The city is basically split into two main districts – the Old Town and the New Town – with Princes Street Gardens separating them. Other surrounding areas are also detailed below.
The Old Town:
This is the largely medieval heart of Edinburgh in which most of its important historical monuments can be found, including Edinburgh Castle, the Palace of Holyrood (the Royal Scottish residence) & St Giles’ Cathedral.
The Royal Mile is the historical artery of the Old Town, linking together Edinburgh’s two royal strongholds: Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyrood. Running the length of four streets – Castlehill, Lawnmarket, High Street & Canongate – it’s a vibrant, buzzing location. This is especially so during the Edinburgh Festival when the Old Town is filled with street performers and people thrusting flyers into the hands of passers-by, all in the hope of drumming up larger audiences for their shows. It’s also something of a tourist trap and, as a result, souvenir shops have sprung up in droves. However, the vitality and historical significance of this part of town make it an essential stop on any visitor’s checklist.
The Cowgate & Grassmarket areas are towards the southern end of the Old Town. This bustling area is filled with clubs, pubs, music venues and second-hand clothes shops. It’s a pretty cool place in which to be seen and for the locals it’s their first port of call on a night out. When the sun shines the Grassmarket has the feel of a continental town; relaxed al fresco coffee drinking, little traffic and authentic, colourful shop-fronts make this one of Europe’s premier haunts.
Princes Street Gardens:
These gardens fill the valley between Old Town and New Town, with Princes Street itself lining the northern side. During the Christmas and New year period there is an ice-rink set up here under the gaze of a crystallised Edinburgh Castle. There is a decidedly festive atmosphere in the park at this time with stalls selling Christmas trees and seasonal ornaments. During the summer months the park acts as a mecca for visitors in search of panoramic views of the city; for tourists who wish to climb the Scott Monument; for workers lunching in the open; for children who want to play a round of mini-golf; and for just about anybody who needs to relax. In Princes Street Park you never escape the atmospheric sound of the bagpipes, though you can escape the hustle and bustle of Princes Street itself.
The Mound is bang in the middle of Princes Street Gardens. It is called The Mound because it is, quite literally, the mound of earth that was left over from dredging the Loch at the foot of the castle. It’s the site of the Royal Scottish Academy & the National Gallery of Scotland. In the summer it attracts many festival performers and craft stalls.
The New Town:
Whilst the Old Town marks the historical part of the city, the New Town is more a celebration of business, order & classical Georgian architecture. This is the terrain of the shops, offices and banks, which are laid out in precisely gridded streets that emanate precision and symmetry.
George Street is the centrepiece of the New Town. It is a swfitly upcoming area and now boasts high quality shops and restaurants including Browns, Space NK, Jones and many others. Flanked by Queen Street and Princes Street, which run in parallel, it is a wide and elegant street with impressive squares at both ends. At the western end lies Charlotte Square ‘ designed by Robert Adam in 1791 and home of St George’s church (now West Register House). The other end finds St Andrew Square – home of the Melville Monument and the Royal Bank of Scotland. It also marks the financial area of the New Town.
Princes Street, just below George Street, is the main shopping area of Edinburgh and the most famous part of the New Town. A very busy spot, its views of the Castle and proximity to the park happily make up for the crowds of shoppers. The most impressive building is Register House, at the north-eastern end of the street. Also at this end is Waverley market, just next to the station. This shopping centre is a popular venue for performers during the Festival. Whilst Princes Street offers shoppers department stores and high street chains, Rose Street, just behind it, is an attractive pedestrianised area with small shops and cafes.
Stockbridge & Dean are in the western part of the New Town, and are known for being more bohemian and less structured. Funky, trendy little shops and boutiques sit alongside various eating places and bars. Places like Randolph Crescent and Moray Place give the area a more curvaceous look with classical Georgian fronts. Dean village is an attractive old milling community, whilst Stockbridge is a great place to browse through antique and ethnic shops.
At the east of the city, this hill is a popular spot for watching the Festival fireworks. The views of Edinburgh castle and Arthur’s Seat are wonderful and if you like, you can climb the Nelson monument to increase the panorama. The City Observatory and Old Royal High School are situated in this area.
Holyrood Park & Arthur’s Seat:
This area is just behind the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Affectionately referred to as Arthur’s Seat (as in King Arthur), this extinct volcano – it hasn’t erupted in 350 years – towers out of Holyrood Park. Originally a hunting ground, the public can now stroll through the park’s 650 acres and walk up the volcano to get a great view of the city, and to feed the many swans and ducks that are always at St. Mary’s loch. The best way to climb is from the east by Dunsapie Loch.
Of course this is also now the area of Edinburgh which will house the New Scottish Parliament building. Controversial and still in mid-construction – it’s a massive undertaking.
Duddingston, at the north-east end of Dunsapie Loch, has a lovely, villagey feel.
Bruntsfield, Marchmont & Morningside:
These southern suburbs offer large open spaces such as The Meadows and Bruntsfield Links. Also the site of the medieval Burgh Muir (town heath) – used to isolate dying victims of plagues and for training armies. Marchmont is a popular student area.
A docklands area, Leith feels quite separate from the rest of the city – often people from here prefer to say they’re from Leith rather than from Edinburgh. It has its own financial centre, waterway (the water of Leith) and shopping/eating areas. A source of inspiration for Irvine Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting’, it is today the scene of a thriving café society. Leith Links, the park where the rules of golf were originally formulated, is a lovely place to stroll. The sport has been prohibited on this ground, however, since 1907.
History of Edinburgh
The huge rock upon which Edinburgh Castle now stands is a natural stronghold, and warring Celtic tribes would use it as such during the first centuries of the first millennium. King Edwin of Northumbria is thought to have built the castle here in the 7th century and the settlement’s name was anglicised to Edinburgh. In 1018 King Malcolm II defeated the Northumbrians and Edinburgh Castle became Scottish.
Essentially the town took its starting point from the Castle, and developed down the slope of Castle Rock. In 1128 an abbey was founded at Holyrood, at the foot of the rock, and what’s now called the ‘Canongate’ took its name from the presence of its canons who founded a separate burgh there.
Since the 9th century there has been a church on the site where St Giles’ Cathedral now stands, but little is known about it until the building founded by Alexander I in 1120.
The developing route – from the Castle, along Lawn Market & High Street (past St Giles Cathedral), to Canongate became known as the ‘Royal Mile’.
A brief spell under the English & some ferocious power struggles marked the 14th & 15th centuries. During this time, Edinburgh received a royal charter from Robert the Bruce and in 1498 the Palace of Holyrood was built at the site of the Abbey. Also Edinburgh was beginning to benefit from the trade and export of wool, and the ‘Old Town’ was developing – creating the Grassmarket & Cowgate.
After a hefty defeat by the English, at the battle of Flodden in 1513, the people of Edinburgh began work on the Flodden Wall in a desperate attempt to defend themselves against possible invasion. Completed in 1560, it marked Edinburgh’s boundary for the next 200 years.
Also in 1560 Protestantism was declared as Scotland’s official religion. Two factions were now set against each other. They are best represented here by the two leaders who personified them in Scotland: John Knox – zealous Protestant reformer; & Mary Queen of Scots – pro-French Catholic.
Espionage and bloodshed suffused every level of Edinburgh society, most famously in an incident when Queen Mary could only watch in horror as her favourite and (alleged) lover, David Rizzio, was murdered by a group of noblemen in Holyroodhouse under the orders of her husband, Lord Darnley. Their son became King James VI of Scotland in 1567, when he was 13 months old. In 1582 Edinburgh University was established, and 1603 saw the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne.
In 1633 Edinburgh officially became the capital of Scotland. Then, in 1707 the Act of Union joined Scotland to England and the Scottish parliament was dissolved.
By the 18th century it was decided to branch out of the city’s original (‘Flodden’) walls – a ‘new town’ was to be built. Scottish architect James Craig developed a simple grid design based around three parallel streets: Princess Street, George Street and Queen Street. This plan, and the beautiful Georgian architecture of which it is comprised, are still in place today.
The Victorian era was another time of expansion. Middle-class suburbs such as Marchmont & Morningside were born. The Edinburgh & Leith railway line was built in 1831, linking the port and industrial centre with the capital city, & the Edinburgh & Glasgow line followed in 1842.
Many people associate modern Edinburgh with The International Festival, which has been keeping the city at the centre of the international arts scene since 1947.
More recently still, the re-introduction of the Scottish parliament, three centuries after it was dissolved by the Act of Union, has meant a return of Scottish government to Edinburgh.