Historic and cultural days out in Edinburgh

By Kingfisher Visitor Guides

Wander the historic streets of Edinburgh and you’ll be reminded of its rich and varied past at absolutely every turn, whether you’re gawping at its stunning architecture or brushing up on history at one of the city’s many museums.

Historic buildings and attractions

If you only do one thing during your stay in Edinburgh, it must be a trip to the historic Edinburgh Castle. Wherever you are in the city, you can’t escape its looming presence. Built on the rocky outcrop of a long-dormant volcano, it dominates the skyline, peering down on the city and its people below.

Communities are believed to have lived on the site since the ninth century, and there has been a royal castle here since the time of David I in the 11th century. It has been the subject of many battles, sieges and sackings, even though its unique position supposedly afforded unparalleled protection.

Edinburgh Castle

Take a step back in time at Edinburgh Castle

Today, almost all the medieval fortifications are long gone, but structures from the 15th century still stand, and the castle is not one, but a collection of buildings pieced together from its various incarnations. It draws almost two million visitors a year, making it Scotland’s most popular paid-for visitor attraction.

The castle could easily keep you busy for most of the day but try to time your visit to coincide with the firing of the One O’ Clock Gun, Edinburgh’s famed time signal, which can be heard all over the city every day apart from Sunday. If you’re here in August, come for the spectacular Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

Crowd pleasers

Just a few paces from the Castle Esplanade, you’ll find another major crowd pleaser. Established almost 200 years ago, Camera Obscura and World of Illusions claims to be Edinburgh’s first purpose-built visitor centre. It started life as a public observatory, then began showing ‘movies’ of the city with the camera obscura, 50 years before the invention of cinema. Nowadays, with five floors stuffed with over 100 interactive illusions, and panoramic rooftop views of Edinburgh to boot, this family-friendly attraction remains true to its original spirit.

Edinburgh is notorious for its unsavoury past, and there are plenty of ways to uncover the city’s dark secrets. Meet grave robbers Burke and Hare at the Edinburgh Dungeon and scare yourself silly in the labyrinth of lost souls or on one of the terrifying rides.

Or visit The Real Mary King’s Close, a warren of underground streets where plague victims breathed their last. But be warned that this recreation of 17th-century life on the Royal Mile is not for the faint-hearted.

If all that doesn’t raise enough goosebumps, there are numerous late-night guided tours that depart nearby, delving into the Old Town’s spookiest graveyards, medieval cellars and forgotten nooks and crannies.

Scottish Parliament

Visit the striking Scottish Parliament building

Holyrood, at the foot of the Royal Mile, is the site of the controversial Scottish Parliament building. Designed by famous Catalan architect, the late Enric Miralles, it opened in 2004, three years late and massively over budget. The result, however, was a striking structure unlike anything else in the country, acclaimed by many and the recipient of numerous awards. Although open to the public all year round, non-sitting days are probably the best time to explore and attempt to gain an insight into the nation it serves.

A royal day out

A few hundred metres away sits the grand Palace of Holyroodhouse. The official Scottish home of the British Monarchy, it has often played a part in Scotland’s turbulent history, from hosting the wedding of Mary Queen of Scots to acting as the headquarters of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion. The palace and gardens are open to visitors throughout the year.

Rosslyn Chapel

Visit the historic Rosslyn Chapel

Just a few miles outside the city lies the hauntingly beautiful Rosslyn Chapel. Thrust into the limelight after featuring in the film of the best-selling Dan Brown book, The Da Vinci Code, it attracts people from all around the world who want to investigate the myths and legends surrounding the 15th-century church for themselves. Whether you believe the rumours or not, it’s worth visiting the church for its elaborate carved stonework alone.

Linlithgow Palace was held by the English for years until the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, after which it served as a residence for Scottish kings for hundreds of years. Oliver Cromwell also stayed there from 1650-51, and it was last used during the time of the second Jacobite uprising in the mid-18th century. It’s now largely just a shell, but what a beautiful shell it is – easily one of the best medieval buildings still standing in Scotland.

Family attractions

For kids and big kids alike, a trip to Dynamic Earth, right by the Scottish Parliament, is highly recommended. You’ll get to take an immersive journey through the planet’s past, present and future via a series of amazing interactive exhibitions, including a 6K 360-degree, full-dome cinema.

Explorers can come face to face with weird and wonderful beasts from the past, witness an erupting volcano or dive deep under the sea in a submarine. And if our own planet isn’t enough of a distraction, you can travel through time to search the cosmos, witness the Big Bang and learn more about the infinite wonders of outer space.

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Image credits: ©Jorg Angeli/Unsplash; The Edinburgh Dungeon; The Real Mary King’s Close; The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo/Martin Scott Powell; Vic Sharp Photography/Rosslyn Chapel

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