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Edinburgh's oldest visitor attraction

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The Observatory
Magic Gallery
Edinburgh Vision
There are a lot of attractions in Edinburgh, and it can be quite exhausting to walk between them. Imagine if you could see everything at the same time, in one fell swoop. Well, that's exactly what you can do at the Camera Obscura, on the Royal Mile. It offers a full 360-degree view of Scotland's capital from a tall tower on its most famous street.

The view over Edinburgh from the Camera Obscura
Photo vkurland
This special device is situated within a dome-shaped room at the top of the building. It's a little bit like a submarine periscope. A mirror on the roof reflects an image of the city downwards, through various different lenses. It is then projected onto a circular table in the darkened observatory below. The picture can be manoeuvred around to focus on anything you like. You can get a close-up of Edinburgh Castle, or spy on a passer-by who's picking his nose.
Camera Obscuras aren't a new invention. The first recorded mention of the technology came from a Chinese philosopher in the 5th century. From there the devices slowly improved, leading eventually to the development of photography.
Edinburgh's camera was set up in the 1850s by a lady called Maria Short. Her parents were both professional telescope-makers, so she naturally became an expert in optics. After buying the tower and installing the equipment, she opened it up to the public under the name of "Short's Observatory". It is now the oldest purpose-built visitor attraction in the city.
The Camera Obscura has been updated several times since then. The present lens system, from the 1940s, provides an image of exceptional clarity. The tower also has an outdoor terrace, for more direct views of the capital. It's equipped with a set of extremely powerful telescopes, so you can zoom in on Edinburgh's people and places.
In the past, visitors used to march straight upstairs to the observatory. Nowadays you can afford to take your time, as the intervening floors are stuffed with weird and wonderful sights. In the Magic Gallery, a series of optical illusions attempt to baffle your brain. You can swap heads with a friend, eat sweets that don't exist or shake hands with your own shadow. Elsewhere there's one of the world's largest plasma balls, where raw electricity responds to the touch of your fingers. Another exhibition specialises in holograms. The technology uses lasers to make a 3D picture that isn't physically there. Try to remember this fact when you come face-to-face with the giant bloodthirsty tarantula!
Images of a less unsettling kind can be found on the "Edinburgh Vision" floor, where a collection of old photographs compares the present-day capital to how it looked in the 19th century. Some of them use a more basic form of 3D, developed all the way back in the 1850s by the Victorians.
These varied and fascinating exhibits make the tower an interesting place on any day of the week - but to really make the most of your trip, try and come when the weather's nice. The view is at its best when there's no rain or clouds. Of course, finding such a day in Edinburgh isn't always the easiest of tasks!
Visitor Information
The Edinburgh Camera Obscura is open daily from 10am to 5pm (with seasonal extensions). Entry costs around £10 for adults, £6 for children. 549 Castlehill, The Royal Mile, Edinburgh, EH1 2ND. Tel: 0131 226 3709

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