Edinburgh and its Magnificent Medieval Castle

Edinburgh is without doubt one of Europe's great capital cities. Its stunning location, coupled with a huge range of things to see and do have made it must see destination for millions of visitors, who have been flocking here in steadily increasing numbers.

Scotland's magnificent capital, with its majestic medieval castle and surrounding hills overlooking over the beautiful Firth of Forth, has been enjoying something of a renaissance in recent years. The opening of the controversial new £414 million (yes, really that much!) Scottish Parliament, located at the bottom of the Royal Mile (opposite the Palace of Holyroodhouse, which is The Queen's official residence in Scotland), has attracted enormous interest and is a symbol of the city's new found confidence and prosperity, where house prices rose by 12% in 2006 alone. Visitor accommodation and facilities have also seen major expansion to cope with the growing demand.

Many tourists who are "doing" Europe arrive first in London before heading up to Edinburgh to get a taste of Scotland. As a result, Edinburgh is now the UK's second most popular tourist destination after London. Flights between the two cities take around an hour or between four and five hours by rail. Many visitors use Edinburgh as a base to explore other parts of Scotland. Day trips to Loch Ness (monster hunting) and St Andrews (the home of golf) are possible, or alternatively jump on the train at Waverley for a day trip to Glasgow (takes approximately 50 minutes).

Steeped in history, the life of Edinburgh has grown up around its magnificent medieval castle which sprawls imposingly on top of the core of an extinct volcano, overlooking the town's main shopping thoroughfare, Princes Street. First time visitors to Edinburgh are frequently surprised by the castle's rugged majesty and fabulous setting. Part of Edinburgh's charm it must be said also lies in its compactness, unlike many other larger cities, making it relatively easy to explore on foot.

Edinburgh has been the Scottish capital since the 15th century and has two distinct areas, the Old Town, dominated by the castle; and the neoclassical New Town, whose development from the 18th century onwards has had a far-reaching influence on European urban planning. It is the wonderful juxtaposition of these two contrasting historic areas, each with their own important buildings, that gives the city its own unique character. This was recognised by the award of UNESCO World Heritage status in 1995.

Visitors to Edinburgh soon find themselves spoiled for choice in what to see and do. The castle is of course at the top of most people's list. Its high vantage point means that it has been a defensive site for thousands of years. However, the medieval castle that visitors see today was developed over the last 500-600 years, although the earliest part, St Margaret's Chapel, dates from the 12th century.

The castle houses the Scottish crown jewels (the honours of Scotland) as well as the Stone of Destiny, which was taken from Scone Abbey in 1296 by Edward I of England (otherwise known as Edward Longshanks) and used at Westminster Abbey for nearly 700 years in the coronation of English and latterly British monarchs. To great fanfare it was returned to Scotland on St Andrews Day 1996 and will only be returned to the Abbey for future coronation ceremonies.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, prisoners were held at the castle from a variety of countries, including two American crewmen who sailed with John Paul Jones (Father of the American Navy), and Frenchmen who fought during the Napoleonic wars. Other nationalities held included Spanish, Dutch and Irish.

by James Maxwell