Calton Hill is an iconic part of Edinburgh’s skyline. Taking a short walk up to the hill to enjoy the awe-inspiring view is one of the unmissable things to do in Edinburgh.
Marked as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Calton Hill is also home to several classical Greek-style monuments and historical landmarks, which gained the city its famous nickname, ‘Athens of the North’.
For centuries, the outstanding panoramic view from the top of Calton Hill has left travellers spellbound.
According to eminent Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, “of all places for a view, this Calton Hill is perhaps the best”.
On sunny summer days, you will see many locals and tourists basking in the sun or enjoying a picnic on the grassy slopes of the hill. This is a popular spot to watch the sunset over the impressive skyline of Edinburgh.
Watching the sprawling view from the top is high on the list for most visitors to Edinburgh. Calton Hill is easily accessible. It is one of the easiest walks in Edinburgh and does not require much effort.
In this article, you will find all the essential information you need to know before visiting Calton Hill – The easiest way to reach, the best viewpoints, must-see historical attractions and the best time to visit.
Where is Calton Hill
Sitting only a few metres off the east end of busy Princes Street, Calton Hill is a public park in Central Edinburgh. Princes Street is one of the main thoroughfares in Edinburgh and is bustling with shops, cafes and hotels.
The highest point of the hill stands at an elevation of 103 metres. Calton Hill is one of the seven hills on which the city of Edinburgh is built and lies close to many visitor attractions of Edinburgh. It takes around 15 minutes to walk to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Holyrood Park and Edinburgh Castle from here.
A Brief History of Calton Hill
Calton Hill is an extinct volcano which erupted millions of years ago, much like the nearby Arthur’s Seat and Castle Rock. There once stood a prehistoric hillfort.
The human history of the hill started in 1456 when King James II granted this land to the people of Edinburgh and was used for leisure activities. Later in the early 16th century, a religious order of Carmelites built a small monastery here. But it was abandoned after the Scottish Reformation and turned into a hospital for lepers.
Later the Edinburgh Town Council bought Calton Hill in 1724. It became one of the first public parks in the city and one of the oldest parks in the United Kingdom. The famous philosopher David Hume persuaded the council to build a walk for the locals.
Over the years, many striking monuments were built above Calton Hill, like the National Monument of Scotland, Dugald Stewart Monument, Burns Monument and Nelson Monument.
Best Time to Visit Calton Hill
Calton Hill is open to visitors every day, all year round. Over the years, we have been here in every season and can say with absolute certainty that the view truly looks absolutely breathtaking in any season.
If you are a photographer, you cannot miss the gorgeous sunset from the top of Calton Hill. Seeing the sun set slowly over the rooftops of Edinburgh is an unforgettable experience.
During the summer months, especially at the time of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, this area gets overly crowded. We would recommend visiting the hill at sunrise or early morning to enjoy the view peacefully.
In the late spring and early summer months, the vibrant-yellow coloured flowers, known as gorse, cover Holyrood Park and Calton Hill.
Also, in winter, the snowy hills of the Pentlands become very photogenic. After a fresh coat of snow, the whole city transforms into a winter wonderland.
However, keep in mind that Scottish weather is notoriously unpredictable. So, always better to check the weather before you go.
Historical Attractions on Calton hill
Discover the National Monument of Scotland
You can’t miss the large columned structure of the National Monument of Scotland on the top of Calton Hill. This 19th-century Edinburgh landmark was once mockingly nicknamed ‘Edinburgh’s Disgrace’.
The structure was designed jointly by English architect Charles Robert Cockerell and eminent Scottish architect William Henry Playfair to commemorate the Scottish soldiers who lost their lives in the Napoleonic Wars. Instead of Calton Hill, The Mound was initially considered the site to build this monument but later decided otherwise.
With the aim to build a monument that will look exactly like the great Parthenon in Athens, the foundation stone was laid in 1822. The site was also supposed to include catacombs, which would become a burial place for affluent Scots of that time.
Finally, the construction began in 1826. But due to the lack of funding, the work for the building stopped right after three years. As a result, only the twelve large columns and the architrave were built.
Over the years, there were several proposals to complete the monument, but it was never fruitful. In 1907 there was talk to turn it into the new Scottish National Gallery, and in 1908 it was suggested as a site for a Scottish Parliament building.
Today the National Monument is an integral part of Calton Hill’s landscape and is absolutely adored by locals and visitors alike.
Ascend the Nelson Monument
Another historic attraction on Calton Hill to look out for is the Nelson Monument. The cylindrical-shaped tower of the building resembles an upside-down telescope.
Climb 143 steps to reach a viewing platform at the top of Nelson Monument. This viewpoint is not free. You have to pay £6 per person to access the tower. Admire a slightly more elevated view of the breathtaking Edinburgh skyline from here. Also, the National Monument and the City Observatory look particularly stunning from this angle.
The monument was built to commemorate vice-admiral Horatio Nelson, who fought courageously against the French and Spanish fleets and died at the Battle of Trafalgar during the Napoleonic Wars in 1805.
The structure was built between 1807 and 1815 and was designed by Scottish architect Robert Burn.
In 1852, a large time ball was installed at the top of the tower to send signals to the ships approaching the Firth of Forth and the ports of Leith.
The ball would drop at exactly one o’clock as a signal to the nearby passing ships. It helped the ship crew to check the accuracy of their chronometers.
Later in 1861, the One o’Clock Gun was introduced from Edinburgh Castle, which was very helpful during fog and low visibility conditions. Both the time signals were connected by a wire at that time. The gun used to fire automatically as the time ball fell in Calton Hill. The time ball has worked for over 150 years. It was damaged by a storm in 2007 but was restored later and can still be seen today.
Visit the Collective
Housed in the former City Observatory, the Collective Gallery is a modern purpose-built exhibition space showcasing contemporary art by various new and upcoming artists from Scotland. It hosts several temporary and permanent exhibitions, events and guided walks.
Established in 1984 as an artist-run organisation, Collective relocated from Cockburn Street to Calton Hill in 2013. The 18th-century City Observatory building is itself very historic. It was a significant site for astronomy and Scientific discovery in Edinburgh. The Greek temple-like main building was designed by famous architect William Henry Playfair, who designed many landmarks in Edinburgh.
There is a small coffee stand on the grounds of Collective serving hot and cold foods and drinks. Also, you will find the restaurant The Lookout by Gardener’s Cottage here. Enjoy a fine-dining experience with the best seasonal ingredients and a stunning view of Edinburgh.
Admire the Views with Dugald Stewart Monument
Another iconic landmark on Calton Hill, the circular-shaped Dugald Stewart Monument is a memorial to the eminent Edinburgh-born philosopher and mathematician Dugald Stewart. He was a professor at the University of Edinburgh from 1786 until he died in 1828. Also, he was a joint founder of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
This elegant structure was designed by famous Scottish architect William Henry Playfair, based on the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens, Greece. The small circular temple has nine fluted Corinthian columns, with an urn at the top. The construction of this monument was completed in 1831. Today this is a category A listed building.
Get Spooked at Old Calton Burial Ground
If you are in this area, take a stroll to the historical Old Calton Burial Ground at Waterloo Place. Located at Calton Hill to the northeast of the Edinburgh city centre, the cemetery first opened in 1718.
It is the final resting place of many notable Scots. Famous Scottish philosopher David Hume, scientist John Playfair and publishers William Blackwood and Archibald Constable are buried here. Due to the construction of Waterloo Place, The burial ground was divided into two sections in 1819.
Take a look around the monument and mausoleum around the graveyard. The Political Martyrs’ Monument commemorates five political reformists from the late 18th and early 19th centuries who were banished to Australia for demanding equal rights to vote. You can see the tall obelisk of that monument from the top of Calton Hill as well.
Another important monument here is the Scottish-American Soldiers Monument. It has a statue of Abraham Lincoln commemorating the Scots who fought and fell in the American Civil war. Also, you can see the castle-like turret of the notorious Calton Jail.
Search for the Burns Monument
Not frequented by tourists, the small, circular Neo-Greek-styled monument commemorates the life of Robert Burns, widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland. Burns Monument is located on Regent Road, just a few metres from the steps leading to Calton Hill. From here, you will get a fantastic view over the Edinburgh Old Town, as well as Arthur’s Seat and Holyrood Park.
The monument was designed by Thomas Hamilton, who was also the architect for the nearby Old Royal High School building. In 1839 the building construction was completed. It was modelled after the temple-styled buildings in Athens, which were built in celebration of arts.
Originally, there was a marble statue of Robert Burns by John Flaxman, which was removed later. Today it is on display in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street.
The monument is not open to the public other than on Door Open Days in September.
Learn the History of Portuguese Cannon
When you are up on Calton Hill, it is hard to miss the Portuguese Cannon pointing towards Edinburgh Castle and the Balmoral Hotel.
Located close to Nelson Monument, it is a brass cannon. It has an interesting story to tell. If you watch it closely, you will spot the markings of the Spanish royal coat of arms on its barrel.
It was cast in the early 15th Century when Portugal was under Spanish rule. In the late 17th century, the cannon was brought to the Portuguese colonies in Southeast Asia. It ended up in the hands of the ruler of Arakan on the west coast of today’s Burma and was transported to Mandalay. Later in 1885, when British forces invaded Burma, they captured the canon. It came to Edinburgh in 1886 and was exhibited at the Edinburgh Fair. Finally, the following year, it was placed over Calton Hill. Today it provides a great photo opportunity.
Best Viewpoints on Calton Hill
There are several viewpoints dotted all over the hill. In this guide, we have included four main must-visit vantage points. If you have difficulty finding them, we have marked them on Google Maps at the end of this article.
Enjoy the Classic View
One of the most photographed classic views from Calton Hill is with Edinburgh Castle, Balmoral clock tower and Dugald Stewart Monument. The monument is a memorial to the Scottish mathematician and thinker Dugald Stewart.
As you climb up to the top, pass the Portuguese Canon and follow the pavement heading towards the Observatory House building with National Monument to your back.
The panorama enfolds out across the city’s Old and New Towns to Corstorphine Hill and Stockbridge. You can see many striking landmarks of the city. Perched atop an extinct volcanic rock, Edinburgh Castle looks grand. Steeped in over 900 years of history, it attracts millions of visitors every year and is one of the most-visited castles in Scotland.
Admire the layers of the house of Old Town with spires of The Hub and St Giles Cathedral poking up through the horizon against the backdrop of Pentland Hills.
Also, watch out for the gothic spire of Scott Monument – dedicated to legendary Scottish author Sir Walter Scott.
Admire the View from the Summit
Another viewpoint you can’t miss is the summit of the hill. There is a triangulation pillar marking the highest point of Calton Hill. From here, you will get a superb view over the long stretch of Fife on the coast of the Firth of Forth. The small island you see is Inchkeith island. Moving closer, you can see the docks of Leith. It is impressive how the old Georgian houses and the modern structures coexist in the city. On your left-hand side, you can catch a glimpse of the Forth Bridge, an engineering marvel and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On a clear sunny day, you might spot the Bass Rock and North Berwick Law on the horizon.
View Towards Salisbury Crag
Follow the path between the National Monument of Scotland and Nelson Monument to get to the south side of Calton Hill, and you will get a dramatic view of Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags. There are a few benches you can sit back and soak up the stunning vista.
Located in Holyrood Park, Arthur’s Seat is an extinct volcano and the highest point of Edinburgh. A moderately hilly circular trail to Arthur’s Seat via Salisbury Crags is around 2.5 miles long and takes about 1.5-2.5 hours to complete. If you have time, we would highly recommend visiting it afterwards.
At the foothill of Holyrood Park, you can see Holyrood Palace – the royal abode of the British monarch in Scotland. The white armadillo-shaped building is the Dynamic Earth science centre. You can spot the rooftop of the Scottish Parliament Building. Also, admire the great view of the Castle, North Bridge, The Old Town, The Arches and Waverley Station.
An Easy-to-miss Viewpoint
This viewpoint is located at the bottom of Nelson Monument. Take the slightly upwards path to your right after passing the Portuguese Canon. There is an information board explaining the history of the famous landmarks nearby.
The long stretch of Princes Street is right in front of you. You can spot the triple spires of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral with Corstorphine Hill in the backdrop. For a great photo opportunity, zoom in on the Balmoral clock tower.
Also, to your left side, you can see St Andrew’s House, the headquarter building of the Scottish Government.
Map of the Attractions and Lookouts on Calton Hill
Here is the map of all the historic landmarks and viewpoints over Calton Hill. We have also marked the nearby restaurants and pubs for you. Save this Google Map on your phone to use it later. You can also use it offline.
Events on Calton Hill
Experience the Thrills of the Beltane Fire Festival
If you happen to visit Edinburgh at the end of April, then the Beltane Fire Festival might interest you. On the night of 30th April, thousands of people gather on Calton Hill to celebrate the modern take on ancient Celtic rituals that mark the arrival of summer and the fertility of the lands. Although this event used to be free earlier, now you have to pay for a ticket to participate.
The Beltane Fire Festival was started in 1988 by a small group of local enthusiasts. Its popularity has grown over the years, and today this festival is one of the largest of its kind. With the loud beat of drums, wild performances and immersive theatrical acts, Calton Hill comes alive at night. You will see the reinterpretation of the story of the Green Man and the May Queen.
The word Beltane translates to bright fire. Fire plays a very significant role in this celebration. It is a symbol of purification. Huge bonfires are lit, and the performers walk and dance around them.
Calton Hill is also the venue for the Dussehra Festival celebration held at the beginning of October each year. Also, the Samhuinn Fire Festival takes place at the end of October. So, mark your calendars!
Enjoy Spectacular Fireworks over Edinburgh
Calton Hill is a great vantage point to see the fireworks over the city during the Edinburgh Festival in August and during the Hogmanay celebrations.
Thousands of people from all over the world attend the annual fireworks display in August, which marks the end of the Edinburgh International Festival. The spectacular fireworks are choreographed with live music performed by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at Ross Band Stand in West Princes Street Gardens. Although the main event is ticketed, many gather around Princes Street, Inverleith Park and Calton Hill to watch the fireworks.
Hogmanay celebration is a three-day annual celebration from 30th December to New Year’s Day in Edinburgh. It starts with Torchlight Procession, which ends with a short fireworks show from Calton Hill usually. On New Year’s Eve, there are hourly spectacular fireworks displays from Edinburgh Castle. Locals and tourists come together to watch the midnight fireworks celebrating the beginning of the new year.
How to Reach Calton Hill
There are several different paths leading to Calton Hill. But the easiest entrance is through the stairs on Regent Road, at the far east end of the busy Princes Street. It is a short 5-10 minute walk from there to get to the top. The path is not steep and is well-maintained.
Alternatively, you can take the path from Royal Terrace, close to Greenside Church on the east side of the hill.
If you are coming to Edinburgh by train, then alight at Edinburgh Waverley Train Station. It is the main railway station serving the city. Leave the station by the Princes Street exit. You will be able to see the tower of Nelson Monument and the National Monument on Calton Hill. Walk to the junction of Waterloo Place and Regent Road. Cross the road to find the steps up the hill.
Bus and Tram
There are several bus services from different parts of Edinburgh to the East end of Princes Street. With Lothian Buses running frequently, getting here is super easy.
You can also board a tram to get here. From the York Place tram stop, it takes only 8 minutes to walk to the entry point on Royal Terrace. Also, it takes almost the same time to reach the steps on Regent Road from the St Andrew Square tram stop. From there, Calton Hill is a short walk away.
There is a Pay & Display car parking on Regent Road or at the nearby Q-Park Omni. Disabled parking is available by arrangement at the top of the hill.
We absolutely love the views from Calton Hill. It is one of our favourite places in Edinburgh. Hope, after your visit, you will fall in love with it too. To fuel your travel inspiration further, check out some of our other Scotland travel guides.
Love, Moumita & Sankha.