Joanna Booth finds Edinburgh an intoxicating city
Beautiful, brainy Edinburgh. The Scottish capital is that girl at school you tried to hate, but couldn’t.
Almost impossibly pretty, she’s got substance too, with museums and galleries aplenty. And with excellent restaurants and a thriving nightlife, she’s fun as well. The centre is pint-sized and easily walkable, so you can get to know her well in just a weekend.
Tourists flock there in August for the Edinburgh Festival and the Edinburgh Tattoo (pictured below), but as we discovered, there’s more than enough to keep visitors happy the other 11 months of the year.
10.00: Assuage the guilt of a Scottish breakfast – the usual fry up, plus haggis and potato scones – by taking an uphill stroll to the city’s most famous site, Edinburgh Castle. Perched on top of a rocky outcrop, the entry prices are nearly as steep as the drop on three of the castle’s four sides. But the £16 per adult and £9.60 per child tickets give access to splendid views over the city and it’s fun to wander along the battlements. There’s a range of sights within; we loved the moving National War Memorial but were underwhelmed by the Scottish equivalent of the Crown Jewels, The Honours of Scotland. Purchasing tickets online in advance is a no-brainer – this includes free fast-track access, avoiding the long queues at the front gate.
11.30: Wander down The Royal Mile, which stretches from the Castle to Holyrood Palace, the official royal residence in Scotland. Flanked with historic buildings, at first glance it’s a tourist trap, packed with shops with names like ‘Thistle Do Nicely’ selling everything from fudge to Diana Memorial Tartan. The key is getting off the main thoroughfare. Down fabulously named narrow alleyways or ginnels – Toddrick’s Wynd was our favourite – are lovely secret spots, including Dunbar’s Close Gardens. We grabbed a coffee and marvelled at the tranquillity just metres from the bustle of the Mile.
12.30: Get a whirlwind grasp of Scottish history at the National Museum of Scotland. The Scottish Galleries occupy the museum’s modern wing, with beautifully designed exhibits displaying everything from a Viking skeleton from Orkney and Bonnie Prince Charlie’s travelling canteen to the world’s first cloned mammal, Dolly the Sheep, stuffed. This free museum is a stunner – and don’t miss a visit to the pretty roof terrace, planted with specimen flora from across Scotland.
14.00: Have lunch – and maybe feel the spark of inspiration for a series of international bestsellers. The Elephant House is an airy, cheerful cafe on George IV bridge, but its reputation is based less on its array of light lunches and cakes (perfectly lovely though they are) and more on the identity of one of its former regulars: JK Rowling wrote much of the first Harry Potter novel there.
15.30: Journey to the dawn of time at Our Dynamic Earth. This interactive exhibition whisks visitors back to the Big Bang and explains how the earth was formed. We felt the ground move as we inhaled the smoke of volcanic eruptions, and shivered in the chill of ice age glaciers, before a 3D adventure took us to the bottom of the ocean.
17.00: Having learned about how volcanoes are formed, it’s time to climb Edinburgh’s very own, extinct, version. At 251 metres high, Arthur’s Seat is an easy enough climb, but tall enough to give gorgeous panoramic views of the city and over Leith to the Firth of Forth – and to mean walkers will have earned their dinner.
20.00: It’s time for some truly Scottish food – and no, I don’t mean a deep-fried Mars Bar. With some of the world’s finest produce, from salmon and beef to strawberries and raspberries, Scottish chefs have a wealth of indigenous ingredients to work with. Monteiths isn’t easy to spot – look out for the fairy lights down a close off the Royal Mile – but this underground restaurant is a hidden gem. We loved the scallops with spiced cauliflower beignet, the Arbroath smokie risotto, the expertly mixed cocktails and the friendly service.
11.00: Yesterday’s star attraction was the medieval Old Town – today it’s time to explore the neoclassical beauty of the New Town. All wide boulevards, leafy squares and gorgeous Georgian architecture, it’s also the city’s shopping hub. Go to Princes Street for big name chains plus the Edinburgh institution Jenners department store, George Street for mid-range designers and Multrees Walk for luxury brands. Rose Street hosts a string of one-off boutiques, and plenty of cafes for a restorative caffeine kick.
13.00: Make the next impulse purchase lunch. Urban Angel is a cute cafe offering homemade dishes in the heart of the New Town. Diners can mix little plates for a tapas-style lunch or opt for something more substantial – we gave the burger with beetroot salsa the thumbs up.
14.00: Snaking for nearly 13 miles through the centre of Edinburgh, The Water of Leith Walkway is the perfect place to walk off lunch. There’s no need to attempt all of it – a short central section passes through pretty Dean Village and into Stockbridge, a beautiful suburb of butter-coloured mews houses, bars and vintage shops just minutes from the New Town.
15.30: Exit on Arboretum Avenue and duck into the Royal Botanic Garden. The 70-acre main gardens are free – the Scottish Heath Garden brings the wilds of the Highlands to central Edinburgh – but it’s worth paying to visit the glasshouses (adults £4.50, children £1). Not only do these show off all sorts of exotic plants from orchids to giant water lilies, they’re also weatherproof.
19.00: Celebrate 48 well spent hours at one of the city’s most prestigious addresses – the Caledonian Waldorf Astoria (see Tried & Tested, left). Start with drinks in The Caley Bar, all plush velvet and dark wood, before tucking into divine food courtesy of famous chefs the Galvin Brothers. The Pompadour is their fine dining restaurant, but for something equally delicious at a more manageable price-point, the smart yet informal Brasserie de Luxe is ideal.
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