Edinburgh is to London as poetry is to prose, as Charlotte Brontë once wrote. One of the world’s stateliest cities and proudest capitals, it’s built—like Rome—on seven hills, making it a striking backdrop for the ancient pageant of history. In a skyline of sheer drama, Edinburgh Castle watches over the capital city, frowning down on Princes Street as if disapproving of its modern razzmatazz. Its ramparts still echo with gunfire each day when the traditional one-o’clock gun booms out over the city, startling unwary shoppers.
Nearly everywhere in Edinburgh (the burgh is always pronounced burra in Scotland) there are spectacular buildings, whose Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian pillars add touches of neoclassical grandeur to the largely Presbyterian backdrop. The most notable examples perch amid the greenery of Calton Hill, which overlooks the city center from the east. Large gardens and greenery are a strong feature of central Edinburgh, where the city council is one of the most stridently conservationist in Europe. Conspicuous from Princes Street is Arthur’s Seat, a mountain of bright green and yellow furze rearing up behind the spires of the Old Town. This child-size mountain jutting 822 feet above its surroundings has steep slopes and little crags, like a miniature Highlands set down in the middle of the busy city. Appropriately, these theatrical elements match Edinburgh’s character—after all, the city has been a stage that has seen its fair share of romance, violence, tragedy, and triumph.
Parliament and Power
Three centuries after the Union of Parliaments with England in 1707, Edinburgh is once again the seat of a Scottish parliament. A new parliament building, designed by the late Spanish architect Enric Miralles, stands adjacent to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, at the foot of the Royal Mile. The first-time visitor to Scotland may be surprised that the country still has a capital city at all; perhaps believing the seat of government was drained of its resources and power after the union with England, but far from it. The Union of Parliaments brought with it a set of political partnerships—such as separate legal, ecclesiastical, and educational systems—that Edinburgh assimilated and integrated with its own surviving institutions.
Scotland now has significantly more control over its own affairs than at any time since 1707, and the 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs), of whom 40% are women, have extensive powers in Scotland over education, health, housing, transportation, training, economic development, the environment, and agriculture. Foreign policy, defense, and economic policy, however, remain under the jurisdiction of the U.K. government in London.
Edinburgh and the Lothians Sights
Edinburgh’s Old Town, which bears a great measure of symbolic weight as the “heart of Scotland’s capital,” is a boon for lovers of atmosphere and history. In contrast, if you appreciate the unique architectural heritage of the city’s Enlightenment, then the New Town’s for you. If you belong to both categories, don’t worry—the Old and New towns are only yards apart. Princes Street runs east-west along the north edge of the Princes Street Gardens. Explore the main thoroughfares but also don’t forget to get lost among the tiny wynds and closes: old medieval alleys that connect the winding streets.
Like most cities, Edinburgh incorporates small communities within its boundaries, and many of these are as rewarding to explore as Old Town and New Town. Dean Village, for instance, even though it’s close to the New Town, has a character all of its own. Duddingston, just southeast of Arthur’s Seat, has all the feel of a country village. Then there’s Corstorphine, to the west of the city center, famous for being the site of Murrayfield, Scotland’s international rugby stadium. Edinburgh’s port, Leith, sits on the shore of the Firth of Forth, and throbs with smart bars and restaurants.
Edinburgh and the Lothians Restaurant Reviews
Edinburgh’s ecletic restaurant scene has attracted a brigade of well-known chefs, including the award-winning trio of Martin Wishart, Tom Kitchin, and Paul Kitching. They and dozens of others have abandoned the tried-and-true recipes for more adventurous cuisine. Of course, you can always find traditional fare, which usually mean the Scottish-French style that harks back to the historical “Auld Alliance” of the 13th century. The Scots element is the preference for fresh and local foodstuffs; the French supply the sauces. In Edinburgh you can sample anything from Malaysian rendang (a thick, coconut-milk stew) to Kurdish kebabs, while the long-established French, Italian, Chinese, Pakistani, and Indian communities ensure that most of the globe’s most treasured cuisines are well represented.
Prices and Hours
It’s possible to eat well in Edinburgh without spending a fortune. Multicourse prix-fixe options are common, and almost always less expensive than ordering à la carte. Even at restaurants in the highest price category, you can easily spend less than £30 per person. People tend to eat later in Scotland than in England—around 8 pm on average—or rather they finish eating and then drink on in leisurely Scottish fashion.
Edinburgh and the Lothians Hotel Reviews
From stylish boutique hotels to homey B&Bs, Edinburgh has a world-class array of accommodation to suit every taste. While its status as one of Britain’s most attractive and fascinating cities ensures a steady influx of visitors, the wealth of overnight options means there’s no need to compromise on where you stay. Grand old hotels such as the Balmoral are rightly renowned for their regal bearing and old-world charm. If your tastes are a little more contemporary, the city’s burgeoning contingent of chic design hotels offers an equally alluring alternative. For those on a tighter budget, the town’s B&Bs are the most likely choice.
Rooms are harder to find in August and September, when the Edinburgh International Festival and the Fringe Festival take place, so reserve at least three months in advance. Bed-and-breakfast accommodations may be harder to find in December, January, and February, when some proprietors close for a few weeks. Scots are trusting people—many B&B proprietors provide front-door keys and few impose curfews.
Weekend rates in the larger hotels are always much cheaper than midweek rates, so if you want to stay in a plush hotel, come on the weekend. To save money and see how local residents live, stay in a B&B in one of the areas away from the city center, such as Pilrig to the north, Murrayfield to the west, or Sciennes to the south. Public buses can whisk you to the city center in 10 to 15 minutes.
Edinburgh and the Lothians Nightlife
Those who think Edinburgh’s arts scene consists of just the elegiac wail of a bagpipe and the twang of a fiddle or two will be proved wrong by the hundreds of performing-arts options. The jewel in the crown, of course, is the famed Edinburgh International Festival, which now attracts the best in music, dance, theater, painting, and sculpture from all over the globe during three weeks from mid-August to early September. The Scotsman and Herald, Scotland’s leading daily newspapers, carry listings and reviews in their arts pages every day, with special editions during the festival. Tickets are generally available from box offices in advance; in some cases they’re also available from certain designated travel agents or at the door, although concerts by national orchestras often sell out long before the day of the performance.
Edinburgh and the Lothians Shopping
Despite its renown as a shopping street, Princes Street in the New Town may disappoint some visitors with its dull modern architecture, average chain stores, and fast-food outlets. One block north of Princes Street, Rose Street has many smaller specialty shops; part of the street is a pedestrian zone, so it’s a pleasant place to browse. The shops on George Street tend to be fairly upscale. London names, such as Laura Ashley and Penhaligons, are prominent, though some of the older independent stores continue to do good business.
The streets crossing George Street—Hanover, Frederick, and Castle—are also worth exploring. Dundas Street, the northern extension of Hanover Street, beyond Queen Street Gardens, has several antiques shops. Thistle Street, originally George Street’s “back lane,” or service area, has several boutiques and more antiques shops. As may be expected, many shops along the Royal Mile sell what may be politely or euphemistically described as tourist-ware—whiskies, tartans, and tweeds. Careful exploration, however, will reveal some worthwhile establishments. Shops here also cater to highly specialized interests and hobbies.
Close to the castle end of the Royal Mile, just off George IV Bridge, is Victoria Street, with specialty shops grouped in a small area. Follow the tiny West Bow to Grassmarket for more specialty stores. North of Princes Street, on the way to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, is Stockbridge, an oddball shopping area of some charm, particularly on St. Stephen Street. To get here, walk north down Frederick Street and Howe Street, away from Princes Street, then turn left onto North West Circus Place. Stafford and William streets form a small, upscale shopping area in a Georgian setting. Walk to the west end of Princes Street and then along its continuation, Shandwick Place, then turn right onto Stafford Street. William Street crosses Stafford halfway down.