Calton Hill is one of Edinburgh’s main hills, set right in the city centre. It is unmistakable with its Athenian acropolis poking above the skyline. Acropolis is in fact, an unfinished National Monument. Initiated in 1816, a year after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, it was meant to be a replica of the Parthenon in Athens, as a memorial to those who had died in the Napoleonic Wars.
Building began in 1822, but funds ran dry and celebrated Edinburgh architect William Playfair only saw a facade of his building completed. It was dubbed “Edinburgh’s shame”, but it’s now a popular landmark and it’s a lot of fun crawling up and down its giant steps. Plans since to complete the building never really get much support.
The top of Calton Hill is a usually quiet place to come on any day, with its grassy slopes and panoramic views of the city, including down the length of Princes Street (the main shopping thoroughfare) and Edinburgh Castle. There is a good view North of the ruddy-coloured cliffs of Salisbury Crags, Arthur’s Seat, and the undulating slopes of Holyrood Park.
Calton Hill is easily accessed. It takes about five minutes to get to the top of the hill from a staircase at Regent Road on the Southside, Royal Terrace on the North side, or you can drive up and park. There is a path right around the edge of the hill and a jumble of historic buildings and structures on top including, for stargazers, an observatory. In fact, there are two observatories on Calton Hill: the Old Observatory House, designed by New Town architect James Craig in 1792; and the City Observatory, built in 1818, which has exhibitions and viewings of the night sky.
Also of interest is Nelson’s Monument (the British admiral who led his fleet to victory at Trafalgar in 1805), which has a famous time ball mechanism by which ships used to set their chronometers.
Calton Hill is still very much revered as a common ground to many Edinburghers. Attempts, in recent years, to create a theme park and railway up the hill have met with a chorus of protest.
With its volcanic rock base, gorse-strewn hill face and windswept ruggedness, it remains a rough gem.
In August, Calton Hill is a hub for Edinburgh festival shows, it offers excellent views of fireworks displays from the castle during Hogmanay and the grand finale of the Edinburgh Festival, the Festival Fireworks. On the last day of April, Calton Hill is the scene of the Beltane Fire Festival.
On the 30th April, as the sun sets, Beltane Festival actors and dancers will be re-imagining the ancient Celtic festival of Beltane for the thirtieth time. Beltane Festival will mark the changing seasons with a wild mix of drums, fire and physical theatre – on a scale not seen anywhere else in the world.
Take a guided tour of the streets of Edinburgh's Old Town