With its imperious castle, famed Fringe fest, a diverse nightlife and cosmopolitan kitchen, Edinburgh has everything going for it but the weather. Grab a brolley then, and let Steven Blyth steer you towards the best stop-offs and sights…
The ‘Athens of the North’ may not compete with its namesake by way of sunshine hours, but for historical significance, cultural value and sheer beauty, even Pythagoras would have found himself caught in a right-angled European love triangle.
Nestled between the Firth of Forth and in between two extinct volcanoes, the tourist centre of Edinburgh is firmly focused on the ‘Old Town’, draped across a ridge from the last ice age that stretches from Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse at the foot of the cobbled Royal Mile, peppered with old Edinburgh-style taverns.
The ‘Festival City’ brims with galleries, museums and people during the summer, but is never more alive than at night. Come evening and you’ll find an abundance of restaurants, bars and clubs – from cocktail bars to grungey, bass-filled caverns – to keep you up until dawn and you’re finally ready to wander home across the bridges, as the sun rises behind the ‘Pantheon’ of Calton Hill.
Alexander McCall Smith once accurately described the city as one of “shifting light, of changing skies, of sudden vistas. A city so beautiful it breaks the heart again and again.” Who knew that heartbreak could be so much fun?
Best of the Beaten Track
Indulge yourself in the beauty of Edinburgh Castle, an unmissable attraction, that houses the National War Museum and offers unrivalled 360 degree views of the city. The recently re-furbished National Museum of Scotland is home to vast collections covering the natural world, world cultures, art and design, science and technology and Scottish history. Free admission will appeal to those travelling on a budget. The Museum of Childhood is a quirky alternative, based on the Royal Mile.
Take in St Giles’ Kirk and the Heart of Midlothian (tradition has it that you spit on the heart, beneath which the city’s criminals were once kept) and get lost in the cobbled streets and surrounding closes to experience what life as one of the 80,000 old town residents of the 18th century was like.
At the foot of the Royal Mile lies the ‘love it or loathe it’ Scottish Parliament building, open for tours with its distinctive design based on hulls of upturned boats. The Queen’s residence in the capital, the Palace of Holyroodhouse, lies within Haggis-tossing distance, as does Arthur’s Seat, one of Edinburgh’s extinct volcanoes (Edinburgh Castle sits atop a volcanic plug). Hiking to his summit is a great way to finish the day and catch the sunset.
For something more “spiritual”, check out our feature article on sampling a little Scotch.
When the world’s largest arts festival, The Edinburgh Fringe, packs up and ships out at the end of August every year, there’s one venue that keeps the party going like that one reveller who refuses to give up and go to bed. Summerhall’s selection of events year round, as well as beer garden, and Barney’s beer brewed on site and served in the Royal Dick Bar, make it the perfect place to experience a mini-festival vibe once the crowds go home. The monthly Neu Reekie (a play on Edinburgh’s nickname ‘Auld Reekie’) event is a perfect introductory choice – expect the leftfield, and lots of it.
Make sure to leave time to check out the diminutive Sunday market at Stockbridge for a vast array of home-made foods with awesome coffee served from the Steampunk Coffee chaps, it makes for a perfect breakfast/lunch stop.
Nearby St. Stephen Street has a host of vintage stores, thrift shops and quirky bars to make the walk back into town worthwhile. Head further east to the Scottish National Modern Art Gallery (spread across two fantastic buildings either side of the road) for work from the likes of Damien Hirst, Anthony Gormley and Andy Warhol.
Take a tour of Edinburgh’s underground vaults (either a factual or ghost tour) built in the late 1700s. The vaults were used to house taverns, cobblers and other tradesmen, and as storage space for illicit material, including dead bodies.
If that all sounds like hard work, then chill out on the vast expanse that is the Meadows, along with lazy students, fellow tourists and 9-5ers catching the last of the day’s rays.
Finally Leith Docks are well worth a look.
Experience & Events
The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is world famous and, if you’re able to book accommodation in advance (a year in advance is probably about right) then it’s a blast. Hundreds of venues, thousands of shows (comedy, theatre, dance, spoken word) and a unique atmosphere where visitors and performers mingle together in a glut of outdoor bars spread across the city.
Its more sophisticated partner, the Edinburgh International Festival, concentrates on high brow performance arts, and generally continues for a week or so after the Fringe finishes, weaning the hardcore festival-goers back to normal life.
Edinburgh’s reputation at throwing a good party is probably best demonstrated by its now legendary ‘Hogmanay’ celebrations. The street party is held each year on Princes Street, along which thousands of revelers welcome in the new year in a thunderstorm of fireworks and several stages of top music acts. Wrap up warm!
If you visit in February and March, during the 6 Nations Rugby Tournament, try and grab a ticket for one of the two or three home fixtures. Unlike football in Scotland, rugby is a more family friendly sport to watch live. Football fans can pick between Heart of Midlothian or Hibernian Football clubs.
For an oddball experience visit the Surgeon’s Hall museum, whose collection of ‘natural and artificial curiosities’ began in 1699 and includes a pocket book made from the skin of William Burke (of Burke and Hare fame) – it’s not for the easily repulsed.
As in most big cities, options for resting those weary legs after a day hiking Edinburgh’s streets range from bargain basement hostels to bank account emptying luxury. Budget offerings are most abundant on the Grassmarket / Cowgate area, with Budget Backpackers a smart choice. Towards Newington, Argyle Backpackers is a great hostel in two Victorian-style buildings. Both are very close to Edinburgh’s buzzing centre. For mid-range budgets the well-reviewed Brooks Hotel is a hidden boutique gem a little out of the way and perfect for escaping the crowds. G&V Royal Mile Hotel is a modern design masterpiece at the high end of the scale, with a nice cocktail bar on the ground floor. Worth a visit even if you’re not staying.
Scottish cuisine is a meaty affair, but Edinburgh’s dining out scene has flavours from all four corners. For the best of Scottish cuisine try Angels with Bagpipes, fast becoming one of Edinburgh’s best Scottish restaurants. Seek out Les Cargot Bleu for French cuisine with Scottish ingredients, or the legendary Mother’s Kitchen for arguably the best Indian food going. During the festival or indeed at any time of year, my top tip would be the Original Mosque Kitchen and Cafe (careful, it’s not the more visible one on Nicholson Street) serving up cheap but tasty curry dishes in a no-fuss environment. Bell’s Diner has 41 years of flipping burgers and steaks and has earned its status as something of an Edinburgh institution. Chop Chop serves up authentic Chinese dishes, as does the Wing Sing Inn, a rare treat in the sea of average Brit-pleasing takeaways.
Edinburgh’s nightlife can be divided crudely into two. Generally speaking those seeking flashier establishments head to the George Street area, whereas a younger student-leaning crowd, less concerned by airs and graces, stick to the Grassmarket & Cowgate. Romantic cocktails? Check out the Dragonfly, with its hip interior, chilled vibe and decent drinks menu, it’s an ideal starter. Bramble is a hidden gem, it’s house cocktail by the same name is unspeakably good. Nearby in Tollcross lies the Brauhaus, a small unassuming Bavarian-styled bar with a few benches and a menu packed full of beers from across the world. Bennets Bar – its interior unchanged from 1908, including the impressive Victorian fittings of the front bar – is a fine example of a Scottish pub. For after-hours partying there’s no place that competes with Sneaky Pete’s – a diverse selection of bands and DJs with a music policy that’s unmatched anywhere else in the city. Be prepared to bump shoulders, Sneaky’s is pretty tight. The Bongo Club and Cabaret Voltaire are fine choices with top DJs and a solid weekly programme.
Edinburgh’s well connected with both Ryanair and Easy Jet using Edinburgh as a hub airport – and return tickets from within and out with the UK can be found for as low as £40 when booked moderately in advance. Waverley Train Station connects to London from where any number of destinations are reachable. Glasgow is only 50-60 mins away and is best reached by bus/train: returns under £10, trains under £20.
For up-to-date listings on what is going on now in Edinburgh, look no further than the Skinny (found in pubs too) for the ultimate guide to what’s good and when it’s happening. The List also provides comprehensive listings of happenings citywide. The Real Edinburgh Facebook page has a selection of images to inspire your visit, and Edinburgh Spotlight has some good suggested itineraries including some of Edinburgh’s less well-known delights.
It’s a bit cliché, but the Lonely Planet book does a good job of fishing out the must-sees in Edinburgh and provide much needed maps. Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street books portray the bourgeois Edinburgh associated with the New Town, while Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting will help tune yourself into the lingo pre-visit. Just make sure you know what you’re saying before testing it out on the locals…
The film adaptation of Trainspotting (getting the feeling this is a cult favourite?) is essential viewing, and while maybe isn’t the sort of film to get your pre-visit rose tinted vision, it certainly is an eye opener into 80s Edinburgh, a decade when it had the unenviable title of ‘AIDs capital of Europe’. Sylvain Chomet’s beautifully illustrated film, The Illusionist, is as fascinating for locals to watch as the tourist, and provides the perfect antidote to the dark Irvine Welsh version of Edinburgh.