Edinburgh See And Do
Scotland EH1 2NG
Tel: 44 131 225 9846
Even if poking around old castles isn't your thing, come for the views from its perch on an extinct volcano. For the history buffs, there are the former royal apartments (Mary Queen of Scots gave birth here), the Crown Room, and the city's oldest building, St Margaret's Chapel (built around 900 years ago). Just be warned: The extremely loud One O'clock Gun is fired from here, which makes locals and visitors jump on a daily basis. Each August, the Military Tattoo takes place on the esplanade, and the castle makes a stunning backdrop for the firework displays at the end of the Edinburgh Festival and on Hogmanay (New Year's Eve).
Edinburgh becomes an altogether different, wilder animal during the festivalwell, festivals, to be precise. The edgy Fringe (comedy, contemporary music, theater, and dance), the highbrow Edinburgh International Festival (classical music, theater, opera, and dance), the Edinburgh Art Festival, and the International Book Festival, all run concurrently through August. The International Film Festival was moved to June in 2008, although there are suggestions that it may move back.
The Fringe is the world's largest arts fest on its own, and a full-on party from beginning to end, thanks in part to the 17,000 artists and performers who decamp here from all over the world. (The population doubles, so book accommodations as early as possible and expect inflated rates.) The Fringe is open to all "performers," so quality can range from the unwatchable (students from the back of beyond massacring Shakespeare) to the outstanding (Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, and Craig Ferguson all got their start here). There are also niche performances that you'll have to see to believe, like a retelling of Ovid's Metamorphoses performed in a swimming pool. Look to The Scotsman, London's Guardian, and Edinburgh arts and entertainment magazine The List to ensure that you don't book a dud. For more sober arts fans, the EIF is a full-on culture fix, with performances that might include all of Beethoven's string quartets over three days, Wagner's complete Ring Cycle, and an American Repertory Theater production of Chekhov's Three Sisters. There's less fanfare around the book, art; and film festivals, but they're not poor relations: Year after year they turn out world-class programs. Start checking the festival Web sites in June, and book early.
For a completely different view of the city, try Edinburgh's Hogmanay or New Year celebrations, which attract tens of thousands of revelers from all over the world. A street party, torchlight processions, riotous ceilidhs, fireworks over Edinburgh Castle, and open-air concerts featuring bands such as Primal Scream, Kasabian, and the Scissor Sisters all help ring in the New Year.—Update by Jonathan Trew
Tel: 44 131 624 6200
The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art's collection includes more than 5,000 pieces from the 19th century to the present. Sculptures by Tony Cragg, Barbara Hepworth, and Henry Moore, and Charles Jencks's beautiful Landform (crescent-shaped pools set in grassy mounds) can be found on the extensive grounds (75 Belford Rd.). A portion of the permanent collection can be viewed across the street at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art Two, which also holds a large number of the Edinburgh-born sculptor Sir Eduardo Paolozzi's work (73 Belford Rd.). Portraits of famous and not so famous Scots hang in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Its red sandstone neo-Gothic building, which reopened in December 2011 following a $27.7 million refit which increased the exhibition and public space by 60 percent, is itself worth a visit (1 Queen St.). First opened to the public in 1859, the National Gallery of Scotland has amassed a fantastic collection of European paintings and sculpture from the Renaissance to post-Impressionism (The Mound). Adjacent to the National Gallery, the Royal Scottish Academy Building exhibition space was fully refurbished before reopening in 2003 with a Monet show that attracted 170,000 visitors (The Mound).
Scotland EH1 1JF
Tel: 44 131 247 4422
One building is 19th-century, the other modern, but a link between these neighboring museums makes it possible to walk from the past to the present. The Royal Museum is in a stately Victorian building which reopened in 2011 following a complete refurb. It has a huge entrance hall bathed in natural light and holds a collection of decorative arts and exhibits from science and industry, archaeology, and the natural world. Time your visit to the chiming of the 32-foot Millennium Clock, a kinetic masterpiece in the Main Hall (11 a.m., noon, 2 p.m., and 4 p.m.). Opened in 1998 in a modern-day castle, the Museum of Scotland covers Scotland's history from the burial practices of its earliest inhabitants to the modern-day scientific pioneers who created the world's first cloned mammal: Dolly the sheep, whose remains are now stuffed for posterity and exhibited.
The City Art Centre, located in a former Victorian warehouse, is home to Edinburgh's collection of Scottish art; temporary exhibits run the gamut from Michelangelo drawings to Star Trek exhibits (2 Market St.; 44-131-529-3993). Transformed from a Victorian market, the Fruitmarket Gallery is a modern space with two floors of contemporary art exhibits (45 Market St.; 44-131-225-2383). Dundas Street has numerous commercial galleries selling everything from originals by the Scottish Colourists to established contemporaries such as John Bellany and Adrian Wiszniewski. Hidden away at the back of Waverly Railway Station, the Ingleby Gallery is worth seeking out if you are interested in contemporary art. Artists' talks, a film club, and public art projects keep things lively (15 Calton Rd.; 44-131-556-4441).—Updated by Jonathan Trew
Tel: 44 131 556 5100
The official residence of the Queen when she fancies a night in Edinburgh, Holyrood is open to commoners when her Majesty is elsewhere; which is most of the year. The Royal Apartments are as grand as you might expect, with magnificent pictures, particularly those of the kings of Scotland by Jacob de Wet, providing the glitz. It's a historically important palace. Mary Queen of Scots was married in the now ruined Abbey here, and it was in her private apartments that she saw her secretary Rizzio murdered. The adjacent Queen's Gallery hosts work from the Royal Collection.
Scotland EH3 5LR
Tel: 44 131 552 7171
Established in 1670, the Botanics (as they're more commonly known) are a must for horticulturalists—even in the dead of winter, when the ten glasshouses come into their own. In warmer months, stroll around the Chinese Hillside, the Rock Garden, and the Scottish Heath Garden. The Queen Mother's Memorial Garden opened in July 2006 and has a labyrinth in the middle. The Terrace Café is a regular hangout for mums, kids, and strollers and has great views over the city.
Tel: 44 131 555 5566
She is now decommissioned, but the Britannia traveled to 600 ports in 135 countries in the 44 years in which she served as the Royal Family's floating palace. A self-led audio-tour guides visitors through the five decks, taking in the luxurious royal living areas and the rather more cramped sailors' quarters. Sir Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Boris Yeltsin, and President Reagan have all eaten with the Queen in the stately dining room where setting the table took three hours for each meal. Apparently, the Britannia is the only place where tourists can see a living monarch's bedroom, although, to be honest, its flowery decor is little different from any other old lady's chamber. The only double bed on board was brought on by Prince Charles for his honeymoon cruise.
Scotland EH99 1SP
Tel: 44 131 348 5000
Highlights of Catalonian architect Enric Miralles's extraordinary complex include the west side's stainless-steel windows (some of which have oak latticing), a section of roof that looks like upturned boats, and the Canongate Wall, which is set with stones from around Scotland and inscribed with quotations. It also has a shop, a café, and even a day-care center for young children. Guided tours include an up-to-the-minute introduction to Scottish politics, as well as covering the building itself. If you have the legs for it, walk up the adjacent Arthur's Seat hill for a bird's-eye view of the Parliament and the rest of the city.
Scotland EH1 1RE
Tel: 44 131 225 9442
An imposing stone edifice punctuated by stained-glass windows, St. Giles' Cathedral looms over surrounding buildings on the Royal Mile, and its spire is a dominant feature of the city's skyline. Founded in 1120 as a small Catholic church, additions were made over the years until, by the mid-16th century, it held 50 altars. John Knox, leader of the Scottish Reformation, broke St. Giles' ties with Rome in 1560, and today, St Giles' is considered the mother church of Presbyterianism.