A Guide To: Calton Hill

Calton Hill
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The Out About Scotland complete guide to Calton Hill

Landmark or monument Museum or Art Gallery Castle or Historic Building Outdoors Site or Landscape Tourist Attraction

What’s this attraction all about?

Calton Hill is a magnificent land mass just a few hundred yards away from the hustle and bustle of Princes Street, where a collection of Edinburgh’s most famous landmarks are situated within a few hundred feet of each other. The hill is included in the UNESCO world heritage status that’s been awarded to the city, which is hardly surprising considering the amount of history that’s located on it.

If you walk east from the city centre you’ll be guided by tourist information signs that will direct you up the short walk to the top of the hill. From there you can take in breath-taking views of the city, from the rising faces of Salisbury Crags to the south, to the inspiring views of the city centre to the west, with Edinburgh Castle clearly visible against the skyline.

Further back on the far-reaching horizon lie the gently rolling slopes of the Pentland Hills, while in the opposite direction the rolling waves of the Firth of Forth can be seen.



What can you do there?

At the base of the Southern slope of the hill can be found St. Andrews House which is part of the headquarters of the Scottish government. This imposing building was opened by King George VI in 1940 and is a beautiful example of the art deco style that was popular in Edinburgh at that time.

Standing on the site of the old Calton Jail it has been used as an administrative building since those days and is currently the workplace of around 1400 civil servants. Unfortunately, as it’s still a working centre for government workers, tourists aren’t allowed to go inside, but it’s still worth taking a look from the roadside to appreciate its architecture.

Taking the steps across the road up to the top of the hill will enable you to visit other interesting landmarks, including the National Monument, the Nelson Monument and the City Observatory.

The National Monument is Scotland’s memorial to the Sottish soldiers and sailors who died during the Napoleonic wars, and it’s the dominating feature of Calton Hill. Although work started in 1826, the city ran out of money and couldn’t afford to finish it, and so in 1829 building works ceased forever.

The failure of the Scottish government to fund the remainder of the monument caused an outrage in 19th century Edinburgh, and this is the reason why even to this day it retains the nickname ‘Edinburgh’s Disgrace’.

Styled after the Parthenon in Greece, the National Monument comprises a series of columns placed on top of a grand stepped mount, which is a popular photo opportunity for those tourists able to climb up them.

There have been several subsequent proposals for the completion of the monument, but all have been rejected. The memorial is unlikely to ever change from its current unfinished state but it’s still an interesting piece of Edinburgh’s history nonetheless.

Just a few yards away from the National monument is the commemorative tower which honours Admiral Nelson, the famous British sailor who was instrumental in many victorious sea battles during the Napoleonic wars. The Nelson Monument was built between 1807 and 1815 and is famous for the time-ball perched at the very top which has been used to set the clocks of passing ships on the Firth of Forth for hundreds of years.

The ball itself is a large shiny sphere that’s raised to the top of the monument’s mast every day. At precisely 1 pm the ball is released so that it drops to the bottom of the mast pole, at which point all observing ships in the Firth of Forth set their clocks.

Rather helpfully, because the ball is difficult to see further inside the city, the One O’ Clock gun at Edinburgh castle is synchronised with the time ball so that locals can set their clocks too!

The primary column of the monument sits on top of a pentagonal building which is open to the public and contains many historical artefacts related to the Admiral, while for a small fee tourists can climb the steep stairs to the very top of the column. If you manage to climb the stairs you’ll be rewarded not only with fantastic views across the city, but also across to the Pentland Hills resting on the skyline.

Leaving Nelson’s Monument you might want to walk across to the Dugald Stewart Monument, which is another famous landmark sited on Calton Hill. While the monument is photo-worthy in its own right it’s the gorgeous view of Edinburgh behind it that draws in so many tourists, which is why the Dugald Stewart Monument has become one of the most photographed landmarks in the city.

Although not familiar to many people today, Dugald Stewart was a respected professor at the University of Edinburgh who held the chair of moral philosophy until his death in 1828.

Built in a classical Greek style the monument fits perfectly into any photo of the Edinburgh panorama, and if you manage to get there at dusk be sure to get some photos as the lights of the city start to come on. With the waters of the Firth of Forth in the distance and the city lit up in the foreground it has to be one of the most photogenic locations in all of Scotland.

As you stand at the top of Calton Hill you might be wondering what the domed building is in the centre, surrounded on all sides by imposing walls. And if your curiosity is piqued by what appears to be a Greek temple inside these walls then you’ll probably be interested to know that the building is, in fact, the City Observatory.

Building works for the observatory started in 1818 and were finally completed in 1822. Designed by the famous Edinburgh architect William Playfair the observatory is an impressive feature of the city skyline, but unfortunately it isn’t completely open to the public for internal viewing (as of August 2018).

However, the Edinburgh Museums and Galleries organisation is currently in the process of converting the historic building into a major new tourist attraction, with plans for a new gallery and accompanying restaurant. Works will hopefully be completed in 2018/2019, and in the meantime a temporary exhibit has been set up alongside the historic buildings to showcase some of Edinburgh’s up-and-coming emerging artists.


The history of the attraction

Although Calton Hill has been a natural feature of the Edinburgh landscape for thousands of years, it wasn’t until 1456 that it became ingrained in Edinburgh’s culture and history. At this time King James II was enacting a policy of making his country prepared against an invasion from outside forces, and so the ground around the hill was designated as a site for performing tournaments and sports (although golf and football were banned).

The King’s idea was that archery and fighting tournaments would hone Edinburgh’s inhabitants battle skills. However, as time passed the hill instead became synonymous with leisure, and war-like pursuits were eventually forgotten about in favour of gentler activities.

Although the hill is most famous for the number of artworks that have been painted from its various vantage points it’s the buildings located around the top of the hill which will be of most interest to the majority of tourists. There surely can’t be any other site in Britain where so many historical landmarks sit together in one place.


What I liked about this attraction

  • Exploring Calton Hill is completely free apart from a modest fee to get inside the buildings
  • The views across Edinburgh are spectacular. Bring your camera!
  • There’s lots of things to see and do in one compact location

What I didn’t like about this attraction

  • It can get absolutely packed with tourists at peak times
  • The climb is a little steep so it’ll be difficult for the infirm

Getting there

Calton Hill,

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Contact details

Prices and opening times

The Collective:

Prices and opening times to be announced (as of August 2018)


Nelsons monument:

Price: £5 entry to climb the tower. The museum on the ground floor is free.

Opening times:

  • Monday: 10 am – 9 pm
  • Tuesday: 10 am – 9 pm
  • Wednesday: 10 am – 9 pm
  • Thursday: 10 am – 9 pm
  • Friday: 10 am – 9 pm
  • Saturday: 10 am – 9 pm
  • Sunday: 10 am – 9 pm


Bus Stop Nearby Train Station Nearby Toilets Onsite Suitable for Young Children Suitable for the Elderly Restaurant Onsite Accessible for pushchairs Light Snacks Available Hot Drinks Available Easy Access Pathways Accessible for the Disabled



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Craig Smith

Craig Smith is your guide to the best attractions in Scotland. He loves exploring the Scottish wilds and is happiest when he's knee-deep in a muddy bog in the middle of nowhere.

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