Overview

Scotland's capital, Edinburgh, draws on its history to appeal to visitors—with good reason. The Old Town of Edinburgh reverberates with the history of Scottish royalty and romantic literary figures. Crossing Princes Street and glimpsing Edinburgh Castle towering over the New Town is like passing through a time warp to the late 1700s.

Edinburgh has also launched more than its fair share of notable figures onto the world stage: Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Alexander Graham Bell and more recently Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith and J.K. Rowling.

But Edinburgh isn't just wrapped up in history. Tourists flock there every summer to partake of the extraordinarily vibrant atmosphere of the Edinburgh Festival—it's the world's biggest performing-arts festival (really, six distinct festivals in one). While the festival time may be the busiest tourist season in Edinburgh, the busiest night of the year is Hogmanay (New Year's Eve), when Edinburgh invites visitors to one of the biggest street parties in the world.

Returning visitors will discover that Edinburgh has been reinvigorated by the opening of the Scottish parliament building, new and improved tourist attractions, an influx of immigrants from the former Eastern Bloc countries, a renaissance of its previously ignored waterfront, and the building of a new tram system.

Geography

From its location on the banks of the Firth of Forth, Edinburgh enjoys one of the most dramatic settings of any European city. The most distinctive natural landmark, Arthur's Seat, is an extinct volcano around which the oldest parts of town, from Castle Rock down the Royal Mile, cluster on a narrow, rocky ridge surrounded by bare moorland.

The main shopping thoroughfare of Princes Street marks the southern edge of New Town, which is connected to the Old Town by George IV Bridge and the gentle slope of The Mound. Calton Hill looms over the east end of Princes Street, and beyond it is Leith Walk, which leads to Edinburgh's port of Leith. On the west end of Princes Street is Lothian Road, famous as Edinburgh's financial district.

Edinburgh's growth has swallowed up villages to the north, including Stockbridge and Dean Village, which sit on the Water of Leith, a river that runs through Edinburgh and empties into the Forth. Farther out, the city is ringed by distinct neighborhoods, from well-off Morningside to working-class tenement areas such as Dalry. To the northwest and southeast, money-starved 1960s housing projects provide a stark contrast to the grandeur of the city center.

History

Castle Rock has been inhabited since the early seventh century, when the Celtic tribe Gododdin named it Dunedin (Dun Eideann). Dun means "hill fort." Allthough it had long been the residence of the King of Scots, it did not become the capital city until the 15th century, a position it still retains.

In a centuries-long struggle for power between the English and the Scots, the city was a target for English armies, the scene of popular uprisings, the setting for some dramatic moments in the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the headquarters of Bonnie Prince Charlie's unsuccessful attempt to claim the throne of Scotland in 1745-46.

The focus of power shifted away from Edinburgh after the Act of Union in 1707 combined the parliaments of England and Scotland into one body, centered in London. That gave the city a chance to concentrate on itself, and just in time—by the 1760s, the overcrowding, squalor and disease had become too dangerous to ignore, and building began to the north on what is now called New Town, a masterpiece of neoclassical architecture.

Edinburgh grew and prospered, becoming a center for law, medicine and intellectual pursuits in the 1700s and 1800s. The 20th century saw it blossom on other fronts: The foundation in 1947 of the Edinburgh International Festival and its more diverse sister festival, the Fringe, established the city as one of the world's leading centers of art and culture.

Edinburgh has also flourished as one of Europe's financial centers. The millennium ended on a high note with the re-establishment, after nearly 300 years, of a parliament in Scotland's capital and the opening of the new parliament building.

Sightseeing

There are two "towns" in Edinburgh, the Old Town and the New Town, which are divided by the greenery and floral displays of Princes Street Gardens. Most travelers will want to start their tour in the Old Town, which is dominated by dramatic Edinburgh Castle. It's still headquarters of the Scottish Division of the British Army, and you'll see kilted soldiers performing their duties.

Be sure to walk the length of the Royal Mile: Take your time and explore some of the many closes that lead off the street. The first stop is Outlook Tower, with its fascinating Camera Obscura. Next, pass Gladstone's Land (17th-century tenements), the ornate Gothic St. Giles' Cathedral and the playful Museum of Childhood (antique toys and games).

The Royal Mile ends, appropriately enough, at the queen's Scottish residence, the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The spectacular and controversial Scottish parliament building, opposite the palace, offers tours when there is no parliamentary business. Behind it is Our Dynamic Earth, a millennium project that was designed to educate and interest visitors in the natural wonders of the earth.

In the Old Town, you'll find one of Scotland's best recent attractions, the National Museum of Scotland, which has been described as an ultramodern version of an old Arthurian castle. Don't miss the Greyfriars Kirk yard near the museum. Many famous people are buried there, including Greyfriars Bobby. This small dog spent the last 14 years of its life on or near the grave of its master and is the subject of two Hollywood movies. The National Covenant was signed in front of the church pulpit in 1638, and the graveyard was later a makeshift prison for 1,200 Covenanters. Nearby Candlemakers Row leads to the Grassmarket with its eclectic collection of shops, pubs and restaurants. Allow yourself a day to thoroughly explore Old Town.

The spacious and orderly New Town is no less interesting. Among its treasures are the houses of Robert Louis Stevenson (17 Heriot Row), Sir Walter Scott (39 Castle St.) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (11 Picardy Place). There is a statue of Sherlock Holmes not far from Doyle's house. A visit to Calton Hill, located to the east, will provide grand views of Edinburgh, including Arthur's Seat, the castle and the Forth. Across from Princes Street, there are two museums you'll want to visit—the National Gallery of Scotland and the Royal Scottish Academy. They are linked by the Playfair Project, an underground tunnel with shop, restaurant and gallery space. The New Town also hosts the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

In Leith (the port district), bars, restaurants and hotels have been joined by the Royal Yacht Britannia. Edinburgh fought off stiff competition to have the ship docked there, and it is now open as a visitor attraction.

Nightlife

There's a growing trend to reshape Edinburgh into a center for chic cafe culture, and the nightlife choices are wider than ever: vodka bars, theme pubs and semipalatial bars and bistros in converted banks. However, the traditional pub still dominates. Some of the finest pubs Edinburgh has to offer are old-fashioned, with wood paneling and fires in their grates. These time-honored drinking establishments are redolent of Edinburgh's history and culture in a way that museums or historic monuments can never hope to equal. Keep in mind that there is a ban on smoking in both bars and restaurants.

We especially like Sandy Bells and Cafe Royal Circle Bar. The city's most musically interesting clubs tend to be venues for a rotating selection of club nights, rather than permanent nightclubs. Most nightclubs stay open until 3 am, even midweek, although many pubs close much earlier. The best bets for walking in off the street and catching a good live band are The Captain's Bar, The Royal Oak and Whistlebinkies.

Dining

Edinburgh has seen an explosion in the number and variety of restaurants in recent years.

The buzzword these days is "modern Scottish"—cosmopolitan menus that include local seafood and game, as well as fresh produce. It's a successful formula that has won Michelin-star status for such local chefs as Jeff Bland, Martin Wishart and Tom Kitchin.

There are good restaurants scattered all across the city, but the top of the Royal Mile, New Town and Leith are particularly noteworthy spots for dining. Generally, people like to sit down for dinner between 7 and 8:30 pm. Dropping in and hoping for a table is not advised, especially on Friday and Saturday. Make reservations.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a dinner for one, excluding tip and drinks: $ = less than £14; $$ = £14-£25; $$$ = £26-£40; $$$$ = more than £40.

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