Venerable, dramatic EDINBURGH , the showcase capital of Scotland, is a historic, cosmopolitan and cultured city. The setting is wonderfully striking; the city is perched on a series of extinct volcanoes and rocky crags which rise from the generally flat landscape of the Lothians, with the sheltered shoreline of the Firth of Forth to the north. "My own Romantic town", Sir Walter Scott called it, although it was another native author, Robert Louis Stevenson, who perhaps best captured the feel of his "precipitous city", declaring that "No situation could be more commanding for the head of a kingdom; none better chosen for noble prospects."
The centre has two distinct parts, divided by Princes Street Gardens , which run roughly east-west under the shadow of Castle Rock . To the north, the dignified, Grecian-style New Town was immaculately laid out during the Age of Reason, after the announcement of a plan to improve conditions in the city. The Old Town , on the other hand, with its tortuous alleys and tightly packed closes, is unrelentingly medieval, associated in popular imagination with the underworld lore of schizophrenic Deacon Brodie, inspiration for Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde , and the bodysnatchers Burke and Hare. Edinburgh earned its nickname of "Auld Reekie" for the smog and smell generated by the Old Town, which for centuries swam in sewage tipped out of the windows of cramped tenements.
Set on the crag which sweeps down from the towering fairytale castle to the royal Palace of Holyroodhouse , the Old Town preserves all the key reminders of its role as a capital, plus a brand new parliament building rising up opposite the palace. A few hundred yards away a tantalizing glimpse of the wild beauty of Scotland's scenery can be had immediately beyond the palace in Holyrood Park , an extensive area of open countryside dominated by Arthur's Seat , the largest and most impressive of the volcanoes.
In August and early September, around a million visitors flock to the city for the Edinburgh Festival , in fact a series of separate festivals that make up the largest arts extravaganza in the world. Among the many museums, the exciting new National Museum of Scotland houses ten thousand of Scotland's most precious artefacts, while the National Gallery of Scotland and its offshoot, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art , have two of Britain's finest collections of paintings.
On a less elevated theme, the city's distinctive howffs (pubs), allied to its brewing and distilling traditions, make Edinburgh a great drinking city. The presence of three universities , plus several colleges, means that there is a youthful presence for most of the year - a welcome corrective to the stuffiness which is often regarded as Edinburgh's Achilles heel.
Beyond the city centre, the most lively area is Leith , the city's medieval port, whose seedy edge is softened by a series of great bars and upmarket seafood restaurants, along with the presence of the former royal yacht Britannia , now open to visitors.
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