The historic heart of Edinburgh and home to many of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, the atmospheric Old Town became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. Watched over by the striking Edinburgh Castle, the Old Town is most famous for the central boulevard which runs between the hilltop castle and the Royal Palace of Holyrood, four sequential streets known as the Royal Mile. The main starting point for walking tours of the city, the Royal Mile is teeming with landmark buildings and iconic sights. The 12th century St Giles Cathedral, the National Museum of Scotland, the John Knox house and the underground streets of Mary King's Close are all popular visitor attractions, dotted between the throngs of souvenir shops, historic pubs and cafés. The final section of the Royal Mile, Canongate, is the most architecturally varied, with the 16th century Canongate Tollbooth and Canongate Kirk, the modern Scottish Parliament complex and the wacky Our Dynamic Earth building.
The Palace of Holyrood House, most often called Holyrood Palace, faces Edinburgh Castle along the length of the Royal Mile. Like its majestic companion, it's riddled with some of Scotland's most potent history.
The Abbey in the grounds was founded in 1128, and the palace itself is baroque. These days Holyrood Palace is the Scottish residence of Queen Elizabeth II, but it's probably best known for its association with another royal figure, Mary Queen of Scots. She was married here, lived here and saw her secretary murdered here.
As you'd expect, the apartments are lavishly decorated and the collection of tapestries and paintings top-notch. Drift around the gardens and make believe you're a monarch.
With its famous crown spire towering over the Royal Mile in Edinburgh’s Old Town and a history stretching over 1,000 years, St Giles Cathedral is one of the city’s most acclaimed religious buildings. Founded in the 1120s, the Cathedral has a long and illustrious history at the center of Scottish Catholic worship. From being ransacked and burned by English troops under King Richard II to hosting John Knox’s famous Reformation sermon in 1559 (a statue in Knox’s honor now stands in the nave), St Giles has seen it all.
Today, most of the cathedral’s Gothic structure dates back to the 19th century with highlights including the exquisite stained glass windows, some of the finest in Scotland and the legendary Thistle Chapel, once home to the Knights of the Order of the Thistle. As well as holding regular services, St Giles’ Cathedral is also renowned for its choral and organ recitals held on its grand Rieger organ, with many free musical events throughout the year.
Along with Calton Hill and Castle Rock, Arthur's Seat forms part of the ridge of cold volcanoes that give such drama to the Edinburgh skyline. The mountain sits in Holyrood Park, 650 acres (260 hectares) of wild parkland just a short walk from the Royal Mile. So you can be shopping for Argyle socks one moment and roaming around lochs and moorland the next! From some angles, the mini-mountain resembles a sleeping lion. It’s perhaps seen at its best in the mellow light of sunset.
Arthur's Seat is no Everest, and if you want to climb it there are several easy ascents. If you're reasonably fit and keep striding you could make it in half an hour, but even if you're less fit or want to gaze at the scenery, an hour should take you to the top. Be careful on rainy days when the rocks are slippery.
Located at the end of Edinburgh’s famous Royal Mile, the striking Scottish Parliament building stands its ground among some of the Old Town’s most dynamic architecture, with the grand Holyrood Palace, the elegant Queen’s Gallery and the fantastical Dynamic Earth all in close proximity.
The complex of innovative buildings opened in 2004, with the original design inspired by the surrounding countryside and Spanish architect Enric Miralles describing his vision as creating a structure that ‘appears to grow out of the land’. Most impressive is the unique façade of the Members' office, with its iconic shaped windows designed to evoke Raeburn’s famous painting of Reverend Robert Walker skating on ice, and the Canongate Wall, designed by Sora Smithson and inscribed with 26 quotations from prominent Scottish writers.
Who doesn't burst into song when they hear the words 'Loch Lomond'! A must-do day trip destination from Glasgow, this beautiful lake is perhaps only beaten in fame by Loch Ness.
Take a drive around the leafy western shore, and notice how the northern stretches of Loch Lomond morph from lowland to more stark highland landscapes, overlooked by the lofty 974 m (3,195 ft) heights of Ben Lomond.
Around 30 islands dot the lake, and boating enthusiasts take to the water on weekends in kayaks, speedboats and windsurfers. On the southern shore you'll find the Loch Lomond Shores complex, with an aquarium, shops, and restaurants.
Alnwick Castle has been home to the aristocratic Percy family, who hold the ancient title of the Dukes of Northumberland. It is one of the largest inhabited castles in the UK and is now perhaps best known as the setting for Hogwarts Academy in the Harry Potter movies.
Starting life at the end of the 11th century as a Norman motte and bailey defence castle, Alnwick has expanded piecemeal and been consistently restored down the centuries; a visit today encompasses architectural styles from medieval through Gothic and on to Italianate neo-classicism. Alnwick has one of the finest private collections of decorative arts in the country as well as several museums or weaponry, war and archaeology – plus one dedicated to the successful TV series Downtown Abbey – housed in the castle’s towers, courtyards, keep and ornate state apartments, which were decorated by Robert Adam in the late 18th century and are crammed with paintings from the likes of Titian and Caneletto.
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Linlithgow Palace is the classic romantic ruin, steeped in royal history and set beside a picturesque loch. It was begun in 1424 on the site of another palace that burnt down. Its halcyon period was during the reign of the Stuarts, who used it as a pleasure palace; it was particularly popular amongst the queens. Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I lived there as babies.
The palace is roofless now (it was gutted by a fire in the eighteenth century), but plenty of the old grandeur remains. There's an impressive great hall and a magnificent three-tiered fountain in the courtyard - visit on Sundays in July and August to see it playing. It only flows with water occasionally to preserve the exquisite carvings of mermaids and musicians from erosion.
The historic street of Canongate makes up the eastern section of the Royal Mile, leading up to the grounds of Holywood Palace and is home to many of the key attractions of Edinburgh’s Old Town. Taking its name from the canons of the neighboring Holyrood Abbey, modern-day Canongate is one of the most architectural diverse sections of the Old Town, with the strikingly modern Scottish Parliament building standing in contrast to the grand Holyrood Palace and the futuristic, tent-like structure housing the Our Dynamic Earth exhibition.
Canongate is also home to a number of significant 16th and 17th century buildings including the painstakingly preserved Canongate Tolbooth, dating back to 1591 and 17th century townhouses like Russel House and Queensbury house.
After undergoing an extensive makeover in 2011, the National Museum of Scotland now boasts 16 additional galleries and thousands of never-seen-before artifacts. Formerly two separate museums – the Royal Museum, built in 1861, and the modern Museum of Scotland - the National Museum was inaugurated in 2008 and is now one of the most popular attractions of Edinburgh’s Old Town.
The museum’s extensive collection features over 20,000 exhibits spread over 36 galleries, bringing to life the colorful history of Scotland and educating visitors on art, science, natural history and outer space, through a series of innovative, themed galleries and uniquely designed installations. Highlights include the Natural World Gallery, where the dramatic centerpiece is an enormous Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton; the Victorian Grand Gallery, renowned for its spectacular architecture; and the stuffed body of Dolly the Sheep, famously the first successful mammal cloned from an adult cell.
Reputedly the last residence of Scottish clergyman and author John Knox, the 15th-century John Knox House is one of Edinburgh’s oldest preserved buildings, now housing a museum devoted to its namesake. Despite its name, the house actually belonged to James Mossman, loyal goldsmith to Mary, Queen of Scots, who was eventually beheaded for counterfeiting once Edinburgh Castle surrendered in 1573.
The dramatic histories of Mossman, Mary Queen of Scots and Knox, famed for his significant role in the protestant reformation of the 16th-century, are the subject of the house’s permanent exhibition, which brings to life one of the most colorful eras of Scottish history. Today, the John Knox House Museum is part of the Scottish Storytelling Centre and is celebrated for its original architecture, including the 17th century Netherbow bell, now installed in the Storytelling Centre’s bell tower; the wood-paneled Oak Room and a series of early 17th-century ceiling paintings.
An imposing gothic tower dedicated to celebrated Scottish poet Sir Walter Scott, the awe-inspiring Scott Monument dominates the skyline of Edinburgh’s New Town. Designed by George Meikle Kemp, who triumphed in a national architectural competition, the monument was constructed between 1840 and 1844, and towers 200 feet above the principal shopping district of Princes Street.
Beneath the central arch of the monument, a raised platform holds a statue of Sir Walter Scott, sitting with his faithful dog, Maida, and reading a book. Carved from a solid block of Carrara marble, the sculpture is the masterwork of Sir John Steell and became so iconic that a bronze replica has since been erected in Central Park, New York. The dramatic tower also doubles up as a popular observation point, with a 287-step spiral staircase leading to the tip of its spire.
Just outside the village of Roslin near Edinburgh, Rosslyn Chapel was made world famous by Dan Brown’s best-selling 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code, but it has been appreciated for its intricate stone carvings since long before then. Built in the mid-15th century by the Orkney earl William Sinclair, many of the designs are supposedly connected to Freemasonry and the Knights Templar, and as a result Rosslyn Chapel has been the subject of many myths and legends. There’s also plenty of speculation on what the Sinclair vault conceals, with theories that it contains everything from the Holy Grail to the body of Jesus himself.
From the outside, Rosslyn Chapel looks like a beautiful, mini cathedral. Scotland’s churches are normally very somber, but inside this chapel it’s incredibly ornate—every inch of stone has been sculpted into flowers, vines, and figures by the exceptionally skilled masons of the day.
Opened for worship on Christmas Day 1620, Greyfriars Kirk is best-known as the home of Greyfriars Bobby, the loyal dog who became famous in 19th-century Edinburgh for maintaining a vigil at his master’s grave until he also died fourteen years later. The story was made into a Disney movie in the 1960s, and ever since, the memorial statue of the faithful Skye terrier, just outside the churchyard, has been a popular spot for a selfie.
Some of Edinburgh’s most famous figures are buried in Greyfriars kirkyard, including poet Allan Ramsay, philanthropist Mary Erskine, and architect William Adam. There’s also a popular onsite museum which tells the story of church. Greyfriars Kirk also continues to play an important role in the local community, with regular services in English and Gaelic as well as free organ recitals.
Once the favored countryside retreat of the Stuart kings and queens, the magnificent Falkland Palace has seen a long list of famous royals pass through its grand gateway. First built as a hunting lodge in the 12th century, the residence was transformed into a French Renaissance-style palace in the 16th century by King James IV and King James V, complete with 3 hectares of parks, orchards and flower gardens.
Now a National Trust property, Falkland Palace is a popular tourist attraction and an easy day trip from Edinburgh, offering visitors a fascinating insight into the lavish lives of the Scottish royals. As well as exploring the beautifully restored Royal Apartments and drawing room, visitors can take a peek at the Royal Chapel, admire the fine artworks on display in the Tapestry Gallery and Edwardian Library, visit the Gatehouse and walk around the vast grounds.
So expansive is the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s collection of modern and contemporary art, that it takes over two enormous buildings – somewhat unimaginatively named ‘Modern One’ and ‘Modern Two’ – separated by a vast stretch of landscaped parkland. The striking façade of Modern One is characterized by its twinkling ‘Everything’s Going to be Alright’ banner, the work of artist Martin Creed, and fronted by a giant stepped landform and water feature by Charles Jencks.
Inside, the extensive permanent collection includes an outstanding array of 20th century artwork, with a special emphasis on Cubist and Expressionist works and a number of galleries devoted to 21st century art. Highlights include works by household names like Picasso, Matisse, Francis Bacon and Andy Warhol, as well as more recent masterpieces by luminaries like Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Gilbert & George and Antony Gormley.
The second installment in the duo of Scottish National Galleries of Modern Art, the aptly named Modern Two was known as the Dean Gallery until 1999 when it became home to the National collection of Dada and Surrealist art. From Modern One, it’s a short stroll through the neighboring parklands towards Modern Two, with the route paved with striking sculptures by artists like Ian Hamilton Finlay, Henry Moore, Rachel Whiteread and Barbara Hepworth.
Modern Art Two is most renowned for its huge collection of works by local Edinburgh artist Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, including a recreation of his home studio and his 7.3-meter tall Vulcan sculpture that forms the centerpiece of the museum café. Other notable works include an extensive collection of Dada and Surrealist art, mostly taken from the private collections of Sir Roland Penrose and Mrs Gabrielle Keiller; Richard Wright’s large-scale art installation The Stairwell Project.
Tucked away between the many attractions of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, the looming tenement building known as Gladstone’s Land is easily overlooked, but behind its unassuming façade is one of the capital’s most fascinating historic gems.
The six-story complex was developed by wealthy local merchant Thomas Gledstanes in 1617 and was renowned as one of the first ‘high-rise’ buildings of its time. Now preserved as a National Trust property, Gladstone’s Land has been restored to its former glory, offering visitors the chance to step back in time to 17th-century Edinburgh. Along with the original painted ceilings and beams, and an impressive collection of antique furniture, highlights include a traditional ‘luckenbooth’ shop-front, a 16th-century kitchen, a spinet and a selection of old maps and photographs of Edinburgh.
It may not be the most spellbinding museum in town, but sentimentalists will love the Museum of Edinburgh, or Huntly House, just because it houses the collar and bowl of Greyfriars Bobby, that terrier symbol of devotion famous for sitting steadfastly on his master's grave.
Once you've paid your tribute to these relics, make your way through a series of restored 16th and 17th-century townhouses to trace the history of Edinburgh from its earliest days as a prehistoric settlement, to its Roman occupation and medieval crafts. If you're into the decorative arts - glass, ceramics, clocks and the like - you're in for a treat.
One of its most treasured artefacts is the National Covenant, a petition for religious freedom dating back to the 17th century; the museum also houses the original plans for the Georgian New Town, and the exhibitions run through to contemporary times.
Gracious Princes Street, with its epic length, gardens, stellar shopping, and knockout views, is the central vein of Edinburgh and one of Europe's great thoroughfares. It’s also at the center of the city’s world-famous Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) celebrations, which revolve around a massive street party. If you’re newly arrived in Edinburgh, a stroll along it is one of the finest ways to orient yourself.
Why Princes Street? Because it’s named after two of them – the sons of King George III. The street was hewn out as part of the building of the New Town in the 18th century. The Nor Loch, once a defence for the Castle was drained to make the gardens.
The building of the National Gallery of Scotland is imposing enough – a neoclassical behemoth sprawling on the Mound – but what's inside is the real treat. This is Scotland's most impressive art collection, and while it's not the equal in size of a Met or a Tate, there are plenty of gems up those stain-glass-lit stairs.
The collection ranges from the Renaissance to the 19th century, and there's a host of big-hitter names. You'll see work from Titian and Raphael, Rembrandt and Velasquez. In the 19th century section, feast your eyes on pieces by Van Gogh, Cezanne, Monet, Degas and Gaugin.
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