From old to the new part of the city, there is a lot of history in Edinburgh. Thankfully, the city has done a pretty excellent job preserving it for the benefit of visitors. The name of the Scottish capital probably stems from the Gaelic Din Eidyn, meaning “fort on a hill slope.” Not counting any prehistoric villages that are believed to have sprouted on the city’s several knolls, the settlement of Edinburgh can be traced to the site of Edinburgh castle, atop a sloping rocky outcropping where a 6th-century hall is thought to have stood.
This historic town house on the north side of the square displays the furnishings of upper-class 18th century Edinburgh, including classic Chippendale chairs, a dining table set with fine Wedgwood china, and the piss pot that the men passed around once their womenfolk retired.
Its earliest history is a bit vague, but in the 11th century, Malcolm III and his Saxon queen, later venerated as St. Margaret, founded a castle on this spot. In 1542, the castle ceased being a dedicated royal residence, having already begun to be used as an ordinance factory. Instead, the monarchs favoured Holyroodhouse when staying in Edinburgh. For my taste, the focus of this attraction’s exhibits is too heavily weighted toward the military, as the castle still barracks soldiers. Still, visitors can see the Great Hall, where Scottish Parliaments used to convene and the Scottish Crown Jewels.
John Knox House
John Knox (1510–72), the acknowledged father of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, lived during the Reformation, a time of great religious and political upheaval. While some regard him as a prototypical Puritan, he actually proposed progressive changes and apparently had a sharp wit. Even if you’re not interested in the firebrand reformer, who may have never lived here anyway, you should visit this late-15th-century house, which is characteristic of the homes of its time.
This 17th-century merchant’s house gives a clear impression of how confined living conditions were some 400 years ago, even for those who were quite well-off. On the second level is a sensitively restored timber ceiling, looking suitably weathered and aged, but still bearing colourful paintings of flowers and fruit.
Dedicated in 1620, this was the first “reformed” church in Edinburgh, where the National Covenant, favouring Scottish Presbyterianism over the English Episcopacy, was signed in 1638. Among many restorations, one in the 1930s used California redwood to create the current ceiling.
St. Giles’ Cathedral
Its steeple is a key city landmark, visible across central Edinburgh, and this is where Scotland’s Martin Luther, John Knox, preached about reform. Also called the High Kirk of St. Giles, which is the correct post-Reformation name, the building combines a dark and brooding stone exterior, the result of a Victorian-era restoration, with surprisingly graceful buttresses.
Palace of Holyroodhouse
Most of the palace’s current structure was built at the behest of King Charles II in the 1670s, although he ironically never stayed here. The reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth, however, does whenever she’s in town, and you can see the reception rooms that she uses, such as the Throne Room. The real highlight of the tour, however, is in the oldest surviving section of the palace, constructed in 1530, where Mary Queen of Scots lived on the second floor. Be sure to check out some of the queen’s needlework, which depicts her cousin, and the woman who had her beheaded, England’s Elizabeth I, as a cat, and herself as a mouse. The audio tour is good, and the staff is knowledgeable, so don’t hesitate to ask questions.
Tip: The cheapest time to travel is off-season: Late October up to Easter (excluding Christmas and New Year). Rates for hotels hit their peak in the high season from June through September, and particularly in Edinburgh during the Festival in August rates at some hotels rise noticeably. Mid-July and August are when many locals take their holidays, which are increasingly spent inside the U.K., so besides the higher prices, you’ll have to deal with bigger crowds and greater demand for hotel rooms. Independent on the time you chose to visit, Hotel Direct is a great place to start planning your visit. During the Edinburgh Festival from late July to early September the hotels, guesthouses, hostels, and B&Bs fill up. If you’re planning a visit at that time, be sure to reserve your room as far in advance as possible. Otherwise you may end up in a town or village as many as 40km (55 miles) from the city center.