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What Is Edinburgh Known for & Famous For?

Edinburgh, or ‘Athens of the North’ or ‘Britain’s Other Eye,’ like Scottish people like to call it, is a city steeped in history and one of the most lively cities in Europe. As Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh offers many attractions to visitors and residents alike, and It’s famous worldwide for several reasons.

Edinburgh is known and famous for its rich history, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and historic landmarks dotting its skyline and is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Edinburgh also abounds with tales of witches and Arthurian legends surrounding its rugged charm.

The city is small and steep but is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe. Picturesque green hills, a touch of the blue sea, rustic buildings, and cobbled streets are some of the great sites that give the city its charm. Read on to learn about other things that make Edinburgh famous worldwide.

1. UNESCO World Heritage Site

Edinburgh was accredited as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1995 to recognize the striking contrast in the city’s impressive architecture and streetscape, seamlessly blending a touch of the medieval Old Town with the buzz and splendor of the Georgian New Town.

UNESCO World Heritage Site accreditation is equivalent to a ‘premier league’ of tourist attractions. This status now puts Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns and others in Scotland at par with the Great Wall of China and Peru’s Machu Picchu.

Therefore, a World Heritage Site should have an Outstanding Universal Value statement listing what’s unique about the city and should be preserved. Edinburgh’s Statement of Outstanding Universal Value lists the city’s iconic skyline and the contrast between the broad streets of Georgian New Town and the Old Town’s narrow winding closes.

2. The Old and New Town

Edinburgh has two remarkably distinct areas: the Old Town, defined by medieval fortresses, and the New Town, whose neoclassical development has influenced Europe’s urban planning since the 18th century.

Edinburgh’s Old Town stretches from the Edinburgh Castle, imposing the city’s skyline from the hilltop down to the palace of Holyrood.

The Old Town shows the centuries-old tradition of building narrow plots separated by closes to create the world’s tallest buildings at the time. It features 16th and 17th-century nobles’ and merchants’ houses and other important public buildings like the Canongate Tolbooth.

On the other hand, the New Town, founded between 1767 and 1890, features a collection of Georgian townhomes lining the elegant broad avenues and open squares. 

Chain stores dot Princess Street while upscale boutiques line the infamous George Street. The wealthy and office workers unwind in chic hotel bars and cocktail lounges.

3. Old Town’s Gothic and Renaissance Architecture Styles

The Gothic architecture style offers the beauty of flying buttresses, pointed arches, and ribbed roofing vaults. It is also famous for its stained glass and ornate decoration in buildings’ interiors.

Renaissance architecture style originated from Italy and succeeded the Gothic style. The desire for classical orders, mathematical symmetry, accurate height and width ratios, and harmony took over the Renaissance buildings.

If you walk down the narrow winding closes of Edinburgh’s Old Town, you’ll see pediments, columns, domes, and arches reflecting all building types. From the aisle down from Edinburgh Castle to the Holyrood Palace, Gothic and Renaissance architecture rooks. You’d think you’ve walked into a millennium-old town, and sure it’s 1000 years old.

4. New Town’s Neoclassical and Georgian Period Architecture

The New Town is a collection of seven new towns featuring well-planned ensembles of world-class, neoclassical buildings integrated with townscape green areas and extensive private and public open spaces.

The names of renowned architects, including Willian Playfair (1790-1857) and Sir Willian Chambers (1723-1796), come up when you mention the New Town’s neoclassical and Georgian period buildings.

Georgian period buildings feature chimneys, attic rooms, wrought iron balconies, pilasters, and balustrades. This style dominates the New Town that stretches from the north of Princes Street.

5. Sandstone Buildings

Improvement in Scotland’s rail and canal transportation systems in the 1890s allowed for the transportation of quarried stones. These improvements caused an upsurge of red sandstone buildings, which line up every street corner today.

These buildings include the iconic King’s Theater, Caledonian Hotel, and Lauriston Fire Station. Now you have an answer to why people always ask why Britain has red brick houses.

6. The Underground City

The Old City isn’t the oldest part of town, there’s a more historical part, and it’s the Underground City.

Builders initially designed the underground city’s vaults to provide storage for tradespeople and merchants, but they later abandoned them when leakages led to wet supplies.

No one discovered the subsurface chambers and halls until the 80s, and it took another decade to excavate them fully.

Today tourists enjoy taking a tour of the labyrinthine passages of the city, and the warning of possibly stumbling across a ghost adds flavor to it all.

7. Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle takes an imposing stand over the city skyline from the hilltop. It’s a historic fortress with a fair share of invasions and sieges. The castle’s ramparts offer panoramic views of the city, and tourists enjoy Edinburgh’s world-famous military tattoo every august.

Touring the castle will glimpse the fierce battles and daring night sieges against the English. Make sure you enter the Great Hall, where they once held royal ceremonies over centuries, and walk through the great salons to feel a sense of royalty and prestige.

8. Holyrood Palace

The Holyrood Palace, or Holyroodhouse as some may call it, is the British monarch’s official residence in Scotland. Founded in 1128 at the end of the Royal Mile, Holyrood Palace has a special place in Scotland’s History.

Today, the palace hosts key national celebrations in Scotland, such as the Queen’s Holyrood Week, which runs from June to July each year. It’s open to the public all year round, and during this event, Her Majesty attends several events to celebrate and honor Scottish culture and history.

9. Scott Monument

The Scott Monument is a Victorian Gothic monument towering proudly in the Princes Street Gardens and is one of Edinburgh’s iconic landmarks. It was dedicated to Sir Walter Scott and has become a must-visit for tourists thronging the city and locals alike.

You can learn more about Scott, his life, legacy, and the memorial built in his honor at the monument’s Museum Room. You’ll also access and listen to sound extracts of Scott’s writings at the Museum Room.

10. Princes Street

Princes Street is an iconic thoroughfare and a major shopping street in central Edinburgh. It’s a 1.2km (0.75 miles) southernmost street in New Town, linking Leith Street in the east and Lothian Road to the west.

The street took its name from King George III’s princes in 1767. In stark contrast to what it was then, today, Princes Street serves as Edinburgh’s primary retail strip featuring sprawling department stores and high-end boutiques.

Intriguing edifices from the Gothic times along the street showcase the city’s electric architecture.

11. Leith

Leith is a port area in the North of Edinburgh resting at the mouth of the Water of Leith. The area served an Ediburgh’s port for hundreds of years, with the first harbor dating back to the 14th century.

This vibrant area is full of trendy drinking spots, delicious delis, and restaurants featuring Scotland’s top chefs. Each year, it hosts tourists from all walks of life, making each visit unique.

The 5-star Royal Yacht Britannia, a former ocean-going royal residence, is one of the fascinating attractions in Leith.

12. Unicorns

Don’t raise your hopes yet. I know you’ve been longing to see a real unicorn, and unfortunately, you’re not going to see one in Edinburgh. The unicorn remains a mythical creature, and Scotland went for it as its national animal.

Unicorn symbols and paintings are everywhere in Edinburgh, from engravings on buildings to statues. Some tourists take it further by counting how many unicorns they can see while walking down the Royal Mile.

13. Art Festivals

Edinburgh Art Festival has been Scotland’s and UK’s largest annual visual art celebration since 2004. It attracts over a quarter million visitors through its 45 exhibitions held across 30 venues.

The festival brings together the finest Scottish artists and other artists worldwide. The festival is free to attend and includes guided tours, artist talks, exhibitions, screenings, and performances.

14. The Royal Mile

The Royal Mile is a street stretching across the heart of the Old Town. On one end, it leads to Edinburgh Castle and the other to the Holyrood Palace, the official Queen’s residence when she visits Scotland.

The Royal Mile was Edinburgh’s main street for centuries and remains a popular throughway. You can stumble across shops, pubs, and restaurants along this mile-long road (1.6km).

Visiting this bustling street during the day can be a perfect way to start your tour of Edinburgh. And wherever you look, there’s a historic monument, including St Giles’ Cathedral and Edinburgh Castle overlooking the hilltop.

15. Scotch Whisky

Scotland is synonymous with the Royal Scotch Whisky, known as Scotch. It’s made from malted grains or barley or a blend of the two and left to age in an oak barrel for at least three years. The whiskey is patented: no other can be Scotch unless made in Scotland.

When you tour Edinburgh next, attend the interactive Scotch Whiskey tour that takes you through the production process, from the flavors and tastes to the final product. You can also try locally sourced foods like the infamous Haggis at the Amber restaurant.

16. A Knighted Penguin

Brigadier Sir Nils Olav III is the world’s only knighted penguin living at Edinburgh Zoo. The penguin became a ‘sir’ in 2008 and was promoted to the rank of brigadier in 2016 after the Norwegian King Harald V approved his knighthood.

The king penguin’s role is to inspect the Norwegian Guard when they visit Edinburgh’s Scottish capital.

17. Arthur’s Seat

If you aren’t an avid hiker, Arthur’s Seat might not be the best for you. Nonetheless, it offers a panoramic view across the city.

Standing at over 820 ft (250m), it would take about an hour to get to the top. The word goes around that it took its name from King Arthur, but that remains a myth.

18. University of Edinburgh

The University of Edinburgh is one of the world’s top 20 universities and has been a global powerhouse since its inception in 1583.

The university boasts Nobel Prize Winners, space explorers, and prime ministers as notable alumni. And did you know you can study psychokinesis at the University of Edinburgh?

19. Haggis

Edinburgh is famous for tasty foods, including Haggis, a traditional dish of minced mutton, local herbs, and oats.

You can order Haggis from various Edinburgh cafes and restaurants or wait until January during the burning night festival when it’s time to serve the traditional Haggis.

20. Ceilidh Dance

Ceilidh, pronounced as Kay-ley, is a Gaelic dance popular in Scotland and Ireland. It features a live band, and an MC called a caller, who teaches beginners the dance’s unique moves.

Dancers begin in groups of eight, and it has become popular during special occasions like anniversaries and weddings.

21. Scotland’s Most Famous and Loyal Watchdog

You may have heard of a sweet story of the dog that guarded its master’s grave. Yes, that’s Edinburgh’s loyal watchdog.

Gardener John Gray and his dog Bobby were sighted in Edinburgh frequently. When John died of tuberculosis, Bobby guarded his master’s grave for 14 years until he died.

A sculpture of him was erected opposite his master’s grave at Greyfriars Kirkyard to honor Bobby. And today, the statue is what is known as Edinburgh’s loyal watchdog.

22. National Museum of Scotland

The National Museum of Scotland arose in 2006 by merging the new Museum of Scotland and the Royal Scottish Museum. It houses Scottish antiquities and other collections of national cultural and historical importance.

The National Museum of Scotland houses 12 million items, from art and culture to design and technology. It hosts regular events, such as a scheduled interview with an astronaut or fashion shows.

Entry to the National Museum of Scotland is free.

23. Athens of the North

Edinburgh restyled itself as the ‘Athens of the North’ in the 18th century. While the rest of the world busied itself with the industrial revolution, Edinburgh opted to contribute to medicine, philosophy, literature, economics, and other academic pursuits. And this fits well with the effect Athens had in ancient times.

It didn’t stop here—some architects inspired by this cultural revolution designed Greek-inspired buildings to bring the city to light. Walking down the street of the Old Town, you’ll quickly spot Greek-style pillars and ornate designs.

24. Grave Robbers

This feature explores the dark yet fascinating side of Edinburgh. Throughout the 16th to 18th century, Britain saw a sharp rise in grave robberies, and yes, it sounds like it: people began to remove corpses from their graves.

The advancing anatomy research at the time in medical schools, including Edinburgh’s Royal College, increased the demand for fresh corpses. Grave robberies became rampant.

However, Edinburgh was unfortunate to have two notorious grave robbers, Hare and Burke. These criminals took things a notch higher; they resorted to killing their victims instead of waiting until they died naturally. Now you know the story of the grave Robbers of Edinburgh.

25. Ghosts

A city so historical should have its ghosts. And it’s true for Edinburgh. It’s one of the most haunted cities in the world.

A word goes around that former prisoners haunt Edinburgh Castle. Things get even juicier in Tolbooth Tavern, where a resident ghost supposedly knocks off wall hangings and pushes drinks off tables.

Final Thoughts

It’s impossible to mention Britain and fail to mention Edinburgh city. The city is a legend and one of the most visited sites in the UK.

It’s known and famous for its historic sites, Gothic-style buildings, rich culture, and breathtaking townscape. And, of course, the ghosts.