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Edinburgh is one of the world's greatest cities. Its dramatic site, extraordinary architectural heritage and cultural vigour soon charm all visitors. The crowded tenements of the historic Old Town contrast with the orderly grid of the Georgian New Town, which in most cities would be a historic enclave by itself. Backdrops include glimpses of the Firth of Forth, the Pentland Hills and classically draped Calton Hill.
Edinburgh is best seen on foot, and the best place to start is Edinburgh Castle: beautiful, romantic and a reminder of the city's bloody past. Its foundations date back as far as 850 BC, and the oldest surviving section dates from 1130. From the 11th to 16th centuries, the castle was the symbolic seat of Scottish royalty, and today it's still home to the army's Scottish Division. It sits at the western end of the Royal Mile, which runs down to the more comfortable royal accommodation at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. This thoroughfare contains an extraordinarily intact streetscape, which has survived from the 16th and 17th centuries. A walk down some of the alleys that run off it is to rediscover the vital city of that time. Several museums and restored town houses in this vicinity give fascinating insights into urban life of the 17th century.
Nearby Calton Hill is worth climbing for its superb views and romantic monuments dating from the Enlightenment, when the city was known as the 'Athens of the North'. Before you walk down into the New Town, have a look at Greyfriars Kirk, site of the signing of the National Covenant in 1638. The graveyard was the backdrop for one of Disney's most heart-rending films, Greyfriars Bobby, the story (based on legend) of a little Skye terrier which held vigil for 14 years over the grave of his master.
New Town lies to the north, separated by the sunken railway line and Princes St Gardens, which feature the supremely Gothic Sir Walter Scott Monument. Georgian order and elegance are reflected in New Town's beautiful squares, circuses and terraces. The National Gallery of Scotland has an impressive collection of European art, while the pageant of Scottish history can be seen at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
Edinburgh has a rich and varied cultural life, from the Tattoo to the International and Fringe festivals. These are times to be sure to book accommodation well in advance. B&B accommodation is one of the best ways to get an insight into the daily life of Edinburgh's residents. There is a handy concentration north of New Town and in the suburb of Newington, south of the city centre. Numerous youth hostels are sprinkled on the city's outskirts. Surprisingly, the Royal Mile has numerous good-value and enjoyable eateries, with everything from Singaporean satays to traditional Scottish cuisine.
The Inner Hebrides, off the western coast of Scotland, are the country's most accessible and bewitching islands.
Jura lies near the coast of Strathclyde, yet it is magnificently wild and lonely, with desolate walks, breast-shaped mountains (the Paps of Jura), a whisky distillery and a lethal offshore whirlpool its prime attractions. Islay is the most southerly of the Inner Hebridean islands, and is best known for its smoky, single-malt whisky. The Museum of Islay Life in Port Charlotte relates the island's long history, while the 8th-century Kildaton Cross is one of the finest surviving Celtic crosses. Castle ruins and over 250 species of birds add to its attractions.
Further north, Taransay, where BBC TV marooned a community of volunteers for all of 2000, is one of the Inner Hebrides' most remote islands, an unspoilt place of cliffs, rocky coastlines and sandy bays. Grey seals and wild goats are the most commonly glimpsed inhabitants. Mull is one of the most popular islands, with superb mountain scenery, castles, a railway and small-town charm. The island's capital, Tobermory, is a particularly picturesque fishing port. The spiritual retreat of Iona, an early Christian centre founded by St Columba, lies off the southwestern tip of Mull. Further north, Coll has a popular walking trail, good sunshine, lots of wind, few people, two castles and a bird sanctuary. Tiree, just southwest, is a low-lying island with beautiful, sandy beaches and one of the best sunshine records in Britain.
Skye attracts lots of visitors and has very changeable weather. However, the large, rugged and convoluted island is ringed by spectacularly scenic coastal walks, and inland the rocky Cuillins attract serious climbers.
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