Edinburgh – The Athens of the North

Our house sit in Nottingham both began and ended with separate trips to Edinburgh, with my mother with us during the first trip and my father visiting during the second. Luckily for all of us, Edinburgh is up there with London as my favorite British cities and I was more than happy to go there twice in such a short space of time.

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The city of Edinburgh gots its nickname of the “Athens of the North,” in the 1700s as it was the center of philosophy, economics, and medicine in the UK. Apart from its closeness to the Scottish Highlands and the charming propensity of Edinburgher buskers to play bagpipes in the streets, the capital city is a truly amazing city for a wide variety of reasons, the most obvious being the city’s beautiful architecture. Edinburgh has more than 4,500 listed buildings which are buildings that have a special architectural and historic interest, with the older the building, the more likely it is to be listed. This is the highest proportion of listed buildings relative to area in the entire United Kingdom which combined with the compactness of the city makes it a truly magical place. Most major tourist attractions in the city, which includes both the Old and New Towns, are no further than a 15-minute walk of each other, making a walk through the sublime city streets a complete joy.

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The best of these amazing streets is most definitely the Royal Mile. The royal mile stretches from two of Edinburgh’s most significant buildings, Holyrood Palace, the official residence of the queen in Scotland, and the impressive Edinburgh Castle which sits atop the massive plateau in the center of the city. On the historical cobbled street that runs between them is a number of interesting museums and other beautiful sights, including the stunning St. Giles’ Cathedral, built in 1124. As you walk the Royal Mile, the ground elevates and the road narrows before broadening again as Edinburgh Castle comes into full view at the pinnacle of the volcanic plug in on which it stands, 250 plus feet higher than its surrounding landscape.

 

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St. Giles Cathedral

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The volcanic plug that Edinburgh Castle sits on has been continuously inhabited for more than 3000 years before a castle was built there. The first building built in the castle was St. Margaret’s Chapel in 1130 which also makes it the oldest building in Edinburgh. Though now it in excellent condition, from the day it was built, Edinburgh Castle was attacked countless times by the English until Scotland finally fell under English rule. Besides at one point being the residence of Scottish monarchs, the castle also contains a prison, the beautiful Scottish National War Memorial, several museums, and even a military garrison. A trip to Edinburgh is not complete without a trip to the castle, especially as it contains Scotland’s crown jewels and the Stone of Destiny, which has been used in coronation ceremonies in Scotland and later in Great Britain for more than 600 years.

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On the opposite end of the spectrum from the imposing Edinburgh Castle is Edinburgh’s enormous literary history which led to the city becoming the first UNESCO designated City of Literature in the world. The city really started to become famous for its literature during the late 18th century with Robert Burns, the celebrated national poet of Scotland, and Sir Walter Scott, the creator of the modern historical novel. Scott’s monument in the heart of Edinburgh is the largest monument in the world dedicated to a writer.

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The Scott Monument, which is somewhat mockingly called the Gothic Rocket by Edinburghers

Modern readers, however, are likely to be more interested in the city’s literary connections to Robert Louis Stevenson and of course, J.K. Rowling. Stevenson grew up in Edinburgh in the middle 19th century and wrote famous classics such as Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the latter being influenced by a famous figure in Edinburgh. Deacon Brodie was an honest and respectable Edinburgh council member during the day (Dr. Jekyll) and thief and gambler at night (Mr.Hyde). A famous trial was held in the city were Brodie was found guilty and hanged. There is a beautiful pub on the Royal Mile named after him which is well-worth a visit. The picture below shows the two sides of the same sign in front of Deacon Brodie’s Tavern.

J.K. Rowling also lived in Edinburgh while writing Harry Potter, doing so in a variety of cafes throughout Edinburgh, working mainly out of the Elephant House Cafe which is still open today. The cafe’s location in the city is important for the writing of Harry Potter as the cafe sits right next to Greyfriars Kirkyard, an ancient and famous graveyard in Edinburgh. Rowling got inspiration from several gravestones in the graveyard for the names of characters in her books, including Thomas Riddell (Tom Riddle AKA Voldemort) and William McGonagall (Professor McGonagall). Adjacent to the Kirkyard is George Heriot’s School, a 17th-century primary school which is said to have served as the inspiration for Hogwarts with its beautiful architecture and four houses, both of which Rowling adopted for the school in Harry Potter. Later, Rowling would come back to where it all started to finish the seventh and last book, renting out a room in Edinburgh’s Balmoral Hotel. These sites are all essential for any Harry Potter fans visiting this beautiful city.

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While my mother came to visit us in Edinburg a couple weeks ago, we stayed on the opposite side of town from the Greyfriars Kirkyard next to the Old Calton Cemetary. We spent a day together on an Edinburgh-in-a-day walk through town, starting with a short walk from the cemetery up Calton Hill. Many of Edinburgh’s most iconic monuments including the National Monument, the Nelson Monument, and the Stewart Dugald Monument sit atop the hill which also presents you with some amazing panoramic views of Edinburgh. Adjacent to the hill is Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano that overlooks the city. We did not make the walk up to Arthur’s Seat while in Edinburgh but my father and I would later climb up the Salisbury Crags which sit right next to Arthur’s Seat and offer you some of the same views as Arthur’s seat but closer, and thankfully for me, less high. A trip to Edinburgh is truly not complete without a walk up either Calton Hill or Arthur’s Seat.

 

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Old Calton Cemetary

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Nelson Monument
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The National Monument of Scotland

 

 

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Arthur’s Seat

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We took two different tours of the city while in Edinburgh, one a city bus tour, the other, a free walking tour. The bus tour had the advantage of allowing us to see more of the old town, but in all other matters, the walking tour was superior. The walking tour, which was run by Sandemans Walking Tours, took us up and around the Royal Mile, our guide showing us many of the sights that are really easy to miss if you don’t know where to look, most of which are inaccessible in a bus. We were shown St. Giles’ Cathedral, the Greyfriars Kirkyard, the Grassmarket, and everything in between. Our tour guide was very enthusiastic and his love for Edinburgh was palpable. This was probably the best walking tour we have been on and should not be missed if visiting Edinburgh.

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The last tour we went on in the city was of Mary King’s Close. There are hundreds of these closes along the Royal Mile which are extremely narrow alleyways running perpendicular to the mile and are so named because they would be closed to the public. In the past couple hundreds of years, all of these closes have been renovated except for a few when the Royal Exchange was built on top of them in the 18th century. Mary King’s Close, named after Mary King who used to live on the street, was one of these four closes. Today, you are able to go beneath the Royal Exchange building to see how these closes would have originally looked, as well as hear about what life was like when people used to live on them. It was really fascinating to learn how much of a daily struggle it was to live in Edinburgh for much of its existence and to get a feel of the peoples’ living conditions in the past.

 

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Advocate’s Close

 

Edinburgh is a truly enchanting city that is filled to the brim with beautiful architecture and engaging attractions, all of which are in such close proximity to one another. All this, combined with the city’s long and interesting history, make it a must-see on any visit to the United Kingdom.  Even after spending several weeks there in the past month, I still find myself with several things I wish I would have done in this amazing city.

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Tips:

  1. Don’t bother with transportation! If you are not going to or from the airport, you don’t need to take a ride anywhere around the city. No matter what side of the city you have to walk to, there are tons of beautiful sights along the way.
  2. Try a deep-fried Mars candy bar! The dessert is somewhat of a specialty in Edinburgh and is fantastic when you need to satiate your sweet tooth! For those of you who don’t know, a Mars bar is the same thing as a Milky Way in the states.
  3. Beware of hokey attractions! Attractions like the Edinburgh Dungeons and the Ghost Bus Tours are not worth the precious time you spend in the city. There are too many informative and interesting things to see to make these cheap thrills worth it.

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