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An hour in Edinburgh - history-themed things to do if your time in the capital is short

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Got just an hour to spend in Edinburgh, perhaps whilst waiting for a train or stopping off en-route to elsewhere? Make the most of your sixty minutes in Scotland’s capital city with our hand-picked history ideas.

As one of the world’s great capital cities, Edinburgh’s rich history makes it an ideal centre for a history holiday. You could spend a month here and still only have scratched the surface of what’s on offer. But even if your time in Edinburgh’s limited, you can still enjoy a little of the city’s history.

Read on and take your pick of ideas – hopefully one or two of these will inspire you to plan further adventures on a longer visit…

1.Scott Monument

If you’re feeling energetic, an hour is enough time to climb the 288 steps to the top level of the Scott Monument, a Victorian tribute to the author Sir Walter Scott. The 200-foot tower offers great views of the city via a series of viewing platforms,

If you prefer to stay on the ground, you can enjoy spotting as many as you can of the 64 statues that are visible from the ground (another four can only be seen from the tower itself) and admire the 30-ton statue of Scott that took six years to complete. His beloved dog Maida can be seen beside him.

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2. Princes Street Gardens

Just across North Bridge outside the station is Princes Street Gardens, an attractive area of green space with fantastic views of Edinburgh’s Old Town, the castles and Arthur’s Seat.

The 37 acre park is home to several statues and monuments including the Ross Fountain (a favourite with photographers), the Scottish American Monument: The Call 1914, and the ten-foot tall marble Allan Ramsay statue.

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Edinburgh New Town3. New Town

Edinburgh’s New Town, begun in 1767, is a delightful place to wander, with its beautifully proportioned Georgian and neo-Classical buildings. Princes Street is perhaps the best known New Town thoroughfare, but there are many others just beyond, including Charlotte Square, George Street and Queen Street.

See where Sir Walter Scott once lived at 39 North Castle Street and explore the re-creation of a typical Georgian Town House at National Trust for Scotland’s Georgian House attraction.

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Edinburgh Castle esplanade4. Castle esplanade

Although a trip to Edinburgh Castle would be difficult to achieve within an hour, a brisk walk across town will bring you to the castle esplanade from where you can admire the castle and enjoy views down the Royal Mile, across to the Firth of Forth and over to Arthur’s Seat.

Look out for the witches well set into the wall of the esplanade, built to commemorate the 300+ women burned at the stake for witchcraft.

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5 Royal Mile

The Royal Mile is the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town and runs from the castle esplanade down to Palace of Holyroodhouse. It is just a few minutes walk from the train station and is jammed full of quirky buildings and monuments. Find out more here.

Look out for the sanctuary stone near Holyrood Palace, a shiny brass letter S on the ground that marked the boundary of a refuge for those seeking to escape debt collectors. Halfway down the Royal Mile is John Knox, which has links to the firebrand preacher, and you can also see the Heart of Midlothian mosaic on the pavement close to St Giles Cathedral. This marks the site of a tolbooth prison (demolished in 1817) where executions took place. 

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Edinburgh rooftops6. A bird’s eye view

If you want to see the city from above, cut across town to National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street.

Take the lift from the Kingdom of Scots gallery on level one to the seventh floor and you’ll emerge onto a rooftop gallery that offers stunning views down the Royal Mile and over to the castle.

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Greyfriars Kirkyard Edinburgh7. Greyfriars kirkyard

This historic kirkyard on Candlemaker Row is the final resting place of several notable Scots, including chemist Joseph Black, philanthropist Mary Erskine and poet William McGonagall. Greyfriars Kirk is an active place of worship that holds regular services and events and also home to a small museum.

Outside the kirkyard you’ll find a monument to Greyfriars Bobby, the faithful Skye terrier who is said to have stood guard beside his master’s grave for fourteen years – his owner John Gray is buried in the kirkyard.

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National Records of Scotland8. National Records of Scotland

Scotland’s national archive could hardly be more convenient for Edinburgh Waverley station, located at 2 Princes Street, just across from the station entrance/exit by the Balmoral hotel. You can carry out family history research and historical research at the ScotlandsPeople Centre and in the historical search room, which are both at this address.

Although an hour won’t give you enough time to get down to any research, you’ll be able to visit the pretty Archivists’ garden, planted with 57 plant species that are connected in some way to Scotland’s collective memory – whether places, people or events – including plants associated with birth, death and marriage. There is also a café and shop; in the latter you can pick up leaflets about the various research opportunities offered.

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Queen mary's bathhouse9. Queen Mary’s bath house

Did Mary Queen of Scots actually bathe in the Queen Mary bath house just outside Palace of Holyroodhouse? No one knows for sure, but this diminutive building was once part of a wall that enclosed the King’s Privy Garden at the palace, and so certainly has royal connections. It was perhaps a summer house and so may be been visited by Mary.

You can peek through the nearby gates at a place that has strong Mary Queen of Scots connections – the Palace of Holyroodhouse – read more about it here.

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10.Station monument

And if you’re really pushed for time, why not explore historic Edinburgh Waverley Station? This Victorian railway station still retains many of its period features and the many walkways and platforms offer intriguing glimpses of the city skyline. Look out for the North British Railway War Memorial, listing employees who gave their lives in the World Wars – it’s located near the west end of the south side of the station’s central block.

QUICK LINK: Ten facts you (probably) didn't know about Edinburgh Castle

For more on Edinburgh, visit our travel section.

Images: Queen Mary’s Bath House © Richard Deer, war memorial © Thomas Nugent, NRS © Ron Almog, Greyfriars kirkyard © Kim Traynor, Princes Street Gardens © Dun_Deagh, Georgian Town ©  Eileen Henderson, Gareth Davies, Royal Mile ©  Ian Stannard, rooftop gardens ©  Lis Burke, Martyr's Monument © Kim Traynor

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