The best places to visit in Edinburgh on a rainy day
Camera Obscura and World of Illusions
Address: Castlehill, Royal Mile, Edinburgh EH1 2ND
Phone: 0131 226 3709
Website: Camera Obscura and World of Illusions
The Camera Obscura is one of the oldest purpose-built attractions in the United Kingdom, and tens of thousands of visitors pour through its doors each year.
Camera Obscura and World of Illusions is located in a prime location on the Royal Mile, not far from Edinburgh Castle, and more or less opposite The Scotch Whisky Experience.
Visitors can experience six floors of interactive exhibitions which are designed to confound, confuse, and amuse in equal measure, with exhibits showcasing various aspects of optical illusions using light and colour to enthrall visitors of all ages.
There’s a section dedicated to holograms, another featuring a mirror maze, and yet another with a swirling vortex tunnel. Each area is designed to push your senses to the limit with some extremely high-tech trickery powering the shows. But the humble beginnings of the attraction were almost the complete opposite of the in-your-face light show that you see today.
The history of the Camera Obscura
In the early 18th century, an Edinburgh telescope maker called Thomas Short built a display for his work on Calton Hill, with his largest telescope eventually passing to his daughter Maria Theresa Short in 1827.
Maria continued exhibiting her father’s instruments on Calton Hill for many years, but in 1851 she was forced to relocate the collection after the city authorities demolished her observatory. She then moved the exhibits to their present location on Castlehill where they continued to remain a popular visitor attraction until her death in 1869.
The site then passed into the ownership of Patrick Geddes, a Scottish urban planner and entrepreneur who saw the potential of the ‘Camera Obscura’ as the centrepiece to an exhibit demonstrating the science of urban planning.
The site was renamed the Outlook Tower and was rebuilt with each floor showcasing a different theme related to the science of town planning.
At the very top was the attraction’s premier exhibit – The Camera Obscura – which still exists today in the same location as it did over a hundred years ago.
The camera wowed crowds through its use of light and mirrors which projected an image of the city onto a whiteboard at the top of the tower, at least on those rare days in Edinburgh which were bright and sunny! Even so, the Camera Obscura pulled in thousands of visitors each year and to this day remains the highlight of the attraction.
Thomas Geddes died in 1932 and for a time it was uncertain whether the instruments in the tower would be lost to the public forever, but in 1966 Edinburgh University took ownership and maintained the building for the next sixteen years before handing it over to private ownership in 1982.
The Patrick Geddes exhibits were scaled back and the development of the World of Illusion that we see today began, although there’s still an exhibit devoted to Geddes on the fourth floor.
Thankfully the current private owners have stayed true to the origins of the very first attraction so that not only are there amazing visual illusions on every level but there’s an element of education about the study of light, photography, and the city woven into the exhibits.
The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
Address: 75 Belford Rd, Edinburgh EH4 3DR
Phone: 0131 624 6200
Website: The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
The National Galleries of Scotland controls three galleries housing great Scottish artworks, all of which are based in Edinburgh.
While the Scottish National Gallery and Scottish National Portrait Gallery are easily accessible from the city centre, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is located slightly further afield to the west of Dean Village.
Luckily for tourists trying to escape Edinburgh’s frequent downpours there are regular (and free) bus services which ferry passengers between the Scottish National Gallery and the National Gallery of Modern Art.
The journey to the gallery is well worth it though, as not only is it spread out across two fascinating early 19th century buildings but the landscaped grounds are full of artworks that can be enjoyed in addition to the ones housed inside the main buildings.
The primary purpose of this gallery is to showcase the Scottish national collection of contemporary art dating from the early 20th century to the present day, and the vast collection covers all forms of media across 6000 pieces, from paintings and video to sculpture.
The collection is a genuine feast for the senses and many thought-inspiring artworks are guaranteed to give you cause for quiet contemplation, and the combination of elaborate garden grounds and gallery rooms spread across the two buildings will keep you entertained for hours.
The Modern One and Modern Two galleries
The galleries are divided into the Modern One and the Modern Two, and both have equally interesting histories.
While the very first gallery of modern art was located at the Edinburgh Botanic Garden, it soon became apparent that much bigger premises would be needed to house the growing collection, so in 1984 the gallery moved to its first location (Modern One) on Belford Road and then expanded into an opposite building (Modern Two) in 1999.
Modern One is famous for its ever-changing exhibits and the permanent collection includes pieces from renowned artists like Francis Bacon, David Hockney, Tracey Emin and Andy Warhol.
Across the road, Modern Two houses selections from the permanent collection as well as a continually updated catalogue of exhibits, and interested members of the public can view the history of modern art media in the comprehensive library and archives.
Outside, a sculpture park created by the famous landscape designer Charles Jencks dominates the lawn of Modern One, where a huge serpentine mound surrounds a crescent-shaped pool of water.
While walking around the grounds you’ll be able to get up close and personal with artworks including the bronze sculpture ‘Master of the Universe’ by Eduardo Paolozzi which is based on a drawing of Sir Isaac Newton, and the installation on the façade of Modern One by the artist and musician Martin Creed.
This is a really great attraction in Edinburgh, but one that’s criminally under-used in my opinion, so do yourself a favour and add it to your itinerary while you’re in the city.
The Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Address: 1 Queen St, Edinburgh EH2 1JD
Phone: 0131 624 6200
Website: The Scottish National Portrait Gallery
One of the best art galleries in Edinburgh is also one that can be easily overlooked by tourists as the building is partly hidden between Queen Street and North St. Andrew Street.
But it would be a shame to miss out on a visit to this attraction because The Scottish National Portrait Gallery contains the national collection of portraits and the national photography collection, both of which are studies of famous Scots throughout history which are genuinely fascinating to see.
In total, the collection boasts over 3000 paintings and sculptures, plus 25,000 prints and drawings, and an incredible 38,000 photographs. The paintings cover an extraordinary duration of Scotland’s history, with the earliest portrait of James 4th dated to 1507, while the oldest photograph date back to 1868.
The photos are particularly interesting as they detail the life of the average working man in Scotland, something that’s often missing from earlier artworks, and these images give a fascinating glimpse into Scottish life in the latter part of the 19th century.
The impressive architecture of this building features a collection of exterior statues including famous Scotsmen like David Hume and Adam Smith while the main entrance hall displays a beautiful frieze of important Scots throughout the ages, from Saint Ninian – the 5th century Pictish missionary – to Robert Burns – the 18th century Scottish poet and lyricist.
The building stretches out symmetrically on either side of the main hall with the artworks displayed over an expansive three floors. Many Victorian features are still intact, with elegant stone facades featuring in many rooms, and the west side of the gallery features lots of photo-worthy coved ceilings on the upper floors.
The history of the National Portrait Gallery
Before the gallery was built a comprehensive collection of Scottish portraits had been amassed by the 11th Earl of Buchan, but having no official public home for the collection it was decided that a national gallery should be built in Edinburgh.
Although the London government refused to step in and fund the construction of the building the owner of the Scotsman newspaper, John Findlay, donated the entire cost of the gallery at his own expense.
As the construction was in private hands and not under government control the building work was finished quickly, and it’s for this reason that one of the grandest (and oldest) portrait galleries in the world now resides in Edinburgh (and thanks to an extensive renovation in 2011, it’s also one of the largest).
The gallery publicly displays an impressive 850 works at any one time and visitor facilities include an education centre, shops, and a café.
The Scottish National Gallery
Address: The Mound, Edinburgh EH2 2EL
Phone: 0131 624 6200
Website: The Scottish National Gallery
The Scottish National Gallery is virtually impossible to miss if you take a walk through the centre of Edinburgh because not only is it one of the biggest buildings in the city but its location dominates the ever-popular Princes Street gardens.
If you’re a new visitor to Edinburgh you can’t help being impressed by the huge neo-classical gallery and the adjacent Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) building which sits behind it.
Both galleries have huge visitor numbers throughout the year, partly due to the quality of art on offer, but also because it’s free to view these masterpieces (although there are charges for some exhibitions).
The galleries display some of the most significant art collections in the world including masterpieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Constable, Turner, Monet, and Van Gogh, while the biggest part of the collection covers the entire history of Scottish painting including works by Ramsay, Raeburn, Wilkie and McTaggart.
There are too many artworks to discuss in this article but be sure to keep your eyes open for one particular Edinburgh favourite.
This artwork is the depiction of the Reverend Robert Walker skating on Duddingston Loch, an image which has woven itself into Edinburgh culture after Sir Henry Raeburn painted it in 1795.
In addition to being the minister for Canongate Kirk, the Reverend was also a member of the Edinburgh Skating Society (the oldest club of its kind in Britain), who met regularly on the outskirts of the city to skate on the ice-covered lochs during the winter months.
The history of the Scottish National Gallery
The present Scottish National Gallery building was designed by celebrated architect William Playfair to house the national art collection of the RSA, and in 1850 Prince Albert marked the beginning of its construction by laying the very first foundation stone.
The building continued to house the national collection until 1912 when the RSA moved into the adjacent Royal Scottish Academy building, and after extensive remodelling the National Gallery re-opened with an emphasis on presenting a selection of Scottish and European art, a theme which remains to this day.
By 1970 it was decided that additional storage space would be required to house the nations artworks and so an extensive series of basement galleries were constructed, and in the early 2000s an underground connection was made to the home of the RSA so that the separate buildings in effect became one unit.
This underground area is particularly popular with both tourists and locals as it houses an excellent restaurant and café, with an equally high-quality shop selling copies of some of the artworks that can be seen in both galleries.
The entrance is located at the same level as Princes Street gardens and is a great place to stop off for a bite to eat after enjoying the impressive collection of priceless artworks.
The Scottish Parliament Building
Address: Edinburgh EH99 1SP
Phone: 0131 348 5200
Website: The Scottish Parliament Building
Completed in 2004, the Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh is the home of the Scottish government and is a fascinating example of modern architecture.
Located at the bottom of the Royal Mile on 4 acres of land, the building is perfectly situated as the seat of Scottish power, with the ancient Holyrood Palace directly opposite and the rolling peaks of Holyrood park just a short walk away.
The building is in use daily with more than 1000 permanent staff assisting 129 MSPs in their duties, and frequent debates are held in its central chamber where viewing galleries allow over 300 members of the public to watch important discussions about the state of the country.
However, the early days of the parliament building were filled with controversy stemming from its unusual architecture and the huge over-run of its budget, which was a ten-fold increase in its original estimate.
Initially, three sites around Edinburgh were considered as possible locations for the building, but a last-minute entry from the site of the Scottish and Newcastle brewery eventually won favour with the city council.
The location where the Parliament building now resides seems to perfectly sum up Scotland, with the impressive Salisbury Crags of Holyrood Park to one side, the majestic Holyrood Palace bordering another side, and the ancient Royal Mile running alongside it and up towards the centre of the capital city.
A controversial building from the start
An international competition was organised in 1998 to create a design for what would become one of the most important buildings in Scotland, and eventually the Spanish architect Enric Miralles was chosen.
Although many people were in favour of Miralles unusual abstract designs the eventual cost of construction caused a lot of controversy with the use of public funds escalating from an initial estimate of £40 million to a final cost of £430 million by the time it was completed in 2004, three years behind schedule.
Even so, the building won many international awards for its architecture and visitors are welcome to explore it year round. On non-sitting days, usually Monday, Friday, and weekends, visitors can view the main hall and access the public galleries of the debating chamber and the main committee rooms.
Guided tours are also available on non-sitting days which allow visitors to access the floor of the hall, the garden lobby, and the committee rooms, which is an interesting (and free) way to spend a couple of hours on a rainy day in Edinburgh.
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