Exploring Edinburgh's Real Mary King's Close

Halfway down the Royal Mile in the city of Edinburgh, Scotland, is a narrow close called Mary King's Close. For those of you unsure of what a close is, they are narrow alleys between buildings that run parallel to the main roads of Edinburgh - remnants of medieval streets from a time when the lanes were large enough for only a couple of horses to squeeze past one another.

There are many closes all over Edinburgh, some with some very creative names, but the most famous is Mary King's Close because of how preserved it is, and how it offers visitors a glimpse back into time.

 Interesting name for a close - didn't realize it at the time we took the photo!

During the medieval days in Edinburgh, the city was arranged quite differently than it is today. The aristocracy lived uphill, near the castle, in order to earn favor from the King. At this level, things were clean (relatively speaking) and grand. After that, the city literally ran downhill, angling lower and lower towards the Firth of Forth estuary and the poorer sections of town. As the city angled downwards, so did the buildings, leveling lower and lower. The less money and status you had, the smaller and lower your house was as well. Due to all of this, the city of Edinburgh was on a slant.

The medieval city of Edinburgh, but shh - it's only a model!

This is all pertinent knowledge to have in order to understand Mary King's Close. This close is quite literally underground, and a doorway into these medieval days of Edinburgh existence. As the city of Edinburgh expanded, grew, and modernized, they built upwards - constructing newer buildings on top of the older, original, and uglier structures. Entire sections of the city were forever buried, shut up, and sealed away.

As new buildings were constructed, the city underground was sealed up

Contrary to popular rumor, families did not continue to reside in the underground neighborhoods. It was illegal for people to remain living in the underground worlds. However, many people were unceremoniously displaced by the new, above-level construction, and forced to move elsewhere without due compensation.

When Joey and I visited Mary King's Close (£12.95 each, but well worth the cost - and not covered by the Historical Scotland Explorer Pass either), we had to wait just a short while for our tour to begin. You cannot explore Mary King's Close on your own: it is dark, damp, and dreary, and requires the expertise and safety of a knowledgeable tour guide. Each tour lasts about an hour, and we found it to be immensely entertaining! The guides dress up in period costume, and channel the persona of a real individual who used to live in the close. Our guide was a meek serving girl for a wealthy aristocrat, but she grew up in Mary King's Close. She also had a biting sense of humor - she was great!  (Check out the website here: The Real Mary King's Close).

Waiting for our tour, with a hot latte and a warm heat lamp on the patio.

We were led from room to room, where dioramas, videos, and real relics from the time period of the close were set up. These told us the story of not just the close, but of the history of the whole era. Items covered were the judicial system of Edinburgh's medieval days, the Black Plague and its effects on the citizens of the close and the entire city, and the sanitation and hygiene evolution. I found it interesting to learn that during the Black Plague, people were not sealed away and left to die in the close, as I'd been told before, but had doctors come to visit and treat them. If they could not be treated, they were taken to live in a hospice outside the city limits of Edinburgh.

Black Plague sick house - image courtesy guerrillaexplorer.com

Photography is not allowed, which is logical because of the lighting. (Who wants some idiot tourist blinding you with a flash every five seconds during an underground tour in the dark? I would have punched someone.). However, halfway through the tour, the guide makes you stand in a larger portion of the close and takes a night-vision photo of you. This was interesting - in the picture I look blonde, even though my hair is dark brown!

Our creepy photo from underneath the city of Edinburgh.

I have only included some of my favorite facts in this blog entry because I don't want to give away the whole tour for you. This is a must-see if you are in Edinburgh, even if you are not a history buff like me. It is just simply cool, and makes you appreciate the complexity of such an old city as Edinburgh. Wear good shoes, stretch those legs, and take a hike through Mary King's Close!


  1. Thank you for visiting the Close and for your fantastic blog post! So pleased you enjoyed your visit - enjoy the rest of your stay in Scotland! Lisa - Marketing Manager at The Real Mary King's Close

  2. Lisa, it was fantastic! You guys run a very wonderful organization - I would visit again in a heartbeat. Good luck in the future, and I hope you don't get flooded out this week (I have seen all the news about Edinburgh's recent heavy rainfall!!)

  3. My friend has just been and knows it is somewhere I really want to go, she bought me back the guide book as a gift. What a great read your post is. Thanks for sharing

    1. Thanks! I am glad you liked the post. I first learned about Mary King's Close on the show "Cities of the Underground", and it was just as exciting as the show made it out to be! I hope you get to visit! :)