I was very ashamed of myself up until last week. I’d been to the other side of the world multiple times, but I’d never yet made it to England’s northern neighbour, Scotland. That was rectified with a quick weekend break from London to explore the fascinating Scottish capital. And man am I glad I decided it was time to check it out.
We decided to take the train from London rather than flying, as many do, as the prices are pretty much the same if you book the train in advance, and it takes a similar amount of time if you take the journey to the airport at either end into consideration. If you’re not coming from London, however, the airport isn’t too far at all from the city centre, and the transport links are great.
Once you’re in Edinburgh itself, you probably won’t do anything other than walk for the whole time you’re there. The layout means that getting a bus or a taxi is very often not the fastest way to get around, so embrace it and bring a comfortable pair of shoes.
Edinburgh is incredibly grand. In the centre, everywhere you look you see yet another beautifully gothic construction. The castle and Arthur’s seat peak out from behind buildings, and every time you turn a corner you get a new view.
The fact that it’s on two levels in places is completely mind-boggling. You’ll be looking at google maps, or a physical map if that’s your style, convinced that you’re standing exactly where your destination should be, only to look over the side and realise you’re actually on a bridge, and there’s a whole other street running beneath you.
It makes for wonderful adventures, and hours can be spent getting lost in the city, turning around random corners, going through archways, up steps, down hills and generally drinking it all in.
This is the equivalent to taking a selfie with Buckingham Palace in London, just with a little more exercise required to get the money shot. The geography of Edinburgh is incredible. Back in the mists of time, this was a land shaped by volcanoes. Arthur’s Seat looms above the city and is forever topped with little ant-like figures, staring down at you as you stare up at them.
It’s probably a 20-minute climb from the base to the peak to become an ant yourself, and the views are well worth it. You look out to the bay on one side and Scotland stretches away from you in every other direction, and the city is laid out beneath you. Talk about panoramic views. Be warned, it gets windy up there.
Take a walk around Holyrood park, which is made up of Arthur’s Seat and the surrounding hills with a lake or two dotted around. Round it off by peering through the gates at Holyrood Palace, and pronouncing your opinion of the fairly daring architecture of the new parliament building. Interesting.
Have you ever seen videos of the Hogmanay celebrations on New Year’s Eve? You can go into the arena where it takes place, perched on top of the hill in front of the castle and imagine the pipers marching up and down. It was nippy enough in August, so I dread to think what it would be like in the depths of winter.
The castle itself is definitely worth visiting, the site of countless events that changed the course of Scottish and British history. It is, however, not cheap, so if you’re on a budget that’s likely to be your big splurge for the day. If you’re into your history, though, it’s money very well spent, and the views from the windows are sensational.
One thing you are not short of in this city is huge numbers of places to eat. The main problem you’ll have is trying to pick just one. Luckily for me, the veggie/vegan revolution has very much taken hold in the Scottish city. There are countless cute cafes serving up plenty of tasty options completely free of all animal products, which I loved.
There’s even a place just off the Royal Mile that only serves veggie/vegan baked potatoes, who pride themselves on their ‘vegan haggis’ which, I have to say, isn’t bad at all. Of course, the meat eaters amongst you will probably want to sample the real deal (and I’m sure the Scottish among you are incensed that I suggested there cold be such a thing as vegan haggis. Try it as part of a full Scottish breakfast, which you can find pretty much everywhere.
Late into the night at weekends, the smell of takeaways fills the air, so you won’t have any trouble finding somewhere for a late-night snack to help soak up some of the whiskey, or local ale, or local cider, or whatever your tipple of choice is. The Scottish stereotype, at least in the rest of UK, is that they deep fry anything if it stands still for long enough, so brace your arteries and give a deep fried mars bar a go.
On the Fringe
If you’re planning on visiting Edinburgh in August, you’ll find a completely different city to the one you’d visit at all other times of year. In the summer the population explodes as, for a month, performers from all over the world descend on the city and it becomes one big theatre, with everything from kids entertainment to acapella to musicals to serious theatre & comedy being offered up to the hungry crowds.
Be sure to book well in advance for the fringe, and don’t be surprised if you have to pay way above the normal going rate. Even the most basic of hostels whack up their prices at this time. It’s worth it, though. The city comes alive with the sound of music and theatre and there are street performances everywhere you turn.
Alongside the paid shoes, some of which are amazing and well worth paying to see, there’s the free Fringe Festival, which offers up hundreds of free shows, mostly comedy, throughout the month. Be prepared to make a donation at the end, but it’s a great way of saving money on tickets and still enjoying yourself.
Make sure you do some research before you go and decide on a basic plan, maybe even buying a ticket or two in advance, but if you’re stuck for inspiration head to the Royal Mile, which stretches down to the sea one way and up to the castle the other, and let people with flyers convince you that their show is the one for you.
Whenever you go, be sure to take more warm clothes with you than you think you’ll need, as the wind can really bite. Stroll around, relax and drink in the incredible atmosphere of this historical city, before drinking in a local whiskey or two.