Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland, the northernmost of the United Kingdoms of Great Britain. It has a long and varied history, with invasions from the Norse, the Romans, the French and the English.
For a country so steeped in history, it still punches above its weight in both the Sciences (the 19th Century was basically invented in Scotland) as well as the Arts (it’s the birthplace of Sherlock Holmes, Long-john Silver, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Peter Pan and Harry Potter). Let’s explore and see some of the things there are to do on a visit to the Athens of the North.
Not the turreted fairy tale castles of Disney, this collection of low slung buildings glower from the top of the cliffs in the middle of Old Town.
Tickets cost £19.50 (£17.50 if bought online) and you can get an Audio guide for £3.50 or go on a free tour inside. The paths are cobblestone making it awkward to get around and there’s not a whole heap to see inside to justify the entrance fee but the panoramic sights over the city are amazing.
The Castle is more of a symbolic centre of the city, anchoring one end of the Royal Mile. The city has numerous firework displays and most seem to take advantage of the height and centrality of the Castle for launching.
The Castle forms a magnificent backdrop for the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Every August for the past 70 years the British Army and invited international guests have performed precision marching on the Esplanade in front of the Castle.
Tickets start at £33 and various packages of preferential seating and pre-Tattoo dinner and drinks are available. Being August, which is ostensibly Summer, you’re still exposed to the elements so wrap up warm and bring wet weather gear.
The first time I went with Mum one of the guest troops were the Dutch Army’s Bicycle Band. They were very skilful, cycling in formation, even those whose instruments required two hands to play. Their shtick was that when one of the band members “fell” off their bike a medical team with stretcher came sprinting up and took the bike away on the stretcher.
When Ange and I went in 2019 we elected to try the Piper’s Package. This is where you went for a three course meal before making the walk up The Mound to the venue, preceded by a piper playing their bagpipes. The package included seating in one of the better sections.
Finding the restaurant proved a challenge – we went to where Google Maps said it was and there was nothing there – just an open square. We found out why – the restaurant was directly below us and the event organisers had a person with a sign directing us down a flight of stairs to the entrance.
Inside we enjoyed our three course meal, wine and a wee dram to finish, and were serenaded by a pair of pipers.
We sat with a group of six others and learned a bit about them – our immediate neighbours were staying on a cruise ship in the harbour, so we quizzed them about where they’d been and what they’d seen.
The upshot of our friendly conversation was that when the wee dram of whiskey came around to top off the meal, I managed to inherit three drams – my one and our neighbour’s two as they didn’t drink. I may or may not have swayed a little as we headed back out into the summer air…
Out we streamed, one piper at the head of the queue, another at the end. We reached the traffic lights in short order but because we were strung out over such a long queue, all of us could not cross the street at the lights in one phase.
So collectively those further along started crossing the road away from the intersection. The event staff member responsible for our safe trip up to the venue tried to halt the flood of people and stopped herself mid cry. I’ll never forget the resignation in her voice as she realised the futility of it.
While we had preferential access, we weren’t the most important of the VIPs as we discovered when a cavalcade of VVIPs passed us as we trekked up the cobbled side street. These were the dignitaries and good and great who sat in the places of honour above the entrance way in covered seats with a view straight up the promenade.
The invited guest performers came from even further afield in 2019, with an extremely colorful performance by Trinidad and Tobago and both the NZ Army Band as well as championship marching girls from New Zealand.
Ange had got us some ponchos from the £1 shop and we were glad of them when the heavens opened mid-performance. It took us a little while to get them on – the awkwardness of unravelling them accentuated by taking care that my flailing limbs didn’t knock out any of our neighbours.
The performers must have been sodden though!
We were lucky we were staying so close to the Castle – the path up to the Castle is cobblestones, so slippery in the rain and a menace to the less abled. Definitely take care!
A year in Edinburgh is made up of a non-stop procession of festivals, five of the twelve occurring in the month of August. The Fringe, the most famous of them, is a manic explosion of comedy and theatre which literally takes over the city.
The attention of talent spotters and TV producers from London makes for a pressure-cooker environment and that’s beside the financial pressure to break-even for those self funding artists.
I reviewed twenty three shows in 2019 for ThreeWeeks if you’re interested. I was a bit relieved to be assigned shows by the editor as with 3,841 different shows, making a choice of what to see in the three weeks that the Fringe is on turns out to be quite difficult.
The last night of the Fringe is met by more fireworks from the Castle – a great place to view these is from Bruntsfield Links, a hill next door to the Meadows. If you’re planning on being in Edinburgh in August, book your accommodation early as it gets booked up very fast!
Doors Open Days
Speaking of getting booked up fast, Edinburgh’s Doors Open Days is a weekend in September where buildings you normally can’t get into allow visitors to look around.
Access is ticketed and so naturally enough the most popular locations get snapped up almost as soon as the website comes online. But this is your only chance to see inside some of Edinburgh’s more obscure buildings like the Barton Quarry Bunker.
Our first choices weren’t available but we went along to a bunch of places anyways – at the National Library we arrived to find staff with a clipboard checking off names. Not realising that the access was via tour only we hurriedly put our names on the list for a tour leaving later in the afternoon, snaffling the only slots available, but leaving us with a hole in our day.
Filling in the intervening hours, we ventured out into the city and visited John Knox’s House (15th Century Puritan – recommended), St Columba’s by the Castle Scottish Episcopal Church (just another church – avoid), Riddles Court (cute Juliet Balcony, and apparently a great place for weddings) and the Museum of Music where the tour guide actually performed on some of the instruments.
We finished up at the Playfair Library Hall and accidentally walked through connecting hallways into the Talbot Rice Gallery. Which really wasn’t to our taste (pictured below: ‘Possible Music # 2’, 2019), so we beat a hasty retreat and made it back in time for our guided tour into the bowels of the National Library.
I always find what goes on behind the scenes fascinating and with a knowledgeable guide it was great to access locked down rooms and areas where you wouldn’t otherwise get to see.
After the tour we poked our heads into the publicly accessible exhibits, but by then we were so exhausted by a long day that we weren’t able to give them the attention they deserved, so exited through the throngs of tourists and back home, vowing to return.
Nestled between New Town and Old Town overlooking the rail lines are the Princess Street Gardens and these are transformed at Christmas time into a typical European Christmas Market with rides and seasonal fares jostling with overpriced knickknacks and crowds.
Ange loves mulled wine and I let myself be tempted by the roasted meats and despite the cold and crowds, I suppose it’s not a bad experience.
While Hogmanay is the traditional celebration of the New Year, the events have spilled over to the days either side of the 31st. Edinburgh is famous for its New Year’s party and the schedule includes a Mid Winter Swim (“Loony Dook”) and a torchlight procession through the streets as well as the expected concerts, fireworks display and a mass Ceilidh.
The torchlight procession through the streets of Old Town and down into the parks around Holyrood is a little expensive and if you don’t want to spend the money you can get great views from the north end of Salisbury Crags.
It’s held on the 30th and the lights of those in the procession form a pair of figures shaking hands, a view you can only really appreciate from a helicopter.
There is something primeval about crowds and flames, but everybody is very well behaved. Well… mostly!
After the torchlight procession, fireworks are set off from Calton Hill, and great vantage points are available from Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s Seat (be careful climbing in the dark!) and from the top of the News Steps just down from the Castle in the Old Town.
They even have a set of fireworks detonated from the Castle at 6pm onthe 31st so that children can enjoy the festivities without having to stay up until midnight. If you’re not into crowds and still want to see the fireworks, you can see them from various vantage points around the city, including Calton Hill and Blackford Hill.
Tours of Edinburgh
There are ample tours of Edinburgh, most focussing on a particular neighbourhood, but while some advertise themselves as free, there’s usually a hat passed around and the expectation of a contribution.
One thing to remember when you’re on the streets in Edinburgh is that the streets are narrow and it’s not a sleepy Old Town like you might find in other countries – Edinburgh is a still functional city with people that need to get to where they’re going, so by all means take your photo, rub a statue or stare in wonderment at the sights, but please, for the love of all that is holy, don’t block the paths!
So what should you see? Where should you go? This is a non-exhaustive stroll from Edinburgh to Leith, taking in some of the sights.
Starting at the Castle, head down the Royal Mile and hang a right at George IV Bridge. If you have time, the Old Town will soak it up with various museums (Writer’s Museum, Camera Obscura, Museum of Childhood), Churches and Tours.
I have an allergy to shopping so would avoid heading down the Mound into Princess Street which is the main shopping area, but if that’s your thing you will find the usual high street retailers in New Town.
Also down there is the Scott Monument, which I still haven’t climbed yet. Ange reckons it’s quite harrowing and not advisable if you have any issues with heights or mobility, but assures me that the views are pretty special.
Running off the Royal Mile are a whole bunch of closes (alleyways), some picturesque and some less so. These shortcuts can carve off a considerable chunk of time off your pedestrian journey, and usually connect the Royal Mile to the lower levels of the City via huge flights of stairs.
National Library of Scotland
As mentioned above, the National Library of Scotland has great exhibits, the current one is on the Scottish Enlightenment – “Ideas That Shook the World”. Best of all it’s free!
According to lore, this is one of the cafes where JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter, leading to crowds taking photos of it from the outside without going in and buying anything and inconveniently blocking the pavement. A dubious honour leading to a neighbouring cafe to post an amusing retort in their window.
Ah, the second bottle neck along George IV Bridge! Greyfriars Bobby is a dog which guarded the grave of its owner for fourteen years. Or so legend has it. In fact, stray dogs would hang out in graveyards and be fed by visitors, making the graveyard their home.
Apparently, the local butcher did well out of the feeding and so the story of devoted dog guarding the grave of its owner started, which attracted more visitors and more feeding and more business. It would have been economically beneficial for a local businessman therefore to replace the terrier should it pass away, maybe explaining the astonishing fourteen year claim.
The Meadows is the great expanse of green in the middle of Edinburgh, separating the Old Town from the suburbs. You get to it by travelling down Middle Meadow Walk (try saying that three times fast), keeping to the right to avoid being mown down by the cyclists on the cycle lane adjacent.
The Meadows reflect the seasons, in summer saturated with new students enjoying what sun there is and making use of the single use barbeques from the local Sainsburys – effectively a tin foil tray with coal.
The pervasive smell of marijuana with the smoke from the bbqs make the scene look and smell like hemp meteorites had bombarded the area. The fine weather attracting drum circles, tight-rope walkers and fire jugglers.
Come autumn time there is less sun and so the fields are used more for sport and less for leisure, with football of three flavours being practiced (American, Rugby Union and Soccer) at one time or another.
In winter the leaves are totally lost on the trees lining the paths and there is very few daylight hours, so the Meadows turns into a bitter exposed area to be traversed while wrapped warmly with head down and in a hurry.
After a frost the quaint charm of the crunch of frozen leaves underfoot is only matched by people trekking to the neighbouring hill of Bruntsfield Links after a snow as tobogganing takes over as the sport of choice.
Spring brings the blossoms on the trees which line the paths through The Meadows, bringing with it people playing Ultimate Frisbee, Quidditch and even cricket!
The silhouette of Arthur’s Seat and the Salisbury Crags is recognisable for miles in every direction around Edinburgh, and the views from the top of Arthur’s Seat are amazing.
While not being a climb per se, the walk to the top isn’t without its challenges – bring good footwear and I wouldn’t go when the weather is inclement – definitely not in the winter when rain or dew could turn into slippery ice. There are a few routes to the top, depending on how strenuous you want the walk to be.
The Salisbury Crags
A slightly easier walk than Arthur’s Seat, the Salisbury Crags remind me of the Titanic when the aft end is sticking out of the water: a sheer cliff facing the city and a constant slab of granite on the other side.
It’s an interesting angle for your ankles, so not the best if you find uneven ground problematic, and while not as high as Arthur’s Seat, it’s still a grand view across the city to the Castle and beyond.
Holyrood Palace is the official residence of the Queen when she is in Edinburgh and represents the historical seat of power for Scotland. So much so that they built the Scottish Parliament across the road from it.
A weird collection of neo-classical buildings perch on a hill overlooking the city to the North – monuments to various parts of the city’s history and offering a great view out over the port and the beaches beyond. A new cafe takes full advantage of this. I haven’t been inside yet but the windows are huge allowing all the natural light to stream in.
The Old Observatory is up there too and its now available as accommodation. You wont get much better in the way of views in the inner city!
Heading down the hill into Leith, you can get a feel for how far Edinburgh proper is from its seaside. Some of the inhabitants of Leith still think of themselves as different from Edinburgh and while the area is a long way away from its depictions in movies, such as Trainspotting, it certainly has its own flavour.
Scotch Tasting in Leith
There are a lot of Scotch tasting opportunities in Scotland and Edinburgh is no different. We elected to check out the history of the Scotch trade in Leith with Justine from Kask Whisky Tours, and after an informative wander through the streets and back alleys, the weird and wonderful selection of different Scotches we tasted afterwards made the afternoon afterwards very giggly indeed!
Apparently the Royal Yacht Britannia is the number one attraction in all of Scotland. I’ve been twice, the first with Mum in 2011 and the second in 2019 with Ange.
Both times I’ve enjoyed the exhibits, marvelled at how the sailors and royals lived such different lives on the same ship, and counted the corgi stuffed toys hidden within the interiors. And both times the visit has been tainted by the tearooms on-board.
You would think that it would be possible to get served in a tearooms on board such a luxurious vessel, but far from being treated like royalty, you are instead treated like one of the swabbies who should be out cleaning the deck.
After twenty minutes of being ignored by the staff each visit, we wandered off in disgust, our attempts to attract the waitstaff’s attention in vain. Looking at the menu I think we dodged a bullet as the prices were eye watering. A pity though, because I think Mum quite fancied a cup of tea on the Queen’s yacht. The Ocean Terminal shopping centre which is attached to the yacht thankfully provides much better service. I can’t comment on how the food stacks up though…
Seige of Leith
I started this article mentioning some of the invaders of Edinburgh and mentioned the French. I’m not referring to the Norman invasion of 1066 here, as that was a definite English affair. No, the French invasion here was the very peculiar Siege of Leith. Part of the Wars of Religion, it involved French and English soldiers being invited by Scottish Catholics and Protestants respectively to protect their interests between 1548 and 1560. Evidence of the events are still being uncovered in and around Leith.
Pronounced Kay-lee, a ceilidh is an evening of line dancing to Celtic music with a Caller describing the dance steps – similar to the American hoedown. You can join a massive one at Hogmanay or try any number of venues throughout town for a more intimate experience.
Drinks and meals packages can round out the evening, and if you can last the distance they usually only close in the wee hours of the morning, giving great value for money. You could do worse than starting with a three course meal at 7:30pm, followed by dancing til 2:30am for £35 at Ghillie-Du.
If the thought of dancing on a three course meal you can find smaller affairs like the one we went to for £10 from Edinburgh Ceilidhs.