Lay of the Land
“This is a city of shifting light, of changing skies, of sudden vistas. A city so beautiful it breaks the heart again and again.”~Alexander McCall Smith
Edinburgh’s distinctive geography makes it difficult to lose one’s way. Castle Rock and Arthur’s Seat, two impressive crags that dominate the city’s southern skyline, are vestiges of a 350 million-year-old volcanic system eroded by glaciers during subsequent ice ages. They are visible from most points throughout central Edinburgh, and their summits offer magnificent panoramic views of the city. While Castle Rock is crowned by Edinburgh Castle, the city’s formidable medieval fortress and its most iconic landmark, Arthur’s Seat is now a protected park whose trails are popular with urban hillwalkers. From its southern heights, Edinburgh extends seaward toward the port district of Leith and the Forth of Firth (the estuary of the River Firth), which serves as the city’s northern boundary before widening eastward into the North Sea.
Edinburgh’s historic center is divided into two distinct areas collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The original fortified city, which straddles Castle Rock’s gently sloping eastern ridge, is known as the Old Town. A ribbon of landscaped marshland separates it from the New Town, which was developed in the 18th century as part of a campaign to alleviate the Old Town’s overcrowded medieval tenements. Old Town’s elaborate web of narrow cobblestoned closes (or alleyways) is still home to the city’s preeminent academic, religious and civic institutions, including the University of Edinburgh, St. Giles’ Presbyterian Cathedral and the Scottish Parliament. Many of these are situated along the Royal Mile, the Old Town’s lively tourist thoroughfare, which runs along the crest of the ridge, from Edinburgh Castle down to Holyrood House, the ancestral home of the Stuarts and the official residence of the royal family in Scotland. Unlike the Old Town, the Georgian New Town is characterized by wide streets arranged in a tidy grid. Upon its completion, the initiative was considered a triumph of enlightened urban planning. Longstanding local establishments such as Jenners department store and the Balmoral Hotel are situated on New Town’s bustling Princes Street, where shoppers enjoy unobstructed castle views.