My first visit to Scotland’s capital nine years ago was relatively brief and spent mostly in the New Town where I was staying. So it was only on my recent return that I fully appreciated the contrast between that and the Old Town and what fascinating exploration it offers.
On one ridge the tangle of cobbled streets, stairs and closes (alleys) of the Old Town provide an insight into how over crowded life in the city was 500 years ago. On the opposite ridge the elegant squares, crescents and terraces of the New Town are where the upper classes moved to live rather more elegantly a couple of hundred years later.
In between the two is a valley that was once a boggy Loch and is now Princes Street Gardens, one of many green spaces in the city, the crowning glory of which must surely be Arthur’s Seat.
It’s the remainder of a volcano that stopped its eruptions many years ago and the highest point of Holyrood Park which is extraordinarily rural despite being on the edge of the city centre.
Add to this, great shopping, eating, drinking and entertainment, plus a seaport just two miles away at Leith and you have the ingredients for a perfect city break, even when its cold and raining.
My recent trip was for the infamous Hogmanay celebrations. That’s a whole other experience in itself, so if you’re interested to know more you can read about it in my separate blog post.
See and do
There’s so much to see and do in Edinburgh that what you cover will probably depend on the weather and how much time you have. But what you don’t have time for you can always keep for next time, as I’m sure you’ll want to come back. Here’s a few things I can recommend.
Walking the Old Town – exploring the nooks and crannies of the Old Town is a great way to spend a couple of hours. I followed a walking route in the Lonely Planet that starts at Castle Esplanade and ends at the controversial Scottish Parliament building next to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. It takes you up stairs and through closes that you almost certainly wouldn’t notice without the prompt. The castle itself is steeped in history and dominates the city skyline. Weather and available time meant I didn’t get to go inside – it’s quite expensive (£16 in Dec 2013) and there’s lots to see, so you need to allow plenty of time for your visit.
Royal Mile – if you don’t do the full walking tour at least make time for the famous cobbled mile. First thing to know is that its actually called a range of names at different points, which can be confusing when looking at a map. Once there the road signs tend to be doubled up to reflect that back in the 16th century it was nicknamed the Royal Mile, when it was used by the king to travel between the castle and the palace. There are lots of interesting places to visit along the route including St Giles’ Cathedral which is well worth a visit, particularly to see the Thistle Chapel.
Palace of Holyroodhouse – I did find it a bit ironic that I was visiting the royal family’s official residence in Scotland when after years of living in or near London I’ve yet to go to Buck House! Whether you’re particularly interested in the royals or not, its a really good visit with an informative self-guided audio tour charting the palace’s history.
Royal Yacht Britannia – on a related note one of Scotland’s biggest tourist attractions is the royal family’s former floating home. While at Holyroodhouse you can see the bedchamber of Mary Queen of Scots but on the yacht you can see where the current royals slept when travelling overseas. Definitely a good place to indulge your voyeuristic tendencies! It’s berthed at Ocean Terminal where there’s also a shopping centre with eateries and a cinema.
Shop ’til you drop – have to say I was impressed by the shopping in Edinburgh…and I’ve been to some good shopping cities. The Old Town shops seem to be mostly geared to tourists, though I’m sure there are some interesting finds if you spend time really looking. The New Town definitely has plenty to offer including large department stores and high street chains in Princes Street and smaller stores one street back on pedestrianised Rose Street. Then there’s a nice collection of more upmarket shops on George Street which aren’t all top price designer stores…more of the Coast, Hobbs, LK Bennett and Anthropologie variety…and there are some nice bars for a post shopping cocktail.
Eat, drink, sleep
There are stacks of places to stay in Edinburgh of every shape, size and price point. On recommendation from a friend I stayed at The Edinburgh Residence which offers suites in converted town houses. It turned out to be a sister hotel and just around the corner from the Bonham where I stayed last time. Both are in the West End area, just a short walk from the top of Princes Street and filled with lovely terraces, crescents and small streets with inviting small shops and eating places.
I’d enjoyed the stay at the Bonham, but the Residence was perfect for a colder time of year as the suites have a large living area with comfortable sofas – ideal for getting warm, relaxing and recharging after a day exploring the city. Another treat is that breakfast is served in the suite any time before 11am, so no rush to get up and ready after a night on the town.
Talking of which the array of places to eat, drink and be entertained is vast. The Old Town scene mostly focuses around Cowgate and Grassmarket where there are plenty of pubs and clubs. It tends to be a boozy affair often populated by large groups and stag and hen parties, so my preference was for the New Town.
For drinks there are classic Victorian pubs like the Guildford Arms and the Cafe Royal Circle Bar, both in West Register Street, which provide plenty to look at as well as to drink. Both do food too though I didn’t eat there. In contrast there are also much more modern cocktail bars like Amicus Apple on Frederick Street which has quirky decor and a great drinks list.
Eating wise I’ve read that Edinburgh has more restaurants per head of population than any other UK city and it certainly has something to satisfy every palate and budget. I had a great meal before the New Year’s Eve Street Party at the Dogs on Hanover Street, which refreshingly wasn’t forcing patrons to choose from a set menu at double the usual price.
Howies of Waterloo Place is another very nice spot at the foot of Calton Hill and has a sister restaurant in the very pretty Victoria Street in the Old Town. For lovers of French food, La P’tite Folie in Frederick Street is a small good value bistro offering plenty of classic dishes, while those who are interested in whisky might enjoy a visit to Whiski bar in the High Street part of the Royal Mile. I found it to be an ideal place to stop off for lunch when strolling the mile; even had veggie haggis on the menu which my friend tried and thought was rather good. Lots of places seem to have ‘sisters’ and this one is the Whiski Rooms in North Bank Street which is much bigger and also offers tastings and a shop.
So that’s Edinburgh…for now at least, as I have a strong suspicion I’ll be back to visit again in the warmer weather.
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