Scotland has made headlines lately with voters rejecting independence and choosing instead to remain part of the United Kingdom. Visitors will naturally be curious about the centuries of history that led to Scotland's distinct culture. And a visit to the country's capital, Edinburgh, with its historic 16th century tenements and grandiose 19th century town houses, is a tale of two cities in one.
More than 600 years of history seep from every pore of Edinburgh's volcanic foundations. Tales of genius and enlightenment are mingled with those of body-snatchers, witches and revolutionaries.
The Old Town, dominated by the imposing medieval battlements of Edinburgh Castle, runs downhill along the Royal Mile stretching from the castle to the Queen's official Scottish residence of Holyrood Palace.
Exploring the narrow lanes and footpaths between some of the world's tallest 16th- and 17th-century merchants' houses feels like a return to the days of Daniel Defoe, the 18th-century author of Robinson Crusoe and English spy, or the 19th-century murderers Burke and Hare.
In contrast, the neoclassical New Town area built between 1767 and 1890 is a masterpiece of city planning, a Unesco World Heritage Site and a monument to the Age of Enlightenment which put Edinburgh at the heart of intellectual and scientific accomplishments
Edinburgh is full of free museums within a short walk of each other, including the National Museum of Scotland and its vast array of artifacts from across the world.
Nearby the Edinburgh Writers Museum celebrates the lives of famous Scots writers such as Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson while the Museum of Childhood, Museum of Edinburgh and The People's Story provide an informative and entertaining history of the city and its people.
For those with a slightly more macabre interest, the Police Information Center and its museum of crime contains a business-card holder made from skin of infamous body-snatcher William Burke.
In addition to numerous museums, Edinburgh is also home to several free art galleries, including the Scottish National Gallery in the middle of the city; the National Portrait Gallery and the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art. Old Masters sit alongside the work of some of the world's leading Impressionists and Post-Impressionists in addition to temporary exhibitions, which create a smorgasbord of culture for art lovers.
3GO FOR A WALK
Edinburgh is ideal to explore independently but for those who prefer a guide there are a couple of operators, such as Sandeman's Free Walking Tour and Edinburgh Free Walking Tours, which take visitors along the Royal Mile. Typical routes take in the views of Edinburgh Castle and St. Giles Cathedral, which has over 200 memorials to notable Scots, and the historic Grassmarket and Cowgate areas.
No walk would be complete without a visit to Greyfriars Kirkyard and the statue of Greyfriar's Bobby at the corner of Candlemaker's Row, celebrating one of Edinburgh's most famous tales about the tiny 19th-century skye terrier who spent 14 years guarding the grave of his owner.
For the more energetic, Arthur's Seat, a dormant volcano which sits 251 meters (825 feet) above sea level, offers a unique vantage point. No other city in the world has an extinct volcano in its limits and as the highest point in the 640-acre (260-hectare) Royal Park adjacent to Holyrood Palace, it also offers a chance to explore the remains of a 2,000-year-old hill fort.
At the foot of the Royal Mile, in the shadow of Arthur's Seat, is the award-winning building of the Scottish Parliament. Designed by Catalonian architect Enric Miralles, it has been hailed as both a modern architectural marvel and an over-priced blot on the landscape. You can make up your own mind with a free guided tour and access to a permanent exhibition about the Parliament or even sit in on the debates and watch democracy in action.