Camera Obscura, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the old town of Edinburgh, is also one of the oldest in the United Kingdom. The museum, spanning 6 floors including the rooftop terrace, dates all the way back to 1853
As the story goes, Maria Short travelled to the Scottish city in 1827 and claimed to be the daughter of the late Thomas Short, a scientific instrument maker. Although this claim was never proven, she inherited his ‘Great Telescope’ and opened an observatory at Calton Hill.
The ‘Camera Obscura’ attraction was opened and, after the business moved to its current home on the royal mile, it became known as ‘Short’s Observatory’.
Today, Camera Obscura, as it is now known, has over 100 interactive attractions all based on the world of illusions, tricks, effects and puzzles.
Damon and I were kindly invited to experience the museum. So, here’s our detailed guide and review.
Location And Getting There
Camera Obscura is centrally located in the heart of Edinburgh’s old town, around 60 metres from the foot of Edinburgh Castle at the western end of the Royal Mile.
Parking in the city centre of Edinburgh is either going to be expensive or difficult to find so we’d recommend taking other forms of transportation. Here’s our recommended list of options, picked for a balance of price and convenience.
If this makes sense, this is probably our number one recommendation due to Camera Obscura’s location on the Royal Mile. Edinburgh Castle can also act as a rather large, handy, historic signpost since it’s only 200 feet west of the attraction.
By Train or Tram
Edinburgh Waverly, which offers direct train services north, south, east and west, is less than a 10 minute walk from Camera Obscura. But be prepared for the rather steep incline up towards the old town. We’d recommend booking train services through Trainline.
The Edinburgh Tram network (see our handy guide) runs from Edinburgh Airport to York Place in Edinburgh’s new town. The Princes Street stop is the closest to Camera Obscura, which is again about a 10 minute walk from the attraction.
You can find UberX, UberXL and Exec available in and around Edinburgh. Unless the Royal Mile is closed off for an event (like the International Festival) you can usually be dropped off right outside the doors.
Use our UBER code: andrewy2730ue or sign up here to get a free ride.
It’s recommended that you visit either 1st thing in the morning or later into the evening. There are a few advantages to this strategy. Firstly, it will place your visit outside of peak times, giving you more room to experience the exhibits. And secondly, you’ll experience the views over Edinburgh in the early morning, at sunset or after dark.
I’d recommend checking the opening hours at least a day before you visit since, as you can see below, there is no shortage to the range of opening times.
August: 9am - 10pm daily
September to October: Sunday to Friday 9:30am to 8pm, Saturday 9:30am - 9pm
November to March: Monday - Thursday 9:30 - 7pm, Friday and Sunday 9:30am - 8pm, Saturday 9:30am - 9pm (closed on Christmas Day)
10th to 20th April: 9am to 10pm daily
April to June: Sunday - Friday 9:30am - 8pm, Saturday 9:30am - 9pm
July: 9am to 10pm daily
School Holiday Hours
28th June to September 2nd: 9am to 10pm daily
4th to 11th October: Sunday to Friday 9am - 9pm, Saturday 9am - 10pm
12th October to 3rd November: 9am to 10pm daily
13th to 23rd December: 9am to 9pm
24th December: 9am - 7pm
26th December: 10am - 9pm
1st January: 10am - 9pm
2nd to 6th January: 9am to 9pm daily
8th to 23rd February: 9am - 9pm daily
28th March to 9th April: 9am - 9pm daily
10th to 20th April: 9am - 10pm daily
Camera Obscura is also open from 9:30am - 9pm on the following dates:
14th - 17th November, 22nd to 24th November, 28th November to 1st December, 5th to 8th December.
Ticket Types and Prices
On one hand I really wouldn’t call this a cheap day out but on the other I do think their pricing, for one of the most popular Edinburgh city centre attractions, is pretty expected. Tickets are only sold at the desk, on the day.
Student (with valid ID): £14
Child (age 5-15): £12
Under 5s: Free
Tickets are valid all day, meaning you can come and go as you please. You’ll be given a hand stamp which will grant you return entry.
All major credit and debit cards are accepted but payments must be made in Sterling (GBP).
Military Personnel: Show your British Military ID to get a 10% discount (valid for cardholder only)
Edinburgh Bus Tours: Show your Edinburgh Bus Tour ticket to get a 10% discount
Visually Impaired Visitors: 10% discount
On entry we were given a ticket to the ‘Camera Obscura’ show which was due to take place in 15 minutes. The staff member recommended that we view the show, located on the top floor, before working our way back down to the ground floor.
This took us to the 6th floor terrace which had panoramic views across the city. You probably won’t find a better view in Edinburgh. To the north, you could see all the way down to the Forth. To the east, you could see down the Royal Mile towards Arthur’s Seat. And to the south, in the distance, you could spot the dry ski slopes at Hillend.
This is also where you’ll get a close-up view of the Camera Obscura observation tower.
The Camera Obscura show started right on time and it’s here I’ll give you a quick overview of what to expect. Our host delivered the presentation very well, with great humour and a hint of appreciated sarcasm. The show itself sees the audience standing around a circular wooden table where you’ll see a live projection of the city outside.
This is all achieved very simply, with mirrors and lenses, but the 19th century technology is still an impressive sight.
After the show, we began winding our way down the attraction, through a multitude of fascinating exhibits. Keep an eye out for the ‘Ladder To Australia’, a range of plasma orbs and a set of cameras with an incredibly impressive optical zoom range.
We’ll put in a small caveat here that whilst most of the exhibits were very engaging, there were a few that could have done with an update. But that’s a small minority of attractions.
Top Visually Stunning Attractions:
Infinity Light Tunnel: Colour-changing fibre optics and mirrors create this mesmerising illusion.
Light Mirror Maze: You’ll be familiar with this type of attraction. As fun as it is mildly terrifying. Camera Obscura made a smart move making you wear plastic gloves to keep the mirrors incredibly clean too.
Vortex Tunnel: It’s difficult to describe this one. Basically, you have to walk from one end of a metal gangway to the other. But surrounding you is a cylindrical tube that’s spinning around very quickly. Your brain can’t tell which way is up and your stomach will drop as a result. Trust me, you won’t forget this exhibit. It even brought back the hilarious but slightly scarring memories from Efteling’s Theme Park’s Villa Volta ride.
How Long Does It Take To Do The Full Tour?
Camera Obscura recommends 2 hours per visit. We were in and out in around an hour and half. However, we didn’t have children with us so 2 hours seems like an accurate average.
Is There a café?
There is no café on site but since you’re in Edinburgh’s old town there’s really no shortage of eateries nearby. You can grab some snacks in the shop too.
Can You Just Visit The Camera Obscura?
The ticket includes access to all of the attractions and there is no separate ticket just for the Camera Obscura show.
Can I Take A Dog With Me?
The answer here is pleasantly surprising. You absolutely can, the staff will even provide water bowls if you ask for one.
Is There Luggage Storage?
Yes, you can store luggage and/or shopping bags. Just ask at the reception desk.
Due to the nature of Camera Obscura and its attractions, plus the fact it’s in a 17th century listed building, there are some accessibility issues.
There is no lift, it’s a stair-only building which has remained unchanged since 1853. The only toilets can be found on the 1st floor.
You can get a free walking stick stool from reception.
The exhibits are mostly visual so whilst visitors with limited hearing can enjoy most of the fun, visually impaired visitors will find difficulty experiencing most of the attractions. Camera Obscura grant a 10% ticket price reduction to the visually impaired, as mentioned above.
Conclusion and Scoring
Camera Obscura is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Edinburgh and, after our recent visit, we can see why. The range of visually stunning exhibits, the views across the city from the terrace, the fascinating Camera Obscura show and the attention to detail. Even going as far as to add hand sanitisers at the end of each (pretty hands-on) exhibit.
In terms of customer service, we couldn’t fault the Camera Obscura team, who were all very welcoming and eager to help out with any questions we had.
Thank you to Camera Obscura for inviting us to visit. As always, all opinions are my own. Are you thinking of visiting Camera Obscura, Edinburgh? Or have you already been? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section down below.
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