Few cities in the world give you access to a castle and two extinct volcanoes! Edinburgh is just such a city with Castlehill and Arthur’s Seat within 15 minutes walk of each other. As a result of this fiery geological history, Edinburgh’s city centre is curious mix of the ancient and modern. The volcanic plug and tail of Castlehill contained the original Old Town and ultimately lead to the evolution of the New Town.
The Old Town straddles Castlehill with Edinburgh Castle at it’s summit. From the Castle esplanade a warren of closes, lands and courts runs all the way to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Gladstone’s Land (Land means tenement house) in the city’s Lawnmarket is a perfect example of an Old Town building. The property has been lovingly restored by the National Trust and it allows us to experience how (wealthy) people would have lived in the 17th century. Inhabitants had no running water, no toilets and there were few recognizable conveniences. Animals and humans lived in close quarter and all manner of trades would have occurred in the same space. Imagine the smell associated with living next to a butcher shop or tannery. This amazing building is like a time machine, with it’s very knowledgeable and friendly guides we strongly recommend a visit.
Nestled behind Gladstone’s land in Makars Court is the Edinburgh Museum of Writers. This beautiful building on Lady Stair’s Close was gifted to Edinburgh for use as a museum in 1907. Inside it’s sandstone walls respect is paid to Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. These three giants of Scottish (and world) literature are expounded through portraits, pictures, text and some unique personal items.
Heading east from the castle and down the High Street you will pass the imposing facade of St Giles cathedral and can step over the famous cobbled Heart of Midlothian. The City Chambers and the subterranean Mary King’s Close sit opposite. Shortly after this is the World’s End Bar, so named because of it’s proximity to the old city walls . Perhaps this gives you a sense of scale of the Old Town up to the end of the 18th century, 80,000 people along a half mile stretch of road.
It is difficult to appreciate how much Edinburgh’s Old Town has changed over time but the MC Escher like street levels of the Old Town need to be seen to be believed. The Old Town is full of vaults, tunnels and hidden spaces. It is rumoured that there is a tunnel that runs from the Castle to the palace of Holyroodhouse. The city is also reputed to be the most haunted in Britain with tales a plenty of spectral bagpipers, headless drummer boys and grey ladys.
At one time the Royal Mile had a 16 story tenement and high rise buildings were the norm due to the lack of land within the city walls. The constant threat of fire to these wooden buildings was realised in the great fire of 1824 leading to the destruction of many of the original buildings in the Old Town.
The city grew out from the Old Town from 1766 onwards as land was purchased for expansion and the Nor Loch to the north of Castle hill was drained. The creation of the Georgian New Town started a golden-age for Edinburgh and helped to secure the city’s influence in Britain. The New Town was created as a suburb for the wealthy and developed between 1760 and 1850. The wide avenues and green leafy spaces were paradise compared to the by now squalid Old Town. The Georgian House on Charlotte Square is the perfect companion to Gladstone House. This is the type of property that the great and good of Edinburgh ‘s Old Town would migrate to ( if they could afford it).
The broad streets of the New Town now play host to shops, embassies and restaurants as well as well heeled residents. George Street offers high end retails therapy, and Hanover Street will lead down to the Royal Botanic Gardens. Rose Street, sandwiched between George and princes Street is famous for its bars.
These days Edinburgh is more used to hordes of tourists and Festival Goers than marauding armies of the 1300 and 1700s. The Fringe Festival alone attracted 2.3 million visitors in 2012 and Edinburgh’s festivals grow bigger in size and excitement each year. Most of the venues for the EIFF and Fringe festival are within the city centre. With Festivals and celebrations happening all year Edinburgh has something for everyone. The annual Mela, Beltane Fire Festival, Hogmanay and the Edinburgh International Book Festival are just a few of the events in the city’s calendar.
With its multiple retail options and frankly huge number of bars, restaurants, theatres, clubs and for visitors to choose from Edinburgh’s city centre is perfect for a day trip or longer visit. The city centre is home to the National Portrait Gallery, The National Museum of Scotland, The Museum of Edinburgh, Royal Scottish Academy and the Scottish National Gallery. Art enthusiasts could spend several days simply taking in the exhibits in the city centre.
History, mystery, art, culture, fine food and drink and splendid architecture are just the tip of the iceberg in Scotland’s capital.
What was your experience in Edinburgh? Please feel free to share any pictures or stories with us.