Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland since 1437, is one of the most visited cities in the United Kingdom. Stunning sceneries, well-preserved historic architecture, and a thrilling cultural life are just some of the reasons why this stunning built landscape attracts thousands of visitors each year. A recent study has crowned Edinburgh as the most liveable city of the United Kingdom, thanks to its exquisite mix of cultural life, good employment opportunities, high educational level and opportunities for its residents. Nevertheless, the city’s dramatic architectural beauty plays a considerably relevant role in making this built environment so desirable. Even a first glance would be able to make everyone fall in love with Edinburgh… but let’s go deeper and adventure in the narrow streets of the Old Town, enjoy a time for tea in an elegant New Town salon and let’s have a stroll down the Princes Street Gardens.

Edinburgh, view from the Castle by Giulia Falovo

Edinburgh, view from the Castle Picture Courtesy: Giulia Falovo

Edinburgh is well known for being more than one city in once: with less than 500.000 residents, it is one of the less inhabited capitals of Europe, that offers a remarkable diversity of landscapes, stratification of historic periods and natural/artificial areas. Despite its great diversity in an incredibly small surface, Edinburgh’s sense of unity was worth the inscription on the World Heritage List in 1995 for representing, indeed, the “remarkable juxtaposition of two distictive urban phenomena” (UNESCO nomination dossier, 1995). The official name of the World Heritage Site is, indeed, the “Old and New Towns of Edinburgh”.

The Old and the New Towns of Edinburgh are geographically separated but historically connected, and today they form an inseparable whole. Dark, narrow and mysterious the first, spacious, elegant and classy the second: they are the representation of two distinctive historical periods, expression of the era’s needs and aspirations each one influencing the other.

View of Edinburgh's Old Town architecture, copyright by David Monniaux

View of Edinburgh’s Old Town architecture, copyright by David Monniaux

The Old Town of Edinburgh represents the city’s first urban development; Edinburgh’s first urbanization started from the Castle, the oldest building in town, which gave to the city its current name (Edinburgh derives from Din Eidyn, which means “hillfort”, further developed in Eidyn-burgh), and further developed down the area that today is called the Royal Mile. Edinburgh’s natural topography allowed the Old Town to develop down the castle hill with large open spaces at each side, making of the castle a perfect fortress; today, this topography that made building nearby the Old Town so difficult, together with the decision to maintain the Princes Street gardens as a natural area, has helped to preserve this medieval cityscape almost intact. From the more modern part of the city, the view of the Royal Mile’s Old Town is simply astonishing. The distinctive characteristic of the Old Town is the visual homogeneity of its architecture, making it a unique historic urban landscape: the vulcanic stone, originating from the same castle hill, gives to the narrow building their mysterious look, and the lack of space made urban development take place by erecting the buildings very close to each other and with an unusual height for the era, creating several narrow alleys full of legends and stories. The structure of the Old Town reminds of a “fishbone”, with a central axis and several alleys (closes, as they are named) as accesses. Once people will go through one of the Edinbugh closes, the Royal Mile will uncover its beauty like a secret garden.

From the more modern part of the city, the view of the Royal Mile’s Old Town is simply astonishing. The distinctive characteristic of the Old Town is the visual homogeneity of its architecture, making it a unique historic urban landscape: the vulcanic stone, originating from the same castle hill, gives to the narrow building their mysterious look, and the lack of space made urban development take place by erecting the buildings very close to each other and with an unusual height for the era, creating several narrow alleys full of legends and stories. The structure of the Old Town reminds of a “fishbone”, with a central axis and several alleys (closes, as they are named) as accesses. Once people will go through one of the Edinbugh closes, the Royal Mile will uncover its beauty like a secret garden.

View of the edinburgh New Town from the Castle, copyright by Alving Leong

View of the New Town from the Castle, copyright by Alving Leong

By the end of the 17th century, the Old Town became overcrowded and out of control; in order to prevent the wealthy citizens of Edinburgh to massively move to London, a first idea of New Town was conceived in order to give living place to the new merchants class arose during Edinburgh’s englightment. The architect James Craig won the public call for the New Town’s design; the architect managed to integrate the new development in the area’s topography by planning, to the other side of the Nor Loch depression (today the Princes Street gardens) a simple, geometrical axial grid, with two garden squares at each side. Geometry, light, space and elegance became the defining characters of this new area, with some of the finest expressions of Georgian architecture in the United Kingdom. The creation of the New Town stimulated a redevelopment and restoration of the Old Town to improve the living conditions, and now they represent two of the most desired areas to live in the city.

The New Town's elegant Georgian architecture. Copyright by www.rettie.co.uk

The New Town’s elegant Georgian architecture. Copyright by www.rettie.co.uk

The two towns of Edinburgh are connected one to another by the North Bridge, connecting Princes Street and the Royal Mile. They look indeed like two separated entities, but the city’s history explains us how one could not exist without the other, and vice versa.

The city’s outstanding architectural heritage is managed by a joint mission of the city council, non-governmental associations and residents’ associations, a shared governance which – perhaps – is the secret behind the outstanding preservation of this magnificent city.

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Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland since 1437, is one of the most visited cities in the United Kingdom. Stunning sceneries, well-preserved historic architecture, and a thrilling cultural life are just some of the reasons why this stunning built landscape attracts thousands of visitors each year. A recent study has crowned...