11 places to consider visiting in Edinburgh off the beaten track
From the world’s largest annual international arts festival to the largest literary festival in the world, Scotland’s hilly capital has its pulse on art culture. This is Edinburgh, the world’s first city of literature (UNESCO, 2004). A utopia for book lovers and word smiths, there is no shortage of authors’ drinking holes and writing dens. Edinburgh is home to literary legends like Sherlock Holmes, Treasure Island, Peter Pan, Hyde and Jekyll, Robert Burns’ poetry, and Harry Potter.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Edinburgh has 2 main city sections, New Town and Old Town (with predominantly Victorian buildings in the latter). The Scottish enlightenment, its neoclassical buildings, and unusual Northern Europe topography, has earned Edinburgh the nickname Athens of the North. The second largest financial center in the United Kingdom, and a center of education, Edinburgh is both dynamic and dazzling.
There is bound to be something for everyone in this beautiful city. We have picked out eleven of the more unusual things to see in Edinburgh.
A thriving grain and water mill area before the traditional industry was replaced in the late 19th century, this charming village is nestled in the valley of the Water of Leith. In this picturesque village lies the iconic Well Court and Dean Bridge. Inspired by medieval Scots architecture and built in the 1880s by John R. Findlay, Wells Court boasts a central courtyard lined with community housing of signature red sandstone plaques and an impressive clock tower. Using only traditional materials, the building was restored in 2007 by the owners and Edinburgh World Heritage. A stone’s throw away, you will find art galleries in splendid classical buildings.
Debenham's Library Room
Some come here to shop, some to check out the bizarre interplay of past and present. Nearing the end of the 19th century, Princes Street became the city’s commerce street, lined by hotels and shops. The 1960s saw a large-scale redevelopment proposal replacing the old, grand buildings. Following this abandoned project, in 1978, the buildings’ acquirement by retail giant, Debenham’s, saw the preservation of the palatial exterior and part of the interiors. As a result, Victorian elements can be expected amongst the racks of clothing on sale; the marble bust of the 19th century politician, William Gladstone, rests on an imposing bookcase, and an extravagant processional staircase can be found.
If you have read, or watched, The Da Vinci Code, this might sound familiar. Founded in 1446 by Sir William St Clair, this has been a sculptural fascination since the medieval era. The intricate stone carving that is everywhere – really, on every available surface – makes the Rosslyn Chapel a remarkable mystery. From flora and fauna to saints, sinners, and angels, the proliferation of detail covering the structure is mind-boggling.
The French Institute
Established in 1946 to maintain the alliance between Scotland and France, The French Institute offers language classes, exhibitions, film showings, and cultural events to promote cross-cultural immersion. It also hosts popular wine tastings. One of Scotland’s social reformers in education opportunities, Flora Stevenson, lived here from 1859, and used this building to hold literacy classes for underprivileged girls.
Dundas House Banking Hall
Why visit the Royal Bank’s headquarters in St Andrew Square? The star-spangled dome ceiling of its central hall is reason enough. This celestial overhead also happens to be the inspiration for the banknotes’ design. Previously a posh townhouse, it was eventually sold to the Royal Bank in 1825. Designed by local architect J. Dick Peddie in 1859, 120 glazed star-shaped windows encircle a sunburst window, flooding the working bank with natural lighting. A vault unlike any other – truly a sight to behold.
In the centre of Edinburgh lies an artificial hill which evolved from a provisional causeway. In 1800, when the Bank of Scotland decided it as their headquarters, The Mound was then developed. In the 1830s, The Mound was landscaped, and today, connects the Old Town and New Town. The National Gallery of Scotland was also opened here in 1859. At the foot of the Mound is a precinct where street performers and buskers are often sighted.
General Register House Rotunda
One of Scotland’s finest buildings and home to the city’s public records, the General Register House is often overlooked due to its surrounding developments. Its central room is a rotunda of Roman Pantheon inspiration, with a 24-metre-high neoclassical dome. Containing arcades of books, it was completed in 1789, and remains the place where family ancestry is researched.
Mansfield Traquair Centre
On the East of New Town lies Edinburgh’s Sistine Chapel. Founded in the 1830s by the Catholic Apostolic Church, 40-year-old artist Phoebe Anna Traquair was commissioned to paint the building’s resplendent murals in 1892. Inspired by painters such as William Blake, Fra Angelico, ancient Celtic art and Botticelli, the apocalyptic, biblical murals of oil paint and beeswax took 8 years to complete. In 2003, a conservation of the murals begun, having suffered from the building’s disrepair. After two and a half years, the masterpiece was restored to its former glory.
The National Monument
This semblance of Greek temple ruins is actually a war memorial. Made for Scots who sacrificed themselves in the Napoleonic Wars, it was initially proposed to be a magnificent church in the form of a Parthenon replica. However, after 3 years of construction, funds for the ambitious project was depleted and only 12 of 69 columns were built. It is thus sometimes known as “Edinburgh’s disgrace”, though locals have grown fond of this incomplete monument.
Though nowhere as grand as The National Monument, this memorial is complete. The Covenanters’ memorial is a discreet memorial on the ground of Grassmarket. An elevated stone disc with a martyr’s cross in glazed brick pattern, it commemorates Covenanters who were sentenced to hanging between 1661 and 1688 for rejecting the Stuart kings as heads of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
Central Hall, Tollcross
Before the city had a picture house, cinema exhibitions were held here. Built in 1901 by the Methodist Church, Central Hall is used for many performances, though it is predominantly a church. Likely the most striking building in Tollcross with ancient stained glass of art nouveau style, this place was used for espionages during the Cold War.
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