The Hidden Havens of Edinburgh’s Old Town
The streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town are often busy, but none more so than in August during the Edinburgh Festival. In this mad, brilliant and crazy month in Edinburgh, with so many people on the streets and so many sights for the senses to take in, our streets can often feel rather intense. Luckily there are some amazing hidden havens of Edinburgh’s Old Town and they are literally steps from the hubbub.
Hidden Havens of Edinburgh’s Old Town
Escape to these havens for a moment or two and take time to relax, before heading back into the fun-packed streets. Learn something of Edinburgh’s (sometimes gruesome but always fascinating) history too. Edinburgh’s hidden havens are here to be discovered… you just need to know where to find them and in this blog you’ll find out where the best are.
To wander into a close off Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and discover a beautiful garden feels delightful. If you’ve been on a tour of this part of Edinburgh, you might think that only the most gruesome things happened in our closes (lots of grim things did happen!) So, when you come across upon a serene sanctuary in the midst of all the historic gruesomeness, it feels rather special.
Dunbar’s Close at 137 Canongate is a treasure. Take a book or a sandwich and wander into this close. Turn a corner and find the most elegant miniature 17th-century garden. Cobbled and gravel pathways are edged with low green box hedges. Feel a sense of unexpected calm and order as you discover the symmetrical beds planted with yew, bay, honeysuckle, lavender, espaliered apples, and other delights.
There are perfectly placed benches to enjoy the symmetry and a little area of lawn at the back where you can lie down and snooze for a while on a sunny day imagining a time when the Canongate was full of gardens like this and at its most grand. We love this garden!
Further up the Royal Mile and tucked away by John Knox House lies Trunk’s Close. Walk into the close and be sure to look back and up to see just how narrow these historic closes are. Walk past the Cockburn Association – the clever folk who organise the Days Open weekend in September – and turn right. Enter a tiny garden belonging to Sandeman House where the Scottish Book Trust is based.
In this gloriously tranquil spot, you’ll find a wonderful sculpture of Patrick Geddes on a beehive plinth. Patrick Geddes is known as the father of town planning. He was an extraordinary person who counted Charles Darwin, Mahatma Gandhi and Albert Einstein as admirers and this was one of his keyhole gardens, designed to allow light and space into an overcrowded Old Town. His mission was to solve the slum housing and sanitation issues of the Old Town. Edinburgh owes him a great debt.
Whilst in this lower section of the Royal Mile, it’s well worth spending a little time in the Museum of Edinburgh at 142-146 Canongate. Discover fascinating Edinburgh artifacts including a brilliant historic model of the Royal Mile. Not many people seek out the courtyard garden at the back.
Here, bits of carved stone, rescued from around the city, have found a peaceful resting place. There are a couple of tables and chairs, so you can rest in this hidden haven too. Near the archway, you’ll see three innocent looking stones. These came from the infamous Netherbow Port, the old entrance to the city (you can see it in the model upstairs.) It’s thought that one of these stone held the spike upon which severed heads were displayed as a warning to those entering the city not to stray into criminal ways!
Very few people realise that you can visit Parliament Hall at 11 Parliament Square. It’s free too. This amazing space is where the last Parliament of Scotland sat before the controversial Act of Union in 1707. Find it across the car park behind St Giles’ Cathedral. It’s now the home of the Supreme Court. Underneath the extraordinary hammer-beam roof, watch advocates pacing up and down the hall talking to their clients or on their mobile. The size of the space means that no one can hear what they’re saying. The hall is lined with portraits of the great and good and up high you’ll see a tiny window a man used to look through and announce the court was in session. It was in this room here that Deacon Brodie faced trial and lost.
Magdalen Chapel is a tiny little treasure at 41 Cowgate (open Tue, Thur and Fri) 10am to 2pm. it dates from 1541 and contains Scotland’s only remaining medieval stained glass. The main chapel was used by The Hammermen, a kind of trades union for Edinburgh craftspeople who worked with “hammer and with hand” All around the walls you’ll find panels detailing in gold lettering the Hammerman and his donation. Underneath the window, there’s a plain wooden table with leaflets. This ancient table has a gruesome past. It was here that the headless bodies of executed Scottish Covenanters were brought, rescued by Helen Alexander, so they could have a Christian burial in Greyfriars rather than being dumped in a mass grave.
Terrace With A View
Most visitors to Edinburgh will visit our brilliant National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street, but not everyone realises that there’s an amazing roof garden here too with the most spectacular views over the city. Take a lift straight to the 7th floor from the Kingdom of the Scots gallery near the tower entrance.
Once upon the amazing rooftop, you’ll find sculptures by Andy Goldsworthy celebrating the father of geology, James Hutton. All the planting is designed to replicate the natural plants in the landscape you can view beyond. But the views are the thing here. Spectacular Edinburgh is laid out before you in all it’s splendour. I’m not sure there’s a better skyline anywhere in the world.
We hope that you’ve enjoyed reading about The Hidden Havens of Edinburgh’s Old Town. Comment here and let us know if you’ve visited any and which was your favourite. And if you discover any other hideaways, please let us know about them! Here are 5 things we love to do in the Old Town too.
You can also stay in a haven in the Old Town. Our one-bedroom home in St Mary’s Street is very special.