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Did you know that everyone used to eat oysters in Edinburgh? This bougie meal from the sea was not reserved only for those who could afford to dine in Leith’s finest fish restaurants as it is today. This is one of the many unknown facts about the city we learned during this underground Edinburgh tour.
Have you been to Auld Reekie if you’ve not seen above and below the city? That’s right, among the closes and wynds of the Old Town is a bridge which has 19 arches, only one of which is visible.
Between these arches is a series of damp, dank vaults which were only recently discovered and now you can visit them during a guided Edinburgh vaults tour.
Edinburgh South Bridge
The construction of the South Bridge started in 1785 to connect the Old Town with the New Town in the south and to make way for the city’s first custom shopping street which is now where you see Subway near Hunter Square, just off the Royal Mile.
It was planned that trades such as cobblers would use the vaults as shop premises, but the rushed job of the build created unpleasant conditions and there was no sunshine or running water.
Alongside this, locals were suspicious that South Bridge was cursed so businesses moved out and the less fortunate moved in, creating a vacuum of debauchery.
What Was The Underground City in Edinburgh Like?
Although expanding, Edinburgh was much smaller back in the 18th century and not everyone could afford rent.
The Edinburgh Guard did not take kindly to homelessness and the influx of people moving to the city to look for work forced many underground.
Gangs formed to police Edinburgh’s underground city, charging for the damp space which resulted in many women being forced into prostitution.
It wasn’t a desirable or safe place for locals or immigrants but it was a roof, or vault, over their heads.
Many people died because of these living conditions and some say their spirits and stories live on in the vaults.
The vaults were eventually filled with rubble and forgotten about until a century later when a former Scotland international rugby player discovered the labyrinth whilst renovating his flat.
Norrie Rowan and his son found oyster shells and other artefacts that showed signs of previous life.
The vaults were claimed by owners of the homes above or sold off to private companies hence why you can now tour the South Bridge underground!
Edinburgh Vaults Tour
On arrival, your guide will check everyone in and ask if anyone has medical conditions then explains the itinerary for the one-hour Edinburgh caves tour.
On the way down the Royal Mile, you’ll hear facts about some of the Old Town landmarks such as St Giles’ Cathedral, the Mercat Cross and an explanation for why people spit in the Heart of Midlothian.
Before you get to the Edinburgh underground street, you’ll find out more about ground-level history such as the World’s End gate, the 80 closes in the city and what to do if you hear the word ‘gardyloo’.
As you make your way down to the vault, you’ll see the only visible arch of South Bridge at the Cowgate.
With a name like that, you won’t be surprised to hear that this area is once where cattle passed through.
By the 18th century, it wasn’t the nicest of places, mostly occupied by ‘merchants, gamblers, thieves, jesters and ladies of the night, creating an infamous melting pot of mischief‘.
Today, the Cowgate is where you will find bars, clubs in caves and one of the most romantic hotels in the city.
Are Edinburgh’s Underground Vaults Haunted?
The vaults tour is often referred to as the ‘Edinburgh underground ghost tour’ because many lives were lost due to the cramped, damp and poorly ventilated conditions.
Local legends Burke and Hare, the infamous grave robbers and murderers were said to catch their victims down there before selling the fresh bodies to medicine.
Our guide, Darren, explained that some visitors have felt the air change cold, tugs on coats and scratches to the skin.
TV shows like I Believe In Ghosts have filmed in the vaults and the celeb guest, Joe Swash (Eastenders), reported spooky goings-on.
We’ve done two underground vault tours now and what stands out about this one is, firstly Darren’s natural ability to balance friendliness with a touch of the theatrics and secondly, its relationship with The Source Coven Of The Blue Dragon.
In the 90s, The late Wiccan High Priest of The Source Coven Of The Blue Dragon, George Cameron, also known as The Hermit set up a temple in one vault linked to the torturing of witches to try to rid it from evil.
He built a rock circle that still stands today.
After the attempt to remove evil failed, Cameron abandoned the room and recommended that it be sealed up. You can visit it during the tour.
The coven set up their temple in another room which you can see through barred windows.
What To Wear During The Edinburgh South Bridge Tour
Since you meet on the Royal Mile not far from Niddry Street where the entrance to the vault is located, there isn’t much walking required during this tour.
However, you will be walking on cobbles overground and upstairs to get into the vaults, which is slightly mind-bending since you are going underground!
The South Bridge vaults floor can be wet and uneven so wear a closed-toe shoe you feel steady in.
I’d avoid a high heel and stick to something relatively flat. A chunky boot heel would pass, just watch your footing on the stairs.
I’ve done the vaults twice now, once in October and once in May and I was freezing during the Halloween tour so pack layers and be prepared for water dripping on you.
Here’s our Edinburgh packing list for more tips.
- Meeting Point: Box on the Royal Mile, outside of the Bank of Scotland, across from Deacon Brodies pub
- Your guide will ask if there are any medical issues
- Wear sensible shoes and layers
- Guided tour: 1 hour
Do You Have To Reserve A Ticket?
As tour guides have to account for each visitor, it is best to reserve your ticket online.
During high season, tours will sell out so book to avoid disappointment.
With GetYourGuide, tours have a 24-hour cancellation guarantee so if you can’t make it, you don’t lose your money.
Other Things To Do In The Old Town
There is no shortage of things to do in this lively area of the city!
Grab a coffee at a trendy cafe on Cockburn Street.
Scran does a great cocktail, The Milkman is often cited as the best coffee in the city and Laila’s is pink. Enough said.
If you love chocolate and want to make your own, check out The Chocolatarium located halfway down the Royal Mile at the Canongate.
Here’s our review of the chocolate tour experience.
If you are looking for a giggle and incredible views of the city and over to Fife, check out the Camera Obscura.
It has over 100 illusions, a vortex tunnel and a magic maze.
Set aside 1-2 hours for this trippy experience. You can read about our experience of the Camera Obscura here.
If you prefer to be outdoors you are not far from Holyrood Park which is home to Arthur’s Seat.
This urban hike takes around 1-2 hours and is breezy at the top so be prepared to throw on a layer!
Holyrood Park is also where Holyrood Palace, Scottish Parliament and Dynamic Earth is located.
Toilets can be found in Holyrood Palace’s cafe.
If you are really digging the historical side of the city’s attractions, consider one of these Highlands tours from Edinburgh to explore the past further afield.
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Disclaimer: This guide was written in partnership with GetYourGuide. I, Gemma, have been working alongside GetYourGuide since 2017. Opinions are my own.