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Leith (Edinburgh), Scotland

Tour description

Leith, Scotland

One of the world's stateliest cities and proudest capitals, Edinburgh is built-like Rome-on seven hills, making it a striking backdrop for the ancient pageant of history. In a skyline of sheer drama, Edinburgh Castle watches over the capital city, frowning down on Princes Street as if disapproving of its modern razzmatazz. Nearly everywhere in Edinburgh (the "-burgh" is always pronounced burra in Scotland) there are spectacular buildings, whose Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian pillars add touches of neoclassical grandeur to the largely Presbyterian backdrop. The city is justly proud of its gardens, green lungs that bring a sense of release to frenetic modern life. Conspicuous from Princes Street is Arthur's Seat, a child-size mountain with steep slopes and little crags, like a miniature Highlands set down in the middle of the busy city. Appropriately, these theatrical elements match Edinburgh's character-after all, the city has been a stage that has seen its fair share of romance, violence, tragedy, and triumph.

Calton Hill. Robert Louis Stevenson's favorite view of his beloved city was from the top of this hill. The architectural styles represented by the extraordinary collection of monuments here include mock Gothic-the Old Observatory, for example-and neoclassical. Under the latter category falls the monument by William Playfair (1789-1857) designed to honor his talented uncle, the geologist and mathematician John Playfair (1748-1819), as well as his cruciform New Observatory. The piece that commands the most attention, however, is the so-called National Monument, often referred to as "Scotland's Disgrace." Intended to mimic Athens's Parthenon, this monument to the dead of the Napoleonic Wars was started in 1822. But in 1830, only 12 columns later, money ran out, and the facade became a monument to high aspirations and poor fund-raising. The tallest monument on Calton Hill is the 100-foot-high Nelson Monument, completed in 1815 in honor of Britain's naval hero Horatio Nelson (1758-1805); you can climb its 143 steps for sweeping city views. The Burns Monument is the circular Corinthian temple below Regent Road. Devotees of Robert Burns may want to visit one other grave-that of Mrs. Agnes McLehose, or "Clarinda," in the Canongate Graveyard. Bounded by Leith St. to the west and Regent Rd. to the south, New Town. Admission charged.

Charlotte Square. At the west end of George Street is the New Town's centerpiece-an 18th-century square with one of the proudest achievements of Robert Adam, Scotland's noted neoclassical architect. On the north side, Adam designed a palatial facade to unite three separate town houses of such sublime simplicity and perfect proportions that architects come from all over the world to study it. Happily, the Age of Enlightenment grace notes continue within, as the center town house is now occupied by the Georgian House museum, and to the west stands West Register House. West end of George St., New Town.

Edinburgh Castle. The crowning glory of the Scottish capital, Edinburgh Castle is popular not only because it's the symbolic heart of Scotland but also because of the views from its battlements: on a clear day the vistas-stretching to the "kingdom" of Fife-are breathtaking. There's so much to see that you need at least three hours to do the site justice, especially if you're interested in military sites.

Heading over the drawbridge and through the gatehouse, past the guards, you can find the rough stone walls of the Half-Moon Battery, where the one-o'clock gun is fired every day. Climb up through a second gateway and you come to the oldest surviving building in the complex, the tiny 11th-century St. Margaret's Chapel, named in honor of Saxon queen Margaret (1046-93), who had persuaded her husband, King Malcolm III (circa 1031-93), to move his court from Dunfermline to Edinburgh. Edinburgh's environs-the Lothians-were occupied by Anglian settlers with whom the queen felt more at home, or so the story goes (Dunfermline was surrounded by Celts). The Crown Room, a must-see, contains the "Honours of Scotland"-the crown, scepter, and sword that once graced the Scottish monarch. Upon the Stone of Scone, also in the Crown Room, Scottish monarchs once sat to be crowned. In the section now called Queen Mary's Apartments, Mary, Queen of Scots, gave birth to James VI of Scotland. The Great Hall displays arms and armor under an impressive vaulted, beamed ceiling. Scottish parliament meetings were conducted here until 1840.

Military features of interest include the Scottish National War Memorial, the Scottish United Services Museum, and the famous 15th-century Belgian-made cannon Mons Meg. This enormous piece of artillery has been silent since 1682, when it exploded while firing a salute for the duke of York; it now stands in an ancient hall behind the Half-Moon Battery. Contrary to what you may hear from locals, it's not Mons Meg but the battery's gun that goes off with a bang every weekday at 1 pm, frightening visitors and reminding Edinburghers to check their watches. Castle Esplanade and Castlehill, Old Town. Admission charged.

High Kirk of St. Giles. Sometimes called St. Giles's Cathedral, this is one of the city's principal churches. However, anyone expecting a rival to Paris's Notre Dame or London's Westminster Abbey will be disappointed: St. Giles is more like a large parish church than a great European cathedral. There has been a church here since AD 854, although most of the present structure dates from either 1120 or 1829, when the church was restored. The tower, with its stone crown towering 161 feet above the ground, was completed between 1495 and 1500. The most elaborate feature is the Chapel of the Order of the Thistle, built onto the southeast corner of the church in 1911 for the exclusive use of Scotland's only chivalric order, the Most Ancient and Noble Order of the Thistle. It bears the belligerent national motto "nemo me impune lacessit" ("No one provokes me with impunity"). Inside the church stands a life-size statue of the Scot whose spirit still dominates the place-the great religious reformer and preacher John Knox, before whose zeal all of Scotland once trembled. The church lies about one-third of the way along the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle. High St., Old Town. Admission charged.

National Gallery of Scotland. Opened to the public in 1859, the National Gallery presents a wide selection of paintings from the Renaissance to the postimpressionist period within a grand neoclassical building designed by William Playfair. Most famous are the old master paintings bequeathed by the Duke of Sutherland, including Titian's Three Ages of Man. Many masters are here; works by Velázquez, El Greco, Rembrandt, Goya, Poussin, Turner, Degas, Monet, and Van Gogh, among others, complement a fine collection of Scottish art, including Sir Henry Raeburn's Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch and other works by Ramsay, Raeburn, and Wilkie. The Weston Link connects the National Gallery of Scotland to the Royal Scottish Academy and provides expanded gallery space as well as a restaurant, bar, café, shop, and information center. The Mound, New Town.

National Museum of Scotland. This museum traces the country's fascinating story from the oldest fossils to the most recent popular culture, making it a must-see for first-time visitors to Scotland or anyone interested in history. One of the most famous treasures is the Lewis Chessmen, 11 intricately carved ivory chess pieces found in the 19th century on one of Scotland's Western Isles: other pieces are in London's British Museum. Other highlights include the hanging hippo and sea creatures of the Wildlife Panorama, a life-size skeleton cast of a Tyrannosaurus rex, Viking brooches, Pictish stones, Jacobite relics, the Stevenson family's inventions, including lighthouse optics, and Queen Mary's clarsach (harp). All this is free, but donations are welcomed to help renovate 11 other galleries. Chambers St., Old Town.

Palace of Holyroodhouse. Once the haunt of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the setting for high drama-including at least one notorious murder, several major fires, and centuries of the colorful lifestyles of larger-than-life, power-hungry personalities-this is now Queen Elizabeth's official residence in Scotland. A doughty and impressive palace standing at the foot of the Royal Mile in a hilly public park, it's built around a graceful, lawned central court at the end of Canongate. When the queen or royal family is not in residence, you can take a tour. The free audio guide is excellent. There's plenty to see here, so make sure you have at least two hours to tour the palace, gardens (in summer), and the ruins of the 12th-century abbey. The King James Tower is the oldest surviving section, containing the rooms of Mary, Queen of Scots, on the second floor, and Lord Darnley's rooms below. Though much has been altered, there are fine fireplaces, paneling, plasterwork, tapestries, and 18th- and 19th-century furnishings throughout. The Queen's Gallery, in a former church and school at the entrance to the palace, holds rotating exhibits from the Royal Collection; there's a separate admission charge.

Behind the palace lie the open grounds and looming crags of Holyrood Park, the hunting ground of early Scottish kings. From the top of Edinburgh's mini mountain, Arthur's Seat (822 feet), views are breathtaking. Abbey Strand, Old Town. Admission charged.

Royal Scottish Academy. The William Playfair-designed academy hosts temporary art exhibitions (Monet paintings, for example), but is also worth visiting for a look at the imposing, neoclassic architecture. The underground Weston Link connects the museum to the National Gallery of Scotland. The Mound, New Town.

Scottish National Portrait Gallery. A magnificent red-sandstone Gothic building dating from 1889 houses this must-see institution. The recently revamped gallery is organized under five broad themes: Reformation, Enlightenment, Empire, Modernity, and Contemporary. The refurbished complex features a photography gallery, a gallery for contemporary art, and a fancy glass elevator. New spaces hold exhibits on various aspects of Scots history and life, including The Visual Culture of the Jacobite Cause and Playing for Scotland: The Making of Modern Sport. 1 Queen St., New Town.


Despite its renown as a shopping street, Princes Street in the New Town disappoints some with its dull, anonymous modern architecture, average chain stores, and fast-food outlets. It is, however, one of the best spots to shop for tartans, tweeds, and knitwear. One block north of Princes Street, Rose Street has many smaller specialty shops; part of the street is a pedestrian zone, so it's a pleasant place to browse.

The streets crossing George Street-Hanover, Frederick, and Castle-are also worth exploring. Dundas Street, the northern extension of Hanover Street, beyond Queen Street Gardens, has several antiques shops. Thistle Street, originally George Street's "back lane," or service area, has several boutiques and more antiques shops. Stafford and William streets form an upscale shopping area in a Georgian setting.

As may be expected, many shops along the Royal Mile sell what may be politely or euphemistically described as tourist ware-whiskies, tartans, and tweeds. Careful exploration, however, will uncover some worthwhile establishments. Shops here also cater to highly specialized interests and hobbies. Close to the castle end of the Royal Mile, just off George IV Bridge, is Victoria Street, with specialty shops grouped in a small area. Follow the tiny West Bow to Grassmarket for more specialty stores.

Leith (Edinburgh), Scotland

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