From February 2015
Never having been to the British Isles beyond London, my impressions of Scotland lay in the now unintelligible accent of Number One native son Sean Connery and the hotties in Outlander. Both great PR for sure but what I found on one short trip to Edinburgh pricked me like thistle casting a spell from which I hope to never recover.
What a thoroughly wondrous place. And I say this having visited in the bracing cold of February. I could have stayed forever, frostbite be damned. The Royal Mile with the imposing Edinburgh Castle fortress on one end and the dainty Palace of the Holyrood down the other anchor the city in fairy tale mystique that gets in your blood and stays there well beyond your visit. It feels so different than any other place I have been; not derivative of its UK brother to the south, its Celtic cousin to the west or its European friends across the pond. In some ways it is a bit of all of them blended into something completely fresh and vibrant. From the people to the food to the whole look of the place, theirs is an identity that is truly and wholly unique and utterly Scottish.
Getting there was one of the more civilized airport to town experiences I have ever had. Unlike my hometown insanity that is the mass transit free New York airport ridiculousness, the tram from the airport in Edinburgh could not have been more pleasant. Travel door to door for us was about an hour during which time we got to take in the outlying areas of the city as people commuted in to work. Serendipitously our hotel was literally across the street from the York tram stop.
Hotels are no bargain, but we had done a package airfare/hotel deal with Aer Lingus of four days in Edinburgh and four days in Dublin that was a steal as we were off season. (Worth a check any time of year.) We stayed at The Place Hotel a lovely old townhouse of a boutique hotel with a charming breakfast room and well-appointed lounge for pre-dinner cocktails. The staff could not be more accommodating and graciously moved our room when we informed them after the first night of a glitch in the heating system that enabled us to see our breath upon waking. A great part of town to stay that is in the city center at the cusp of the Old Town and New Town. Enough outside of the touristy bits but a short walk to just about everything. 34-38 York Place Edinburgh, Scotland, 0131 556 7575; http://www.yorkplace-edinburgh.co.uk/
No car needed as public transportation is terrific and even in the cold it is a great town to enjoy on foot. Also, I highly recommend taking taxis. They did not appear to be too expensive and you will have the best time chatting with the drivers who unlike many of their buds in London are fond of Americans (go figure) and will bend your ear with historical tidbits and local political intrigues along the way. So jump in, say hello and your accent will be their invitation to engage.
To start, let’s discuss the where and what to do.
What to Do:
There is so much to partake but here are my highlights.
Edinburgh City Bus Tours…Very touristy I know BUT when you only have four days and the weather is cold as a witches you-know-what this was a great way to see bits of the city you may otherwise have to miss. (And speaking of witches, it’s the best way to see the George Heriot School aka the inspiration for the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry). www.edinburghtour.com
The Royal Mile
The main historic drag of Edinburgh that bisects the Old Town. Amongst the castles and cathedrals that ground this mile of royal renown you will find plenty of shops selling all kinds of touristy Scottishness. If you plan on coming home kilt clad, this is the place to go. A few decent jewelry shops and curiosities do exist but mainly souvenir haunts. (There are other better places to shop).
Plenty of places to eat too, like some good solid comfort food pubs for a bit of a lunch stop. Again catering to the tourist crowd but not a bad place to test your palate with haggis. Don’t get it, definitely a native thing. Like the Southern allegiance to grits. Don’t get that either.
Starting at the top (And I strongly suggest this as the starting point vs. the bottom which is a glute tightening trudge up hill): Staring down at the city, high atop the Royal Mile is the imposing medieval Edinburgh Castle. Actually more of a fortress with many buildings of historic import: The Great Hall, National War Museum, St. Margaret’s Chapel, Prisons of War and the Half Moon Battery to name a few. As you enter through the Gatehouse you will be greeted by two of Scotland’s most revered fellows, Robert the Bruce on your left and William Wallace (looking nothing like Mel Gibson) on your right. Once through, if imposing gunnery is your thing, get there at 1PM where you can witness the firing of the aptly named One O’clock Gun through the Portcullis Gate.
Alternatively, have a gape at Mons Meg an enormous canon whose best days were seen blowing up things at a two-mile distance in the 16th century.
For those with more aesthetic taste, there are a few noteworthy baubles to view as the castle houses the Crown Jewels of Scotland. It’s not Liz Taylor’s collection, but definitely worth a look. http://www.edinburghcastle.gov.uk/discover
A short hop from the castle is Edinburgh’s iconic landmark of Gothic architecture. Built in the mid-1800s as the Victoria Hall to house the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, in 1999 it was strangely renamed The Hub and houses the offices and performance space for the Edinburgh International Festival. The spire is the highest point in Edinburgh center and rules the skyline on the Royal Mile between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace. http://www.thehub-edinburgh.com/about/
Almost midway down the Royal Mile on the High Street is St Giles’ Cathedral the historic City Church of Edinburgh. As churches outside of Italy go, this one is impressive. The medieval bits and Renaissance bits all merit a wander in. The Thistle Chapel, stained glass windows and medieval stonework are worth a look-see as well. A cute little café inside provides a warm respite after all that Presbyterianism. There is a small entrance fee, but reservations aren’t necessary at least when we were there in February. http://www.stgilescathedral.org.uk/
As you make your way down the Royal Mile, be sure to stop in the kitschy toy store of a museum plainly entitled the Museum of Edinburgh as a nice little palate cleanse from all the royal and ecumenical splendor. It’s a stroll down memory lane of everyday life in days of yore. Little rooms in mazelike configuration take you past a sedan chair, old town models, costumes, housewares, silverware and much, much more. There’s even an interactive space to get a little creative, Scottish style. http://www.edinburghmuseums.org.uk/getdoc/be914b91-4957-41eb-a487-7ff999edde6f/About
You know you’ve reached the end of the Royal Mile when you hit The Palace of Holyrood the official residence of UK monarchs when hanging out in the city since the 16th century. Not to be confused with Balmoral Castle, which is the Queen’s personal Scottish hideaway in the Highlands. For foreigners and commoners alike who happen to pass through when her majesty is elsewhere, one can tour the castle and the grounds of an actual working castle in all its Downton Abbey-esque fussiness and splendor. Great biscuits and tea in the gift shop too. https://www.royalcollection.org.uk/visit/palace-of-holyroodhouse
Around the Old Town…
Looking down from the Edinburgh Castle grounds you can see the country’s tribute to the Ivanhoe scribe, the beloved Sir Walter Scott (Scott Monument). Encasing a statue of the man is a 200 foot tall Victorian Gothic structure situated at the edge of the East Prince’s Street Gardens. While we ventured up close and personal to this monument, we did not climb the 287 steps to its summit which I am told offers breathtaking views of Edinburgh and all that surrounds it. http://www.edinburghmuseums.org.uk/Venues/Scott-Monument
Down the road apiece is the grand hostelry of the city, the Balmoral Hotel (where I believe JK Rowling penned the final book in the H.Potter juggernaut). A statuesque Victorian landmark where a kilted doorman ushers you in. While a bit rich for our blood to lay our heads, we did have a delightful pre-dinner cocktail there where I had my very first Old Fashioned and became hooked on “brown liquor” libations. https://www.roccofortehotels.com/hotels-and-resorts/the-balmoral-hotel/?gclid=CNnCw7y20M0CFcgfhgodt7EEIQ
If you seek a bit of diversion from all of the centuries old architecture, take a wander past the reasonably new and stylishly modern Scottish Parliament Building completed in 2004. Neighboring the Palace of Holyrood, it is quite striking. While a bit controversial during its birth, it has garnered numerous architectural prizes and, like the originally loathed Eifel Tower, I’m willing to bet that the locals have grown accustomed to its face. While we did not venture inside, apparently there are lots of doings to observe maybe even a few MPs shaking fists at each other perhaps? http://www.visitparliament.scot/
…and a little bit into the New Town
Shopping…Lots of shopping wasn’t exactly on my itinerary but I can always be persuaded to visit local emporia if the mood strikes. And I did find some charming options away from the standard tourist wares.
In the New Town section, and by “new” I mean developed in the late 1770’s, there is a swath of shopping streets between Queens and Princes streets from Leith to Charlotte Square. Upscale but everything from a soap emporium to local designer shops. There is also a rather Americanesque spot called the Waverly Mall right next to the main train station on Princes Street. Accessories and food courts if you are into that sort of thing. The Multrees Walk is for the designer cravers that’s nice to wander about as well.
My personal favorite was up in the Stockbridge and Dean Village area. Just down the hill from New Town you will find this enchanting little enclave that has apparently become the hip area of the city. (Hoping it will keep some of its Bohemian flare and not go the way of Williamsburg Brooklyn and become gentrified beyond recognition). Here I felt like I had left the city for a small little village replete with babbling brook (Water of Leith), hidden alleys and lovely gardens (The Royal Botanical Garden is nearby). The stores were all small and intimate run by locals as were the imaginative restaurants and coffee shops. Perhaps my favorite part of the city.
Where to Eat:*
As recently as the 90s, friends returning from Scotland gushed about the countryside, the cityscapes, and of course, the Scots. But the food? Not so much. The general consensus was to have your fill of shortbread (the eternal Scottish treat) but for everything else, proceed with caution. Apparently even the renowned salmon hailing from the local Scottish waters met a bitter culinary fate overcooked and blanketed in a Kindergarten glue paste “sauce’. However, this is clearly no longer the misfortune tempting your taste buds, at least not as far as the restaurants we enjoyed. Here are but a few.
Purslane: Located in the aforementioned Stockbridge section, this is a lovely, intimate place located in a townhouse offering a very inventive menu, carefully prepared with attention to taste and presentation. Sampled my first Croatian wine which was divine. Tasting menu available. RESERVATIONS A MUST. 33A St Stephen St, Edinburgh; +44 131 226 3500
Café St Honore: Franco-Scottish brasserie secreted down a teeny-tiny cobblestone street. You might even think you have been transported to a bistro in the Marais. Locally sourced food prepared in classic French style. RESERVATIONS RECOMMENDED. 34 Thistle St N W Ln, Edinburgh;
+44 131 226 2211; http://www.cafesthonore.com
Tower Restaurant & Terrace: Modern elegance in the National Museum of Scotland with spectacular views overlooking the city. Rooftop fine dining that is worth every penny. Impeccable service, smart setting and a varied menu and wine list. The night time view of the city alone is worth the price. RESERVATIONS A MUST. National Museum Of Scotland, Chambers St, Edinburgh;
+44 131 225 3003; http://www.tower-restaurant.com
The Witchery: A spit away from Edinburgh Castle, you will think you stepped onto the set of a classic fairy tale. This is a landmark that’s been a draw for over 40 years. More traditional carnivorous fare and just a bit more on the touristy side, it is worth the visit just to take a selfie in the most flatteringly lit restaurant you’ll ever visit. (Also a hotel). RESERVATIONS A MUST. Castlehill, The Royal Mile, Edinburgh; +44 (0) 131 225 5613; http://www.thewitchery.com/
For more options for great dining, check out this comprehensive link from The Telegraph:
*In high season (May–Sept), make reservations where noted at least a month in advance if not earlier.
Not just tea:
While this part of the world is known for its tee AND tea times, coffee is definitely king. Here are two great spots where we warmed our bones with some fresh brewed hospitality.
St Giles Café & Bar: A great little spot for breakfast, lunch or a libation up a little street from the St Giles Cathedral. Charming in every way. Our first stop after arriving in the city and their terrific café au lait helped me fight off the jetlag I suffered after binge-watching Mad Men on the plane from New York instead of sleeping. 8 St Giles’ St, Edinburgh EH1 1PT, United Kingdom +44 131 225 6267; http://saintgilescafebar.co.uk/
Fortitude Café: A thimble of a cafe with only a few tables that hits you with the divine aromas of freshly roasted coffee the second you open the door. Coffee created by real craftsman. And have a pastry along with your brew. Also a wee bit of heaven. 3C York Pl, Edinburgh; +44 131 557 3063; http://www.fortitudecoffee.com/