“Athens of the North”

Sadly, I’ve never been to Greece. It’s been on my travel bucket list since I first learned about the ancient Greeks, but as of now their cerulean waters and classical architecture have evaded me. I have, however, been to the “Athens of the North”—any guesses where that might be?

old Loch Nor panorama
The former Nor Loch, now Princes Street Gardens.  New Town on the left & Old Town on the right.

Welcome back to Scotland, this time Edinburgh! An ancient Scottish city and the country’s capital, Edinburgh is a truly beautiful and culturally rich place to visit. I could go on forever about this city (and I very well may later!) but for now let’s have a look at how it came to earn its whimsical nickname. Considering how far north Edinburgh is, it’s safe to say their climate doesn’t mirror Athens’…there are plenty of lovely, sunny days in Scotland, of course, but I still haven’t had a “shorts and t-shirt” kind of day. Instead, Edinburgh’s New Town is a stunning example of the Greek revival architectural style.

Before I go on, a quick history lesson on the Greek revival and its influence on neoclassical architecture. The neoclassical movement began in the mid-18th century as a manifestation of people’s desire to return to the “ideals” of Roman and Greek arts. This encompassed a variety of art forms, but the most easily visible products were buildings designed in the classical styles. The discovery of three ancient temples in southern Italy sparked a renewed interest in these building designs. Pair that with the end of the Greek War of Independence in 1832 and architects & archaeologists were suddenly able to study ruins not easily accessible before, bringing the designs back to their home countries. The Brits had an even bigger investment in Greece’s culture, if you can believe it.   You may have heard of a certain poet by the name of Lord Byron? He was an English-born poet, famed for Don Juan, She Walks in Beauty, The Corsair…and fighting alongside the Greeks in their quest for independence. His death during the war brought the Greek war to the forefront of many British minds and, when the war ended, scores of British architects and anthropologists made their way to Greece.

Greek revival architecture still stands in many European and Western cities. Take a walk through London, for instance. The British Museum, Royal Opera House, and National Gallery are 3 lovely examples of London’s neoclassical style. Still, the best city to see this style in action—at least in the UK—is definitely Edinburgh. Scotland’s capital was lucky enough to expand just before this style became popular, and reaped the benefits as a result. In the 18th century city officials approved the draining of Nor Loch (now Princes Street Gardens) and expansion of the city across the way. James Craig’s initial design made for quite the efficient city plan and, while intended as a residential site, New Town’s commercial potential was quickly realised. When the Greek revival came along Scottish architects employed these designs in New Town’s expansion. My favourite examples are the Royal Scottish Academy and National Gallery of Scotland (I’m a sucker for arts buildings, if you couldn’t tell).

New Town from Edinburgh castle
Views of Princes Street Gardens & New Town from the Castle, with Calton Hill in the background.

When visiting Edinburgh I highly recommend taking time to explore the New Town. The Royal Mile & Old Town are phenomenal, as well, but it’s well worth your time to take in the views from Calton Hill or wander between the Georgian and neoclassical buildings. Bonus: the grid-like street layout, it’s nearly impossible to get lost! Though if you do get turned around, it’s nothing a quick stop in the local pub won’t fix. The barkeeps tend to know their way around town and Edinburgh residents are some of the friendliest in the area

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James Craig’s design for Edinburgh New Town, 1767
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Edinburgh from Calton Hill. Photograph: Jon Arnold Images Ltd/Alamy

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