By Rachel Diebel
Scotland is an extremely diverse country, from its island chains to the rugged highlands. A great place for starting any trip to Scotland is Edinburgh, the capital city, where famous people such as J.K. Rowling got their start and you are never quite out of earshot of bagpipe music. Edinburgh’s many delights are sure to make you eager to explore the rest of what Scotland has to offer.
At one end of the Royal Mile is Edinburgh Castle, a sprawling complex that can be seen from almost any point in Edinburgh. The castle merits more than just a quick visit, as it contains everything from the Scottish crown jewels to a regimental museum. Highlights include the great hall with its huge arching hammerbeam ceiling, the Scottish National War Memorial, and the stone dungeons where prisoners of war were kept for many years. If you arrive at the right time of day, you can also witness the shooting of the antique One o’clock Gun, which, true to its name, is shot off at exactly 1:00 p.m. every day except Sundays.
Edinburgh’s Old Town boasts a large number of original Reformation-era buildings, and is packed with fudge shops, stores to buy your clan tartan, pubs and bagpipers playing for spare change. Spanning the length of the Royal Mile and several streets on either side, it’s a wonderful, vibrant area to stroll through on a free afternoon. Admire the gothic St. Giles’ Cathedral and the architectural oddities left over from the original medieval street plan, especially the dark, narrow alleyways called closes or wynds. Spend your money carefully or you could walk out with the complete Scottish works, from a plaid kilt to a bottle of the finest Scottish whiskey.
Prince’s Street Gardens
Prince’s Street Gardens, located just off Prince’s Street in the center of Edinburgh, are the most popular public gardens in Scotland. A stroll through the gardens takes you past a multitude of monuments and fountains, the most prominent being the Scott Monument, a huge Gothic spire built to honor author Sir Walter Scott. In December the park is redecorated as a winter wonderland!
Along with Edinburgh Castle, Calton Hill is what gives the city of Edinburgh its distinctive skyline. The climb up Calton Hill is well worth it for the views and the many monuments scattered over the hill. Often mistaken for the Greek Pantheon, the Scottish National Monument dominates the top of Calton Hill, but smaller monuments are also interesting to wander among. Visit at sunrise for the most stunning views.
If you’re looking for the best view of Edinburgh, Arthur’s Seat is where you want to be. An inactive volcano situated in the center of Edinburgh, near the Scottish Parliament building and Holyrood Palace, Arthur’s Seat is a relatively easy climb and offers beautiful panoramic views of the city. In folklore, Arthur’s Seat is also one of the few possible locations for Camelot, the legendary court of King Arthur.
At the opposite end of the Royal Mile from the castle sits Holyrood Palace. The palace is the official residence of the Queen when she is in Scotland. When she is absent, however, the palace is open for visitors. Wander through the beautiful Baroque-style hallways and imagine having an official state dinner in the stunning dining room. The palace itself sits in the center of Holyrood Park, an expansive estate that also contains the ruins of an ancient stone abbey. Holyrood Abbey dates back to 1128, but has been a ruin since the 18th century. Open to the elements with only a few high, striking walls remaining, the abbey nonetheless retains all of its original beauty.
Mary King’s Close
A narrow, dark alleyway under Edinburgh’s Old Town, Mary King’s Close is rife with stories of hauntings, murders and plague victims being walled in and left to die. Historians have determined that in actuality it is simply several closes built on top of each other through the years, but knowing that doesn’t take away the eerie atmosphere. The daring can enter via the nearby Writer’s Court and take a tour of this and several other nearby closes.
The Camera Obscura is a different and fascinating way to experience Edinburgh and its history. Take a seat in the rooftop of an ancient Gothic building and watch the history of a city play out projected in front of you on to a viewing table. The mechanics of the camera obscura allow you to “pick up” the video images–a real hands-on way to learn about Edinburgh!
Edinburgh Castle: dun_deagh via Flickr
St. Giles Cathedral, Old Town: Romtomtom via Flickr
Prince’s Street Gardens: Bernt Rostad via Flickr
Calton Hill: dun_deagh via Flickr
Arthur’s Seat: dun_deagh via Flickr
Holyrood Palace: David Jones via Flickr
Performance at Mary King’s Close: zoetnet via Flickr
Camera Obscura: Andy Hay via Flickr