Built next to long-dormant volcanoes and green moorlands, Edinburgh is known for its impressive history, both illustrious and dark, and its unique blend of landscape and architecture that created one of the world's most majestic cities and proudest capitals. Edinburgh has a lot to offer in such a small area, so it is no surprise it's the second most visited city in the United Kingdom (after London). But, if all you have is one day there, here’s a list of places you should not miss to get a feel of what Edinburgh is all about.
The Princes Street Gardens
This beautiful garden is always full of colorful flowers and well-manicured plants. Even though the garden is right in the middle of the city, the openness and beautiful scenery will make you feel like you’re on the city’s outskirts. Don’t forget to look up to get a different perspective of the most iconic landmark in the city, Edinburgh Castle.
In my opinion, this is one of the most beautiful parts of Edinburgh. Cobbled streets, irregular houses, dark, narrow lanes, and impressive medieval architecture make for a scenery not found anywhere else in the world. The Royal Mile goes from a medieval castle, Edinburgh Castle, to Europe’s oldest inhabited palace, and it is lined with many historic buildings along the way.
While most buildings will catch your attention, take some time to appreciate the Gothic grandeur of St. Giles Cathedral, originally built in the 15th century. Make your way up the Mile to reach the crowning jewel of the city.
More a fortress than a castle, this 12th-century complex is perched atop an extinct volcano, dominating the city’s skyline with its monumental military architecture, thick walls, and ornate buildings.
While the whole castle is interesting to visit, if you feel like you’re short on time, do not miss going to the tiny St. Margaret's Chapel, the oldest building in Edinburgh (dating back to the 12th century); the Great Hall, with its 16th-century hammer beam roof; the Scottish National War Memorial, and the Royal Palace, where the Honours of Scotland (the Scottish crown jewels) are displayed. The Honours are among the oldest surviving crown jewels in Europe.
Along with the Honours, you’ll see the famous Stone of Destiny, a powerful and ancient symbol of Scottish monarchy, witnessing the coronation of its kings for hundreds of years.
If you’re there at 1 pm (except Sundays), you will hear the one o’clock gun firing – a tradition dating back to 1861.
On your way down from the castle, deviate back to Princes Street to have lunch at Valvona & Crolla – an Italian deli and restaurant open since 1934. Their plates are always fresh, affordable, and authentic.
The cemetery might not look impressive at first sight, but there’s a lot of fascinating history hidden behind those graves. For the past decade, Harry Potter fans have flocked to the graveyard to look for the grave of a 19th-century gentleman named Thomas Riddell – died in 1806 aged 72. Why? It is said this is the name that inspired JK Rowling’s famous villain, Voldemort. But the cemetery is not popular only for fictional characters; there’s also a famous grave by one of the cemetery’s entrances. It’s a dog’s grave.
The dog, named Bobby, is a Skye terrier who sat watch on his master's grave for 14 years. To honor his faithfulness, he was buried in the same cemetery. Visitors now have a tradition of picking a stick as they walk through the cemetery and then placing it on top of Bobby’s grave on the way out.
Greyfriars Bobby Statue
Out on the sidewalk, near the entrance where Bobby is buried, there’s a statue commemorating him, now one of Edinburgh’s most well-loved residents. Bobby has been made famous by numerous books and films, and still he keeps drawing visitors to the cemetery. Don’t forget to rub his nose. It is said to bring luck.
National Museum of Scotland
Right across the road from Greyfriars Bobby is one of the best museums in the city, the National Museum of Scotland. It houses collections showing the nation’s culture, history, and people; spanning from the ancient age to modern times. While the exhibitions are interesting, one of the biggest draws to the museum is the building's Victorian architecture and its Grand Gallery rising the full height of the building.
Don’t miss seeing the spectacular 360-degree views of Edinburgh from the roof garden. Entry to the museum and roof garden is free, but some featured exhibitions might have a fee. If you’re hungry, you can grab a bite at the Assembly Bar.
Edinburgh is full of ghost and witch stories, so why not embrace them during your visit? The best time to explore the dark history of this mysterious city is at night, of course. You can take a guided ghost tour to learn about the disturbing history behind some of Edinburgh’s most notorious residents. Go underground to see hidden cities and tunnels under the ancient streets. And, dare to go back to a cemetery at night? Who knows whose ghost you’ll see there!
Last but not least, there’s the New Town. It’s funny that the “new” town is from the 18th century, but compared to the neighboring old town, it is new! Cross from the Medieval Old Town to the Georgian New Town by retracing your steps to Princes Street and its gardens. New Town’s layout is based on enlightenment principles of urban design, thus entirely different from the Old Town. The architecture is stunning, but equally impressive is the basement level throughout the entire New Town that you can explore. For dinner, go to The Conan Doyle and try their delicious Haggis. It’s one of the best in Edinburgh.
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Norbert Figueroa is an architect who hit the pause button on his career in 2011 to do a round the world trip. He's been blogging for over three years at globotreks.com, where he shares his travel experiences, budget travel tips, and a good dose of world architecture. From hiking Mount Kilimanjaro to diving with great white sharks, he is always on the search of adrenaline and adventure. Norbert is originally from Puerto Rico and he is currently based in Milan, Italy... when not roaming around the world, that is. He has traveled to more than 80 countries in 5 continents and his goal is to travel to all 193 U.N. recognized countries. Follow Norbert on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google Plus.
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