a World Heritage Site


World Heritage Status

The Old and New Towns of Edinburgh became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. The site covers an area of approximately 4.5km2 and contains nearly 4,500 individual buildings as well as ancient monuments, designed landscapes, and conservation areas.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognises World Heritage Sites as places of outstanding cultural, historical or scientific value. For each inscription, the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the site is described. These are the attributes which make it exceptional from a global perspective.

Unesco Logo
Aeriel Map

World Heritage Sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located. As a result they are intended to promote peace and intercultural understanding as well as the protection of our shared cultural and natural heritage.

The UNESCO World Heritage Convention provides an international framework for protecting our heritage while achieving sustainable tourism and economic development within World Heritage Sites. The United Kingdom National Commission for UNESCO estimate that World Heritage sites in the UK generated £66 million in tourism revenue from April 2014 to March 2015.

There are more than 30 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the UK. Six of these are in Scotland. Here are the other five:

  • The Antonine Wall marked the most northerly frontier of the Roman Empire nearly 2,000 years ago, built by soldiers for the Emperor Antoninus Pius around AD 142
  • Heart of Neolithic Orkney is one of the richest surviving Neolithic landscapes in Western Europe, with impressive domestic and ritual monuments that provide exceptional insights into the society, skills and spiritual beliefs of the people who built them.
  • New Lanark is a restored 18th-century cotton mill village situated in the narrow gorge of the River Clyde, founded by social pioneer Robert Owen, renowned for his enlightened management of one of the largest factory sites in the world.
  • St Kilda is a group of remote islands and sea stacks 100 miles off the west coast of Scotland, hosting the largest colony of seabirds in Europe, unique populations of sheep, field mice and wrens, and home to cultural remains that chart some 4,000 years of human habitation up until the mass evacuation of the islands in 1930.
  • The Forth Bridge is a 2.5km-long, 110m-high cantilever bridge that links Edinburgh and the Lothians in the south with Fife and the Highlands in the north – a masterpiece of human creative genius that conquered a natural barrier of a scale and depth that had never before been overcome by humans.
St Kilda. Image via National Trust for Scotland
Forth Bridge. Image via Wikimedia
Image via Wikimedia

Edinburgh’s Outstanding
Universal Value

Edinburgh has long been celebrated as a city of international importance: an ancient royal burgh, the medieval Old Town alongside the world renowned eighteenth and nineteenth century classical New Town, all situated in a spectacular landscape of hills and valleys beside the wide estuary of the Firth of Forth.

What makes Edinburgh exceptional in an international context? These are the qualities that led to it becoming a World Heritage Site:

City of Contrasts

The survival of two contrasting styles of urban development: the organic multiple layers of the medieval Old Town and the enlightened, spacious, ordered elegance of the New Town.

Monumental City

The city’s fine collection of neoclassical monuments that reflect its status as Scotland’s capital. These monuments contribute to the richness and diversity of the townscape and their subjects represent a variety of personalities who were significant in their time.

Iconic Skyline

The dramatic hills and green spaces of the landscape, plus key buildings of the Old and New Towns give Edinburgh its iconic skyline that has inspired generations of artists, writers, visitors and residents.

© Historic Environment Scotland

Authentic City

The survival and condition of Edinburgh’s historic buildings, many being authentic examples of their time – a noteworthy and rare quality.

Model City

The Old and New Towns embody the changes in European urban planning from inward looking, defensive walled medieval cities, through 18th and 19th centuries formal Enlightenment planning, to the 19th century revival of the Old Town with its adaptation of a Baronial style of architecture in an urban setting. The latter influenced the development of conservation policies for urban environments.

Edinburgh displays a remarkable juxtaposition of two clearly articulated urban planning phenomena. The contrast between the organic medieval Old Town and the planned Georgian New Town provides a clarity of urban structure unrivalled in Europe. The juxtaposition of these two distinctive townscapes, each of exceptional historic and architectural interest, which are linked across the landscape divide, the "great arena" of Sir Walter Scott's Waverley Valley, by the urban viaduct, North Bridge, and by the Mound, creates the outstanding urban landscape.

The Old Town stretches along a high ridge from the Castle on its dramatically situated rock down to the Palace of Holyrood. It is characterised by the survival of the little‐altered medieval "fishbone" street pattern of narrow closes, wynds, and courts. The national tradition of building tall on narrow plots created some of the world's tallest buildings of their age. Gladstone's Land, the Canongate Tolbooth and St Giles’ Cathedral are distinctive buildings here.

The New Town, constructed between 1767 and 1890, is framed by an uncommonly high concentration of planned ensembles of ashlar‐faced, world‐class, neoclassical buildings, associated with renowned architects, including John and Robert Adam, Sir William Chambers, and William Playfair. Integrated with the townscape are gardens that provide private and public open spaces. Some of the finest public and commercial monuments of the neoclassical revival in Europe survive, reflecting its continuing status as the capital of Scotland since 1437, and a major centre of thought and learning in the 18th century Age of Enlightenment, with its close cultural and political links with mainland Europe. The New Town set standards for Scotland and beyond, and exerted a major influence on the development of urban architecture and town planning throughout Europe.

The dramatic topography combined with the planned alignments of key buildings in both the Old and the New Town, results in spectacular views and panoramas and an iconic skyline. Edinburgh retains most of its significant buildings and spaces in better condition than most other historic cities of comparable value.

Image via Wikimedia

the Site

UNESCO requires those responsible for a World Heritage Site have a way to manage it. In the UK, this takes the form of a management plan. This should:

  • Include the vision and goals for preserving and enhancing Edinburgh’s OUV
  • Explain the special qualities and values of the Site
  • Lay out policies to protect the Site
  • Provide support for monitoring future developments planned for the Site
Edinburgh City Council
Historic Environment Scotland
Edinburgh World Heritage
Conservation Areas

Conservation Areas

Protect the historic character of an area. Not only buildings, but also features such as trees, parks, paving and street furniture.

Listed Buildings

Listed Buildings

Protect the historic character of an area. Not only buildings, but also features such as trees, parks, paving and street furniture.

The Old and New Towns of Edinburgh World Heritage Site is protected in a number of ways. The Council’s planning system identifies listed buildings and conservation areas. The Local Development Plan requires that all new development in the city considers the World Heritage status, and any potential impact on it.

Listed buildings and conservation areas are not meant to stop change. They make sure that change happens in a managed way, so that the unique character of the World Heritage Site can be maintained.

The management plan provides guidance on how to achieve this – in a sustainable way that balances the needs of communities and visitors, protects the environment, supports a vibrant cultural scene and strengthens society.


Action Plan

In 2016, the management partners asked the public to reflect on Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site and the issues related to it. The themes that scored the lowest in the public’s eye have become the main focus of the five-year Action Plan, which is part of the main Management Plan. It covers the period 2017-2022.

Care & maintenance

Older existing housing looks scruffy and little assistance is available to owners to carry out repairs and upgrading” – Max
Care & maintenance

Ensure ongoing investment in the conservation of the Site.

Past achievements:

Scotsman Steps,
History of Street Lighting Report

Concern from public:

Improve streets, stricter rules for public spaces, help with common repairs


Raise awareness of the availability of grants,
Support research demonstrating WHS best practice in Edinburgh,
Raise awareness of importance of space between buildings: ‘public realm’,
Encourage the sustainable re-use of underused and unused buildings,
Contribute to climate change agenda through energy efficiency programme.

Control & guidance

Control & guidance

Improve tools for sustaining Outstanding Universal Value.

Past achievements:

Shopfronts improvement scheme,
Inclusion of WHS policy in Local Development Plan.

Concern from public:

Enforcing planning laws, guidance for property owners, protecting skyline.


Ensure OUV of the Site is taken into account in planning decisions,
Raise awareness of actions and decisions taken in the WHS,
Integrate WHS values in city-wide decisions on Edinburgh’s future,
Promote and create opportunities for traditional skills events.

Awareness of the World Heritage Site status

There is good awareness in some quarters but the importance of World Heritage status is not necessarily that well known or understood” – Diana
Awareness of the World Heritage Site status

Coordinate actions to ensure broad understanding of World Heritage Site.

Past achievements:

World Heritage Business Opportunity Guide,
World Heritage Day events and materials.

Concern from public:

Better signage, promotion, information on benefits, significance, history of World Heritage Site.


Clarify the qualities of the WHS to help understanding of the OUVs,
Publicise and cross-promote actions taken around condition of the WHS,
Produce a programme of themed events for residents and visitors.

Contribution of new development

Edinburgh is a proud international capital city and should not be ashamed to demand the highest quality of new architecture, respecting the quality of the historic townscape” – Tony
Contribution of new development

Ensure development is high quality, architecture embraces WHS context.

Past achievements:

New Waverley Fund projects.

Concern from public:

Better quality of architecture, new developments not in keeping with WHS context.


Produce guidance on OUV use in the planning process,
Advocate the importance of the skyline study, guide on how to use it,
Produce research on appropriate materials for use in the WHS,
Influence new development positively within the WHS,
Produce place briefs for vacant sites in the WHS.

Visitor management

While tourism is to be encouraged, there needs to be a balance between commercialism and character” – Susan
Visitor management

Advocate for sustainable tourism within the WHS and the city.

Past achievements:

Heritage Trail leaflets.

Concern from public:

Concentration of visitors on Royal Mile, tourist shops, informative signage.


Explain the value of the WHS to tourism industry and business community,
Encourage street cleanliness via Waste & Cleansing Improvement Plan,
Understand what sustainable tourism is and promote best practice.

Influence and sense of control

More should be done towards encouraging education and participation in the planning and development process, to better shape our places and cities” – Kyle
Influence and sense of control

Sustain effective partnerships that support WHS management.

Past achievements:

Meadows Festival.

Concern from public:

Confusion over planning decisions, consultations not widely advertised.


Engage and involve businesses in the management of the WHS,
Communicate with all sectors, coordinate with all stakeholders,
Consult widely, provide clarity on how decisions were reached.

Other themes are how they will be addressed

Other topics not covered in these six themes will be addressed in other ways, like the Council’s Locality Improvement Plan. It has similar aspirations to the Management Plan, and will be used to cover the remaining eight themes. Here’s how they relate, and what the public’s feedback was for each.

Locality Improvement Plan theme Theme from WHS MP consultation Feedback
Making it easier to get around the city centre Moving Around Need for better cycling provision in the city centre, Need for more pedestrianisation in the city centre
Enhancing the city centre as a living community Facilities and amenities Need for more public toilets and water fountains, Concern over GP provision in certain areas
Livability Can the city aim to be more sustainable, cleaner and more respectful of the community needs?
Identity and belonging How to balance competing needs between residents and visitors?
Working together for a clean and green city centre Natural Space More to be done to keep public squares as publicly accessible open spaces
Supporting city centre economy City centre economy Need for more shopfront improvement?
How to ensure local community benefits from tourism?
How to support local entrepreneurs and businesses in the area?
Helping people feel safer in the city centre Feeling safe Need for additional lighting in parks and smaller alleyways
Need to reduce the speed of cars in certain parts of the Old and New Towns
Image via Wikimedia

Previous Plan

Here are some of the key achievements under the previous plans:


  • Restoration of Well Court
  • Gilmour’s Close energy efficiency project
  • Twelve Monuments restoration project
  • Skyline policy produced
  • Historic Homes guides published
  • Learning resources on EWH website made available


  • Edinburgh Art Festival collaboration (Regent Bridge & Scotsman’s Steps)
  • Partnership Protocol, Design guidance, Change guidance documents produced
  • Community map published
  • Trails produced in partnership with businesses
  • Traditional skills festival
  • World Heritage Day celebrations
Image via VisitScotland
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