The story of a city is told by its landmarks, and Edinburgh has quite a story to tell. From Edinburgh Castle to the Scottish Parliament, each monument and building in the capital is a milestone in its long and chequered history.
Edinburgh’s sense of history is palpable, emanating from its every winding nook and stonework crevice. The city’s landmarks chart its evolution from a Medieval settlement to a masterclass in Georgian architecture and town planning. Here are the 10 most noteworthy.
Edinburgh Castle sits high above the city, brooding atop an extinct volcano. For centuries, this stone fortress has been an intrinsic part of Scotland’s story, a witness to tumultuous episodes of its history, such as the sieges in 1650 by Cromwell and in 1745 by Bonnie Prince Charlie. These days, its weather-scarred battlements afford some of the best views of the city, with over a million annual visitors scaling its grounds. It also houses Edinburgh’s oldest standing building, St Margaret’s Chapel, built in 1130 by King David I and named in honour of his mother, who was widely beloved and canonised for her charitable works.
The Royal Mile is the artery that sustains all life in Edinburgh’s Old Town, running downhill from Edinburgh Castle to the Royal Palace of Holyroodhouse. Sitting midway is the Gothic St Giles’ Cathedral, a 900-year-old structure dedicated to the city’s patron saint. Don’t miss out on The Thistle Chapel, with its intricate Neo-Gothic woodwork and gold-leaf ceiling.
Affectionately dubbed the Gothic Rocket by Edinburgh natives, the Scott Monument stands proudly above the shoppers hurrying along Princes Street. Built to commemorate one of Scotland’s greatest authors, Sir Walter Scott, following his death in 1832, it is the second-largest monument in the world dedicated to a writer. The public can climb the 287 steps of the monolith’s narrow spiral staircase to a viewing platform at the top for 360-degree views over Central Edinburgh. While it’s dedicated to Scott, there are 68 statues carved into the structure, including the heads of 16 Scottish poets and writers.
An icon harking back to the golden age of steam trains, The Balmoral occupies a prominent spot on the corner of Princes Street and North Bridge. Purpose-built in 1902 as a hotel to serve rail passengers coming into Waverley station, guests had their baggage brought by porters directly from the platform to their room. The hotel’s clock still runs three minutes fast so passengers won’t miss their trains, only reverting back to normal time on New Year’s Eve. The Balmoral is perhaps more famous these days due to its Harry Potter connections. Author JK Rowling finished writing the final instalment of her Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in a room now renamed in her honour. Guests can book to stay in the suite, which has a special brass owl door knocker and a bust signed by the author.
The National Monument on top of Calton Hill is known by many monikers: Edinburgh’s Disgrace, Edinburgh’s Folly and The Pride and Poverty of Scotland, to name a few. The monument was funded by public subscription, intended to be Scotland’s tribute to the Scottish soldiers and sailors who fought and perished in the Napoleonic Wars. It was designed by architectural heavyweight William Playfair (who built the National Gallery of Scotland and subsequent extensions to the New Town), and modelled on the Parthenon in Athens (which lends weight to Edinburgh’s flattering sobriquet as the Athens of the North). Money to complete its construction infamously dried up just three years after building work began in 1826, and while there have been several proposed plans to finish it, all of them came to nought.
The seat of political power in Scotland is admittedly not particularly old. In fact, it is still in its relative infancy compared to august neighbours like the 17th-century Palace of Holyroodhouse and the National Monument. The Scottish Parliament – whose complex also incorporates the 17th-century Queensferry House – is nonetheless a historic landmark in the making after self-governance returned to Scotland under devolution in 1999. The first debate in the new building took place in 2004 after it was completed, nearly 300 years after the last Scottish Parliament was dissolved. Spanish architect Enric Miralles drew on symbolism from Scotland’s landscapes and culture, constructing the building with Scottish materials such as Kemnay granite and rare Caithness flagstone.
Edinburgh is a city of two distinct halves: the Medieval Old Town and the Georgian New Town. Both UNESCO World Heritage sites, the latter was initially mapped out by city planner James Craig in the 1700s, with architect Robert Adam designing many of its most distinguished buildings. And so he did with 6 Charlotte Square, now the official residence of Scotland’s first minister. On the square’s north side, Bute House stands out due to its grand facade and central front door – unique features lacking in the rest of the buildings on the square. Also in the square is the preserved Georgian House, which houses a beautiful array of paintings by acclaimed Scottish artists, including Sir Henry Raeburn.
The number of live-music venues in Edinburgh has dwindled over the last decade, but one that has survived the test of time is the Usher Hall. Built in the Beaux Arts style after a competition was held in 1910, it was dedicated to its benefactor, whisky distiller and blender Andrew Usher, who gave £100,000 to the city to build a music hall for concerts and recitals. Usher Hall is known for its outstanding acoustics and unusual round walls and dome. The auditorium has been used for classical and contemporary concerts and political rallies, including hosting the 1972 Eurovision Song Contest and boxing at the 1986 Commonwealth Games.
In the ultimate tale of canine fealty, Greyfriars Bobby proved that dogs really are a man’s best friend. Bobby famously guarded his master’s grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard for 14 years until his own death in 1872. He too is buried in the graveyard, not far from his reputed owner, John Gray. The little skye terrier is immortalised with a life-size statue (which incidentally is the city’s smallest listed building) on Edinburgh’s George IV Bridge, opposite the graveyard gates. A wealthy philanthropist was heartened by the tale, funding sculptor William Brodie to build it in 1873. The statue was originally designed as a drinking fountain for both dogs and humans, but today, it is one of the city’s most popular landmarks, with visitors frequently rubbing Bobby’s nose for good luck – though this is discouraged, as it is starting to lose its colour!
Strolling the cobble setts of this village within a city, you would scarcely know you were right in the centre of Edinburgh at all. The Dean Village is something of a green oasis, with the cascading Water of Leith flowing through its centre. The hamlet, boasted several important grain mills, is nearly 800 years old, but its most striking building is Well Court. Recently renovated, it was built in 1886 as model housing for mill workers and their families. Its distinctive red sandstone structures, including a clock tower and courtyard, now form the centrepiece of a tranquil refuge for local residents. The area is also home to the towering Dean Bridge and the Neoclassical Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.