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Perched on a series of extinct volcanoes and rocky crags which rise from the generally flat landscape of the Lothians, Edinburgh enjoys a natural setting unrivalled by any other major European city. One native author of genius, Robert Louis Stevenson, declared that "No situation could be more commanding for the head of a kingdom; none better chosen for noble prospects".
At the heart of the city lie the Old Town and New Town, both inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List. The former, perched on the ridge leading down from the majestic cliff-girt Castle, is tightly packed, brooding and still predominantly medieval; the latter, with its Georgian terraces and Grecian architecture, is a planning masterpiece of the Age of Enlightenment, when Edinburgh took the lead in many fields of intellectual endeavour. Between them they contain most of the main sights, as well as a large section of the city's business and shopping sector. Over the last hundred and fifty years Edinburgh has expanded considerably from its historic core, but it isn't a very built-up city and boasts a marvellous range of parks and green spaces, as well as a seemingly inexhaustible supply of surprising and dramatic vistas.
The return of the Scottish Parliament to Edinburgh in 1999, after Scotland was ruled for nearly three hundred years from London, has lent renewed vigour to the city's political, business and cultural scene. While Edinburgh never lost the style, appearance and trappings of a capital city, with its concentration of museums, galleries, historic buildings and national institutions, for many its self-importance rang hollow. Now, however, the city is taking the opportunity to prove itself a dynamic, influential and thoroughly modern European capital. The recent opening of an important new National Museum and various ambitious tourist attractions has also contributed to the upturn in the vitality and spirit of the city.
One event that has been in rude health for many years is the remarkable Edinburgh Festival, the world's largest arts festival, held each August, when every conceivable performance space, from large concert halls to tiny pubs, are roped into use for a bewildering array of drama, comedy, music, film and performance. Around a million visitors flock to the city for the Festival, generating a carnival atmosphere which is absent - save for the boisterous celebrations centred on Hogmanay - for the remaining eleven months of the calendar. Nonetheless, Edinburgh maintains a vibrant cultural life throughout the year, with a wide variety of theatre, live music and literary and artistic events. Among the city's many galleries, the National Gallery of Scotland boasts as choice a collection of Old Masters as can be found anywhere; its offshoot, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, has Britain's oldest specialist collection of twentieth-century painting and sculpture.
The city also has a superb range of restaurants offering most leading international cuisines, as well as a thriving caf culture. Its distinctive howffs (pubs), allied to its brewing and distilling traditions, have given it the status of a great drinking city, and the presence of three universities, plus several colleges, means that there is a youthful presence for most of the year - a welcome corrective to the stuffiness which is often regarded as Edinburgh's Achilles heel.
Edinburgh's climate and when to visit
Edinburgh's climate is typically British, with damp, cold conditions threatening on all but rare days of sparkling summer sunshine. Situated on the east coast of Scotland, Edinburgh suffers less rainfall than western parts of the country, but is prone to blustery and often bitter winds blowing in off the North Sea. Another local phenomenon is the haar or sea mist, which is wont to roll in from the Firth of Forth and envelop the city after a few warm days in summer. The coldest months are January and February, when the highest daily temperature averages at 6C (42F) and overnight frosts are common. July is the warmest month, reaching an average high of 18C (65F), although late spring (May) and early autumn (September) are often good times to visit for welcome spells of bright weather and less of the tourist scrum which marks the Royal Mile in high season. With the Festival in full swing, August is a great time to visit the city, but be prepared for large crowds, scarce accommodation and busy restaurants.