Insider: discovering Edinburgh’s rich history

In 1995, Edinburgh became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognised for its seamless integration of beautiful medieval buildings in the Old Town with the classic Georgian styles of the New Town. The city is also a driving force behind Britain’s arts and entertainment scene – making it a must-visit throughout the year. August’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival is the pinnacle of the UK’s comedy calendar.

If you’re sticking around Edinburgh for a bit longer over the summer, check out our one day road trip guide to the surrounding area – it’s amazing what you can see in one day by hiring a car.

Banner image credit: Visit Britain/Visit Scotland

Exploring Edinburgh’s historical Old Town

Edinburgh Castle is the city’s most famous landmark. Originally built on the rock of an extinct volcano in the 12th century, it often came under attack, and was partially destroyed by heavy bombardment during the Lang Siege in the early 1570s. The castle was rebuilt after the conflict ended, then substantially altered in the 19th century – most of what you see today is from those periods.

St Margaret’s chapel, in the castle grounds, is the original 12th century construction and is thought to be the oldest building in Edinburgh. Today, Edinburgh Castle is open to visitors – you can see the Great Hall, State Rooms, Crown Jewels and the Stone of Destiny, among other delights! The Castle is also home to the National War Museum which depicts the intriguing story of Scotland at war.

In the summer, Edinburgh comes alive with festivals, music and dance. At the centre of the festivities is The Edinburgh Tattoo at Edinburgh Castle. This military spectacle of pomp and ceremony attracts 220,000 visitors and is televised to audiences around the world.

The medieval streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town lend themselves to tall tales of ghosts and ghouls, so there are ghost tours across the city and some are free. The Edinburgh Horror Festival in October will appeal to those who enjoy creepy stories too!

Edinburgh is full of museums and fabulous historic buildings. The National Museum of Scotland has diverse collections of artwork and natural history, as well as galleries on fashion, science and technology. You’ll learn about the history of Scotland, the wonders of nature, and explore the changing trends in art and design, as well as the ever increasing pace of new technologies.

National Museum of Scotland. Image credit: Visit Britain/Visit Scotland

While in Edinburgh, visit the Writers’ Museum on the Royal Mile. It celebrates some of Scotland’s greatest writers including Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. Inside you’ll see portraits, rare books and personal objects belonging to famous writers. Nearby is Gladstone’s Land, the home of a wealthy 17th century merchant. Or, you can visit the 15th century John Knox House, where the Scottish minister, theologian, and writer stayed in 1572. The property was saved from demolition because of Knox’s association with it, and it has fascinating links to the Scottish Reformation.

The Royal Mile. Image credit: Visit Britain/Visit Scotland

Nearby stands St Giles’ Cathedral which was built in 1120. It’s worth visiting for its amazing architecture and stunning stained glass windows. Explore Dynamic Earth to learn about our planet with interactive displays, or visit the Scottish National Gallery, the Portrait Gallery, the Museum of Childhood, or the Edinburgh Dungeon. There’s no danger of getting bored with so much on offer!

Take a peek inside the Scottish Parliament, or visit the nearby Palace of Holyroodhouse – the Queen holds a garden party there every summer. The captivating Surgeon’s Hall Museums, full of ‘natural and artificial curiosities’, are located in the Old Town too!

Palace of Holyrood House. Image credit: Visit Britain/Visit Scotland

Getting to know Edinburgh’s New Town

Edinburgh’s New Town was created in 1767, with classic terraces and pretty gardens, adorned with monuments and statues. Today there are fashionable retailers and places to eat. The Georgian House in Charlotte Square has been restored to show off its fine paintings, costumes and furnishings. The Assembly Rooms are used for wonderful concerts and events.

A short walk away is Dean Village on the Water of Leith, once known for its water mills. Dean Bridge was designed by Thomas Telford and is surrounded by beautiful Georgian buildings. Further upstream is St Bernard’s Well, a natural spring, which was once said to have healing properties. It’s also worth visiting the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, which has an ever-changing programme of wonderful displays and exhibitions.

Ueda by Charles Jencks @ The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Image credit: Paul Tomkins

Edinburgh’s past ensures that the city’s visitors can experience some of Britain’s most striking locations. Wandering the streets of the Old Town, you get a real sense of what life would have been like here as early as the 16th century.

Yet, its modern vibrancy and strong ties to the arts makes it just as relevant to a contemporary audience strolling along the Royal Mile seeking out up-and-coming comedians.

Related articles