[ 3 DAYS IN ... ]

The spires of St Mary's Cathedral on Palmerston Place have been a part of the Edinburgh skyline since 1879.

A capital
place to see

Edinburgh presents travelers
with the rare chance to see
historic settings beautifully

Scotland's capital is so full of history that it could be considered the world's oldest modern city. It is one of the first places where people lived in dense neighborhoods of high-rise apartment buildings, back in the Middle Ages; and it was one of the first to expand into a well-planned New Town of low-rise apartments and row houses, with gardens and small parks to relieve crowding.

Apartment buildings here reached 14 stories high during the 17th century, without elevators.

The Old Town has retained many of its original buildings, and the 18th-century New Town is also well preserved, both still functioning as great examples of healthy urban neighborhoods.

This presents the traveler with a rare chance to see genuine historic settings that have been beautifully preserved, unlike so many modernized destinations that attempt to re-create their past. Edinburgh is the real thing.

Day 1
The Royal Mile

Day 2
New Town Walking Tour

Day 3
Dean Village, Water of Leith, Stockbridge, Second New Town, Botanic Garden and Edinburgh's new waterfront district

Day 1

The Royal Mile

The best place to begin your tour is a few blocks in front of Edinburgh Castle, high above the city where Edinburgh was first settled. It's a lovely downhill walk from here along what is called the Royal Mile, to the royal Palace of Holyroodhouse, the queen's summer home in Scotland. This route has one of the most concentrated collections of historic sights in Europe, along with attractive shops and tempting restaurants and pubs. Several homes on the Royal Mile are open as museums, painting a vivid picture of domestic life 400 years ago.

Running through the center of the Old Town, the Royal Mile -- typical of European streets -- changes names four times. It is called Castlehill, then Lawnmarket, then High Street for most of its length and finally Cannongate as it approaches the palace. But throughout it is referred to as the Royal Mile.

Conserve your energy by taking a taxi to the castle district around 9 a.m., just when the castle opens. There's time for a brief neighborhood stroll before entering the castle at 9:30 a.m. Have the taxi drop you off two blocks in front of the castle at Lawnmarket. Produce from the surrounding countryside was once sold here, but today it is a broad avenue lined with mostly 17th-century buildings containing a variety of shops. Have a quick look, then enter the narrow pedestrian south side lane called Fisher's Close. There are more than 50 similar alleys in the Old Town, many lined with tenements that are still standing.

This dense labyrinth developed during the late, turbulent Middle Ages, when England and Scotland were at war. Walls were built to keep the enemy out, and everyone wanted to live within them for safety, so the town became crowded. There was no room to expand inside the walls, so buildings grew taller and more densely populated.

Water was available only at the communal town pumps, eight of which still exist along the main road. Men called "caddies" were hired to carry water up to residents, a term that has survived in the game of golf, invented in Scotland.

Victoria Street and Grassmarket: Emerging from the end of Fisher's Close, you will be walking above Victoria Street on the elevated pedestrian Victoria Terrace, with a sweeping view of the curved road below. Many antique shops can be found on Victoria Street, and at its end the road broadens to form a square, called Grassmarket. This was a marketplace for cattle and other goods in past centuries. Rather than walking down to see it, walk up the stairs from Victoria Terrace to Johnston Terrace, then continue up more stairs along Castle Wynd West to the Esplanade, which leads you into Edinburgh Castle.

The elevated pedestrian terrace of Victoria Street provides a sweeping view of the curved road below.

Edinburgh Castle: This is the symbol of the city, sitting on top of a steep 450-foot-high volcanic rock.

The oldest standing building on the site is Queen Margaret's Chapel, dating back to the 12th century. Most of the other structures were added in the following centuries.

The main attractions at the castle are the Great Hall, built around 1510; the Castle Vaults dungeon; the Crown Square; the Half Moon Battery; the Crown Jewels; the Royal Apartments; the Argyll Battery; the Scottish National War Memorial; various cannons and memorials; and St. Margaret's Chapel.

Castlehill: The Royal Mile downhill walk begins in front of the castle. At right is the Scottish Whisky Heritage Center, which provides a whisky barrel ride through 300 years of scotch-making history, with a tasting included.

Across the street is the Outlook Tower and Camera Obscura, offering five attractions for a single admission, including a rooftop viewing platform, an 1850s 3-D cinema providing panorama views of the town through time.

One block down is the town's tallest steeple (240 feet) atop Tollbooth St. John's church, which appears in most Old Town skyline pictures. This old church, built in the Victorian Gothic style, dates to 1844.

Lawnmarket: Gladstone's Land is open as an example of a 17th-century house. Just look for the golden hawk statue hanging above the front door. Gladstone's Land, now owned by the National Trust for Scotland, was an apartment building with the smallest, coldest attic rooms at the top rented out to the impoverished, who had to climb six flights of steps. The middle floors housed working professionals like bankers or lawyers. This was in the heart of the business and court districts. Lower floors had larger rooms for the wealthy or nobility.

The building windows have a wooden section on the bottom that opened to let in air but also minimized the amount of glass used. A tax on windows was common throughout Europe in an effort to make the wealthy pay more than the poor, resulting in small windows throughout Old Town.

A block behind that house is another 17th-century home, called Lady Stair's House, home to the free Writer's Museum, which tells the history of Edinburgh's three most famous writers: Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Burns.

Bagpipes and kilts have always bee a part of the lore spun about Scotland.

High Street: Upon entering this main Royal Mile section, you'll notice many more shops, pubs and cafes, as well as larger streets, buildings and more traffic. You'll also find the High Kirk of St. Giles, the most impressive church in town, built in gothic style with its oldest section dating to 1120.

Parliament Square at the rear of St. Giles is a large open plaza with the original Parliament House facing it. This was the site of Scotland's Parliament until 1707, when it was dissolved and Scotland became part of Great Britain. Since then it has been home to the supreme law courts of Scotland.

A small monument called Mercat Cross in the open square next to St. Giles is where official proclamations were read and merchants gathered for business. An old fish market also stood here.

Across the street is a narrow alley called Anchor Close, formerly a printing center where the first edition of Encyclopedia Britannica was published, in 1768. Across the street is an impressive arcade with a large rear courtyard leading to the City Chambers (1753), the City Council meeting place. Beneath this building, a new exhibit leads you to underground streets that were buried and forgotten when the City Chambers were built. Called the Real Mary King's Close, it consists of narrow alleys with houses on either side, stretching up to seven stories high, featuring an interpretation of life in Edinburgh from the 16th to 19th centuries, including some of the best examples of 17th-century Scotland housing.

Museum detour: Two excellent, free history museums are located 300 yards south on Chambers Street. The Royal Museum presents an international collection of African, Middle Eastern, Asian, American and Pacific ethnography, along with jewelry, costumes and natural history. Even more spectacular is the new building housing the Museum of Scotland, which tells the complete history of Scotland.

The main campus of the University of Edinburgh is also in this neighborhood.

Return to the High Street via Old Fishmarket Close.

Ten more alleys branch off from High Street in the next 100 yards as you approach the Bridge Street intersection. Look down Cockburn Street for a peek at its many shops. The next major historic site is Tron Kirk, at the corner of South Bridge, built in 1637. No longer functioning as a church, it is a visitor information center during the summer.

Fifteen more little side streets branch off from the final section of High Street in the upcoming 200 yards.

John Knox House and Moubray House: The John Knox House is believed to have been home to this important religious leader in the 1560s. It was built for a wealthy merchant in 1490 and is now open to the public with displays about Knox and life in medieval Edinburgh.

Adjacent is the Moubray House (1464), the oldest house in Edinburgh. It was later home to "Robinson Crusoe" author Daniel Defoe, a Londoner.

Take a two-minute stroll down Trunk's Close alley next to Moubray House and notice how narrow it is. Its rough stone walls date back to the early 1400s and were built 8-feet thick for defense. The Brass Rubbing Center and the Museum of Childhood are a couple of worthwhile free attractions along this final stretch of the High Street.

Canongate: Crossing St. Mary's Street is like leaving the original town of Edinburgh, for you are now beyond what had once been the city walls. This intersection is the former site of Netherbow Port, a major medieval gateway. This part of the Royal Mile is called Canongate and leads to Holyroodhouse Palace, about a half-mile ahead.

You'll come to a covered alley, across from Shoemaker's Land, which leads to a large, grassy courtyard called Chessel's Court, with an impressive mansion from 1748.

Continue downhill to the free People's Story Museum, called Canongate Tollbooth in the 16th century, which functioned like a city hall for this district. Reconstructions of a prison cell, barrel workshop, dressmaker studio, kitchen and more are accompanied by artifacts, photographs and an award-winning 20-minute video telling the story of Edinburgh's common people.

Next door is Canongate Kirk, opened in 1690 as a parish church. A small cemetery is the resting place of Adam Smith, a local economist who wrote the landmark book "The Wealth of Nations" (1776).

Across from the church is Huntly House, another free museum that tells the history of Edinburgh from prehistoric times through the 19th century.

Forming another side of this courtyard is Acheson House (1633), which was saved from destruction in the 1930s.

The New Parliament: Toward the end of Canongate on your right is the new home of the Scottish Parliament, an ultramodern building resembling a series of upside-down boats that has been under construction for many years and is now open to visitors.

Palace of Holyroodhouse: Canongate ends at the queen's official residence. Holyroodhouse was built in 1501 by James IV, but little of the original structure remains. The most famous resident was Mary, Queen of Scots, whose son, James I, went on to become the first Scottish king of England.

Day 2

New Town Walking Tour

By the middle of the 18th century, Old Edinburgh had become one of the world's most densely populated cities. Old Town living conditions became so congested by the 1760s that a major expansion into the unoccupied fields was necessary, becoming New Town in the 1770s and 1780s. Until this time, people lived only within the defensive walls of the Old Town, but with the 1707 treaty officially annexing Scotland to Great Britain, there was no further need for military defense. The community was free to grow beyond the walls toward the north, across the lake into the flat, empty lands that would soon be transformed into a perfectly planned community.

This period marked the start of the Industrial Revolution. Edinburgh developed its share of factories but remained primarily an intellectual center of lawyers, bankers, writers, philosophers and educators. Edinburgh entered a Golden Age of high cultural development referred to as the "Scottish Enlightenment," and the New Town was central to that advancement.

Both Old and New Towns have been recognized together as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a tremendous honor.

Getting started: An ideal place to begin discovering the New Town is Princes Street, the city's main shopping street. This grand boulevard is lined with a hundred stores on one side and the beautiful Princes Street Gardens on the other.

The Princes Street Gardens are a beautiful central oasis with gentle walkways, rolling green lawns, flower beds, comfortable benches, a putting green and numerous trees.

Scott Monument: You will notice a dramatic, gothic-style monument rising 200 feet high along the edge of the gardens, like some medieval rocket ship. Dedicated to Edinburgh's favorite son, Sir Walter Scott, this tower is open to the public and has 287 steps leading to the top platform, which offers a dramatic view across town.

Scott is best known for his 19th-century novels "Ivanhoe" and "Rob Roy," which romanticized the history of Scotland and helped generate a cultural revival that turned Edinburgh into an intellectual center. Poet Robert Burns also played a large role in this transformation a generation earlier. Modern tourism can thank these two gentlemen for helping to create a brand that sells well today. But the brand is not exaggerated. Edinburgh's beauty is very real.

New Town: An architectural competition announced in 1766 to stimulate proposals for the new expansion of Edinburgh was won by James Craig, an unknown 22-year-old local architect. His bold plan of three straight boulevards connected by a grid of wide cross-streets was anchored with green squares at either end, creating one of the largest new communities ever conceived.

Before any construction could begin, a bridge was needed to cross the swampy lake that is now Princes Street Gardens, so in 1771 the North Bridge was opened with a grand ceremony. Another link across the swamp joining the new and old towns was made with 1.2 million carloads of dirt piled into what is now the Mound, a low hill that supports a road and two museums, the National Gallery and Royal Scottish Academy. It took another 30 years to drain the swamp and create the land we see today.

Between 1800 and 1820 the population grew from 90,000 to 150,000, leading to the construction of a second New Town a few blocks north.

At first it was hard to attract settlers, so generous tax subsidies were offered, convincing wealthy aristocrats to build spacious new residences.

The homes are arranged in rows of attached townhouse terraces constructed of solid stone, four stories high with private gardens in the rear. Shops and restaurants along the main streets now complement the housing.

Two main commercial streets run in parallel through New Town: Princes Street, which has been the city's primary shopping road for decades, and George Street, which has recently developed into a popular, slightly less commercial alternative.

A sculpture of Nessie will give you some inspiration to look for the legendary monster while touring the countryside.

George Street: George Street runs through the center of the New Town, just four blocks long connecting the two main squares, Charlotte and St. Andrew. One of the most magnificent New Town interiors you can visit is free: the Royal Bank of Scotland on St. Andrew Square. The site had been reserved for a major church but was snapped up in 1767 by a wealthy businessman and influential politician, Sir Laurence Dundas, who built a palatial mansion. It was converted into a bank in the 1840s.

Connected to the main bank is another impressive structure designed by Robert Adam to be an extension of the Dundas mansion, which became the elegant Douglas Hotel. It is now corporate headquarters for the Bank of Scotland.

St. Andrew's and St. George's Church has a noble history dating to 1784. It was the New Town's first church, built for Presbyterians in the Georgian style with a tall steeple and unusual oval floor plan that enabled the preacher to see the entire congregation.

Charlotte Square: At the end of George Street, you will discover this square's beauty, considered the best-preserved 18th-century residential neighborhood in Edinburgh. The masterpiece of Robert Adam, this square has retained most of its original buildings and has a small, pretty park in its center.

One highlight of the square is the free Georgian House museum, which features original architecture and authentic furnishings from 1795.

Another house open free to the public is No. 28 Charlotte Square, head office of the National Trust for Scotland, with period furniture and paintings on display.

Rose Street: Similar to Thistle Street, Rose is a small lane running parallel to George Street and was originally home to merchants, shoemakers and trades people. Today it is a pedestrian zone that is famous for its pubs and cafes.

National Gallery: Looking like an ancient Greek temple, the National Gallery of Scotland is one of the world's finest small art museums, and admission is free. Conveniently located a block from Rose Street in the Princes Street Gardens, it is small enough to be explored in one hour. Its collection ranges from Renaissance to post-Impressionist works.

Shopping: Take some time for browsing and shopping along Princes Street, or backtrack to George Street. Shop owners will be happy to sell you all manner of Scottish paraphernalia, especially tartan-patterned sweaters, hats, pants, kilts and scarves. Cashmere is the other most popular item. Claimed to be the world's oldest department store, Jenners has been in operation since 1838 in the same location, at 48 Princes St., with something for everybody on six floors.

Bus tours can take you through the Scottish Highlands, including Loch Ness and the ruins of Urquhart Castle on the shores of the lake.

Day 3

Dean Village, Water of Leith, Stockbridge, Second New Town, Botanic Garden and Edinburgh's new waterfront district

Water of Leith: Our morning route begins along a pretty stream that runs through town called the Water of Leith.

Start the day at Dean Village, which you can reach by walking through the West End of town along Queensferry Street to Bells Brae; or take a taxi from your hotel. Dean Village is an ancient hamlet founded on the Water of Leith banks as a mill town about 800 years ago.

Fans of modern art should consider visiting the nearby Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art on Belford Road, just a quarter-mile west along the stream. The gallery has Scotland's finest collection of 20th-century art.

Continue walking along the south bank of the stream from Dean Village, walking beneath Dean Bridge and through pretty gardens to St. Bernard's Well, a mineral water well that was thought to have healing powers in the 19th century.

Second New Town: Detour from the Water of Leith, and walk back into the residential community know as the Second New Town, constructed in the early 19th century.

Enter the circular Moray Place to admire the elegant curved facades of these early townhouses, then continue along Doune Terrace toward Royal Circus, another wonderful circle of 19th-century townhouses.

Stockbridge: Exit the Royal Circus through the northeast lane leading to St. Vincent Street, and enter the Stockbridge district, a quiet area with a village atmosphere and an excellent selection of shops. Turn left into St. Stephen Street, one of the most delightful retail rows in Edinburgh, a funky, Bohemian strip of galleries, antique shops, boutiques and cafes.

Continue along St. Stephen, which twists and becomes India Place, another lively road. Cross back over the Water of Leith at Bernard's Bridge, then walk left a block to Ann Street, another one of the prettiest residential roads in town. After having a brief look, return the same way and walk along Dean Terrace, with pleasant 19th-century townhouses to the left and the stream on the right. Arriving at Deanhaugh Street, you can rejoin the riverside path for another segment leading to Falshaw Bridge, built in 1877 with pretty iron handrails.

If you want to visit the Royal Botanic Gardens, exit the Water of Leith and continue 500 yards along Arboretum Avenue to the entrance. Otherwise, proceed to the waterfront district of Leith.

Wild horses graze on the picturesque roads in the Highlands.

Botanic Gardens: Established in 1670, Scotland's main botanical garden is among the finest in the world. Several different sections and pavilions present a global diversity, including the world's largest collection of cultivated Chinese plants; separate greenhouses for palms, orchids and the tropics; Scottish flora from the heath; alpine gems in the rock garden; a tree arboretum; winding paths; and more. Pools and waterfalls contribute to the serenity.

Leith: A visit to the waterfront district of Leith will be a great way to complete your visit to Edinburgh. Many major improvements have taken place recently, including the opening of the new Ocean Terminal, the docking of the Royal Yacht Brittania and flourishing of a hip youth scene. The area is lively day and night, so you can easily enjoy the rest of the afternoon, cap off your evening and wrap up your visit to Edinburgh.

Dennis Callan is the president of the Hawaii Geographic Society and produces the "World Traveler" TV series, which airs 6-7 p.m. Mondays on 'Olelo, channel 52. He frequently leads tours through Europe, Canada and the United States and writes "Three Days in ..." the first Sunday of each month explaining how to get the most out of three days in the world's great places. This is his 34th article in a series available at


E-mail to Travel Editor


Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
© 2004 Honolulu Star-Bulletin --