determine this is to start by checking this map against where you are planning to visit.
There are two options available for 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. This covers all rail within Scotland and even some of the ferries to the islands.
If you’re planning on travelling around England and Scotland then the best option is to buy the BritRail GB Pass. This covers all train journeys across all of the United Kingdom.
All of the above take the form of paper tickets that will be mailed to your home address.
There is a new BritRail MPass which has an eticket that can be downloaded onto a mobile. However, it has one key restriction which is that the travel must be taken on consecutive days so make sure you check if this suits your plans before purchasing.
Book Your BritRail Passes Here
If you prefer travelling via a bus to train then check out the skimmer pass national express coach. National Express travels to over 1000 locations and has free wifi, usb and power sockets, onboard entertainment, air conditioning and reclining leather seats!
Minicabs can be a great way to get around the UK. Minicabit taxi booking covers 300 UK towns and cities and can be booked as far as one year out. These can be particularly good for getting from a train station to hotels/b&Bs.
One of the best value offers for overseas visitors are National Trust passes. These passes cover entry to a large number of major attractions and stately homes within the UK. If you will be visiting a few of their properties these passes very quickly become amazing value.
The Historic Scotland Explorer Pass covers more than 75 properties including Edinburgh and Stirling Castles, Urquhart Castle at Lochness and many more.
The Scottish Heritage Pass covers over 120 properties but can only be used between April 1 and October 31.
Click Here to see All Deals on UK Sightseeing passes
UK Travel Essentials
Grab a WorldSIM PrePaid Global SIM Card to stay in touch at reasonable prices. Access WIFI at local rates with the mobile wi fi rental wireless internet anywhere you go in britain. This in your pocket wifi can be picked up at Heathrow or Paddington Station.
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 – 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. Wow wow wow! The restaurant is named 21212 because of the structure of the menu. There are 3 choices for 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 vegetable. 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 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 ssuper-stylishboutique 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.
More things to Read about Scotland
I do love Scotland! And I like to write about it on this blog! Here are a few other posts on Scotland you might enjoy reading:
If you’re going to spend some time in Glasgow check out my post on the 19 Best Glasow Tours and Day Trips
Edinburgh Underground City Tour Map
If you click through on some of the links in this post and make a purchase I will receive a small commission. Just wanted to make sure you knew.
Thanks very much to Luxury Scotland for helping me to plan and sponsoring my trip to fabulous Scotland.
Also published on Medium.