Edinburgh architectural treasures, Scottish capital city buildings, Scotland architecture design

Edinburgh’s Architectural Treasures: From Medieval Castles to Modern Wonders

17 May 2023

Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh, is a city that effortlessly bridges the gap between the past and the present. As you navigate its winding cobblestone streets, you’re treated to a visual feast of architectural styles that span centuries. Each edifice, from medieval castles to modern wonders, narrates a unique story of the city’s historical and cultural evolution.

Edinburgh architectural treasures guide

Edinburgh Castle: A Medieval Fortress in the Sky

Perched atop Castle Rock, an extinct volcanic plug, Edinburgh Castle dominates the city’s skyline. This fortress is an embodiment of Scotland’s turbulent history, having witnessed countless sieges and battles. The oldest part, St Margaret’s Chapel, dates back to the 12th century and is considered the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh. Its simple yet sturdy Romanesque architecture contrasts starkly with the imposing, Gothic-style Great Hall built by James IV in the early 16th century. The intricate wooden roof, adorned with carved stone corbels, is a testament to the craftmanship of the era.

The Royal Mile: A Journey Through Time

As you descend from the castle, you arrive at the Royal Mile. This historic artery connects Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, encapsulating the city’s medieval history within its one-mile stretch. Lined with reformation-era tenements, the Royal Mile’s architectural style is predominantly Scottish Baronial. The tenements’ stone facades, conical turrets, and crow-stepped gables transport you back in time, creating a tangible connection to the city’s past.

Holyrood Palace: A Royal Residence

At the eastern end of the Royal Mile lies the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the King’s official residence in Scotland. Its quadrangular design, featuring a central courtyard surrounded by towers at each corner, exemplifies the grandeur of Renaissance architecture. The Palace’s Great Gallery, adorned with portraits of Scottish monarchs, is an awe-inspiring sight.

Georgian Grandeur: New Town’s Neoclassical Gems

If you journey north of the Royal Mile, you’ll find yourself in Edinburgh’s New Town. Built in the 18th century to alleviate overcrowding in the old town, New Town is a shining example of Georgian architecture. The area’s meticulously planned, symmetrical streets contrast with the organic, labyrinthine layout of the Old Town.

The new town’s grand terraces, crescents, and circuses, adorned with ornate ironwork, offer an elegant display of neoclassical architecture. Iconic landmarks such as the Charlotte Square and St Andrew’s Square, designed by the celebrated architect Robert Adam, further attest to the area’s architectural beauty.

The Scottish Parliament: A Modern Architectural Marvel

Edinburgh’s architectural story isn’t confined to its historic past. The Scottish Parliament building, designed by the late Spanish architect Enric Miralles, is a celebration of modern design principles. Opened in 2004, the parliament building stands out with its abstract, organic shapes inspired by the surrounding landscape. Its innovative use of materials, such as oak, granite, and grass, creates a dialogue between nature and the built environment, embodying Scotland’s commitment to sustainability.

On your way to the Parliament, you might notice a ’30 mph’ sign, a subtle reminder of the harmony between modern city living and the preservation of historical heritage. It’s just another sign of how Edinburgh effortlessly combines the old and the new.

Dynamic Earth: A Celebration of Natural History

Just a stone’s throw away from the Scottish Parliament is Dynamic Earth, a modern architectural wonder that stands as a testament to Edinburgh’s commitment to science and education. This unique structure, which resembles a series of interconnected metallic cells, is a captivating representation of postmodern architecture. Its design is fitting for an establishment dedicated to illustrating the complex processes that shaped our Earth.

The University of Edinburgh: A Blend of Old and New

As a thriving educational hub, Edinburgh is home to one of the world’s top universities. The University of Edinburgh, founded in 1582, boasts a blend of architectural styles that reflects its rich history and modern ethos.

The Old College, designed by Robert Adam and completed by William Henry Playfair, showcases a classical Greek Revival style. In contrast, the George Square campus, where the university expanded in the 20th century, is a playground of modernism, featuring Brutalist structures like the Appleton Tower and the striking informatics building, a wave-shaped, glass-fronted edifice.

Leith: The Waterfront Revival

No tour of Edinburgh’s architecture would be complete without a visit to Leith, Edinburgh’s waterfront area. Once a bustling port, Leith has undergone significant regeneration over recent years, transforming its docklands into a vibrant, creative neighbourhood.

The repurposed warehouses, with their solid red-brick structures, have been reinvented as stylish apartments, artist studios, and trendy eateries, showcasing the best of industrial architecture. Meanwhile, the Scottish Executive building, a sleek, glass-fronted building overlooking the Water of Leith, demonstrates the successful integration of contemporary architecture within a historical context.

Edinburgh’s St James Quarter

Edinburgh’s St James Quarter is a new district of the city that connects the existing streetscape to a mixed-use destination of the future. This ambitious development project offers a variety of retail and residential spaces, as well as a stunning W Edinburgh hotel with a spiralling, ribbon-like design that redefines the city’s skyline. The St James Quarter also features a range of dining and entertainment options, from fine restaurants and food halls to cinemas and theatres.


Edinburgh’s architectural treasures offer a unique window into the city’s past, present, and future. From the medieval ramparts of Edinburgh Castle to the postmodern curves of Dynamic Earth, every structure contributes to the city’s rich architectural tapestry. As the city continues to evolve, this blend of old and new ensures that Edinburgh remains a vibrant, living testament to architectural innovation and preservation.

So, whether you are a history buff, an architecture enthusiast, or simply someone with an appreciation for beautiful cities, Edinburgh’s architectural treasures are sure to captivate and inspire you. Remember, while photographs and articles like this one can provide a glimpse into the city’s architectural grandeur, there is nothing quite like experiencing it first-hand.

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Rowanbank Gardens, Corstorphine
Rowanbank Gardens Housing Edinburgh
Rowanbank Gardens Edinburgh Housing

West Town Vision
West Town Edinburgh property development site
image courtesy of architects practice
West Town Edinburgh Property Vision

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