If there’s one tour in Edinburgh I’d recommend above all others, it would be the Real Mary King’s Close Tour. This tour has a little of everything – history, architecture, culture, and even a ghost story. Best of all, since the whole tour is indoors and seemly underground (not really, but more on that later), it’s the perfect attraction for a rainy day in Edinburgh.
What is Mary King’s Close?
To understand what a close is, I have to give a short history lesson. Over 300 million years ago, Edinburgh had some volcanic activity and the three volcanic hills of Arthur’s Seat, Calton Hill, and Castle Rock were formed. Later on, a glacier moved into the region, split on Castle Rock, and carved out two valleys with the volcanic ridge in the middle. The original city of Edinburgh was built atop the volcanic ridge. Later on, after the Scottish lost the battle of Flodden against the English, the historic center was surrounded by a wall, keeping the city confined to a very small footprint.
The layout of the town consisted of the castle at the top of the hill and the high street running down the ridge eastward from the castle. Hundreds of small streets branched off this single road toward the valleys on either side. The homes of Edinburgh were built along these alleyways, stacked on top of each other to create the world’s first skyscrapers – some up to 14 floors or more in the 16th century!
Scottish names for the streets were close, court, entry, and wynd. Wynds were public thoroughfares, although sometimes barely three feet wide (think winding, twisting, and turning). Closes were private roads with a locked door or gate at the entrance, hence “close” for being closed. The streets were named after a notable person or perhaps a profession that took place on the street. Some examples are Old Fisherman’s Close, Ceddes’ Entry, Bell’s Wynd, and Writer’s Court.
The streets in Edinburgh were only given names starting in 1530. Mary King’s Close was the second-widest street in Edinburgh, after the High Street, although Mary King’s Close was the fourth name applied to the street. As it was so wide, it was often used as a market street, leaving not much space for pedestrians.
Tours of Mary King’s Close
My First Tour
The first time I took the Real Mary King’s Close tour, the day was both sunny and snowing. In other words, beautiful and freezing. Not the best day for a hike…not that the weather would have stopped me, so I figured I’d pick an indoor attraction. If you are looking for something to do in Edinburgh that’s out of the cold or bad weather and doesn’t take too long, the Real Mary King’s Close is a perfect choice! I’ve since done the tour several times with different friends who’ve come to see Edinburgh.
I had the pleasure of getting Paul as my tour guide on my first tour. Subsequent tour guides were just as good, but he definitely added his own flair and humor to the tour. As my group was relatively small, it made for a great experience. After all, it’s only an hour-long tour.
I’m not going to spoil the tour too much since I still want to you do the tour yourself, but here’s a summary of what you can expect.
A Synopsis of The Real Mary King’s Close Tour
The tour starts off in an exhibition room where you can see a 3D model of the original close and surrounding buildings. There’s also a video playing on the wall showing original maps of Edinburgh and the history of how the city was built. A member of staff will give you the rules, safety measures, and expectations of the tour.
From there, the guide takes everyone down two floors to the close to see some of the original dwelling spaces. The first several rooms are recreations of life in the 1600s when Mary King resided on the street. There is a gruesome tale of what happened with one of the residents of the close, not uncommon for that era. The following room has a really interesting audio-visual presentation covering some of the contemporary events in the 17th century.
The next few rooms are a bit more sinister, as they cover the story of the plague which decimated Edinburgh (and much of the world) in 1645. Due to records getting lost over the centuries, it’s unknown exactly how many people perished during the plague. Considering how closely packed everyone was in those days (up to 16 people from three families crammed in the same small room), the mortality rate was extremely high. There are recreations of plague doctors and living conditions for those afflicted.
Another series of rooms show how some of the basements in Edinburgh were converted into bomb shelters during World War II. There’s another video in one of the rooms, but it doesn’t always play due to faulty (or perhaps cursed) wiring.
Lastly, there are the ghosts. While the tour primarily focuses on the history of Edinburgh, they just can’t avoid the topic of the supernatural in the most haunted city in the world. Various apparitions have been known to haunt the close over the centuries. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, there’s one particular room that has built up a rather famous reputation in recent years for a particular character.
The final part of the tour is a photo opportunity standing on Mary King’s Close. This is the only photo you’ll be able to get on the tour.
A Herstory Tour
There are a few unique tours presented by the Real Mary King’s Close throughout the year. One of these is called A Herstory Tour. This one is delivered a few times throughout March in honor of Women’s History Month. The tour covers the usual route but focuses on the leading female figures of Edinburgh.
Unfortunately, women haven’t had the best representation in Edinburgh over the centuries. You might be able to notice this when you consider only 8 of the hundreds of sculptures and statues around Edinburgh are of women, and only one of those wasn’t a queen.
Other special tours include lantern-led experiences, whisky tastings at the end of the tour, etc. You can find all special events at Mary King’s Close here.
FAQ for the Real Mary King’s Close
Is Mary King’s Close Worth It?
Absolutely! I believe that The Real Mary King’s Close is one of the best tours to do in Edinburgh, especially if you have a very short amount of time in the city. Of course, if you have a bit more time, taking the Scottish food tour is also a great option.
How Long Does it Take to do Mary King’s Close?
The tour is roughly one hour long. You should be at the visitor center a few minutes early, and then you might want to spend a few minutes at the gift shop at the end, so give yourself an hour and a half to be on the safe side. There’s also a nice little cafe in the gift shop in case you want to get a drink before or after the tour.
Is Mary King’s Close the Same as the Vaults?
No. The vaults are referring to the rooms built within South Bridge. The bridge was constructed in 1788 with 19 arches and over 120 rooms within the arches. For various reasons (I don’t want to spoil the ghost tours that go there), the rooms were sealed off for nearly two hundred years, and are now very definitely haunted. These are the vault tours that you hear about in Edinburgh.
Is The Real Mary King’s Close Really Underground?
There are many tours in Edinburgh that claim to be underground. This is incorrect. As mentioned above, Edinburgh was built on an ancient volcanic ridge, and digging into the basalt wasn’t really an option or necessary for the original settlers. However, The Real Mary King’s Close certainly appears to be underground, considering there’s a large building above it.
In 1760, the Edinburgh City Chambers was built across the street from St Giles Cathedral. The building was originally the Royal Exchange and was big enough to span several closes. Instead of finding a new location, the city chopped the tops off the medieval “skyscrapers” and built the Royal Exchange on their foundations, leaving the original streets and lower levels intact. These areas were off-limits to the public until the Real Mary King’s Close opened as an attraction, giving tours centered around the close named after the wealthy merchant Mary King.
Can You Take Pictures in Mary King’s Close?
No. Ever since the foiled Gunpowder Plot of 1605 when Guy Fawkes tried to blow up parliament, it has been illegal to survey or photograph the support structure of government buildings without authorization.
What Should You Bring on the Tour?
The first thing to know about the Real Mary King’s Close is that it’s built under a governmental building – the City Chambers – and the supporting structures are apparently confidential, so photography is not permitted. As such, don’t bother bringing your camera. You’ll be able to get the photo provided by the tour itself.
Bring a pair of good shoes that won’t slip. This really applies to all of Edinburgh. The Real Mary King’s Close is quite steep, and while there are handrails, it’s a good idea to have a good pair of shoes anyway.
Finally, bring a little toy or stuffed animal with you. You’ll see why on the tour; I’m certainly not going to spoil the surprise!
Booking a Tour
Located directly opposite St Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile, Mary King’s Close is easy to find. With tours every 15 to 30 minutes throughout the day, you can almost always find the time that you want. Just book in advance during the summer as getting a tour as a walk-in is very difficult! Note there are discounts for seniors, students, children, and families.
The tour is quite user-friendly. Guides speak English, Spanish, and Italian, and there are audio guides in French, German, Spanish and Italian, and Mandarin. You can also show up for the tour right off the bus or plane with your luggage. Large lockers are available for your gear and extra layers you might be wearing since the underground attraction can be considerably warmer than the outside temperature. Unfortunately, there is no access for wheelchairs.
- Starting Location: Warriston’s Close, 2, High St, Edinburgh EH1 1PG
- Hours: Every 15-30 minutes depending on the season. Check the website for current hours.
- Price: Adult ticket – £21 ($25), this was £14.50 the first time I visited in 2016. Again, check the website for current prices.
- Website: The Real Mary King’s Close
- What to bring: Walking shoes and not your camera.
For more information about Edinburgh and Scotland, make sure to check out the rest of my Scotland articles.
Disclaimer: This was a complimentary tour organized in coordination with, The Real Mary King’s Close, Visit Scotland, and the Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions, all of which have my utmost gratitude!
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