Edinburgh offers itself neatly packaged to the tourist – tartan shops, bagpipes, the Castle and haggis for tea – a nice little ersatz taste of Scotland.
But to get the most out of the city, you need to go a bit further – wander around the back streets or take a hike up the hills or spend some time in the museums. Here are my top ten favourites:
- Yes, it’s touristy – but if you walk the entire Royal Mile from Holyrood House to Edinburgh Castle (or the other way – which has the advantage of going downhill), you’ll get a feeling for the way the city developed. Spend a little time investigating the wynds and closes on either side of the main street and you’ll find surprises such as the Halfway House, a tiny real ale pub on Fleshmarket Close, or the Scottish Writers Museum in Makars Court, where the flagstones carry quotations from Scots writers.
- Climb up Calton Hill for a superb view of the city and the Firth of Forth. Calton Hill is topped by monuments – the Observatory, the Nelson monument and a huge unfinished copy of the Parthenon – but it’s the airy openness of the site that I love. On a good day you’ll find kids flying kites, people walking their dogs and office workers eating their lunches in the sun before heading back to the busy city below.
- Visit the Scottish Parliament, which offers free guided tours as well as access to all the public areas from Monday to Saturday. The Parliament buildings were intended to embody the spirit of Scotland; quotations from Scottish writers are inscribed on the walls of the Canongate façade, and different varieties of Scottish rock are used in the building. Yet it was designed by a Catalan architect, Enric Miralles, and it’s uncompromisingly modern.
- See the Lewis chessmen and Queen Mary Harp in the National Museum of Scotland. You’ll also find Dolly the Sheep, the first cloned mammal, and The Maiden – an early form of guillotine – as well as exhibits dating from the Romans and Picts all the way to contemporary sculptures by Andy Goldsworthy. Best of all, entrance is free.
- Visit Edinburgh’s pubs. I personally love the Bow Bar, with its antiquated, traditional feel (in fact, the furnishings came from other pubs that were being renovated); or you could drop into the Oxford Bar, favourite of fictional detective John Rebus; or the Blue Blazer, which offers a selection of obscure rums as well as beer and whisky. Or you might head a little further out of the centre to the Caley Sample Room near the Caledonian (‘Caley’) Brewery. Scottish beer tends to be sweet rather than bitter, with styles such as 60 and 80 shillings (the name comes from the amount of customs duty that had to be paid on the various strengths of ale).
- Shop in Princes Street and George Street, or just window-shop and then head for one of the many bars or cafes. Jenners, the oldest department store in Edinburgh, has now been taken over by House of Fraser but remains a local institution, worth visiting for its food hall and remarkable baronial architecture. Afterwards, wander through Princes Street Gardens, with expansive lawns where once the dark waters of the Nor Loch brooded.
- Spend some time in Gladstone’s Land, a 17th century building on Lawnmarket that is still preserved much as it would have been three or four hundred years ago. It’s typical of the Old Town – tall and narrow, making the most of the limited land available. Above the door hovers a gilded hawk – ‘gled’ in Scots, a pun on the name Gladstone (Gledstanes).
- Wander alongside the Waters of Leith from the Dean Village with its little wooded gorge all the way to the port of Leith and its industrial buildings. Once run down and unruly, Leith has been smartened up in recent years and now has stylish bars and restaurants, art galleries and boutiques, as well as docks and tall waterfront warehouses.
- Climb Arthur’s Seat, the craggy-headed hill to the south of the city. Unlike Calton Hill, Arthur’s Seat feels almost like the wilderness – it’s actually a dormant volcano. The views are even wider, though mist and rain blowing in can suddenly hide the city; still, it takes only an hour or so to climb, so if the sun is shining when you start out, chances are it will still be sunny when you get to the top.
- Head to Cafe Piccante in the New Town and get yourself that quintessentially Scottish “delicacy” (though I admit that may not be the right word) – the deep fried Mars Bar. Everyone needs to try one at least once in their lives and probably never again!