Edinburgh is a historic city in which you can see beauty and heritage everywhere you look. If you're local to the area, or are visiting, and want to see the more hidden side to Edinburgh's beauty, I've compiled a list of must-see, free hidden gems to explore in walking distance from the city centre. These are things or areas that you might walk past and not even know they're there!
1. Dundas House
Dundas House, St Andrews Square, is certainly a beautiful building from the outside. A large, detached, category A listed building, initially it comes as a surprise that this is the Headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland. Despite the grand and beautiful exteriors, the interiors of this building are the real hidden gem. Step inside to be greeted with stunning, traditional, characterful interiors. The Bank offers information on the history of the Bank and building which are well worth a read, and sometimes there's a member of staff (often dressed in a kilt) who's more than happy to chat to you and offer more information. So, don't worry if you don't bank with RBS, they don't mind people wandering in to admire the building. And the masterpiece? Look up and you'll find the domed ceiling consisting of 120 different sized stars which are also featured on the Royal Bank of Scotland's bank notes!
The Roof of Dundas House, Royal Bank of Scotland Headquarters
Edinburgh University, established in 1568, is a world-renowned institution and resides in buildings all around the city. If you keep your eyes peeled you're sure to see their blue and red badge plastered on plenty of buildings, as well as their George Square and Bristo Square main campuses. If you're not a student, however, you may not have seen the full delights of the historic buildings that are home to the University. The first one to check out is New College, School of Divinity, which sits proudly and mightily on the top of the Mound. Originally established as a college of the Free Church of Scotland in 1846, this premise was later acquired by the University in the 1930s. You've probably seen the building which is visible from Princes Street, but what's well worth doing is wandering inside to see the stunning courtyard. It feels like you've stepped into Hogwarts! You won't be able to get through the doors into the actual library and lecture spaces as there's a student card swipe system in operation, nevertheless, it's well worth popping in to see the courtyard.
Old College is another one well worth exploring. Sitting unexpectedly on South Bridge, look up and you'll notice the magnificent dome. Again, just because you're not a student of the university, doesn't mean you can't head in and look around. You'll find the stunning quadrangle, housing some of the University's Administration offices, lecture theatres, the department of Law, the stunning Playfair Library, and the Talbot Rice Gallery. Tip: if you have time, the Gallery is well worth a visit. It's free to the public and houses contemporary art exhibitions throughout the year.
Another one to wander in to is the Old Medical School just a couple of minutes away from Old College. You'll first see the grand McEwan Hall where the students graduate, and then a small archway on a conjoined building which will take you into the Old Medical quad. Now housing the School of History, Classics, and Archaeology, lecture theatres, and some science offices, this is another must-see historical location in the heart of the city. Whilst there you can head through a passage way leading to the impressive Reid Concert Hall, and then to Teviot Row House, the oldest purpose-built student union in the world! Tip: on the last Saturday of every month the University's Anatomical Museum is open to the public. It is well worth going if you get the chance.
The Royal Mile is a historical Old Town landmark that you can't miss when in Edinburgh. There are loads of narrow and historical alley ways and passage ways which transport you from the Royal Mile to surrounding streets which are worth exploring, but there are also many closes that you might not have explored. The closes are usually closed off and are occupied by small houses or flats. I find that you'll find more as you head down the Royal Mile towards the Parliament.
One of my favourites is White Horse Close. The small, characterful houses in this closed off courtyard date back from the 17th century, and offer a unique style of architecture. The houses are unusual and quaint, and in the courtyard is a small spot of peace on the bustling Royal Mile.
Another great spot is Chessels Court. Less hidden away, noticeable through arches, yet still a hidden gem that many don't notice or wander into. Built in the 18th century as a garden for the surrounding flats and houses, you'll find a lush green space in the heart of the city. Noise seems to leave you behind here, and you're met with a beautiful garden in bloom.
Dunbar Close is another slice of nature hidden away from the bustle of the city centre. This historical 18th-century garden would have once been the resting place of some of the city's wealthiest. Before you go make sure to check the opening times as the garden is well looked after and monitored by the Council. Find opening times on the Council's website, here.
Sugarhouse Close is a bit different. It has recently been occupied by 'Unite Students' who have created student accommodation out of the old workhouses, creating a minimalist style, wooden clad housing. Its history does date back to the 18th century however, where the site was home to sugar houses or refineries. It is well worth wandering in to, despite its recent change of purpose. I always enjoy the contrast of contemporary exteriors against the magnificent backdrop of The Crags.
This graveyard sits at the foot of Calton Hill and was opened in 1718. I always find that it's so easy to miss, even though it sits in the heart of the city at the east end of Princes Street, as it's concealed by large screen walls. It's well worth a visit, however, being home to the graves of many prominent Scottish historical figures including philosopher David Hume, publishers Archibald Constable and William Blackwood, and scientist William Playfair. Another hidden gem within the burial ground is the little-known statue of Abraham Lincoln commemorating the American Civil War, which is apparently the only monument to the Civil War outside of the United States.
5. Edinburgh's Mews
Many of Edinburgh's Mews were originally built as stable houses during the construction of the city's New Town built around approximately 1760-1850. The Mews have more recently been converted into houses of their own, and are dainty, quaint, and well worth a peek at. The Mews houses seem so at odds with the grand Georgian architecture of the towering tenements that surround them, and one of the most popular Mews has to be Circus Lane, sandwiched between two rows of mighty tenements. Circus Lane is completely endearing, and so well kept by the residents, a must see!
Another beautiful spot is Carlton Terrace Mews. Hidden away between Royal Terrace and Regent Terrace near Princes Street and Calton Hill, this Mews is truly hidden away and unlikely to be stumbled upon unless you're looking for it. The houses occupy a small square, giving it a truly unique and intimate feel. What's more is that the residents of these miniature houses share a communal garden in the centre of the square where they hang their clothes, grow plants, and sit and chat on benches. This place has a real distinct and magical charm. Tip: After visiting, be sure to also head Royal Terrace Mews just a minutes walk away.
A list of hidden gems in Edinburgh wouldn't be complete without mentioning Dean's Village. Although it may be quite well known, it is a spot of true beauty hidden away in the city centre. Upon entering, you feel as if you've wandered into a completely different city, and Dean Village was in fact a separate village until the 19th century. You can certainly still spot its distinctive industrial past- just look out for the water mills, mill stones, and carved stone plaques. Don't miss Well Court, originally built in 1880 for the local workers, and now used as flats, you can expect stunning, unique architecture, and a real sense of community- just look out for the communal clothes washing lines.
After admiring Well Court, head down to the Water of Leith. You'll see a foot bridge, over which you'll spot a beautiful yellow tudor style houses perched on the quaint cobbled street. You can follow the Water of Leith to find the mighty Dean Bridge designed by Thomas Telford, and the temple of St Bernard's Well before arriving in lovely Stockbridge. This is a true area of nature, history, peace, and calm, right in the city centre. One of Edinburgh's truly hidden gems!