Edinburgh is my favourite place on earth. The capital of Scotland, this city of teetering buildings and cobblestone lanes is built on an outcrop of volcanic rock that rises from the earth in jagged ridges. Under the imposing view of extinct volcano Arthur's Seat, winding roads and tall stone structures are tightly stacked on top of each other making for a city of compound textures, twisting heights, and sprawling streets that tumble down the steep inclines of Edinburgh's famous hills. Sharp church spires pierce the skyline and the formidable fortress of Edinburgh castle crowns it all. The history, culture, and aesthetic of Edinburgh is atmospheric and rich, split across the teeming alleys of the Old Town and the luxurious thoroughfares of the New.
Edinburgh Castle was built on the jagged remnants of an extinct volcano and Edinburgh's famous street, the Royal Mile, runs down a craggy ridge from it. This part of the city retains its medieval layout and the cobbled streets and tiered lanes define the city's iconic look and feel. Impressive sandstone buildings rise on each side and curved lanes, alleys, and wynds filter off to the left and right. The striking spires of the Tron Kirk, St. Giles' Cathedral, and St. Columba's pepper the sky as you glance down the hill. At the very end you might just glimpse the top of the ruined Holyrood Abbey, now the royal Holyrood Palace, and beyond that a glimmer of blue sea can be seen past the rising green hills of Holyrood Park.
The Royal Mile is unlike many urban thoroughfares. Instead of another homogeneous collection of high-street stores and big brand names, the lanes are peppered with characterful independent shops, bars, and restaurants. Many of them are artisan cafes, delightful coffeehouses, vintage clothing stores, independent whiskey traders, and traditional Scottish merchants. The shops are often as charming as the buildings they are housed in and many are unique to the city. The street throws up some unusual sights to entertain tourists too, like native birds, street performers, and tour guides.
Holyrood Park sits about mile to the east of Edinburgh Castle, just next to the ruins of Holyrood Abbey and Holyrood Palace, and is home to the mountain Arthur's Seat. Considering its close proximity to the city, the park is a wild slice of highland landscape and features hills, lochs, glens, ridges, cliffs, and more. It started life as a twelfth-century royal hunting estate, but now this expanse of nature is open to the public. Taking a walk through these craggy hills is a beautiful way to spend the day.
Arthur's Seat, the highest point in Edinburgh, is the very centre of the park, with the sharp cliffs of Salisbury Crags to the west. The crags have been a popular spot for climbers since the nineteenth-century and still command the most awe-inspiring views of Edinburgh's rooftops. The ruins of St. Anthony's Chapel are a particular highlight and are worth the short climb to visit. The ruins stand above the man-made St. Margaret's Loch, where you can often spy a bevy of swans gliding across the water.
It's from the ruined Holyrood Abbey that the park gets its name. The abbey was founded in 1128, but the guesthouse was developed into a royal residence during the 1400s and acted as the early formation of what would become the Royal Palace of Holyroodhouse. The abbey has been in decay since the eighteenth-century. The ruined walls of the abbey today sit adjacent to the royal Palace. Long used as the official residence of the British monarch in Scotland, perhaps the most infamous resident of Holyrood was the ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots.
Calton Hill offers up some of the most famous and definitive views of Edinburgh's skyline. It is the seat of Scottish Government. The National Monument, the Nelson Monument, the Dugald Stewart Monument, the Political Martyrs' Monument, and the City Observatory are just some of the sights on the hill. The National Monument is a classical structure, designed to resemble the Parthenon in Athens. It appears ruined, but was actually left unfinished when the project ran out of funds in 1829. Today, this evocative set of columns dominates the topmost point of the hill along with the Nelson Monument.
Leith was once a gritty and fairly down-and-out area on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Irvine Welsh chose it as the setting for his bleak novel Trainspotting. But years of slow gentrification have seen this sea port transformed into a quiet waterside hub of cobblestone lanes, old tramlines, canals, and good food. Little details hark back to the days when Leith was a port. The highly-recommended seafood restaurant Fishers is housed in a seventeenth-century watchtower by the shore and a mounted harpoon sits by the calm waters in tribute to the days when one of the world’s largest whaling fleets was found in Leith. In popular culture, this area is the setting for the critically-acclaimed stage play and film Sunshine on Leith.
The graveyard surrounding Greyfriars Kirk on Candlemaker Row has become part of both popular culture and legend. Named after the grey-robed monks of the Franciscan friary once occupying the site, burials have been taking place here since the late sixteenth-century. As such, many notable Edinburgh citizens are interred at Greyfriars. But it is best known for the legend of Greyfriars Bobby, the Skye Terrier who held vigil by his master's grave for fourteen years after his death. Greyfriars Bobby is based in truth, but accounts of the story vary widely.
Along the Royal Mile, there are a number of museums to help paint a clearer picture of Edinburgh and the history all around. The Writer's Museum in Lady Stair's Close is housed in a beautiful sixteenth-century house and commemorates the lives of some of Scotland's most beloved writers. Robert Burns, Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson all have their stories told here. Stevenson's childhood wardrobe is even one of the items on display - a particularly impressive piece as it was made by none other than the notorious Deacon Brodie! Like most of the museums on the Royal Mile, this is free to visit.
In Canongate, you find the Museum of Edinburgh and The People's Story. The former provides a compelling narrative following the earliest settlements of the city right through to its transformation into the cultural hub that Edinburgh is today. The latter is housed in the old Tolbooth building and tells a visceral story of the people who lived in the city, especially during periods of extreme overpopulation and upheaval.
The Museum of Scotland is also free to visit. This international museum houses diverse collections that detail the history of Scotland and the world. It is housed partially in a modern construction, opened in 1998, and half in the former Royal Museum building, opened in 1866. It is distinctive for its grand central hall of cast iron. A must-visit is the Museum's roof terrace on the seventh floor, which has panoramic views of the city rooftops.
Edinburgh's rich history is woven into the city and around every corner another monument or building is waiting to tell the story of a colourful character.
"There are no stars as lovely as Edinburgh street-lamps."
- Robert Louis Stevenson
My love for Edinburgh grows with every visit. The beauty of the city, the rich history, the endless charm are just a fraction of what make it so enchanting. The people are quick to laugh and greet you with a smile. These weathered streets feel as familiar as home. Every corner promises a new discovery. I haven't been able to write about half the places I visited or the wonderful things I saw, because every minute in this place is lovely.
Oh, Scotland. I will be back soon.