Open views, the wind in your hair, the clouds changing the weather in an instant, a sense of solid traditions and plenty of mystery: in Edinburgh the Scottish city appeal is exalted by the beauty of its historic buildings, castles and town houses and the greenery which fills up city centre streets filled with tourists and locals at all times, too.

Arthur's SeatCalton Hill, Edinburgh Castle and much more, moving from legends to natural beauties, wild landscapes and the geometries of stone façades. Here history runs through every future oriented vision. 

Calton Hill

It dominates the city and its unmistakeable profile stands out attractively from the city streets. And from the top you get a great view of Edinburgh. Symbol of the Scottish capital, this hill of volcanic origin called Calton features a classically inspired monument which has led to it being called the ‘Athens of the North’. Extremely unusual columns and capitals for this far north but an excellent backdrop for many films such as Trainspotting. Obviously it is also the ideal spot for a great many events linked to Celtic traditions which are frequent throughout the year.

The Calton Hill monuments greet visitors right from the beginning of their walk to the top. Starting from the Old Calton Burial Ground featuring the tomb of famous philosopher David Hume, author of A Treatise of Human Nature, the Hume Walk was created on his personal suggestion. Other stages on the walk are St Andrew’s HouseOld Royal High School and The Burns Monument dedicated to famous poet Robert Burns.

Royal Mile

On this long history and traditional packed street you feel right at the heart, not only of Edinburgh but also of the Scottish philosophy of life itself. It is a street which cuts across the old town, through the streets and squares between Edinburgh castle and Holyrood palace. It has always been the meeting place for activities of all kinds, the true centre. So long that it changes name many times, even if the Scots all know it as the Royal Mile.

Arthur’s Seat

Less than a mile from Edinburgh Castle, a mountain landscape rising unexpectedly in the city centre. There’s something incredible about this rapid shift from the old town’s alleyways to the hill’s wild and characteristically Scottish landscape.

A parallel world in miniature inside Holyrood Park where uphill paths lead to this volcanic peak as an alternative to the Salisbury Crags. We are on one of Edinburgh’s seven hills - just like Rome. It takes about an hour to get to the top and it’s worth the effort, for a truly unique experience.

Why is it called Arthur’s Seat? The reference to mythical King Arthur is inevitable and springs to mind spontaneously as there are quite a few who believe that the legendary Camelot may have been based right here. But others believe that the name originated with Gaelic Ard-na-Said, namely the ‘archers’ peak’. In any event the peak was originally settled by local people in historic times.

Edinburgh Castle

Everyone visiting Scotland comes here: it is the most visible of Edinburgh's attractions, a must for anyone wandering its streets. Also because strolling around the labyrinth of streets in the centre it is ever present, seemingly watching over you from above with its thousand years’ task of protecting the city.

In fact the site’s history stretches back over three thousand years. The first traces of human settlement in the area date back to 900 BC. It was the Roman legionnaires who linked the fortress with the name Dyn Eydin, i.e. Eydin’s fortress, subsequently changed definitively to Edinburgh a few years later by the Angles. The current building dates back to the 16th century.

Visitors climb to the entrance via the Lang Stairs in front of the 6 canons. An aside: every day at 1 pm, a bombardier fires the canon in accordance with a tradition dating back to 1861. St Margaret’s Chapel stands in the oldest section. The war prisons can also be visited and are faithfully reconstructed in the castle’s cellars. 

David Hume

There is a statue of David Hume, a figure closely bound up with the city’s history and present in various corners, on the Royal Mile. From the mausoleum in his honour referred to above to this highly popular statue. Popular belief has it that if a student touches the esteemed philosopher's big toe he or she is guaranteed impeccable school performance and top exam marks. And those who are no longer studying can also hope for good luck this way. In fact the philosopher’s big toe protrudes from the pedestal, ultra-shiny.

St Giles’ Cathedral

On the Royal Mile you are likely to bump into what is the city’s religious and historic heart. And it’s not just a saying: on the paving just through the door there is a colourful floor mosaic in the shape of a heart which is known as the heart of Midlothian (from the name of the region around Edinburgh) which is so popular with the Scots that a football club, known as Heart of Midlothian, has been named after it. On this site there was once an iron railing within which those condemned to death were imprisoned and passers-by traditionally spat on their heads. This eccentric custom has survived and it is said that spitting on the ground in the heart of Midlothian brings good luck.

This aside, St Giles’ Cathedral is an attractive Gothic style church with majestic arches and stained glass windows. It is the Presbyterian mother church founded in 1120 by the Scottish royal family and restored in the late 1800s and the early 20th century. Its window decorations and certain interior monuments are dedicated to people who have made Scotland’s history, such as theologian John Knox, are very fine. 

National Museum of Scotland

If you need a little relief from the Scottish rain, no problem. The National Museum of Scotland awaits you with open doors, as the modernised version (2011) of an institution founded in 1861. It is one of the largest museums in the United Kingdom and contains 20,000 objects distributed across 36 rooms.

The Great Gallery which welcomes you with its light filled and airy curved glass roof is very beautiful. Every area focuses on a specific theme. The Natural World contains replicas of T-Rex and Stegosaurus skeletons, World Cultures shows works of art from every region of the earth, Art and Sculpture contains work from Ancient Greece and Science and Technology focuses on the most important inventions.

Princes Street Gardens

In the shadow of the castle, the new town encompasses Edinburgh’s green lungs. The Princes Street gardens set up in 1820 after the Loch Nor reclamation, are much loved by local people. They are divided into two on sloping land divided into two by the errore originaleGothic Scott Monument, a mausoleum built in 1844 in honour of writer Walter Scott. And this is only one of the many monuments in this green space.

Just a few steps away is a statue of explorer David Livingstone, made famous by the sentence “Doctor Livingstone, I presume” said by a journalist who located him in Africa after many years of searching. And then there are statues of publisher Adam Black and essayist John Wilson, poet Allan Ramsay, doctor James Young Simpson and reformer Thomas Guthrie.

The most striking monument, however, is the Ross Fountain made in worked and decorated iron and representing five mermaids of which four correspond to fields of knowledge: science, poetry, art and industry. The mermaid at the top dominates all the others, at the summit of this art work.

Holyrood Palace

At the top of the Royal Mile is Queen Elisabeth’s official residence in Scotland and she generally spends part of the summer here. It is a fine historic building which Mary Stewart, a long suffering tenant, also stayed at. It is precisely the latter’s, in many ways dramatic history (she was the queen known in the history books as Bloody Mary) which makes the palace such a mysterious and fascinating place. It has also been the backdrop to various coronations and royal weddings and the 44 metre long Great Gallery contains portraits of 96 members of the dynasty. 

Prince Street

When the old town became overcrowded and unhealthy, Edinburgh's wealthier citizens began to move to the New Town, building houses and new traditions there. Princes Street is thus a very different place from the Old Town and now known for the plethora of shops offering clothing and souvenirs from fashionable shop windows and large stores. Of these it is Jenners, founded two centuries ago and still very popular, which stands out. This is the shopping street with its brightly lit shop windows still resisting, despite the many architectural changes which have taken place over the years. 

Old Town

It starts from the Royal Mile and ends at the Castle, through dozens of alleyways and mini squares, museums and historic buildings and also parks. It is a place for shopping but also history, culture and tradition. A UNESCO heritage site, it is on a promontory of volcanic origin and its earliest settlements are lost in the mists of time, while it was the Romans who left the first traces and evidence of the earliest urban nucleus.

Over the years it has changed considerably. In the Middle Ages, when it was enclosed by the Flodden walls, in alarmingly unhealthy state such as to merit the name Auld Reekie - with ‘reekie’ meaning smelly - until the New Town and the Edinburgh we know today was born.

The old town is the site of the most important buildings. From Holyrood House to the castle, the two ends of the Royal Mile which has remained the city’s main artery. A great many unusual streets and closes intersect here. White Horse Close, for example, was the site of a hostelry of this name which was popular with the knights who travelled to and from the city. The appeal of this historic period has been preserved. As has the Scotman Stairs, the flight of steps made of marble from a range of locations the world over.

Camera Obscura and World of Illusions

An unusual destination as compared to the city’s many other attractions. In the last section of the Royal Mile and a stone’s throw from the open area which leads to Edinburgh’s symbol fortress, you enter Castlehill.

As you stroll you cannot fail to notice a mirrored façade and then your image reflected and deformed. But don’t make the mistake of believing that it is the usual children’s attraction: the Camera Obscura is suitable, and in fact much recommended, for people of all ages for fun, play and learning. It is a round room with a tube coming out of the centre of the ceiling: when the sun’s rays filter into it a mirror and three lenses project wonderful magical images. The rest of the building hosts hundreds of installations with optical effects and plays of light which are difficult to describe in words. Worth a thorough visit! 

Scotch whisky tasting

Once again in the magical Edinburgh Castle area, adults (and the sober) can indulge in the experience of an unusual whisky world journey, to taste this typically Scottish drink This organised tour always ends up with a whisky tasting in a special glass which visitors take away as a souvenir. With a choice of various itineraries, every experience offers a chance to get to know more about how whisky is made, how long it takes and what is used to make it. Another way of getting to know Edinburgh and Scotland better.

Grassmarket

Edinburgh’s unmissable castle acts as backdrop to the market which has brought the city centre to life for around 500 years, site of a cattle market and public executions in the past. It was one of the city’s poorest areas and the place where immigrants from nearby Ireland settled. Today it is a not-to-be-missed tourist destination as a place of variegated local colour.

Its setting is picturesque and colourful, vibrant and vital. A paradise for independent market stalls, both artisans and designers, it also hosts some of the city’s best restaurants as well as its most vibrant bars and affordable family run hotels

Greyfriars Graveyard

If you think you’ve got a feel for Edinburgh at its most mysterious, Gothic and unsettling, then you haven’t yet seen this unusual graveyard. Whilst it isn’t the only graveyard in the city with this ghostly charm and Scotland is a land of spirits and mysticism, a stroll through this corner of the city and its legends is unique all the same.

Hidden from Grassmarket square, by day it is a beautiful memory garden. There are gravestones hundreds of years old covered with moss with grass now almost covering names and images. It is a very green park, ideal for a lunch break. It is named after the historic Franciscan community, the Greyfriars, dating to the same period as the graveyard, the 16th century.

It is here that J.K. Rowling found inspiration for her Harry Potter, a blend of mystery and terror in the form of a fairy tale. By night the graveyard is considered place of poltergeists and paranormal activity which has also been testified to in recent years by scholars and clergy. The right place, then, for fans of ghosts and the like. Coming with us?

Mary King’s Close

It was in the 1500s and 1600s that Scotland, in common with the rest of Europe, experienced its worst plague epidemics. And Edinburgh’s poorest people, the most vulnerable to the disease, lived in this alley, reopened to the public only in 2003. People who looked forward to death as the only end to poverty and disease. Today the terrible story of the period, narrated on an organised tour, prompts desperation.

There are no actors pretending to be ghosts, no figures, only silence, damp and darkness, contributing to plunging visitors into a timeless world. Best avoided if you suffer from claustrophobia and you’re easily frightened. Otherwise, go for it: it’ll be a spooky experience.

Charlotte Square

Another UNESCO heritage destination: it was architect Robert Adam who designed the new town’s most stylish square in 1791. Note the harmony of its stylish and clean façades although the architect’s early death interrupted work and left a certain discontinuity in style.

Its buildings host the National Trust for Scotland which works to conserve sites and buildings. Built inn Georgian style, over time many VIPs have been attracted to Charlotte Square as a place to live. 

Dean Village

Another totally special place, on the banks of the Water of Leith, this is an unexpected destination in the city context. We are once again a stone’s throw from the centre in a small valley encompassing a very attractive village. The little bridge over the river and houses built in stone four centuries ago. These are a high impact visiting card.

Dean Village was once a highly productive place with a dozen factories equipped with watermills. Then crisis came and, from the 1960s onwards, reconstruction and transformation into a much sought after residential area.

The Water of Leith, as well as being the name of this river, is also a green area around this small village. It is ideal for a relaxing walk in the midst of nature. There are swans, ducks and herons, a total of eighty bird species. And visitors on bikes and horses. The Scottish Gallery of Modern Art and Dean Graveyard are also worth a visit.

The Royal Edinburgh Botanic Garden

An unexpected expanse of green, very close to the city centre on 72 acres of land set aside for the Royal Botanic Garden with its plants and flowers of rare beauty. The history of this garden stretches back around four hundred years, during which time it has won international fame.

Touring the garden is like an eco-tour of the world from the starting point of the imposing Glasshouses and a range of beauties such as the United Kingdom’s tallest palm tree, the Chinese Hillside, the magnificent Rock Garden and the gigantic Woodland Garden sequoias.

 

It is open at all times in every season with a packed calendar of events and guided tours. It is thus an experience bound up not only with nature but lots more besides. There is obviously a place to buy crafts and also plants and flowers.

Around Edinburgh: The Pentland Hills national park

Once you’ve visited the city, don’t miss out on a chance to get out of the city centre to explore other magnificent surprises. Just get in the car, perhaps taking a blanket with you, a few sandwiches and a beer as the Edinburgh locals do. Or take bus 44 in Princes Street and travel for half an hour. The destination is the Pentland Hills, a marvellous park.

And it’s worth the effort. With stone walls winding on forever as backdrop, there are vast barley fields and, higher up, purple coloured heather in bloom, all characteristic of the Scottish countryside.

At the edges of the park you cannot fail to see thatched cottages built here from the 13th century onwards. Until the 1960s these remained ownerless and fell into disrepair before being restored by Edinburgh Council. Now you cannot drive to the village of Swanston - site of these houses - and you have to leave your car shortly before the village. 

Travel to Edinburgh with Costa Cruises

All the ingredients for an unforgettable journey are here. A touch of mystery combined with historic attractions of timeless appeal. Edinburgh promises wonders: the time to go is now...

Set Sail with Costa Cruises