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Visiting Edinburgh "Athens of the North"

Updated on June 12, 2014
National Monument
National Monument

Edinburgh is one of the neatest capital cities of Europe, and one of my personal favorite places. As the capital of Scotland for nearly six hundred years, with a long tradition prior to this, the city has a vibrant historic district. But, like Prague, Edinburgh has kept up with the times leaving the city a beautiful mix of new and old. The city has undergone many periods of cultural advancement, and during the Enlightenment of the 18th century the city experienced an unprecedented wave of intellectual, scientific, and architectural accomplishments which bestowed upon the city the nickname of 'Athens of the North.'

Edinburgh is truly a city rich in culture. The city hosts the worlds biggest performing arts festival every year, seeing rising stars from all over the world with millions in attendence. The international festival, or Fringe Festival, is held for 25 days annually beginning in August with hundreds of venues scattered throughout the city hosting shows ranging from stand-up comedy to Shakespeare. Not only are there literally hundreds of things to choose from each day, but there are nonstop streets shows and the city just comes alive with lively frivolity. If you are able to make it to Edinbrugh during the festival, even if just for a day, you won't regret it. Definitely the best time to visit the city. But, if you find yourself there any other 11 months out of the year fear not because there is always something to do in Edinburgh, whether its live music, theater, historic sights, pubs and nightclubs, or even climbing a mountain! How many major cities can boast a mountain within reach of the downtown? The city's beautiful natural setting is one of the qualities that sets it apart from all others. With the North Sea hugging the city's north side, and straddled by hills and mountains to the south, the bustling city gives the impression of desolate countryside, despite it's more than half a million inhabitants.

View from Scott Monument of Old Town and Arthur's Seat (Background)
View from Scott Monument of Old Town and Arthur's Seat (Background)
You'll find a lot of Braveheart impersonators on the Royal Mile...much to the locals dismay
You'll find a lot of Braveheart impersonators on the Royal Mile...much to the locals dismay

The Old Town

The old town is, you guessed it, the oldest part of the city and encompasses most of Edinburgh's major historic sites. Basically the city is cut into two by the train tracks (the area south of the tracks is the old town, the area to the north is the new town). The old town district still preserves its medieval plan and oldest buildings of Edinburgh, including Edinburgh castle. The castle is perched on top an old volcanic crag in the middle of the city from which runs the Royal Mile, the historic and most famous street in Edinburgh.

The Royal Mile (which is collectively the streets of lawnmarket, high st, and cannongate) has the castle on one end and Palace of the Holyrood House on the other. The Mile, which actually runs a little longer than a mile, runs down from the castle along the crest of a ridge formed by the volcano, with little streets (called wynds) running downhill on either side of the main spine. The wynds are really neat little passageways underneath buildings or small alleyways that cut across the main strip- these are a great way to cut down to the city level and there's a lot of restaurants and shops along them as well. Just walking around the streets of old town is worth a trip to the city. Every turn presents you with a new set of picturesque scenes of neat old streets, buildings and monuments, little shops and pubs. Although the Royal Mile is very touristy it has a lot of neat historic sites well worth seeing such as the castle, palace (where the Queen has her official residence when in Edinburgh, St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh Museum, and a bunch of historic houses and such. The Scottish Parliament building is also on one end of the mile across from the Palace, although it's a very modern looking building. The side streets and wynds leading off the royal mile are where you want to roam around once you've scene the sights on the mile.

One thing I think is a must do in the old town is a visit to the WHISKI Bar when the live band is going (which is usually every night past 9'ish. It's always old fashioned celtic folk music, and there's always a great crowd in there with plenty of scotsman to shove around and spill whiskey on.

If you're a partier and don't mind a youngish crowd then you want to hit up grassmarket, a street just south of the Royal Mile. This is where all the younger bars and nightclubs are. I've had a few fun nights out here so if that's what you're looking for then definitely head down there.

Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle
St. Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile
St. Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile
Palace of Holyrood House.  Queen's official residence in Scotland
Palace of Holyrood House. Queen's official residence in Scotland

The New Town

The New Town district of Edinburgh is actually not so new, being built between the 1750's-1850s, but certainly much newer than the Old part across the tracks. Princess St serves as the districts most famous street, and boundary between the old town. While there is a lot of Georgian and Neo-classical architecture on this side of town, it's clearly a much more modern part of the city with lots of vibrant culture. The new town houses Edinburgh's main shopping and dining areas, as well as the National Portrait gallery and Royal Scottish Academy. I've also discovered a lot of neat pubs over here such as the Black Bull Tavern on Leith St. So if you're in Edinburgh just a day or two you probably will want to spend it just on the old town as that's where the neatest monuments are, but if you have extended stay spend some time over here, as there's a lot to see!

Princess St. from Calton Hill
Princess St. from Calton Hill

Top Attractions

Edinburgh Castle- A royal castle from the 12th century until the Union of the Crowns in 1603.
A gigantic castle grounds that could easily take you a day to roam and gaze upon it all. There are wide ranging periods of construction and reconstruction making up the castle, with a 12th century chapel marking it's earliest known period. The castle houses several museums and galleries, as well as the Scottish Crown jewels. Absolutely must see when visiting Edinburgh, spend at least a couple of hours roaming the complex.

Palace of the Holyrood House- Official royal residence of her majesty the Queen in Scotland, and royal residence for Scottish monarchs for generations. Mary Queen of Scots is the most famous visitor to the Palace during the mid-sixteen century. The palace, gardens, and adjacent ruined abbey are beautiful and an importance piece of Scottish history.

St. Giles Cathedral- The center of the Church of Scotland, this cathedral is a unique piece of Scottish architecture and definitely worth peeking inside for it's intricate wood and stone carvings and colorful banners lining the old nave.

Arthur's Seat- The main peak of hills in the center of the city formed from an ancient volcano. The peak's name apparently has links to legends pertaining to King Arthur, and serves as one of Edinburgh's most iconic and traversed sights. From the top you have excellent panoramic views of Edinburgh, as well as the sea and surrounding countryside. If you have more than a day or two this is a must do. If you're even relatively fit you should be able to be up and down in less than two hours. The best way to get up the hill is from the base near the Palace of Holyrood House (you'll always see people walking up the path from there, if not just ask).

Calton Hill- Another large hill in the center of the city, giving one another great persepctive of the city, particularly the castle and old town. The hill also houses some of Edinburgh's iconic monuments such as the National Monument, Nelson Monument, Robbie Burns Monument, and the City Observatory. Well worth a visit.

Scott Monument- Dedicated to Sir Walter Scott this is a really neat Victorian gothic structure adding to the already rich city scape. The monument is right on princess st in the middle of town, which offers more great views from the top.

There are so many other great things to see in Edinburgh, but depending on how much time you have, even this short list will keep you busy. My favorite thing to do in Edinburgh is just cruise the streets and stumble onto local corner pubs or side streets I've never seen before. It's a great city to wander.

Accommodation

Edinburgh has a wide selection of accommodation from the ritzy Balmoral to the high st Hostel. I've never stayed in a dirty or unsafe place in Edinburgh. I usually stay in the hostels but last time I was lucky enough to stay in Ramsay; 18th century private apartments adjacent to the castle overlooking the entire city. If you ever get the opportunity to have a couple nights here you'll never want to stay anywhere else. So a list of suggestions and info for places to stay.

Ramsay Gardens- beautiful 18th century apartments next to the castle, pricey but great stay.

Brodie's high st Hostel- cheap, clean, and well staffed hostel located right on the royal Mile.

BudgetBackpackers- Great value for your money. Clean, cheap, and great location. More of a younger person hostel, usually lots of partiers and a good deal of noise at night for its location on Grassmarket. But if you want to have a fun time it's a great hostel.

Hostelbookers.com- much better site than Hostelworld. No fee's and no BS.

AirBnB.com -great website to find quality cheap rooms

Like I said I've never stayed in any shady place in Edinburgh EXCEPT for one, a crazy little place called the Art House on 20 Gilmore Place. The landlord, secretary, cleaning lady, and security guard named only JonJo is a crazy Scotsman with a loaded gun. Not sure if he is on medication or what but he's seriously a nut job and you'll wish you never stayed here.

Ramsay Gardens below Edinburgh Castle
Ramsay Gardens below Edinburgh Castle

Dining

Despite to popular belief food in Scotland is very good, and it's abundant and easy to find in Edinburgh. Whether you're looking for some haggis or fine dining, or just a nice pub meal, there are plenty places to choose from in Scotland's capital. If it's haggis you're looking for nearly every restaurant and pub should make it. And despite the rumors it's quite good! (just forget it's from a sheep's intestine).

My personal favorite place to eat is a pub called Doctor's on Forrest Road (+44 131 225 1819). Really neat old pub in the old part of the city, good ale with great pub classics at cheap rates. Always one of my pit stops when I'm in Edinburgh.

Doctor's Pub
Doctor's Pub

Entertainment

As I already tried to impress upon you earlier this city has plentyy of opporunity for entertainment. I've already discussed a few spots worth hitting but I'll make a short list here of places I would recommend going for varied scenes of entertainment.

WHISKI bar- My favorite bar in Edinburgh. Live celtic folk music every night and a menu full of premium whiskey's

Grassmarket and Cowgate St- Always full of bars and clubs with different kinds of music so just have a mozy about these streets if you feel like seeing what's out there.

Doctor's Pub- A great pub for a chill drink or a more lively scene on the weekends.

City- As one of Edinburgh's largest clubs it's a good spot to hit if you're in that sort of clubbing mood.

Departure Lounge- A subterranean venue that brings something unique to the music scene with some 70's funk, world grooves, and left field electronica.

Black Bull Tavern- little corner pub with a healthy local crowd.

Royal Mile during Edinburgh's Fringe festival
Royal Mile during Edinburgh's Fringe festival
Man attempting to put his body through a tennis racket
Man attempting to put his body through a tennis racket
Cross dressing jugglers on stilts...hey why not!
Cross dressing jugglers on stilts...hey why not!

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    • freecampingaussie profile image

      freecampingaussie 4 years ago from Southern Spain

      Awesome hub -- We are going there early August !! Voting you up for an informative helpful hub !! Shared it on Facebook ...

    • TravelinJack profile image
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      Jack Baumann 4 years ago from St. Louis, Missouri

      Thank you freecamp! You are going to absolutely love it! Make sure you spend as much time as you can just wandering the city, you find great things around each corner.

    • Just Ask Susan profile image

      Susan Zutautas 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I really have to make it over to Scotland one of these years soon. Have wanted to my entire life. It would be so nice to see all of the places my grandmother told me about and more. Edinburgh looks and sounds like such a fun place.

    • TravelinJack profile image
      Author

      Jack Baumann 4 years ago from St. Louis, Missouri

      If there's one place I could only see again, it would be Edinburgh. Such an amazing city for so many reasons. Hope you get over there someday soon!

    • StellaSee profile image

      StellaSee 4 years ago from California

      Ahhh Edinburgh my study abroad city. I wish I got a chance to see the Fringe, I came just after it ended. Funny how I have almost the exact same photo of Grassmarket..this hub makes me want to go back!

    • TravelinJack profile image
      Author

      Jack Baumann 4 years ago from St. Louis, Missouri

      You definitely need to get back for the Fringe festival, the city is absolutely nuts!

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