George Street is more than posh bars and shops

IT is the place to go if you want to buy a fancy frock, find an expensive gift or sip a few cocktails in the comfort of a posh bar.

But the George Street we know and love today started out as far more than just a shopping and drinking destination – and an Edinburgh tour company is determined to showcase its “hidden Georgian gems”.

Mercat Tours is launching a new walking tour to highlight the secrets of a street which is connected with a host of wealthy businessmen and literary and scientific greats such as Sir Laurence Dundas, David Hume and Sir Walter Scott.

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The company wants to encourage tourists to take time out from visiting the Castle and the Royal Mile and venture into the New Town, which is itself more than 200 years old, as it is also an important part of the Edinburgh World Heritage site.

Mercat Tours was approached by Edinburgh World Heritage and Essential Edinburgh – which represents 600 city centre businesses – to run the tours as a way of diverting more visitors to the New Town.

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Kathleen Brogan, head of development for Mercat, says: “It was recognised that the whole area of George Street, Princes Street and Queen Street are part of the Edinburgh World Heritage site but often overlooked – usually Old Town means tourism and the New Town means shopping.

“They wanted to work together to change that perception and raise awareness of that.

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“We all know George Street as a retail hub, but this tour will be taking you right back through the Enlightenment period from the early 1700s to the 1800s and 1900s.”

Once dubbed “principal street”, George Street’s first incarnation was residential before becoming more commercial and ending up as a financial hub.

It hosts an array of “grand architecture” including The Dome, The Royal Society of Edinburgh and Assembly Rooms, to which the new walking tours, with their “street of palaces” theme, will give visitors special access.

Members of the walking tour will start at St Andrew Square, calling at the RBS and Lloyds buildings, before visiting The Dome, which was once the Commercial Bank of Scotland.

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They will then be treated to a rare look around The Royal Society of Edinburgh and will learn about the Scottish Enlightenment and Sir Walter Scott’s links to the Society.

The next part of the tour features the newly revamped Assembly Rooms, with tour members then taken to North Castle Street to see Sir Walter Scott’s home.

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“On the original New Town plan, George Street was termed ‘the principal street’, something which Princes Street has probably taken over,” says David Hicks, communications manager for Edinburgh World Heritage.

“It always had a very grand reputation which has then been matched by very grand architecture.

“The key thing for this tour is the interiors of these buildings – they are very opulent.

“We want to show visitors to the city the architectural delights on offer, visitors who wouldn’t otherwise think to go to these places.”

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David says Edinburgh World Heritage’s “key objective” is to encourage exploration of the World Heritage site, which runs from Fettes Row in the north to the Meadows in the south, and from the back of the Palace of Holyroodhouse in the east to Donaldson’s College in the west.

He adds: “All of the Edinburgh visitor surveys that come forward show that 70 to 75 per cent of visitors say the thing they found most impressive and that draws them to the city is the fact that it’s a very historic city.

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“The Georgian New Town is a very considerable part of the city but doesn’t get anywhere near the level of visitors it should.

“We are looking for new ways to increase interpretation of the New Town, come off the main areas of the Royal Mile and see what the Georgian New Town has to offer.

“There was definitely a feeling that the guided tours and interpretation in Edinburgh is quite focused on the Old Town, but the Georgian part of it also has an interest.

“The World Heritage Site is much larger than the areas that are traditionally visited by tourists.”

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n The Hidden Georgian Gems tours – which last an hour-and-a-half – start on April 5 and run every Friday from 11am, leaving from St Andrew Square.