Nearly a decade had passed since my last swing through Edinburgh, but this city of staircases and hills encrusted in Georgian and neo-Classical architecture remains as charismatic as ever. In addition to admiring the contemporary trends that are redefining Scottish cuisine, the plethora of craft beer producers and the design-forward new buildings, I reacquainted myself with “Auld Reekie’s” time-honoured draws.
Impossible to miss, with its lofty perch on a craggy hill, Edinburgh Castle is like a tourist tractor-beam. Even the weekday admission lines can test your patience, but a wander through this treasured symbol of Scottish heritage is compulsive. Take advantage of the free guided tours that regularly operate within the castle, which unpack the vivid nuggets of Scottish history with compelling ease.
For a Kiwi, Edinburgh’s designated districts of the Old Town and the New Town seems a little incongruous, because they are both seriously old compared to our comparative adolescence. The Old Town is of course home to the sweeping Royal Mile and the network of narrow, cobbled alleys that run off it. With Edinburgh Castle at its head and the Palace of Holyroodhouse at its foot, stand out buildings along the Royal Mile include Gladstone’s Land, The Real Mary King’s Close, John Knox House and St Giles’ Cathedral, established during the reign of King David in the 1120’s.
Plus, one of the more prestigious new additions is the Scottish Parliament. Dating back to the 15th century, I could never tire of aimlessly strolling within the Old Town. New Town is Edinburgh’s 18th century masterpiece of urban planning, resolutely Georgian in design, with its wide streets and elegant architecture. It’s also entirely walkable, brimming with museums, stirring buildings and seriously cool stores. The pick of the bunch can be found in Thistle Street, which beats to a fiercely independent vibe.
One of the city’s crown jewels is the National Museum which presents a remarkably insightful history of Scotland, spanning millennia, from its prehistoric past to a close encounter with Dolly the Sheep. In July, ten new galleries opened at the museum, accentuating the Scottish history lesson, with a focus on the wonders of science, technology and design. Admission is free. While you’re exploring the Old Town, pop into The People’s Story at the Canongate Tollbooth, which delivers an evocative insight into the challenges and living conditions that ordinary folk faced in centuries gone by.
Fancy a wee dram? Scotland’s production of the ”water of life” is legendary, with an explosion in small-batch and boutique whisky production. An indelible introduction to this trademark industry can be enjoyed at the Scotch Whisky Experience. Part of the tour takes place in a barrel ride before you can partake in some tastings, in a room containing the largest whisky collection on the planet – boasting nearly 4000 bottles! Look at the window and you’ll spot George Heriot’s School, the inspiration for Hogwarts.
If you’re a Harry Potter fan, soak up the ambience of eye-catching Victoria Street, which gently curves down to Grassmarket. Victoria Street was JK Rowling’s inspiration for Diagon Alley. Top stops include Red Door Gallery for locally produced art and gifts, funky souvenirs at Museum Context, stylish Scottish tweed at Walker Slater and delightful bites from Iain J Mellis Cheesemonger. In a city not short on arresting vistas, my all-time favourite perch is Calton Hill.
It’s a thigh-burning climb up to the top, but you’ll be sweetly rewarded with expansive panoramas, reaching across to Leith, the Firth of Forth and the ancient volcano which is evocatively called Arthur’s Seat. Want to go even higher? Totter up the spiral staircase of the Nelson Monument, one of the many follies that crowns Calton Hill. If your lungs and calves are up for another exacting challenge, I also love the Scott Monument that towers above Princes Street Gardens.
Illustrating Edinburgh’s reverence for its literature heritage, the Scott Monument is a Gothic tower dedicated to Sir Walter Scott. It’s the largest monument to any writer in the world. Trek up the 287 steps for more sumptuous city views.
The Scottish fried breakfast is an alluring affair, which also doubles as a trusty hangover cure. A great spot to devour the celebrated fry-up is at the recently opened Angus Fling, where the booths are upholstered in classic tartan. What distinguishes the Scottish affair from its “full English” counterpart is the fried potato bread and slice of haggis.
Royal fanatics? Be sure to add Leith to your check-list. Edinburgh’s historic port of Leith is home to Royal Yacht Britannia, which is an experiential must for House of Windsor aficionados, with comprehensive insights on royal life at sea, as you tour the retired liner. www.visitscotland.com
By Mike Yardley.