Edinburgh is the cultural heart of Scotland. Once a medieval powerhouse stretching below its mighty castle, today it's one of Europe's most lively and festive cities.
Scotland's capital has two distinct halves: a medieval old town and an 18th-century new town. Weather blows in and out — bring your sweater and be prepared for rain. Locals say the bad weather is one of the disadvantages of living so close to England.
This city was a wonder in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was famed for its skyscrapers — they say the first anywhere — but also for its filth. Four hundred years ago, Edinburgh was nicknamed “Auld Reekie.”
Today Auld Reekie's streets are dirty from being dug up. A new tram system is under construction, and skeptical residents seem to regret their huge investment — up to $870 million. Originally scheduled to open this year, its projected 2012 opening could be pushed back to 2014.
High above the construction sits the fortified birthplace of the city — Edinburgh Castle. While the castle has been both a fort and a royal residence since the 11th century, most of the buildings today are from its more recent use as a military garrison. Come here to see Scotland's crown jewels, Royal Palace, Scottish National War Memorial, St. Margaret's Chapel and excellent National War Museum (www.edinburghcastle.gov.uk).
The castle is the beginning of Edinburgh's Royal Mile — one of Europe's most interesting historic walks, which leads through the old town down to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The Royal Mile is actually 200 yards longer than a mile — and every inch is packed with shops, cafes and lanes leading to tiny squares.
By poking down the many side alleys, you'll find a few surviving rough edges of an old town well on its way to becoming a touristic mall. Be glad you're here now; in a few years it'll be all tartans and shortbread, with tourists slaloming through postcard racks.