Princes Street Gardens lie in the valley between Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns, at the heart of the Scottish capital’s World Heritage Site.
While you can visit Princes Street Gardens at any time of the year, the winter and autumn months are quieter.
However, the spring and summer seasons are particularly nice when the flowerbeds are in full bloom. There is no charge for entry.
Along the way, the small cafes and food stalls are the perfect places to stop, enjoy a coffee and soak up the great atmosphere.
East and West Princes Street Gardens
Princes Street Gardens are often the first place that visitors will explore as they come out of Waverley station on to Waverley Bridge.
Although many, new to the city,s are unaware of it, this beautiful green space is divided by the Mound into East Princes Street Gardens and West Princes Street Gardens.
The eastern side, which covers an area of around 8.5 acres has always been a public park. The larger western end has an area of 29 acres and was privately owned until 1876. It stretches to St John’s Church on the corner of Lothian Road, close to the city’s five star Caledonian Hotel
Today the Mound is the historic site of the Bank of Scotland and the home of the fascinating Museum on the Mound, one of the capital’s most unusual attractions.
It’s also home to the Scottish National Gallery, the Royal Scottish Academy of Art and the University of Edinburgh New College.
The Nor’ Loch
Edinburgh’s most popular green space occupies what was the original bed of the Nor’ (North) Loch, created on the orders of James III in the middle of the 15th century to strengthen the defences of Edinburgh Castle.
Over the centuries it was used as the city’s waste ground becoming foul smelling, an open sewer really. Something which contributed to the city’s reputation as “Auld Reekie.”
It was drained, probably by 1764, to allow the building of the North Bridge, another connection between the Old and New Towns.
The Nor’ Loch had a fearsome and deeply unpleasant reputation, particularly for those unfortunate souls convicted of being a witch and subjected to the barbaric ‘witch ducking’ (dooking).
In 1820, in West Princes Street Gardens, at the base of the Castle Rock close to wellhouse Tower, city workmen discovered a coffin with three skeletons thought to be criminals drowned in the Nor’ Loch.
However, turn the clock back and there are some much older archaeological stories to tell.
While excavations uncovered some medieval pottery and a number of coins from the times of Oliver Cromwell and Edward I, a 19th century discovery was much more intriguing.
Pictish Symbol Stone
It was a Pictish symbol stone found on one of the garden footpaths and dating, say the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, to the 7th or 8th century.
The stone, now in the National Museum of Scotland, has created something of a mystery. How did it get to Edinburgh, given that the Picts mainly lived north of the River Forth?
Monuments and statues
In a garden full of monuments and statues the Scott Monument, built in 1844 to commemorate the writer Sir Walter Scott, is the largest and most striking.
A small garden of remembrance constructed in the shadow of the Scott Monument on the east side was designed as a place of reflection, an opportunity to remember the sacrifices of those lost in conflict.
The area is also dotted with statues commemorating a number of other Scottish worthies, including explorer David Livingston, publisher Adam Black and medical pioneer James Young Simpson.
Several animal statues including the much-loved dog called Bum and Wojtek the Soldier Bear are an intriguing addition.
This feature article on Truly Edinburgh looks at some of the garden’s monuments and statues.
Princes Street Gardens: Ross Fountain
On the west side of the gardens is the Ross Fountain. Sculpted in the neoclassical style by Jean-Baptise Jules Klagmann and originally cast at the foundry of Antoine durene in Sommevoire near Paris.
This remarkable sculpture has at its base, mermaids, cherubs, walrus and lion heads while at the top there are four female figures which represent science, arts, poetry and industry.
Perhaps it was the female form that prompted the minister of St John’s Episcopal Church to angrily describe it as…
“grossly indecent and disgusting; insulting and offensive to the moral feelings of the community and disgraceful to the city.”
In 2017, a major conservation project, designed to completely refurbish the fountain began.
At the cost of £1.9m, the fountain was turned on again in July 2018.
Today the fountain sits below and to the front of Edinburgh Castle and together provide a wonderful opportunity for a great photograph.
Also on the west side, The floral clock, lovingly created in 1903 and the oldest in the world, is a perennial favourite with visitors.
St John’s Scottish Episcopal Church
The aforementioned St John’s Scottish Episcopal Church which sits close to the fountain at the corner of Princes Street and Lothian Road is a thriving church that welcomes people of all denominations.
It has a popular café, Christian bookshop and the One World Shop that sells fairtrade items. It’s also a great community space with lots going on.
At festival time it often has some live music.
Visit the official St John’s church website for more information about all that’s on offer.
During the Edinburgh summer and winter festivals, the gardens are the venue for many of the musical events. It’s a fun place to be.
But over the Christmas and New Year period it’s busy too with the ever-popular Christmas market and the New Year concert, a part of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebrations.
The Ross Bandstand, an open air theatre, is often at the heart of the festivities.
Although the gardens have seen many changes over the years, new and ambitious plans for large-scale alterations are in place.
The planning authorities have called it the Quaich Project.
- Discover more about Edinburgh’s parks and gardens.