By Jim Ferri
Like a bee to a moor of heather in bloom, Edinburgh lures me back time and again.
I’m certain it addicts others, as well.
From an artistic and cultural perspective, it tempts me as do very few other cities its size. Given its population, it has an abundance of cultural venues.
It’s a comfortable city for sauntering and shopping with more than its fair share of delicious little restaurants. More per capita, in fact, than any other city in the UK, and including some Michelin-starred.
It’s also produced more than its fair share of prominent citizens…Sir Walter Scott, Alexander Graham Bell, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sean Connery, Tony Blair and Robert Louis Stevenson, among others.
And there’s that festival – the Edinburgh International Festival – which seems to imbue so many Edinburghers with creativity and artistic talent.
The Edinburgh International Festival, held annually in August, is a phenomenal citywide celebration of music, opera, theater, and dance. One of the favorite events is the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, an extravaganza of military bands playing pipes and drums.
But get this: on the celebrated Festival’s fringe is the quirky Festival Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival. Last year it spanned 25 days and featured 50,000+ performances of more than 3,200 shows in 294 venues.
Not surprisingly, the nearly half-million population of the city doubles every August.
Beyond the festival, it continues to addict because you can find much to do in every season. That’s usually the purview of only the big boys such as New York and London, nearly 20 times Edinburgh’s size. But here during non-festival times, you’ll find streets more walkable, museums less crowded and restaurants more enjoyable.
The Royal Mile
Start with a walk up the Royal Mile, one of the most famous streets in Europe.
It links the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the official residence of the Queen, with Edinburgh Castle, the city’s most recognizable landmark. During the Edinburgh Festival, you’ll feel as though it’s one gigantic stage.
Across from regal Holyroodhouse, there’s the modern Scottish Parliament, which met with mixed reviews when opened in 2004. I find it quite interesting, however, especially the quotes tucked into the concrete on the Royal-Mile side of the building.
Despite the Tartan tackiness of the Royal Mile, chockablock with tourist shops, it’s still quite interesting. Somehow all the tourist kitsch, cashmere outlets, little sidewalk stands and pipers lend a festive air to it all.
Near the Castle end, I visited St. Giles Cathedral where Protestant reformer John Knox delivered his fervid sermons. I discovered it’s not a huge church but warm and inviting nevertheless, the flags and stained glass adding to its beauty.
Beyond is the Camera Obscura (which I’ve been meaning to visit) and Edinburgh Castle, the oldest building in the city.
You can’t miss 12th-century Edinburgh Castle, which still dominates the skyline from its perch on Castle Rock. The Rock is actually the “plug” of a 340 million-year-old extinct volcano right in the middle of the city. With three vertical sides, it was a perfect place for a palace and saw numerous battles between Scotland and England.
Once it was home to many past monarchs including Mary Queen of Scots. Today it is home to the National War Museum, the Crown Jewels of Scotland and the One O’Clock Gun. True to its name, the One O’Clock fires at exactly 1 PM every day except Sunday. Pre-Rolex it was a time signal for ships in the harbor and those on land.
The New and the Old
Edinburgh is split between Old Town, with its maze of winding streets, and New Town with its linear street plan. (New Town is not really “that” new, however, since it was built in the 18th century). Still, though, today both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites sitting on opposite sides of Princes Street Gardens, a lovely park.
In New Town, you’ll unearth plenty of boutiques on Princes Street, the city’s most famous shopping area. Around Charlotte Square, you’ll find the finest Georgian architecture in all of Britain. All over you’ll discover major museums and galleries that could keep you occupied for days.
Visit the National Gallery of Scotland, one of Scotland’s finest, known for its 15th – 19th century British and European paintings.
Close by you’ll find the Scott Monument built to honor the writer Sir Walter Scott. It has 287 steps up an ever-narrowing staircase, but at the top you’ll find a 360° view of the city.
A few blocks northward, at 1 Queen Street, is the famous Scottish National Portrait Gallery. View portraits of famous Scots ranging from Mary Queen of Scots to Sean Connery, and other treasures. Then relax with a coffee and scone in the gallery’s café.
In the National Museum of Scotland, set in a modern building, you’ll find a collection that ranges from a dinosaur to a steam locomotive. Its most famous attraction, however, is Dolly, the cloned sheep now on view thanks to local taxidermists.
In the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, you’ll discover great European and American artists of the 20th century. Its collection includes works by Picasso, Magritte, and Lichtenstein.
On my visits to Edinburgh, I’ve found the best gems to be the unique Scottish experiences I’ve discovered. Many of them can be done together in a day or two.
On one visit one of the top things on my list was the Scotch Whiskey Experience. It’s an entertaining and educational experience (as well as flavorful) for those who enjoy a wee dram now and then.
If you enjoy Scotch, it’s an incredibly interesting place that you should put high on your must-see list. Be sure to visit its tasting bar and its shop. In the latter, you’ll find a flavor map to help you choose your perfect Whisky.
Another interesting place to visit in Edinburgh is Queen Elizabeth’s old yacht, the Royal Yacht Britannia. You can reach it via a quick taxi ride across the city. It’s moored, in of all places, next to a shopping center, although I can’t say which came first, the ship or the center.
A walk about it is quite interesting, and you’ll learn plenty about the yacht’s 44-year-old history. It began with its maiden voyage to Gibraltar and ended with its around-the-world tour before its decommissioning in 1997.
Read more about it here: The Secret on the Queen’s Yacht
Restaurants and Pubs
If you’re a culinary adventurer, you may want to try haggis, Scotland’s national dish. A pudding-like mixture made of the heart, liver, and lung of sheep or calves, it’s a very acquired taste.
But Scottish food today goes far beyond haggis and fish and chips. Edinburgh is a foodie’s heaven, and the city has countless good restaurants, many providing organic, local sustainable fare.
You’ll find many upscale restaurants all over, especially in New Town. But also try the Grassmarket area in Old Town, just south of the Royal Mile. There I found plenty of good restaurants and atmospheric pubs perfect for a solo traveler to spend an evening. Read about them here: An Evening in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket.
One comfortable pub I found was the “Last Drop,” its name, I suspect, a double entendre. It was where those sentenced to hang were brought for their last drink and meal. Then it was off to the gallows for their drop right across the street.
Several doors down is the White Hart, which originally opened in 1516. One of the oldest pubs in Edinburgh, it has a huge selection of Scottish malts. It was also once voted Edinburgh’s Most Haunted Pub.
Even if you’re not interested in malts stop by for the history. Robert Burns and William Wordsworth used to frequent the place, as did a couple of infamous Scot murderers. They found their prey here and later provided the bodies for dissection at the local university.
I’ll bet it’s also the only pub that had a bomb dropped on it by a German Zeppelin in WWI.