Edinburgh is a city that begs to be discovered, filled with quirky, come-hither nooks that tempt you to explore just that little bit further.
Edinburgh is one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, draped across a series of rocky hills overlooking the sea. It’s a town intimately entwined with its landscape, with buildings and monuments perched atop crags and overshadowed by cliffs. From the Old Town’s picturesque jumble of medieval tenements piled high along the Royal Mile, its turreted skyline strung between the black, bull-nosed Castle Rock and the russet palisade of Salisbury Crags, to the New Town’s neat grid of neoclassical respectability, the city offers a constantly changing perspective.
Athens of the North
The Athens of the North, an 18th-century Edinburgh nickname dreamed up by the great thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, is a city of high culture and lofty ideals, of art and literature, philosophy and science. It is here that each summer the world's biggest arts festival rises, phoenix-like, from the ashes of last year's rave reviews and broken box-office records to produce yet another string of superlatives. And it is here, beneath the Greek temples of Calton Hill – Edinburgh's acropolis – that the Scottish parliament sits again after a 300-year absence.
Edinburgh is also known as Auld Reekie, a down-to-earth place that flicks an impudent finger at the pretensions of the literati. Auld Reekie is a city of loud, crowded pubs and decadent restaurants, late-night drinking and all-night parties, beer-fuelled poets and foul-mouthed comedians. It’s the city that tempted Robert Louis Stevenson from his law lectures to explore the drinking dens and lurid street life of the 19th-century Old Town. And it’s the city of Beltane, the resurrected pagan May Day festival, where half-naked revellers dance in the flickering firelight of bonfires beneath the stony indifference of Calton Hill's pillared monuments.
Like a favourite book, Edinburgh is a city you’ll want to dip into again and again, savouring each time a different experience – the castle silhouetted against a blue spring sky with a yellow haze of daffodils misting the slopes below the esplanade; stumbling out of a late-night club into a summer dawn, with only the yawp of seagulls to break the unexpected silence; heading for a cafe on a chill December morning with the fog snagging the spires of the Old Town; and festival fireworks crackling in the night sky as you stand, transfixed, amid the crowds in Princes Street Gardens.
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Edinburgh Castle has played a pivotal role in Scottish history, both as a royal residence – King Malcolm Canmore (r 1058–93) and Queen Margaret first made their home here in the 11th century – and as a military stronghold. The castle last saw military action in 1745; from then until the 1920s it served as the British army's main base in Scotland. Today it is one of Scotland's most atmospheric and popular tourist attractions. The brooding, black crags of Castle Rock, rising above the western end of Princes St, are the very reason for Edinburgh's existence. This rocky hill was the most easily defended hilltop on the invasion route between England and central Scotland, a route followed by countless armies from the Roman legions of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD to the Jacobite troops of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745. The Esplanade The castle's Esplanade is a parade ground dating from 1820, with superb views south over the city towards the Pentland Hills. At its western end is the Entrance Gateway, dating from 1888 and flanked by statues of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace. Above the gate is the Royal Standard of Scotland – a red lion rampant on a gold field – and the Scottish royal motto in Latin, " Nemo me impune lacessit" ("no one provokes me with impunity"). The One O'Clock Gun Inside the entrance a cobbled lane leads up beneath the 16th-century Portcullis Gate, topped by the 19th-century Argyle Tower, and past the cannon of the Argyle and Mills Mount Batteries. The battlements here have great views over the New Town to the Firth of Forth. At the far end of Mills Mount Battery is the One O'Clock Gun, a gleaming WWII 25-pounder that fires an ear-splitting time signal at 1pm every day (except Sunday, Christmas Day and Good Friday). St Margaret's Chapel South of Mills Mount the road curls up leftward through Foog's Gate to the highest part of Castle Rock, crowned by the tiny St Margaret's Chapel, the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh. It's a simple Romanesque structure that was probably built by David I or Alexander I in memory of their mother, Queen Margaret, sometime around 1130 (she was canonized in 1250). Following Cromwell's capture of the castle in 1650 it was used to store ammunition until it was restored at the order of Queen Victoria; it was rededicated in 1934. The tiny stained-glass windows – depicting Margaret, St Andrew, St Columba, St Ninian and William Wallace – date from the 1920s. Mons Meg Immediately north of St Margaret's Chapel is Mons Meg, a giant 15th-century siege gun built at Mons in Belgium in 1449. The gun was last fired in 1681, as a birthday salute for the future James VII/II, when its barrel burst. Take a peek over the wall to the north of the chapel and you'll see a charming little garden that was used as a pet cemetery for officers' dogs. Great Hall The main group of buildings on the summit of Castle Rock are ranged around Crown Sq, dominated by the shrine of the Scottish National War Memorial. Opposite is the Great Hall, built for James IV (r 1488–1513) as a ceremonial hall and used as a meeting place for the Scottish Parliament until 1639. Its most remarkable feature is the original 16th-century hammer-beam roof. Prisons of War vaults The Castle Vaults beneath the Great Hall (entered on the west side of Crown Square) were used variously as storerooms, bakeries and prisons. The vaults have been restored to how they were in the 18th and early 19th centuries, when they were used as a prison for soldiers captured during the American War of Independence and the Napoleonic Wars. Original graffiti carved by French and American prisoners can be seen on the ancient wooden doors. Honours of Scotland The Royal Palace, built during the 15th and 16th centuries, houses a series of historical tableaux leading to the highlight of the castle: a strongroom housing the Honours of Scotland (the Scottish crown jewels), among the oldest surviving crown jewels in Europe. Locked away in a chest following the Act of Union in 1707, the crown (made in 1540 from the gold of Robert the Bruce's 14th-century coronet), sword and sceptre lay forgotten until they were unearthed at the instigation of novelist Sir Walter Scott in 1818. Also on display here is the Stone of Destiny. Among the neighboring Royal Apartments is the bedchamber where Mary, Queen of Scots, gave birth to her son James VI, who was to unite the crowns of Scotland and England in 1603. Tickets to Edinburgh Castle The castle operates a timed ticket system, and all visits must be booked online in advance. You can only enter the site within the timeframe outlined on your ticket, but you may stay as long as you like up to closing time. Children under 5 can visit for free.
Built on Clydeside, the former Royal Yacht Britannia was the British Royal Family's floating holiday home during their foreign travels from the time of her launch in 1953 until her decommissioning in 1997, and is now permanently moored in front of Ocean Terminal. The tour, which you take at your own pace with an audio guide (available in 30 languages), lifts the curtain on the everyday lives of the royals, and gives an intriguing insight into the Queen's private tastes.
Edinburgh's gallery of modern art is split between two impressive neoclassical buildings surrounded by landscaped grounds some 500m west of Dean Village. As well as showcasing a stunning collection of paintings by the popular, post-Impressionist Scottish Colourists – in Reflections, Balloch, Leslie Hunter pulls off the improbable trick of making Scotland look like the south of France – the gallery is the starting point for a walk along the Water of Leith. Fees apply for some exhibitions.
The Scottish Parliament Building, on the site of a former brewery and designed by Catalan architect Enric Miralles (1955–2000), was opened by the Queen in October 2004. The ground plan of the complex is said to represent a 'flower of democracy rooted in Scottish soil' (best seen looking down from Salisbury Crags). Free, one-hour tours (advance bookings recommended) include visits to the Debating Chamber, a committee room, the Garden Lobby and the office of a member of parliament (MSP).
Edinburgh's Royal Botanic Garden is the second-oldest institution of its kind in Britain (after Oxford), and one of the most respected in the world. Founded near Holyrood in 1670 and moved to its present location in 1823, its 70 beautifully landscaped acres include splendid Victorian glasshouses (admission £6.50), colourful swaths of rhododendrons and azaleas, and a world-famous rock garden. There's a second entrance to the gardens at 20a Inverleith Row.
This palace is the royal family's official residence in Scotland but is more famous as the 16th-century home of the ill-fated Mary, Queen of Scots. The highlight of the tour is Mary's Bedchamber, home to the unfortunate queen from 1561 to 1567. It was here that her jealous second husband, Lord Darnley, restrained the pregnant queen while his henchmen murdered her secretary – and favourite – David Rizzio. A plaque in the neighbouring room marks the spot where Rizzio bled to death.
The rocky peak of Arthur’s Seat (251m), carved by ice sheets from the deeply eroded stump of a long-extinct volcano, is a distinctive feature of Edinburgh’s skyline. The view from the summit is well worth the walk, extending from the Forth bridges in the west to the distant conical hill of North Berwick Law in the east, with the Ochil Hills and the Highlands on the northwestern horizon. You can hike from Holyrood to the summit in around 45 minutes.
Edinburgh’s quintessential secret garden, in the shadow of a 12th-century kirk, is one of the most peaceful green spaces in Scotland. Cultivated in the 1960s by doctors Andrew and Nancy Neil from a scrappy piece of wilderness where Arthur’s Seat slopes down to Duddingston Loch, the planting is a mixture of conifers, heathers and alpines, with a remarkable physic garden. Seek out a bench and soak up the meditative atmosphere of this special place.
Lauriston Castle has one of the most remarkable Edwardian interiors in Scotland, with elements dating back to the 16th century. Gifted to the nation in the 1920s, the beautiful gardens, which remain free to the public, were originally laid out by William Playfair in the 1840s. The Italian and Japanese gardens are lovely tranquil spots for a picnic, and the views over the Firth of Forth and Cramond Island are magnificent.