Scotland’s capital captivates many people at first sight, with Edinburgh Castle looming from the crags of an ancient volcano, and Georgian and Victorian architecture forming a skyline that looks locked in the past. But this is a modern, cosmopolitan city, and the new Scottish Parliament Building says so loud and clear.
Edinburgh has everything you’d expect from a capital and should not be missed: numerous iconic sights (even more than Glasgow, its rival 50 miles to the west, offers), lovely cobbled streets, and plenty of first-class restaurants. However, as with any major city there are tradeoffs: lodging, food, and even pub prices are high; there’s a lot of traffic and too many tourists, particularly in August during the Edinburgh International Festival.
Avoid the throngs and head for the museums (the Royal Museum, Museum of Scotland, and National Gallery of Scotland are impressive), the Royal Botanical Gardens, or Arthur’s Seat, the small mountain with spectacular views. Not only are these sites free, they’re all within the city center or within walking distance of it. Another option for escaping the crowds is to leave the city altogether. The Lothians—West Lothian, East Lothian, and Midlothian—beckon Edinburghers as well as visitors with quick getaways to coastal towns, quiet beaches, ancient chapels (including Rosslyn Chapel, mentioned in The Da Vinci Code) and castles.
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 the New towns are only yards apart. The Princes Street Gardens roughly divide Edinburgh into two areas: the winding, congested streets of Old Town, to the south, and the orderly, Georgian architecture of New Town, to the north. 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 is 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. Between the city and Leith are areas like Pilrig and Inverleith, and to the south there is Sciennes (pronounced “Skeens”), with its prosperous Victorian villas and terraces.
The hills, green fields, beaches, and historic houses and castles in the countryside outside Edinburgh—Midlothian, West Lothian, and East Lothian, collectively called the Lothians—can be reached quickly by bus or car, welcome day-trip escapes from the festival crush at the height of summer.
Edinburgh Restaurant Reviews
Edinburgh has many restaurants serving sophisticated international cuisines, but you may also notice a strong emphasis on traditional style. This tends to mean the Scottish-French style that harks back to the historical “Auld Alliance,” founded in the 13th century against the English. The Scots element is the preference for fresh and local foodstuffs; the French supply the sauces, often to be poured on after cooking. Restaurants tend to be small, so it’s best to make reservations at the more popular ones, even on weekdays and definitely at festival time. As Edinburgh is an unusually small capital, most of the good restaurants are within walking distance of the main streets, Princes Street and the Royal Mile.
As befits one of the richest cities in Britain, Edinburgh has many diverse, sophisticated restaurants representing cuisines from around the world. Perhaps the most exotic, however, is genuine Scottish cuisine. On restaurant menus, look for the traditional and nouvelle versions of classic Scottish foods, including salmon, venison, black pudding (a kind of sausage cooked with an animal’s blood), cullen skink (a rich haddock soup), Loch Fyne herring, and, of course, spicy haggis, usually served with neeps and tatties (mashed turnips and potatoes). Scotland is also known as the “land o’ cakes,” with delicious buns, pancakes, scones, and biscuits served for breakfast or high tea. Not so long ago the standards of cooking and service too often betrayed that puritanical Scottish conviction that enjoying yourself is a sin. Today Scottish game and seafood are often presented with great flair. After the feast, other delicacies await: handmade chocolates, often with whisky or Drambuie fillings, and the “petticoat tail” shortbread are good choices. Oatmeal, local cheeses, and malt whisky (turning up in any course) amplify the Scottish dimension. And speaking of whisky, be sure to try a “wee dram” of a single malt when you visit Scotland’s capital.
Edinburgh Hotel Reviews
It used to be that Scottish hotels were considered either rather better or much worse than their English counterparts; the good ones were very good, and the bad ones horrid. Today these distinctions no longer exist, and Scotland’s capital has an expanding choice of delightful hotel accommodations. The inexpensive Scottish hotel, once reviled, is now at least the equal of anything that might be found in England.
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.
The nightlife scene in Edinburgh is vibrant—whatever you’re looking for, you’ll most certainly find it here, and you won’t have to go far. Expect old-style pubs as well as cutting-edge bars and clubs. Live music pours out of most watering holes on weekends, particularly folk, blues, and jazz. Well-known artists perform at some of the larger venues. The List magazine, available at newsstands, gives locations, dates, times, and prices. Make sure you partake in at least one ceilidh (a traditional Scottish dance with music); they’re fun and a good way to meet locals.
Edinburgh’s 400-odd pubs are a study in themselves. In the eastern and northern districts of the city you’ll find some grim, inhospitable-looking places that proclaim that drinking is no laughing matter. But throughout Edinburgh many pubs have deliberately traded in their old spit-and-sawdust images for atmospheric revivals of the warm, oak-paneled, leather-chaired howffs of a more leisurely age. Most pubs and bars are open weekdays and Saturday from 11 AM to midnight, and from 12:30 to midnight on Sunday.
Despite its renown as a shopping street, Princes Street in the New Town may disappoint some visitors with its dull, anonymous modern architecture, average chain stores, and fast-food outlets. It is, however, one of the best spots to shop for tartans, tweeds, and knitwear, especially if your time is limited. 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 Waterstones bookstore, 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.