Scotland's capital, Edinburgh, draws on its history to appeal to visitors—and with good reason. The Old Town of Edinburgh rings with the history of Scottish royalty and romantic literary figures. Crossing Princes Street and glimpsing Edinburgh Castle towering over the New Town is like passing through a time warp to the late 1700s.
Edinburgh has also launched more than its fair share of notable figures onto the world stage: Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Alexander Graham Bell and more recently Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith and J.K. Rowling.
But Edinburgh isn't just wrapped up in history. Tourists flock there every summer to partake of the extraordinarily vibrant atmosphere of the Edinburgh Festival—it's the world's biggest performing-arts festival (really, six distinct festivals in one). While the festival time may be the busiest tourist season in Edinburgh, the busiest night of the year is Hogmanay (New Year's Eve), when Edinburgh invites visitors to one of the biggest street parties in the world.
Sights—The view from Calton Hill; Edinburgh Castle; Forth Rail Bridge; Royal Yacht Britannia; a double-decker bus tour of the city with Edinburgh Bus Tours.
Museums—The National Museum of Scotland with its Victorian Royal Museum of Scotland; the National Gallery of Scotland; the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art; The People's Story.
Memorable Meals—Haggis in phyllo pastry; dinner by candlelight at The Witchery by the Castle.
Walks—Strolling through the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh; following the Water of Leith, making sure to stop off in Dean Village and Stockbridge.
Especially for Kids—Experiencing earthquakes at Our Dynamic Earth; watching the penguin parade at Edinburgh Zoo; handling creepy-crawlies at Edinburgh Butterfly & Insect World.
There are two "towns" in Edinburgh, the Old Town and the New Town, which are divided by the greenery and floral displays of Princes Street Gardens. Most travelers will want to start their tour in the Old Town, which is dominated by dramatic Edinburgh Castle. It's still headquarters of the Scottish Division of the British Army, and you'll see kilted soldiers performing their duties.
Be sure to walk the length of the Royal Mile: Take your time and explore some of the many closes that lead off the street. The first stop is Outlook Tower, with its fascinating Camera Obscura. Next, pass Gladstone's Land (17th-century tenements), the ornate Gothic St. Giles' Cathedral and the playful Museum of Childhood (antique toys and games).
The Royal Mile ends, appropriately enough, at the queen's Scottish residence, the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The spectacular and controversial Scottish parliament building, opposite the palace, offers tours when there is no parliamentary business. Behind it is Our Dynamic Earth, a millennium project that was designed to educate and interest visitors in the natural wonders of the earth.
In Leith (the port district), bars, restaurants and hotels have been joined by the Royal Yacht Britannia. Edinburgh fought off stiff competition to have the ship docked there, and it is now open as a visitor attraction.
Arthur’s Seat - Edinburgh's largest and most visible landmark, Arthur's Seat is an extinct volcano that last erupted about 350 million years ago, located in a 650-acre/260-hectare park that was formerly a hunting ground for Scottish kings. It's not too difficult to reach the summit, and you can walk the Radical Road all the way around it—your reward for climbing to the summit is an amazing, 360-degree view of the city. A path runs right below the jagged cliffs of Salisbury Crags, and behind it there is an isolated, grassy area where you can almost believe you're in the wilderness.
Calton Hill - Some of the best views of Edinburgh are from the top of this hill just east of Princes Street. You'll also find a dozen Doric columns up there—all that was ever completed of a 19th-century project to build a copy of the Parthenon. The old City Observatory is there, too, as well as Nelson's Monument, which was built in the shape of Lord Nelson's telescope. A ball is dropped from the top of the 108-ft/34-m tower at 1 pm each day as a time signal to ships on the Forth, continuing a tradition that began before the days of accurate, synchronized chronometers.
Edinburgh Castle - A truly impressive medieval castle, this place gives the impression of an impregnable fortress. It has functioned as a military barracks since the 1800s. To do it justice, you'll need a whole day. Make sure to see the Honours of Scotland (Crown Jewels), the Stone of Destiny (upon which the ancient Scottish kings were crowned), the tiny St. Margaret's Chapel (from the 12th century, reputed to be the oldest building in Edinburgh), the Scottish National War Memorial and the Great Hall (its timbered roof is breathtaking). If you're there at lunchtime, be prepared for the firing of the One O'Clock Gun over Princes Street.
The Scotch Whisky Experience - Learn about the various processes involved in making Scotland's national drink. The Silver tour includes a ghost-train-style ride through the history of distilling—a bit bizarre, but you get a free dram at the end.
From its location on the banks of the Firth of Forth, Edinburgh enjoys one of the most dramatic settings of any European city. The most distinctive natural landmark, Arthur's Seat, is an extinct volcano around which the oldest parts of town, from Castle Rock down the Royal Mile, cluster on a narrow, rocky ridge surrounded by bare moorland.
Castle Rock has been inhabited since the early seventh century, when the Celtic tribe Gododdin named it Dunedin (Dun Eideann). Dun means "hill fort." Allthough it had long been the residence of the King of Scots, it did not become the capital city until the 15th century, a position it still retains.
In a centuries-long struggle for power between the English and the Scots, the city was a target for English armies, the scene of popular uprisings, the setting for some dramatic moments in the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the headquarters of Bonnie Prince Charlie's unsuccessful attempt to claim the throne of Scotland in 1745-46.
Edinburgh grew and prospered, becoming a center for law, medicine and intellectual pursuits in the 1700s and 1800s. The 20th century saw it blossom on other fronts: The foundation in 1947 of the Edinburgh International Festival and its more diverse sister festival, the Fringe, established the city as one of the world's leading centers of art and culture.
Edinburgh has also flourished as one of Europe's financial centers. The millennium ended on a high note with the re-establishment, after nearly 300 years, of a parliament in Scotland's capital and the opening of the new parliament building.
The Merchiston area of the city has become a writer's enclave. Crime writer Ian Rankin, Kate Atkinson and Alexander McCall Smith all call the area home. In 2004, Edinburgh became the first UNESCO City of Literature.
The Encylopaedia Britannica was first published in 1768 by William Smellie at his printing shop in Anchor Close, off the Royal Mile.
Drink in the footsteps of Inspector Rebus, the melancholy, hard-drinking detective of Ian Rankin's mystery novels, at the Oxford Bar on Young Street, which is as unreconstructed as Rebus himself. Rankin can occasionally be spotted there among the regular clientele of off-duty cops, judges and lawyers.
The Hawes Inn in South Queensbury is featured in Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Kidnapped. It's also home to the Loony Dook, a New Year's Day event when hundreds take a dip in the chilly Firth of Forth to raise money for charity.
Then-unknown author J.K. Rowling started writing her early Harry Potter novels over coffee in the back room at The Elephant House Cafe.
The main shopping area in Edinburgh is Princes Street, an architectural jumble of chain stores, department stores and bustling crowds. It's not always the most pleasant experience, even if it does give a splendid view of Edinburgh Castle, and most shoppers seem to regard it as a necessary evil to be plowed through on a Saturday afternoon. Be sure to break away from the crowds and the generic shops to investigate some of the stores in places such as Victoria Street and the Grassmarket (for vintage clothing), Causewayside (a mecca for antiques), Broughton Street and Stockbridge.
For souvenirs, quality knitwear and traditional Scottish items, the Royal Mile is the place to shop
Edinburgh has seen an explosion in the number and variety of restaurants in recent years.
The buzzword these days is "modern Scottish"—cosmopolitan menus that include local seafood and game, as well as fresh produce. It's a successful formula that has won Michelin-star status for such local chefs as Jeff Bland, Martin Wishart and Tom Kitchin.
There are good restaurants scattered all across the city, but the top of the Royal Mile, New Town and Leith are particularly noteworthy spots for dining. Generally, people like to sit down for dinner between 7 and 8:30 pm. Dropping in and hoping for a table is not advised, especially on Friday and Saturday. Make reservations.
For the most part, Edinburgh has a cool, sometimes gray and overcast climate that reaches its highest temperatures in July and August, when temperatures can reach 70 F/20 C. The saying that Edinburgh can experience four seasons in one day is not far off, as temperatures and levels of sun or rain can vary greatly in short spans of time. May-September is a good time to visit, as the days are longer with plenty of sunshine. In January and February, the temperature can get as high as 43 F/6 C, but it usually hovers around the 34 F/1 C mark. Edinburgh rarely gets much snow, except for the hillier parts toward the Pentland Hills in the south of the city.
Bruntsfield Links - In the 16th century, Bruntsfield Links was a moor bounded with oak trees, and home to Edinburgh outlaws and outcasts. It was not a place to be caught after dark. When deer and boar were still plentiful, the Scottish nobility used it for their hunting ground. The Bruntsfield Links Golf Society played there in 1761, making it the fourth oldest club in the world.
Musselburgh Links - Its nine holes are set in the middle of a racecourse. This is the site of the first recorded game of golf, which took place in 1672, and it's registered in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest playing golf course in the world. You can rent old-fashioned hickory clubs and play the game the way it would have been played more than three centuries ago.
DO'S AND DON'TS
Don't be alarmed by the One O'Clock Gun, which is fired from the castle rampart every day. When it goes off, tourists are easy to spot—they're the ones looking about for the cause of the noise. The locals will simply ignore it or check their watches.
Do ditch the taxis and walk—exploring Edinburgh's cobbled streets, unique shops and cozy bars at random is part of the city's charm.
Don't be afraid to ask people to repeat themselves. Even though the average Edinburgh accent is easy to understand, it may take a bit of getting used to. If you haven't understood, ask the speaker to repeat. No one will take offense.
Do try the local ales, even if you don't normally like beer. Served cold, these full-flavored ales are delicious. Ask the bartender for "a pint of 80."
Don't miss the climb to Arthur's Seat if you are able and the weather allows. The setting and the view, of the city and the Firth of Forth, are spectacular.
Predominant Religions: Christian (Protestant and Catholic).
Currency: The Scottish pound is issued by Scottish banks and has the same value as the British pound. The British pound is accepted everywhere in Scotland, but the reverse is not necessarily true. Outside of London and other major cities in England, you may have trouble finding merchants who will accept Scottish pound notes.
Time Zone: Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). Daylight Saving Time is observed from the last Sunday in March to the last Sunday in October.
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Courtesy of: Darla Logsdon
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