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Visit Edinburgh Scotland: Outlander, Harry Potter

From Edinburgh Castle to Arthur's Seat, the capital of Scotland has something for everyone.

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Looking for some reasons to visit Edinburgh, Scotland?

Eight is Enough: 8 Reasons To Visit Edinburgh, Scotland

Some people simply love Edinburgh for its pubs and restaurants — the fabulously fresh fish ’n chips, the savory sweet potato pies, the world-renowned Scotch whiskey. But don’t get too comfortable or you’ll miss out on the attractions that make Edinburgh a treasure trove for tourists. Here’s a sampler:

1. THE FREE WALKING TOUR

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Walking Tour

There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but there are free walking tours of Edinburgh’s Old Town. Of course, you’re expected to leave a tip, but nobody’s holding a gun over your head. They don’t have to, because odds are you’ll want to leave your tour guide a tip — and a generous one. These red-T’d, freelance guides are carefully selected. Humorous and knowledgeable, they could be moonlighting as actors or teachers, and some of them are.

They will escort you to attractions like St. Giles’ Cathedral (Scotland’s version Westminster Abbey). In the parking lot there, they will have you stand on parking space #23, under which John Knox, founder of the Church of Scotland, is, uh … “parked.” Take the tour and you’ll find out why!

Starting hourly, it’s a roughly 2.5-hour tour, with time for a coffeehouse break. The guides will acclimate you to historic Edinburgh, pointing out and providing scuttlebutt about stellar sites like Edinburgh Castle, the Covenanters’ Prison, the Hub, the National Museum of Scotland, and much more.

If you’re spending several days in Edinburgh, the free tour is a great place to start. By exposing you to so many attractions, it’s likely to give you a good fix on where you’ll be wanting to go in the days to follow.

2. GREYFRIAR’S BOBBY

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Greyfriar Bobby’s statue in front of the pub that bears his name.

We‘ve all heard that dogs are man’s best friend. One dog definitely proved it — and in the process he became an entire town’s best friend.

The dog was a Skye terrier named Bobby. He lived in Edinburgh. For two years, he rarely strayed from the side of his owner, night watchman John Gray. Bobby would have done anything for John, but he couldn’t cure his master’s tuberculosis. On February 15, 1858, Bobby’s best friend died. And guess who led the funeral procession to John’s grave at Greyfriar’s Cemetery? — the same loyal companion who remained at the gravesite after everyone else had left. Bobby wouldn’t budge until the caretaker made him leave.

But it didn’t end there. Bobby kept coming back. Rain, sleet or snow, nothing could keep him away. The townsfolk finally realized this was no ordinary dog or dog/master relationship. So they built a shelter for Bobby near the gravesite, and, as Bobby’s renown grew, so did his name — he became known as Greyfriars Bobby.

Man’s Best Friend

For 16 years, Greyfriars Bobby guarded the grave, leaving only for lunch at 1 p,m each day, when the cannon was (and still is) fired at Edinburgh Castle.  Crowds would gather to watch him scurry off to the pub where he had hung out with his master. But after being fed, Bobby scurried back “home.”

When he died in 1872, he was buried just a tennis ball’s throw from the grave he guarded so faithfully in Greyfriar’s Cemetery (or Kirkyard, as they say in Scotland). But today, Bobby lives on … in the pub that bears his name, in the statue that stands before that pub, in the two motion pictures that tell his story, and in the hearts of the people of Edinburgh.

3. OUTLANDER TOURS

If you follow the popular series on STARZ, you’re probably anxious to go back in time just like Claire Randall did and follow the romantic paths she took with Jamie. In fact, many people are taking these paths. That’s why there are now official Outlander tours that cover virtually all of the series film locations in Scotland.

Some of those locations are right in Edinburgh. Jamie’s print shop is in the Old Town section at Bakehouse Close (“close” is what they call alleyways in Scotland). That’s where he reconnected with Claire after a long separation. Tweeddale Court on the historic Royal Mile was the setting for filming Claire’s reunion with Fergus — have you noticed Claire seems to have an awful lot of reunions? If you’re surprised to recognize Edinburgh’s Signet Library, that’s because Outlander’s producers turned it into the Governor’s Mansion in Jamaica!

You can probably expect to see more Edinburgh locations show up in future episodes of the series. Outlander is based on a series of novels in which (spoiler alert) Jamie and Claire try to persuade Bonnie Prince Charlie to give up his attempts to recapture the crown. This action takes place at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, currently the official residence of Her Majesty the Queen when she visits Scotland.

Outlander’s 10 Best Moments Video

4. ARTHUR’S SEAT

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View of Edinburgh from Arthur’s Seat

Comprising the remains of an extinct volcano and the parkland around it known as Holyrood, Arthur’s Seat is many things: a hill, a mountain, a pleasant country hike, a challenging climb, a breathtaking scenic overlook, and an anomaly — miles of rustic, natural wilderness in the heart of bustling Edinburgh.

Why is it called Arthur’s Seat? No one knows for certain, but it’s not because of the sculpted, throne-like rock that sits atop it. Some believe this area was the site of King Arthur’s fabled Camelot. Other theories abound, including one that suggests it derives from the Scottish Gaelic Àrd-na-Said, (height of arrows), which may have eventually evolved into Archer’s Seat and, finally, Arthur’s Seat. We’ll never know.

822 feet above sea level at its summit, Arthur’s Seat technically doesn’t meet the United Kingdom’s 1000-ft. minimum to be considered a mountain. But depending on which route you take to the top, you may feel like a mountain-climber. Some of the rockier areas near the top become treacherous enough that they’ve been declared officially off-limits. But people of most ages and fitness levels can find a route and regimen that will make Arthur’s Seat worthwhile.

Windy, But Dog Friendly

It’s often very windy at the top, so even in the summer you may want to bring a jacket along.  You can also bring Rover. On an average day, you’ll pass any number of dogs enjoying the climb. Of course, they probably won’t be able to fully appreciate the 360º panoramic views of Edinburgh — but you will. On a clear day, you can see 25 miles to the north and east, beyond the portside area of Leith to the town of North Berwick on an inlet of the North Sea quaintly named the Firth of Forth.

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When the clamor of the pubs and the drone of the bagpipes begin to get your head spinning, head to Arthur’s Seat. It’s the perfect antidote.

5. THE ELEPHANT HOUSE CAFÉ – BIRTHPLACE OF HARRY POTTER

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Birthplace of Harry Potter

Several Edinburgh coffeehouses stake a claim to being the one where J.K. Rowling penned her first Harry Potter book. But Elephant House is the only one that has proof. In fact, they’ve got her on video, being interviewed at the time Harry Potter was on the cusp of becoming a worldwide sensation.

Rowling has lived in Edinburgh for many years and states that, even though it’s unclear in the books that Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is located in Scotland, it’s definitely Scotland in the author’s mind. Rowling’s inspiration for Hogwarts is thought to be George Heriot’s School, located just around the corner from Elephant House. If the other-worldly architecture doesn’t convince you, the fact that it’s a school for orphans (like Harry) probably will.

Gazing at the Castle

But chances are Rowling’s imagination was also intrigued by Edinburgh Castle. If you’re lucky enough to get a window seat in the back room of Elephant House, you can sit where she sat — where many writers now sit — gazing out at Edinburgh Castle for inspiration.

Potter fans from all around the globe pay homage at Elephant House, “signing in” on the walls — and ceilings — of the establishment’s washrooms. Originally, café management painted over the graffiti, but it kept reappearing until management finally gave up. Now it’s part of the café’s mystique. If you can’t find any space on the wall to write your own declaration of fandom, you can still read such gems as, “I’d get over sleazy for Ron Weasley.”

Elephant House can become quite crowded for breakfast and lunch, but if you don’t want to waits, just head over to another coffeehouse, like Artisan Roast. Out in front, you’ll actually find a sign that reads, “J. K. Rowling never wrote here.”

6. STREET PEOPLE

When you think “street people,” you think beggars. But Edinburgh’s street people are a breed onto themselves. An accepted and colorful part of the city’s fabric, you could almost call them enterprising. They stake out a high-traffic location and stick to it. For instance, you might find one always camped out with his dog at the exit of the train station.

They generally accept either cash or food, but prefer cash. With so many tourists walking around with doggie bags from dozens of restaurants, many of the street people wind up with an overabundance of food for themselves — and their dogs.

These folks are extremely polite. You can turn them down and still be sure to hear a “bless you” as you walk past. At the end of the day, you might spot one at a coffeehouse, carrying his shopping bag, counting out his change, and pointing to the largest brownie from the serving tray behind the counter — he wants to make sure he gets the best value for your money!

7. NATIONAL MUSEUM OF SCOTLAND

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Dolly the sheep at National Museum

Don’t let the name fool you. Of course, the history of Scotland is well documented. But start sampling some of the eclectic exhibits here and you’ll think you’re in the National Museum of the World.

You’ll find gargantuan skeletons of Tyrannosaurus Rex and a blue whale, the largest mammal ever to have lived on the planet. Then turn from these natural wonders to one that’s a bit unnatural: Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal — and now the first cloned, posthumously displayed mammal!

Marvel at the outlandish jewelry worn by Mary, Queen of Scots, an outlandish costume worn by Elton John, and an outlandish costume that you can stand behind and seem to be wearing yourself as a friend snaps your picture. Kids love running in the human hamster wheel. And the entire family will enjoy the panoramic views of Edinburgh from the roof terrace.

8. EDINBURGH CASTLE

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Many armies tried to capture this castle.

Cinderella’s Castle at Disney World is fine for Fantasyland, but if you’re more mesmerized by reality, check out Scotland’s premier castle. With over two million visitors a year, it’s the nation’s most popular paid attraction. King David I had it built in 12th century on Castle Rock, which was the result of a volcanic eruption over 340 million years ago.

Edinburgh Castle stands 443 feet above sea level on high cliffs that have made it difficult to attack. But that hasn’t stopped armies from trying. In eleven centuries, it has been under siege 26 times, making it one of the world’s most besieged sites. On several occasions, control of the castle changed hands between the English and the Scots.

Among the castle’s many attractions is the Great Hall, where royalty convened until 1650, when Oliver Cromwell seized the castle and turned the Great Hall into a barracks for his troops. Another highlight, the National War Museum of Scotland, helps you make sense of the various battles for control of the castle. And the Royal Palace, which once housed kings and queens, is home to the Crown Room, repository of Scotland’s crown jewels and the Stone of Destiny, an ancient sandstone block upon which Scottish monarchs sat when they were crowned.

If you want to witness the firing of the One O’clock Gun, be at the castle at 1:00 p.m., when, every day except Sunday, the gun goes off like clockwork. The tradition was established in 1861 with a muzzle-loaded cannon serving as a time signal for ships in the harbor two miles away.

Spend a few hours at Edinburgh Castle and you may never be able to go back to Fantasyland.

–Art Novak

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