Edinburgh, the showcase capital of Scotland, is a venerable, cosmopolitan and cultured city famed worldwide for its superb annual festival. The setting is wonderfully striking: perched on a series of extinct volcanoes and rocky crags which rise from the generally flat landscape of the Lothians, with the sheltered shoreline of the Firth of Forth to the north. “My own Romantic town”, Sir Walter Scott called it, although it was another native author, Robert Louis Stevenson, who perhaps best captured the feel of his “precipitous city”, declaring that “No situation could be more commanding for the head of a kingdom; none better chosen for noble prospects”. Edinburgh’s ability to capture the literary imagination has seen it dubbed a “World City of Literature” by UNESCO, who have also conferred World Heritage Site status on much of the centre.
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The area north of the castle, the dignified, Grecian-style New Town was laid out in the eighteenth century after the announcement of a plan to improve conditions in the city. The Old Town, on the other hand, with its tortuous alleys and tightly packed closes, is unrelentingly medieval, associated in popular imagination with the city’s underworld lore of murderers Burke and Hare and of schizophrenic Deacon Brodie, inspiration for Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Set on the hill which sweeps down from the fairy-tale castle to the royal Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Old Town preserves all the key reminders of its role as a historic capital, augmented now by the dramatic and unusual new Scottish Parliament building, opposite the palace. A few hundred yards away, a tantalizing glimpse of the wild beauty of Scotland’s scenery can be had in Holyrood Park, an extensive area of open countryside dominated by Arthur’s Seat, the largest and most impressive of the volcanoes. Among Edinburgh’s many museums, the exciting National Museum of Scotland houses 10,000 of Scotland’s most precious artefacts, while the National Gallery of Scotland and its offshoot, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, house two of Britain’s finest collections of paintings.
Beyond the centre, Edinburgh’s liveliest area is Leith, the city’s medieval port, whose seedy edge is softened by a series of great bars and restaurants, along with the presence of the former royal yacht Britannia. The wider rural surroundings of Edinburgh, known as the Lothians, mix rolling countryside and attractive country towns with some impressive historic ruins.
Brief history of Edinburgh
It was during the Dark Ages that the name Edinburgh – at least in its early forms of Dunedin or Din Eidyn (“fort of Eidyn”) – first appeared. The strategic fort atop the Castle Rock volcano served as Scotland’s southernmost border post until 1018, when King Malcolm I established the River Tweed as the permanent frontier. In the reign of Malcolm Canmore in the late eleventh century, the castle became one of the main seats of the court, and the town, which was given privileged status as a royal burgh, began to grow.
Turbulent Middle Ages
Under King James IV (1488–1513), the city enjoyed a short but brilliant Renaissance era, which saw not only the construction of a new palace alongside Holyrood Abbey, but also the granting of a royal charter to the College of Surgeons, the earliest in the city’s long line of academic and professional bodies. This period came to an abrupt end in 1513 with the calamitous defeat by the English at the Battle of Flodden leading to several decades of political instability. In the 1540s, English king Henry VIII’s attempt to force a royal union with Scotland led to the sack of Edinburgh, prompting the Scots to turn to France: French troops arrived to defend the city, while the young Scottish queen Mary was dispatched to Paris as the promised bride of the Dauphin, later Francois II of France. While the French occupiers succeeded in removing the English threat, they themselves antagonized the locals, who had become increasingly sympathetic to the ideals of the Reformation. When the radical preacher John Knox returned from exile in 1555, he quickly won over the city to his Calvinist message.
The Scottish Enlightenment
James VI’s rule saw the foundation of the University of Edinburgh in 1582, but following the Union of the Crowns in 1603, when James assumed the throne of England in addition to that of Scotland, the city was totally upstaged by London: although James promised to visit every three years, it was not until 1617 that he made his only return trip. The Union of the Parliaments of 1707 dealt a further blow to Edinburgh’s political prestige, though the guaranteed preservation of the national church and the legal and educational systems ensured that it was never relegated to a purely provincial role. On the contrary, it was in the second half of the eighteenth century that Edinburgh achieved the height of its intellectual influence, led by natives such as David Hume and Adam Smith. Around the same time, the city began to expand beyond its medieval boundaries, laying out the New Town, a masterpiece of the Neoclassical style and grand town planning.
The nineteenth century and beyond
Industrialization affected Edinburgh less than any other major city in the nation, and it never lost its white-collar character. Through the Victorian era Edinburgh cemented its role as a conservative bastion of the establishment, controlling Scotland’s legal, ecclesiastical and education systems. Nonetheless, the city underwent an enormous urban expansion in the nineteenth century, annexing, among many other small burghs, the large port of Leith.
In 1947 Edinburgh was chosen to host the great International Festival which served as a symbol of the new peaceful European order; despite some hiccups, it has flourished ever since, in the process helping to make tourism a mainstay of the local economy. During the 1980s Glasgow, previously the poor relation but always a tenacious rival, began to challenge the city’s status as a cultural centre, and it took the re-establishment of a devolved Scottish Parliament in 1999 for Edinburgh to reassert its status in a meaningful way. With debates and decisions about crucial aspects of the government of Scotland taking place in Edinburgh, there was a notable upturn in the city’s standing, augmented by significant achievements in scientific research and the arts. The financial sector burgeoned, with the Royal Bank of Scotland becoming the second largest banking group in the UK in the early years of the new century. Its near collapse and subsequent bail-out by the government during the 2009 economic crisis dented not only the city’s self-confidence, but also the arguments made by nationalist politicians that Scotland has the stability and economic prowess to prosper as an independent country.
What to do in Edinburgh
- Visit the Palace of Holyroodhouse
For centuries the sometime residence of Scotland's kinds and queens, the Palace of Holyroodhouse has a hauntingly ruinous abbey.
- Explore Edinburgh Castle
Possibly the most iconic castle on earth, home to one of the world's most celebrated military parades. Taken in the castle and several more of Edinburgh's world-class sights on a hop-on-hop-off bus tour.
- Take a tour of the Scottish Parliament
An architectural one-off that still divides opinion; squeeze in among the tourist hordes and decide for yourself.
- Relax in Hollyrood Park
Get off the beaten track without leaving the city centre.
- Celebrate Hogmanay
The most popular New Year blowout on the planet; get your ticket early.
- Unwind at Dr Neil's Garden
Get even further off the beaten track in this low-key idyll by Duddingston Village. For souls who seek yet more of the great outdoors, Edinburgh is just about day-tripping distance from the legendary Loch Ness.
- Meander through the Old Town
The haunted heart of old Edinburgh, with tenements, closes and catacombs piled up cheek-by-jowl. For some truly chilling storytelling, book onto a ghostly underground tour of Edinburgh's vaults.
- Soak up views of the city skyline
The classic sightline southwest from Calton Hill, taking in the Old Town in all its magnificence, is gorgeous.
- Take in Rosslyn Chapel
Da Vinci Code fever may have cooled, but this gothic masterpieces is as mesmerising as ever. Excellent tours combine a visit to Rosslyn Chapel with the gorgeous border town of Melrose and its Abbey.
- Catch a show at the Edinburgh Festival
The whole world descends on Edinburgh come August for the mother of all arts extravagance.
- Wander around the New Town
The Old Town's polar opposite, with dazzling Georgian crescents, postcard-pretty mews and manicured gardens.
- Explore The Shore
Leith's medieval port and surrounds are a foodie paradise of Michelin stars, foraged produce and ethical eats.
- Smell the flowers at the Royal Botanical Gardens
Edinburgh's showpiece gardens, with the world's biggest collection of wild Asian plants outside China.
- Hole up in one of Edinburgh's pubs
From Scotland's oldest pub to craft-beer emporia to artisan gin palaces, Edinburgh is a drinker's paradise.
- Enjoy old-school fun at the Camera Obscura and World of Illusions
Edinburgh's Camera Obscura has been a tourist attraction since 1853, while the World of Illusions is a labyrinth of family-friendly exhibits of optical illusions, holograms and clever visual trickery.
- Get your Harry Potter on
Enjoy a Harry Potter-themed walking tour around Edinburgh and visit Tom Riddle's grave.
- Sip the best of Scottish whiskey
There's no more Scottish drink than whiskey. Visit the distilleries of Dewar's and Deanston to sample some of the best.
Accommodation in Edinburgh
Edinburgh has a greater choice of accommodation than anywhere else in Britain outside London. Hotels (and large backpacker hostels) are essentially the only options you’ll find right in the heart of the city, but within relatively easy reach of the centre the selection of guesthouses, B&Bs, campus accommodation and even campsites broadens considerably. Making reservations is worthwhile at any time of year, and is strongly recommended for stays during the Festival and around Hogmanay, when places can get booked out months in advance. VisitScotland operates a booking centre for accommodation all over the country, including Edinburgh.
Out from Edinburgh's Centre
Just over a mile northeast of the city centre is Leith, a fascinating mix of cobbled streets and new developments, run-down housing and excellent restaurants, as well as Edinburgh’s zoo, a perennial favourite with children.
Edinburgh City Tours
Despite the compactness of the city centre, open-top bus tours are big business, with several companies taking slightly varying routes around the main sights. All cost much the same, depart from Waverley Bridge and allow you to get on and off at leisure. There are also several walking tours, many of which depart from the central section of the Royal Mile near the High Kirk of St Giles; ghost tours and specialist tours are also available. Advance booking is recommended for all tours, and for the specialist tours in particular.
Many of Edinburgh’s pubs, especially in the Old Town, have histories that stretch back centuries, while others, particularly in the New Town, are unaltered Victorian or Edwardian period pieces. Add a plentiful supply of trendy modern bars, and there’s enough to cater for all tastes. Note that the opening hours quoted here may well be extended during Festival.
Eating in Edinburgh
Edinburgh’s dining scene is a feather in the city’s cap – with five restaurants holding Michelin stars, it can justifiably claim second place behind London in the UK’s fine-dining pecking order. Under this level, small diners and bistros predominate, and Edinburgh is an excellent place if you like fish and shellfish. Plenty of tourist-oriented restaurants offer haggis and other classic clichés, mostly with little culinary merit; a better idea is to seek out the crop of places using locally sourced, quality ingredients available from small and artisan producers around Scotland. During the Festival the majority of restaurants keep longer hours than are given here, but they are also much busier.
Edinburgh's New Town
The NEW TOWN, itself well over two hundred years old, stands in total contrast to the Old Town: the layout is symmetrical, the streets are broad and straight, and most of the buildings are Neoclassical. Originally intended to be residential, today the New Town is the bustling hub of the city’s professional, commercial and business life, dominated by shops, banks and offices.
The existence of the New Town is chiefly due to the vision of George Drummond, who made schemes for the expansion of the city soon after becoming Lord Provost in 1725. Work began on the draining of the Nor’ Loch below the castle in 1759, a job that took some sixty years. The North Bridge, linking the Old Town with the main road leading to the port of Leith, was built between 1763 and 1772 and, in 1766, following a public competition, a plan for the New Town by 22-year-old architect James Craig was chosen. Its gridiron pattern was perfectly matched to the site: central George Street, flanked by showpiece squares, was laid out along the main ridge, with parallel Princes Street and Queen Street on either side, built up on one side only, so as not to block the spectacular views of the Old Town and Fife.
The layout of the greater New Town is a remarkable grouping of squares, circuses, terraces, crescents and parks along with Charlotte Square and the assemblage of curiosities on and around Calton Hill. However, it also contains assorted Victorian additions, notably the Scott Monument on Princes Street, the Royal Botanic Garden on its northern fringe, as well as two of the city’s most important public collections – the National Gallery of Scotland and, further afield, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.
National Gallery of Scotland
Princes Street Gardens are bisected by the Mound, one of only two direct road links between the Old and New Towns (the other is North Bridge), formed in the 1780s by dumping piles of earth and other waste brought from the New Town’s building plots. At the foot of the mound on the Princes Street level are two grand Neoclassical buildings, the interlinked National Gallery of Scotland and the Royal Scottish Academy. Both were designed by William Henry Playfair (1790–1857), though the exterior of the National Gallery is considerably more austere than its bold Athenian counterpart.
Built as a “temple to the fine arts” in 1850, the National Gallery houses Scotland’s finest array of European and Scottish art from the early 1300s to the late 1800s. Its modest size makes it a manageable place to visit in a couple of hours and affords a pleasantly unrushed atmosphere.
A gallery highlight is a superb painting by Botticelli, The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child which, along with Raphael’s graceful tondo The Holy Family with a Palm Tree, has undergone careful restoration to reveal a striking luminosity and depth of colour. Of the four mythological scenes by Titian, the sensuous Three Ages of Man is one of his most accomplished early compositions. Alongside the Titians, Bassano’s Adoration of the Kings and a dramatic altarpiece, The Deposition of Christ, by Tintoretto, as well as several other works by Veronese, complete the fine Venetian section.
Rubens’ The Feast of Herod is an archetypal example of his sumptuously grand manner. Among the four canvases by Rembrandt are a poignant Self-Portrait Aged 51 and the ripely suggestive Woman in Bed. Christ in the House of Martha and Mary is the largest and probably the earliest of the thirty or so surviving paintings by Vermeer.
Impressionist masters have a strong showing, including a collection of Degas’ sketches, paintings and bronzes, Monet’s Haystacks (Snow) and Renoir’s Woman Nursing Child. Representing the Post-Impressionists are three exceptional works by Gauguin, including Vision After the Sermon, set in Brittany, Van Gogh’s Olive Trees, and Cézanne’s The Big Trees – a clear forerunner of modern abstraction.
Scottish and English works
Of Sir Henry Raeburn’s large portraits, the swaggering masculinity of Sir John Sinclair in Highland Dress shows the artist’s technical mastery, though he was equally confident when working on a smaller scale, as seen in one of the gallery’s most popular pictures, The Rev Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch. The gallery also owns a brilliant array of watercolours by Turner, faithfully displayed each January when damaging sunlight is at its weakest; at other times two of his fine Roman views are displayed in a dim gallery.
The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
At the far northwestern fringe of the New Town, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art was Britain’s first collection devoted solely to twentieth-century painting and sculpture, and now covers two grand Neoclassical buildings on either side of Belford Road. The extensive wooded grounds serve as a sculpture park, featuring works by Jacob Epstein, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and, most strikingly, Charles Jencks, whose Landform, a swirling mix of ponds and grassy mounds, dominates the area in front of the gallery.
The gallery on the western side of Belford Road, Modern One, divides its display spaces between temporary exhibitions and selections from the gallery’s own holdings; the latter are arranged thematically, but are almost constantly moved around. The collection starts with early twentieth-century Post-Impressionists, then moves through the Fauvists, German Expressionism, Cubism and Pop Art, with works by Lichtenstein and Warhol establishing a connection with the extensive holdings of Eduardo Paolozzi’s work in the Modern Two. There’s a strong section on living British artists, from Gilbert & George to Britart stars, while modern Scottish art ranges from the Colourists to the distinctive styles of contemporary Scots including John Bellany, a portraitist of striking originality, and the poet-artist-gardener Ian Hamilton Finlay.
Modern Two, also known as the Dean Gallery, was refurbished to make room for the huge collection of work of Edinburgh-born sculptor Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, described by some as the father of Pop Art. There’s an awesome introduction to Paolozzi’s work in the form of the huge Vulcan, a half-man, half-machine that squeezes into the Great Hall immediately opposite the main entrance – view it both from ground level and the head-height balcony to appreciate the sheer scale of the piece. In the rooms to the right of the main entrance Paolozzi’s London studio has been expertly re-created, right down to the clutter of half-finished casts, toys and empty pots of glue.
The ground floor also holds a world-renowned collection of Dada and Surrealist art; Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst and Man Ray are all represented. Look out also for Dali’s The Signal of Anguish and Magritte’s Magic Mirror along with work by Miró and Giacometti – all hung on crowded walls with an assortment of artefacts and ethnic souvenirs. Elsewhere, look out for 2009 Turner Prize winner Richard Wright’s major wall-painting The Stairwell Project, his most complex and ambitious work to date in Britain.
Contemporary art in Edinburgh
In addition to the contemporary art collections in the city’s National Galleries there are a number of smaller, independent galleries around the city.
The Collective Gallery
Tends to focus on young local artists, and doesn’t flinch from showing experimental modern work. Tues–Sun 11am–5pm.
A highly respected studio and gallery dedicated to contemporary printmaking. Tues–Sat 10am–6pm.
The stylish modern design of this dynamic and much-admired art space is the capital’s first port of call for top-grade international artists. Mon–Sat 11am–6pm, Sun noon–5pm.
Ingleby’s reputation for ambitious projects and innovative artists makes it one of the nation’s foremost small private art galleries, often featuring Scotland’s premier stars such as Alison Watt, Kenny Hunter and Callum Innes. Mon–Sat 10am–6pm, plus Sun noon–5pm in Aug.
Open Eye Gallery
One of the city’s best commercial galleries, regularly featuring shows by Scotland’s top contemporary artists.
The longest established of a number of small galleries on this New Town street; some of the most striking works are in the basement area, dedicated to applied art. Mon–Fri 10am–6pm, Sat 10am–4pm.
Edinburgh nightlife and entertainment
Inevitably, Edinburgh’s nightlife is at its best during the Festival, which can make the other 49 weeks of the year seem like an anticlimax. However, at any time the city has plenty to offer, especially in the realm of theatre and music. The best way to find out what’s on is to pick up a copy of The List, a fortnightly listings magazine covering both Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Shopping in Edinburgh
Princes Street, one of Britain’s most famous shopping streets, is all but dominated by standard chain outlets, though no serious shopper should miss out on a visit to Edinburgh’s venerable department store, Jenners, opposite the Scott Monument. More fashionable upmarket shops are to be found on and around parallel George Street, including a street (Multrees Walk) of exclusive international fashion boutiques on the east side of St Andrew Square. There’s nothing compelling about central Edinburgh’s two big shopping malls, Princes Mall and the St James Centre, which are dominated by the big names.
For more original outlets, head for Victoria Street and the Grassmarket where you’ll find an eclectic range of antique, crafts, food and book shops. Along and around the Royal Mile, meanwhile, several distinctly offbeat places sit among the tacky souvenir sellers. Edinburgh’s only regular market is its impressive farmers’ market, on Castle Terrace, immediately west of the castle, which draws around 35 local produce stalls from south and east Scotland.
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