Edinburgh’s Excellent Attractions
T0131-225-9846; April-September 0930-1800, October-March 0930-1700 (last entry is 45 minutes before closing); £8.50 adult, £2 child.
You cannot be unaffected by the presence of Edinburgh Castle. It sits atop an extinct volcano in the heart of Old Town, protected on three sides by steep cliffs. Its strategic site has drawn much attention over the centuries, and the history and views alone make it worth the visit. The castle is entered from the top of the Royal Mile, via the Esplanade, built in the 18th and 19th centuries as a parade ground. A drawbridge, the last ever built in Scotland, leads to the 19th-century Gatehouse and modern statues of Sir William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. Inside Castle Rock is St. Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest surviving building in the city. To the south of the chapel is James IV’s Great Hall, once the seat of the Scottish Parliament. Also of interest is Mons Meg, the siege gun made in Belgium for the Duke of Burgundy. And don’t forget to visit the Palace, where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James VI.
The Royal Mile
The Royal Mile winds through the heart of Old Town, from the castle down to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. It has a greater concentration of historic buildings than almost anywhere else in Britain, but is also one of the busiest tourist thoroughfares. The 1,984 yards of the Royal Mile consist of four streets: Castlehill, Lawnmarket, High Street, and Canongate. Various wynds (narrow alleys giving access to the main street) and closes (entrances to high-rise tenement blocks), entered via archways known as pends, branch out from these main streets. At the turn of the 19th century the Old Town was abandoned by the wealthy inhabitants who moved to the New Town. In the period that followed, Old Town became a dirty slum. People regularly threw their refuse and sewage onto the streets, bellowing the traditional warning, “Gardyloo!” (Plague later devastated the town, and only in the past century has the Royal Mile been cleaned up.)
Palace of Holyroodhouse
The palace is open daily to the public, except during state functions and the annual royal visit in June and July. Entrance fees are £6.50 adult, £3.30 child, and £16.50 family. The palace was originally the abbey guesthouse, until James IV transformed it into a royal palace at the beginning of the 16th century. The oldest part of Holyroodhouse is open to the public and is entered through the Great Gallery, which takes up the entire first floor of the north wing. In the grounds of the palace is Holyrood Abbey (Holy Rood is another word for Cross), left in ruin after numerous failed attempts at restoration.
Opposite the Palace of Holyroodhouse is the new Scottish Parliament building. It was completed in 2004. The building, designed by Barcelona architect, Enric Miralles, has caused a lot of controversy due to its untraditional design and spiraling costs. Stop by the adjoining visitor center, open 1000-1600, for more information.
Holyrood Park and Arthur’s Seat
Holyrood Park is just one of the magnificent green, open spaces that make the city of Edinburgh such a unique setting. Basically, you can explore 650 acres of rugged wilderness including mountains, crags, lochs, moorland, marshes, fields, and glens all within walking distance of the city center. There aren’t too many cities that can boast about that! The park’s main features are the Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano. Arthur’s Seat is the highest of Edinburgh’s hills at 822 feet. You can get the best view of the city from the summit of Arthur’s Seat. On a clear day you can even see the Highland Peaks, 70 or 80 miles away. The walk is less strenuous than it first appears, and the jaunt up any one of the various trails will take less than an hour.
East and West Princes Street Gardens
The sunken gardens, formed by draining the Nor’ Loch in the 1760s, run along the north and south sides of Princess Street. The Scott Monument stands in the East Princes Street Gardens. It costs £2.50 to enter the 200-foot-high monument, built in 1844 as a tribute to one of Scotland’s greatest literary figures, Sir Walter Scott. You can climb to a platform near the top of the spire via a 287-step staircase. Enjoy the view! The Princes Street Gardens are divided in two by The Mound, an artificial slope formed by earth excavated during the construction of Old Town. The Mound extends from George IV Bridge in the Old Town down to Princes Street. On the other side of The Mound and just under Castle Rock, lies the West Princes Street Gardens. Be sure to take a peak at the Wellhouse Tower, one of the oldest buildings in the city. It dates back to the reign of David II (1329-1371). St. Cuthbert’s Church and Churchyard, located just below the junction of Princes Street and Lothian Road, is the oldest church site in the city. Malcolm III is said to have constructed it, although most of the present-day church was built in the 1890s. Either way, it warrants a visit.
National Gallery of Scotland
The gallery is open daily from 1000-1700, and until 1900 on Thursday. Admission is free, although there may be a charge for special exhibits. The National Gallery of Scotland is located at the junction of The Mound and Princes Street, and (aside from London) houses the most important collection of Old Masters in the UK. If you appreciate art you will be impressed by painters including: Raphael, Rubens, El Greco, Titian, Goya, Vermeer, and Rembrandt, as well as Renoir, Degas, Monet, Van Gogh, and many important Scottish artists.
Things to Do
City of the Dead Haunted Graveyard Tour, T0771-542-2750
This tour leaves from the Mercat Cross nightly at 2030. I traveled to Edinburgh in December of 2004 and couldn’t miss out on something this original. At that time, tickets prices were £6. If you’re daring you can choose to be locked in a haunted graveyard with the notorious Mackenzie poltergeist. More poltergeist attacks have been documented on this tour than any other. I highly recommend the City of the Dead Haunted Graveyard Tour because, if nothing else, you will learn about the more sinister part of Edinburgh’s history (in other words, what they try to keep hidden). Oh, and if you come across a guide by the name of James, tell him Kate from Seattle says hello!
Real Mary King’s Close
Mary King’s Close on High Street (entrance on Warriston’s Close) offers tours daily every 20 minutes from 1000 to 2100 (April through October) and 1000 to 1600 (November through March). Ticket prices are £8 for adults, £7 for seniors/students with valid I.D, and £6 for children ages 5-15. Children under 5 years are not allowed due to health and safety. This tour is a fun way to better understand the trials and tribulations of 17th-century Old Town life, and its creativity sets it apart from others like it. Each guide assumes the identity of a typical (or not so typical) 17th-century character, so you can experience the tour multiple times from different perspectives.