The Leith Coat of Arms contains the word Persevere, which can be interpreted as being against the North Sea, pirates, disease or the overlordship of Edinburgh. In 1329 a charter from Robert the Bruce gave Edinburgh the harbour built by David I at Leith. The profits all went to Edinburgh, and Leith merchants were not allowed to trade in the goods unloaded in their own town, but it grew to become Scotland's most important trading port until the opening up of the new world when Glasgow overtook it.

After the death of James V at Solway Moss in 1542, Scotland was under attack by the English for the eight years of the Rough Wooing during which the Scots resisted a marriage between Edward VI and the infant Mary. In 1548 under the Treaty of Haddington Mary was to marry the Dauphin in return for French protection, and they fortified Leith with her mother Mary of Guise as regent. When Mary became Queen of France in 1559, walled fortifications were built as the Protestant Lords of the Congregation formed an Alliance with England, whose soldiers fired heavy guns at the church spires of Leith and its citizens starved. In 1560 the Treaty of Edinburgh said that the French were to leave Leith within twenty days and the fortifications should come down.

In 1561 Mary Queen of Scots landed at Leith, where she was dined at the house of merchant Andrew Lamb before being escorted to Holyrood. She promised much to Leith, but offered South Leith as collateral when borrowing money from Edinburgh and never paid the money back.

The present Lamb's House is a rebuilding of the merchant's home whose character lies in its unusual irregularity. Commercial activity mushroomed in the nineteenth century hid the House in a maze of narrow lanes lined with tenements and whisky bonds, until in 1938 the Marquess of Bute purchased the building for the National Trust for Scotland.

A statue of Dr John Rattray, surgeon, Jacobite and golfer, has been installed at Leith Links, 10 years after the planning for it began and 275 years after the events it commemorates.

A bronze statue at Leith Links by David Annand depicts John Rattray about to tee off in the first ever golf competition, which he won in 1744. It took the Leith Rules of Golf Society ten years to make the statue happen in 2019, with contributions by hundreds of golfers in Scotland and around the world.

A later royal landing by George IV in 1822 on a state visit organised by Sir Walter Scott is commemorated by a cast iron tablet behind the Custom House.

Maritime Street contains the birthplace and boyhood home of the Rev John Home, playwright and great friend of the Scottish Enlightenment whose most successful play Douglas was performed to great acclaim at Covent Garden with a member of the audience yelling at the cream of London society "Where's your Willie Shakespeare noo?"

A plaque on Great Junction Street commemorates the birthplace of John Gladstone, father of the Prime Minister. Sent by his own father, a trader aware of Leith's limitations, to the Baltic ports and England, John settled in Liverpool, and acquired plantations in Jamaica and Guyana worked by slaves, brutally crushing a rising in Demerara. On the abolition of slavery, he received the largest compensation of any owner, but expelled most African workers and replaced them with indentured Indians working under conditions that continued to resemble slavery. In 1829 he purchased the Fasque estate in Kincardineshire, and in 1838 from the profits of slavery he paid for several philanthropic works in Leith including free schools and a rose garden.

Plaques from the former Leith Hospital which now hang in the health centre include one commemorating a bed provided by public subscription in memory of the 200 soldiers of the Royal Scots Leith battalion who perished in the Gretna train disaster of 1915 while en route to Gallipoli.

At the time of its amalgamation with Edinburgh in 1920, Leith was Scotland's sixth most populous local authority area after the four main cities and Paisley. Places of worship are a dominant feature of the townscape, with traditional faiths of Scotland, England and Norway sat alongside presences from further afield including the Sikh and Muslim communities. Commercial buildings recall the port's historic trading activities including the Leith Banking Company and wine importer Cockburn of Leith. Housing ranges from merchants' homes in the vernacular style through utilitarian public schemes to modern construction such as the Banana Flats whose worth is now being re-evaluated. The restaurants along The Shore represent the regeneration of The Port which has been under way since the 1980s, received a boost with the arrival of the Ocean Terminal and the Scottish Government at Victoria Quay and will be further supported by commencement of the Trams to Newhaven project in 2023.