How to Spend a Day Exploring the Best of Edinburgh

Venerable, dramatic Edinburgh, the showcase capital of Scotland, is a historic, cultured and cosmopolitan city, regularly topping polls as the most desirable place to live in the United Kingdom. Of course, the locals have always known as much, savoring a skyline built on a series of extinct volcanoes and rocky crags which rise from the generally flat landscape of the Lothians, with the sheltered shoreline of the Firth of Forth to the north. “My own Romantic town”, Sir Walter Scott called it, although it was another Edinburgh-born author, Robert Louis Stevenson, who perhaps best captured the feel of his “precipitous city”, declaring that “No situation could be more commanding for the head of a kingdom; none better chosen for noble prospects.”

Along with its beauty, Edinburgh is blessed by its brevity, a wonderfully compact city built for navigation on foot. If you are enjoying a weekend getaway or stopping over in Edinburgh on your way to amazing Scotland, and you only have a short period of time to explore the city, don’t panic. Edinburgh is a compact and historic city that a lot could be seen in the city center in just a day or two.

If you are reaching Edinburgh by train, you are right at the heart of the city the moment you step out of Waverley station; If you are reaching Edinburgh by flight (like I did), there are sophisticated bus systems connecting you to the city in merely about 20-30 minutes.

Princes Street Gardens
Princes Street Gardens: The green space underneath Waverley that divides the Old Town and New Town,

The center has two distinct parts: the unrelentingly medieval Old Town, with its tortuous alleys and tightly packed closes, and the dignified, eighteenth-century Grecian-style New Town. Dividing the two is Princes Street Gardens, which run roughly east to west under the shadow of Edinburgh Castle.

Edinburgh Old Town

Set on the hill that rolls down from the fairy tale Castle to the Royal Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Old Town preserves all the key landmarks from its role as a historic capital, augmented by the dramatic and unusual Scottish Parliament building, opposite the palace, and the attendant redevelopment of both Holyrood Road and the area around Market Street and New Street just off the Royal Mile. A few hundred yards away, a tantalizing glimpse of wild Scotland can be had in Holyrood Park, an extensive and unique area of real live wilderness bang in the center of the city, dominated by Arthur’s Seat, the largest and most impressive of the city’s volcanoes.

While it might not look like it, Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland since at least the 15th century. There are many iconic landmarks, museums, and monuments scattered on both sides of the Edinburgh Waverley station. Among Edinburgh’s many museums, the exciting National Museum of Scotland houses ten thousand of Scotland’s most precious artifacts, while the National Gallery of Scotland and its offshoot, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, have two of Britain’s finest collections of paintings.

Many other tourist attractions include the Scott Monument, Edinburgh Castle, the Writer’s Museum, St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh Vaults, Scottish National Gallery, National Museum of Scotland, Saint Andrew Church, Saint Steven Church, Frederick Street, David Hume Statue, and Scottish National Portrait Gallery… all are located within walking distance from Waverley. While you would explore all of them when you are in town, I am introducing two places in the city today –

Scott Monument

Calton Hill

Calton Hill is probably the best spot to take a picture of the cityscape in Edinburgh and every visitor knows it. Calton Hill is formed by volcanic activity 340 million years ago and gouged by glaciers during the Ice Age, and it has a long and fascinating history. In 1724 the Town Council of Edinburgh purchased Calton Hill, establishing it as one of Britain’s first public parks. In 1775 the first path was constructed around the Hill for ‘the pleasure and amusement, and health of the inhabitants of this crowded city…’

National Monument of Scotland

Today Calton Hill is part of The Old and New Towns of Edinburgh World Heritage Site. Visitors may take an easy climb to the top and be rewarded with spectacular views of the city and the Forth.

Scotland’s disgrace?

There are lots of monuments built to commemorate some of Scotland’s leading figures. While some people from Edinburgh may not like it, the incomplete National Monument of Scotland is a Greek-style historic monument and also considered a “Scotland’s disgrace”. The monument was intended to be a national memorial dedicated to the Scottish soldiers and sailors who died fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. However, the construction was ceased and left unfinished in 1829 due to a lack of funds. There were several proposals in the early 20th century to complete the construction of the monument yet failed to succeed due to either funding issues or lack of local enthusiasm.

Next to the National Monument is the Nelson Monument. Climb the 143 steps to the top and enjoy the view of the hill, and the city, then follow the network of paths which lead around the Hill from the Regent Walk, Portuguese Cannon, South viewpoint, Parliament Cairn, Hume Walk, North viewpoint, Playfair Monument, City Observatory, Observatory House and finally return to the Dugald Stewart Monument – arguably the most photographed landmark in the city. The monument was designed by Scottish architect William Henry Playfair and it was completed in 1831.

Calton Hill
Calton Hill

Events in Edinburgh

If you are visiting in August, a million visitors flock to the city for the Edinburgh Festival. in fact, a series of separate festivals that make up the largest arts extravaganza in the world. On a less elevated theme, the city’s vast array of distinctive pubs, allied to its brewing and distilling traditions, make it an unrivaled drinking city. Its four universities, plus several colleges, mean that there is a youthful presence for most of the year. The Summerhall arts complex is Edinburgh’s biggest arts venue, while the Cowgate hosts many of the city’s best club nights.

The Royal Mile
The Royal Mile

Royal Mile

Coming back down from Calton Hill, walk along the Royal Mile and explore Edinburgh’s Old Town. The Royal Mile is filled with sights and restaurants, and it’s the most popular place for the gathering of tours, there you will always find a piece of Scottish culture, with a street performer blowing the windpipe in a traditional Scottish uniform. The most eye-catching structure would be the Edinburgh Castle, a historic fortress built in the 1200s. Somehow, I have also visited the Camera Obscura outside the castle and I found the museum quite interesting.

Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle

What is Camera Obscura?

“Camera Obscura” is Latin for ‘dark chamber’. Being inside a camera obscura chamber is similar to standing inside a giant, photographic film camera, in which the round table takes the place of the film in the camera, where the image is projected.


Camera obscuras have been around for centuries. The ancient Greeks were familiar with the optical principle and in the 4th century BC, Aristotle wrote about being able to view a partial eclipse of the sun projected onto the ground by the narrow shafts of light. From the 13th century, AD astronomers would look at sun spots and solar eclipses with them.

The Italians experimented with the Camera Obscura in the sixteenth century, adding lenses and mirrors to sharpen the image and adapt it for use as a form of entertainment with projections inside a room, like an ancient type of cinema.

The camera obscura was used by artists in the seventeenth century, and portable camera obscuras were created, including one made in a sedan chair, and tent-like structure. It is thought likely that Vermeer made use of the camera obscura to create his paintings, utilizing its ability to distill onto a flat surface the confused visual information which strikes the eye.

In 1895 Sir Patrick Geddes, a gardener, biologist, conservationist, social evolutionist, peace warrior, town planner and renowned forward thinker, took over the ‘Popular observatory’ and set up what was described in 1899 as ‘the world’s first sociological laboratory’.


Scottish wind pipe
The Royal Mile is filled with sights and restaurants, and it’s the most popular place for the gathering of tours, there you will always find a piece of Scottish culture, with a street performer blowing the windpipe in a traditional Scottish uniform.

Scottish Bagpipes

The bagpipe is Scotland’s national instrument, and it has many names like “piob-mhor” in Gaelic, and it’s an instrument which has its origins in the Middle East and has diffused from Scotland.

The playing of Bagpipe was banned in Scotland after the uprising of 1745 as they are regarded as an instrument of war by the loyalist government. Today, bagpipers plays an important role in important ceremonies, funerals, and busking on the street in Edinburgh, dressing up in traditional Scotland uniform.

World of Illusions Edinburgh features lots of illusional paintings and artworks that visitors might be “tricked” and “challenged”. The museum also displayed a lot of the city’s old pictures and I Iearned much more about the history and fun facts about the sites in the old town from the balcony at the top – like the High Street is Edinburgh’s oldest street, and the Edinburgh Castle Esplanade is still used as a parade ground.


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