Exploring Historical Edinburgh

Updated on February 14, 2019
Lorna Lamon profile image

Lorna is a freelance writer who caught the travel bug early. She believes that exploring new places awakens the mind and touches the heart.

Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland since 1437, gained city status in 1889 and has long enjoyed a rich and exciting history. Rising from the Firth of Forth and crowned by the stone walls and historic beauty of Edinburgh Castle, it has developed into a world-famous metropolis.

With its picturesque views and stunning skyline, Edinburgh has captivated and inspired poets, artists and writers for centuries. Its abundance of seasonal festivals, wonderful art galleries and ancient monuments weave together the historic and the modern with a charm of its own, satisfying even the most intrepid traveller.

Having spent three years as a student in Edinburgh, I often return to catch up with old friends, enjoy a festival or two, or reminisce over a hearty meal and a glass of wine in one of its many welcoming restaurants or pubs.

In this article, I will share my favourite attractions in the city, along with its many exciting festivals.

I always feel that when I come to Edinburgh, in many ways I am coming home.

— Alan Rickman

Edinburgh Castle

Towering above Edinburgh, this 13th-century fortress is the country’s most popular tourist attraction. Located high atop a basalt rock outcrop, the magnificent views from this historic castle include many of the city’s landmarks, such as the Royal Mile and Princes Street. The castle is accessed from a 350m long steep and curved central route, and if you decide on a morning visit you will certainly feel exhilarated and probably in need of a coffee or a strong cup of tea.

Tip: I would suggest purchasing a Skip the Line: Edinburgh Castle Entrance Ticket, which is more convenient if you are time restricted.

Entering the castle through the Portcullis Gate, you cannot fail to be impressed by the sheer strength of its three heavy doors and a formidable spiked portcullis. Constructed in 1571–1573, it would have been seen as an immense obstacle to enemies trying to storm the castle. Equally impressive are the statues of King Robert the Bruce and William Wallace, who proudly flank the main entrance. Once inside the castle, there are many wonderful attractions to view including:

The Crown Jewels and the Stone of Destiny

Built during the 15th and 16th centuries and situated on the eastern side of the square is the Royal Palace, where a series of historical scenes will lead you to the castle Crown Room which houses the Scottish Crown Jewels. The Crown Jewels are thought to be among the oldest surviving crown jewels in Europe and include the crown, sword and sceptre.

The Stone of Destiny also resides in the Crown Room and is an ancient and powerful symbol of Scottish monarchy. Last used at the coronation of HM The Queen in 1953, the Stone of Destiny was returned to Scotland from Westminster Abbey on St Andrews Day 1996.

The Royal Apartments

Dating from the 15th century, they were once the official residence of Mary Queen of Scots, where in 1566 she gave birth to the future King James VI of Scotland, who also became James l of England, uniting the crowns of England and Scotland in 1603.

In 1605, King James was the target of the infamous Gunpowder Plot led by Guy Fawkes, who managed to smuggle 36 barrels of gunpowder into the House of Lords. At the last minute, the plot was discovered and the conspirators were apprehended and executed. ‘Guy Fawkes’ night is still remembered on 5th November each year when an effigy of Guy Fawkes is set alight on top of a bonfire.

Prisoners of War Museum

Many French prisoners were held captive under the Great Hall in the castle during the Napoleonic wars. Compared to prisons of that era, the lives of the French prisoners were reasonably tolerable and much of their time was spent making toys and jewellery boxes. Exploring the living quarters of these prisoners, you will be impressed at the restoration work which is not only accurate but well interpreted, complete with background information.

Dog Cemetery

This small cemetery was created for the mascots of the army regiments when they died and has been in use since Queen Victoria’s time. Representing everything noble about regiments past and present, it is a fitting tribute to these wonderful animals.

Places to Eat Inside the Castle

  • Redcoat Cafe: With wonderful views from the main seating area, this cafe is a great place to catch your breath, relax and enjoy good Scottish fare. Reasonably priced with a friendly knowledgeable staff, the menu has something for everyone.
  • The Tea Rooms: A more formal affair where you can enjoy the traditional afternoon tea or sample their generous lunch made with fresh Scottish produce. I highly recommend the hot chocolate which was extremely rich, giving you that much-needed chocolate hit for your next leg of the journey.

St. Giles’ Cathedral

This beautiful cathedral is not only a favourite Edinburgh attraction but one of Scotland’s most iconic buildings. Embodying the centuries through monarchs, wars and reformations, it pays homage to its incredible 900 years of history. Famed for its crown spire, it stands proudly in the middle of the Royal Mile, surrounded by a labyrinth of cobbled streets.

Definitely worth a visit with lots to see, I would suggest picking up the Walk-Round Leaflet which is on sale at the Welcome Desk. I also recommend a visit to the very beautiful cafe which is situated below the Cathedral. The cafe offers a great selection of freshly prepared dishes and speciality coffees in an atmosphere that is both modern and relaxed.

Camera Obscura and World of Illusions

This weird and wonderful attraction is one of Edinburgh’s oldest and has been intriguing and delighting visitors since 1835. Well worth a visit, this world of illusions with six floors of interactive hands-on tricks, not to mention the unique 360-degree panoramic views of Edinburgh from the amazing Camera Obscura, will leave you spellbound. Situated on Castlehill on The Royal Mile in a listed 17th-century building (without a lift), tickets are valid all day so you can come and go as you please; just remember to have your hand stamped.

Art Galleries

Edinburgh really comes into its own when it comes to showcasing art; with over 30 art galleries, you are spoilt for choice. Whether exploring the city’s independent galleries which display the best of the grassroots art scene, discovering the world of photography or marvelling at the old masters, you will not be disappointed.

  • Collective: An independent art gallery, Collective resides in the old City Observatory Complex on Carlton Hill. Its panoramic view of the skyline creates the perfect setting to host exhibitions, performances, talks and walks in order to engage with young artists and the contemporary art scene, as well as the city that hosts them.
  • Scottish National Gallery: Overlooking Princes Street Gardens in an incredible neoclassical building, this gallery is a must-see for any art-lovers visiting the city. Within the beautiful hallowed halls prepare to be amazed at a selection of works from Scottish painters, as well as the collection of international masters including Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh. I must also give a mention to Rodin’s sculpture ‘The Kiss’ which is simply stunning and not to be missed.
  • Stills Gallery: Based in the heart of Edinburgh at 23 Cockburn Street, this gallery opened in the 1970s and is Edinburgh’s top gallery for photography. Its varied exhibitions showcase the work of Scottish and international photographers on a variety of styles and themes which emphasise the importance of photography in the contemporary world.

The above galleries showcase a variety of art within the city and, with the exception of some special shows and exhibitions, admission is free of charge.

Edinburgh's Festivals

Known throughout the world as the Festival City, Edinburgh’s year-round schedule of amazing events will entertain and delight. From the Edinburgh Science Festival in April to the wonderful Hogmanay celebrations at New Year’s Eve, there is a festival to suit everyone.

Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival

This wonderful festival is a favourite of mine and has been entertaining fans with its amazing music since 1978. Attracting the finest jazz and blues musicians from many corners of the globe, the festival takes place in selected venues across the city. There is a wide range of musical styles you can dance along to—blues-rock, samba, swing or soul—and rub shoulders with new artists and established big names.

Famous for its open-air events, you are sure to enjoy the popular Mardi Gras that takes place in the Grassmarket area of the city, where you are transported to New Orleans for an afternoon of amazing jazz music. If you have a love of music, especially jazz and blues, then this is the festival for you. Starting on 12 July until 29 July, this ten-day festival will not disappoint. Check out their website for details.

Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo

An iconic Edinburgh institution, the Military Tattoo is simply spectacular and is very much a global gathering showcasing the talents of musicians and performers from all over the world. Embracing different themes, each and every Military Tattoo is different from the last and has attracted over 14 million people over the years.

Set against the incredible backdrop of the floodlit Edinburgh Castle, it is an unforgettable celebration of music, dance and military pageantry. There is a surreal quality to this wonderful event when the Massed Military Bands and Massed Pipes and Drums enter the castle gates playing the battle tunes of Scotland’s regiments. There are also spectacular displays from the many overseas performers who bring their own brand of action and colour to the event.

I personally think they save the best for last as the finish is just as impressive and a fitting tribute to an unforgettable evening. As you look up to the castle ramparts, the spotlight falls on a lone piper playing a haunting lament. As the notes die away, the audience breaks into song with a chorus of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ followed by a military flypast and fireworks display, bringing the curtain down on a truly magical evening. Starting on 2 August and lasting until 24 August, this event is an experience not to be missed. Check out their website for details.

Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Known as the world’s largest arts festival, Edinburgh is transformed each August as stages are set up all over the city to accommodate the thousands of performers who attend. I particularly enjoy this festival as it is open to anyone who wants to share their story and a venue willing to host them. Popular with well-known names in the world of entertainment, it is also an excellent way for unknown artists who want to build their careers.

There are a variety of shows and exhibitions for the eager audience to enjoy; dance, comedy, cabaret, children’s shows, musicals, opera, and theatre, to name a few. If you are visiting in August you cannot miss the posters, flyers and street performers advertising various venues. With over 300 venues to choose from, ranging from grand theatres to atmospheric basements, you will not be disappointed. Starting on 2nd August to 26 August, it is definitely one to put on the festival calendar. Check out their website for details.

Edinburgh Storytelling Festival

Enjoyed by adults and children alike, this wonderful festival brings to life the Scottish tradition of storytelling. This autumn festival is a celebration of storytelling handed down through the generations, with expert storytellers weaving their tales of life, love, magic and mystery in an atmosphere of suspense and awe. Helping to create this wonderful atmosphere are the live musicians whose haunting music will transport you to another world through the power of imagination.

I thoroughly enjoy this festival which not only keeps Scottish tradition alive but also invites guests from across the world to share their stories and legends. It’s a wonderful coming together and sharing of traditional cultures with opportunities to take part in workshops, along with a range of activities for families to enjoy. Starting on 18 October to 31 October, it is a wonderful heart-warming festival and not to be missed. Check out their website for more details.

Winter Festivals

A popular highlight of Edinburgh’s Christmas would have to be the wonderful festive markets which are held at East Princes Street Gardens. Just a short walk from the Royal Mile, the markets can be easily accessed through various gates along Princes Street.

With dozens of beautiful wooden chalets lining the Princes Street Gardens, it’s like stepping into a Christmas card. Selling an assortment of crafts, gift items and seasonal food and drink, you are sure to find that elusive present. Surrounding the market are various rides and attractions which include ice skating and a big wheel.

Even though entry to the market is free of charge, visitors need to book the various rides and attractions which include Santa’s Grotto. Starting on 17 November to 1 January, it’s a great way to start the festive season.

I never tire of visiting this beautiful city as with each visit I discover something new and exciting. Always evolving yet never really changing, there is a quiet dignity in the many cobbled streets, ancient monuments and majestic skyline.

A city for all seasons, Edinburgh has something wonderful to see or do, regardless of the time of year. It’s only now when I no longer live in Edinburgh that I really appreciate how much it has to offer, and why it rightfully takes its place among the most incredible and historic capital cities in the world.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Lorna Lamon

    Comments

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      • Lorna Lamon profile imageAUTHOR

        Lorna Lamon 

        2 months ago

        Hi Mary, It's a wonderful city to study in. I was at Edinburgh University and thoroughly enjoyed it. It's a great city to visit.

      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 

        2 months ago from Ontario, Canada

        I was there last spring to visit a granddaughter who is studying there and I was entranced by the city that I want to spend more time there next time.

      • Lorna Lamon profile imageAUTHOR

        Lorna Lamon 

        2 months ago

        Thank you for your kind comments Scott - I'm so glad you enjoyed Scotland, as well.

      • promisem profile image

        Scott S Bateman 

        2 months ago

        This is the most thorough and informative article about Edinburgh Castle that I can recall from our pre-trip research on Ireland and Scotland.

        We spent several days in Scotland after a week in Ireland and visited Edingburgh. The castle is a remarkable place with a remarkable history. I highly recommend a visit.

      • Lorna Lamon profile imageAUTHOR

        Lorna Lamon 

        3 months ago

        I loved living in Edinburgh and try to return as often as possible. Glad you enjoyed the article Lewis and it brought back fond memories. Thank you for commenting.

      • Lewis Martin profile image

        Lewis Martin 

        3 months ago from Finland

        I loved this article, almost like a walk down The Royal Mile. It made me homesick as Edinburgh is my Hometown but it brought a flood of great memories back. This article is a great start for anyone thinking of visiting.

      • Lorna Lamon profile imageAUTHOR

        Lorna Lamon 

        7 months ago

        I am so glad you enjoyed the article, thank you for your comments.

      • Princess Khalsa profile image

        Ram Di Mitr 

        7 months ago from Malaysia

        I would love to visit Edinburgh. Thanks so much for the article Lorna. I enjoyed reading.

      • Lorna Lamon profile imageAUTHOR

        Lorna Lamon 

        7 months ago

        I visit Edinburgh quite regularly and even I was surprised at just how much there is to see and do. Glad you enjoyed the article.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        7 months ago from UK

        I wish I had read this before we visited Edinburgh. We were there a few years ago when our children were younger. I remember going to the castle and also Dynamic Earth. We also visited the Royal Yacht. When I was a child, I recall being taken to the military tattoo.

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