If you can no longer ignore the call of the bagpipes, it may be time to check out Edinburgh—Scotland’s capital and second largest city. But how you check it out, when and where, makes the big difference, especially if you can experience this city off the brochure.
First, some numbers: As Scotland’s most popular tourist destination and the second most-visited city in the UK, Edinburgh draws more than 13 million visitors a year, ranging from budget backpackers to cosmopolitan jetsetters.
Most folks coming to Edinburgh—especially first-timers—are coming to see Edinburgh Castle, or they’ve heard about the artsy Edinburgh Fringe Festival, whiskey tours, pub crawls, and tracking down the origin of those delicious Scottish shortbread cookies.
Edinburgh is a city where ancient and modern literally co-exist. Old Town is dominated by the medieval Edinburgh Castle (above), while New Town boasts a largely neoclassic architecture that was established in the late 18th to mid-19th centuries. In fact, these districts are so bound together that they were named a unified UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995.
You might want to start with an organized city tour. But not any regular tour.
Why not learn about the city’s “underground” scene with a nighttime haunted tour? Mercat Tours offers both a Haunted Underground Experience and a Ghosts and Ghouls tour, which take you on a walking journey through the narrow alleys and cobblestone streets of Edinburgh (named “the most haunted place in Britain” by the BBC). You’ll descend underground into the city’s hidden vaults, hear chilling tales of the city’s history, and find out what on earth they uncovered in the Edinburgh Ghost Project 2001. Best of all, this is one of the cheapest ways to get a guided tour of the city, at about $12 for adults. www.mercattours.com
Which leads us to …
MONUMENTS YOU MIGHT OTHERWISE MISS
Pay your respects to Greyfriars Bobby, a Skye Terrier who, according to legend, spent 14 years watching over his master’s grave until his own demise in 1872. Only leaving his perch to beg for food from the restaurant across the graveyard, Greyfriars Bobby is a local legend and even has a bronze statue and fountain that was commissioned by the Baroness Burdett Coutts. The gravestone, which can be found in Greyfriars Kirkyard next to the grave of his owner, John Grey, commemorates the final resting place of the loyal pup.
Journalism buffs should be sure to take a walk around the Scotsman Hotel, the original location for The Scotsman— the largest newspaper in Scotland. The hotel was completely restored, minus the printing presses, to its former glory and now hosts a gym in its original printing press room and a bar and brasserie in the newspaper’s former reception room. 20 North Bridge; www.thescotsmanhotel.co.uk
THE WORLD OF SCOTTISH ART
Edinburgh is where you’ll find all five of Scotland’s National Galleries, which means that you could spend your entire trip viewing dizzying collections of classical paintings, modern art, portraits, and photography.
But if you can’t get enough, there are still several more options for art-lovers:
The Fruitmarket Gallery showcases contemporary exhibitions by both Scottish and International artists. From March 1 through May 4, 2008 the gallery will present a selection of northern European sculpture, photography, installation and film in the context of the western and its role in the creation of the myth of the American West. 45 Market Street; www.fruitmarket.co.uk
Richard Ingleby’s gallery, housed in a Georgian house near Calton Hill, champions contemporary art, whether it be painting, sculpture, or installation. The gallery will celebrate its 10th anniversary this summer, and will feature “unexpected pairings” of artists who focus on different mediums, including visual art, music and film. 6 Carlton Terrace; www.inglebygallery.com
Make sure to check out the Edinburgh Photographic Society, where you can admire the galleries of photographs that chronicle the history of the royal burgh. Pictures range from city life to the elaborate gravestones of the citizens of Edinburgh, most of them taken by local artists. www.edinburghphotographicsociety.co.uk
Whether it’s a chilly day in mid-winter or a sweltering summer scorcher, the Midlothian SnowSports Centre makes the thrill of winter sports available to residents and visitors all year long. Located outside of Edinburgh, it contains the longest artificial ski slope in Britain so you can stay in shape for the slopes even when the next snow is still months away. 0131 445 4433, www.midlothian.gov.uk/topic.aspx?topicid=86
For those looking for a thrill, Ratho Adventure Centre, located just outside the city, is a repurposed 100-foot quarry which houses the largest indoor climbing arena in the world, plus other heart-pumping activities that may involve you zip lining down 100 feet through challenging obstacles, rope climbing races and even “soft play” climbs for children. www.adventurescotland.com
Want a fun way to relax and get some exercise at the same time? Dance Base, Scotland’s national center for the dance in Edinburgh offers more than 35 classes and workshops per week that visitors can also take advantage of on a drop-in basis. Classes range in style and ability level but include African, Latin American, ballroom, ballet, and jazz. www.dancebase.co.uk
While you’re in Edinburgh check the local events calendar for an upcoming ceilidh, which is a traditional Gaelic social dance. These community gatherings are a great way to meet people and double as good exercise as the pace of the dance can really get going. Don’t worry, no experience is necessary and the events are designed to be a great time for any level of dancer.
The good news is that Edinburgh’s adventurous culinary scene isn’t all about haggis. The waterfront restaurant Kitchin has earned its claim to fame with one of the youngest Michelin-starred chefs standing over the stove. Chef Tom Kitchin, who runs the Leith-area restaurant with his wife, earned the star within months after the restaurant’s opening last year, and has become something of a local celebrity. This is the spot to test out regional cuisine prepared with a gourmet French flair—expect dishes made with fresh seafood, Scottish game, and seasonal vegetables. 78 Commercial Quay; www.thekitchin.com
Jamaican food in Scotland? Brilliant, mon. Coyaba, which means “heaven” or “paradise” in the language of the Arawak Indians, is Scotland’s first and only Jamaican restaurant. Here, the emphasis is on fresh chicken, fish and vegetables, beans and rice served fresh and full of island flavor. Jerk chicken, goat curry in a hot scotch bonnet sauce, and fish gently poached with coconut milk and served with okra, and sweet peppers, and fried cassava cakes are all favorites. Don’t forget to order one of their specialty Jamaican cocktails to wash it all down. 113 Buccleuch Street; www.coyaba.co.uk
Our local friends rave about the fresh, colorful spread on offer at Henderson’s. The location began as a healthy fresh foods store stocking organic fruit and vegetables from the family’s farm, but quickly opened a vegetarian self-service style restaurant downstairs to satisfy the demand for its ever changing selection of soups, salads, and baked goods. Try the bright red pear, plum, and raspberry compote with yogurt and granola, or one of the hearty oatcakes with a bowl of fresh curried carrot soup. 94 Hanover Street; 0131 225 2131, www.hendersonsofedinburgh.co.uk
Wind through the maze of indoor and outdoor courtyards, small drawing rooms, round booths, banquette seating and two bars to find the ambiance that fits your mood at Tigerlily on George Street. Whether you stop by for breakfast, coffee, lunch, an evening cocktail, or a leisurely dinner, the restaurant has something to satisfy every taste. The artsy interiors are matched by a diverse selection of culinary treats including delicious puddings to share such as chocolate fondue accompanied by marshmallows and profiteroles for dipping. 125 George Street; www.tigerlilyedinburgh.co.uk
To get a sense of the local culinary scene, check out the Edinburgh Farmers Market which sets up every Saturday in Castle Terrace from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. The market brings together the country’s best natural produce producers as well as vendors selling Arbroath Smokies (smoked haddock) to Scottish Dolcelatte cheese. www.edinburghfarmersmarket.co.uk
GRABBING A PINT (OR A FEW)
What’s a trip to Edinburgh without a night (or several) out on the town?
Though the guide books will point you to the Royal Mile and Old Town for a pint, you’ll find more locals and the younger set flocking to the trendy Grassmarket area. Pubs like The Three Sisters are often frequented by locals and offer large spaces indoors and outdoors to enjoy your Tennants, Scotland’s homebrewed beer, Strongbow, the cider of choice for Scots, or Iron Bru, a Scottish bubblegum-tasting soft drink that holds the record for outselling Coca-Cola in Scotland, making it the only soda to outsell Coca-Cola anywhere in the world.
If you’ve already had enough beer to last a lifetime, stop by Doric Tavern on Market Street. This watering hole/bistro boasts an extensive wine list paired with traditional Scottish and British dishes. Head upstairs to the bohemian-vibed bar where you can people-watch all afternoon and well into the night as the place swells with intellectual-types, or stick with the downstairs “public bar” with a more traditional pubby crowd. 15/16 Market Street; www.thedoric.co.uk
To get a taste of the active nightlife, enter Espionage, a five-floor maze that contains four bars and a night club. You can usually experience different sounds of each floor, giving you a feel of what is in popular in the Royal City at this time. Cabaret Voltaire resides in the old town underground vaults of Edinburgh and offers live acts and talented DJ spinning new tracks. However, if traditional music is more your thing, Whistlebinkies is a great place to find traditional Celtic and folk band acts.
By Alix Proceviat and Michelle Castillo for PeterGreenberg.com.
Check out more from our Off-the-Brochure Travel Guide series.
Why not combine a trip to Scotland with a visit to London? Learn more in Off-the-Brochure Travel Guide: London.
Scotland’s also pretty sexy. Find out why in Sexy Hotel Getaways & Romance Advice for the Road.