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Edinburgh - Attractions

Busker blowing his pipes

Calton Hill

Calton hill rises dramatically above the eastern end of Princes St, its summit scattered with grandiose memorials. Edinburgh's answer to the acropolis, Calton Hill is one of the city's best viewpoints, with a panorama that takes in the castle, Holyrood, Arthur's Seat, the Firth of Forth, New Town and the entire length of Princes St.

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle dominates the city centre, sitting astride the core of an extinct volcano, its three sides scoured almost vertical by glacial action. Although the castle looks impregnable, it often changed hands between the Scots and English throughout the centuries.

The place has seen plenty of action: back in the 6th century it was used as a defence against the Picts, while in the 18th century Bonnie Prince Charlie's army tried but failed to breach its walls. These days hostilities are more likely to erupt between competing tour groups.

By the mid-18th century, the castle looked much as it does today. Partly in thanks to Sir Walter Scott, in the 19th century it began to recover its importance as a Scottish symbol.

Visitors enter from the Esplanade, a parade ground where the changing of the guard occurs on the hour. Sites within the castle proper include Mills Mount Battery, where a gun salute takes place on weekdays; St Margaret's Chapel, the oldest building in Edinburgh; the Palace, built between the 15th and 16th centuries; and the Scottish United Services Museum, which houses displays on the history of Scottish regiments.


Grassmarket is one of Edinburgh's nightlife centres, with numerous restaurants and pubs. An open area hedged by tall tenements and dominated by the looming castle, it can be approached from George IV Bridge, via Victoria St, an unusual two-tiered street clinging to the ridge below the Royal Mile, with some excellent shops. The site of a market from at least 1477 to the start of the 20th century, Grassmarket was always the focal point for the Old Town. This was the main place for executions and over 100 hanged Covenanters are commemorated with a cross at the east end. The notorious murderers Burke and Hare operated from a now vanished close off the west end. Around 1827 they enticed at least 18 victims here, suffocated them and sold the bodies to Edinburgh's medical schools. Leading off from the southeast corner, Candlemaker Row climbs back up to the George IV Bridge and Chambers St with the Royal Museum of Scotland and the University of Edinburgh's Old College.

Greyfriars Kirk

At the bottom of a stone canyon made up of tenements, churches, volcanic cliffs and the castle, Greyfriars Kirkyard is one of Edinburgh's most evocative spots - a peaceful oasis dotted with memorials and surrounded by Edinburgh's dramatic skyline. The kirk (church) was built on the site of a Franciscan friary and opened for worship on Christmas Day 1620. In 1638, the National Covenant was signed inside near the pulpit. The covenant rejected Charles I's attempts to reintroduce episcopacy and a new English prayer book, and affirmed the independence of the Scottish church. Many who signed were later executed in Grassmarket and, in 1679, 1200 Covenanters were held prisoner in terrible conditions in an enclosure in the yard. There's a small exhibition inside.

Another attraction of the area stems from the story of Bobby, a Skye terrier who maintained a vigil over the grave of his master, an Edinburgh police officer, from 1858 to 1872. In the kirk you can buy Greyfriars Bobby - The Real Story at Last, Forbes Macgregor's debunking of some of the myths surrounding Bobby. Bobby's grave is just inside the entrance to the kirkyard.

Holyrood Park

In Holyrood Park, Edinburgh is blessed in having a real wilderness on its doorstep. The former hunting grounds of Scottish monarchs, it covers 263 hectares (1 sq mi) of varied landscape, including hills, moorland, lochs and fields. The highest point is Arthur's Seat (251m, 823ft), an eroded stump of lava flow that erupted around 325 million years ago. It forms part of a volcano that includes Calton Hill and Castle Rock. The park can be circumnavigated along Queen's Drive by car or bike and there are several excellent walks.

Museum of Childhood

At 42 High St, the Museum of Childhood attempts to cover the serious issues related to childhood - health, education and so on - but more enjoyable is the enormous collection of toys, dolls, games and books that fascinate children and bring childhood memories back for adults.

Royal Museum of Scotland

The Royal Museum of Scotland, on Chambers St, is a Victorian building whose grey, solid exterior contrasts with its large, bright, galleried entrance hall of slim wrought-iron columns and glass roof. The museum houses an eclectic, comprehensive series of exhibitions. These range from the natural world (evolution, mammals, geology, fossils) to scientific and industrial technological development - with one section featuring the world's oldest steam locomotive, Wylam Dilly (1813) - to the decorative arts of ancient Egypt, Islam, China, Japan, Korea and the west. The adjacent Museum of Scotland, opened in 1998, houses archaeological artefacts from the old Museum of Antiquities. It shows the history of Scotland in chronological order starting with the country's earliest history in the basement.

Royal Observatory

Directly south of the city centre on Blackford Hill, the observatory was moved here from Calton Hill in 1896. In the visitor centre there's a multimedia gallery with computers and CD ROMs on astronomy, and there are terrific views of Edinburgh from the rooftop.

St Giles' Cathedral

On High St just east of the crossroads of Bank St and George IV Bridge lies Parliament Square, which is largely filled by St Giles' Cathedral. Inside the church, near the entrance, is a life-size statue of John Knox, minister from 1559 to 1572; from here he preached his uncompromising Calvinist message and launched the Scottish Reformation.

University of Edinburgh

The University of Edinburgh is one of Britain's oldest, biggest and best universities: founded in 1583, it now has around 17,000 undergraduates. The students make a major contribution to the lively atmosphere of Grassmarket, Cowgate, and the nearby restaurants and pubs. The university sprawls for some distance, but the centre is the Old College (also called Old Quad), at the junction of South Bridge and Chambers St, a Robert Adam masterpiece designed in 1789, but not completed until 1834. Inside the Old College is the Talbot Rice Art Gallery, which houses a permanent small collection of old masters, plus regular exhibitions of new work.

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