WHAT TO DO
Edinburgh is a delightful city with a captivating mix of history and culture. From the medieval Old Town to the elegant New Town and everything in between, Scotland's hilly capital has so much to offer. It is best explored on foot and the first place to begin your adventure is at Edinburgh Castle. Set atop a rocky hill, this popular attraction has played a pivotal role in Scottish history, both as a royal residence and a military stronghold. The Entrance Gateway, flanked by statues of Robert the Bruce (King of Scots) and William Wallace (Braveheart), opens to a cobbled lane that leads up beneath the 16th century Portcullis Gate to the cannons ranged along the Argyle and Mills Mount Batteries. At the far end of Mills Mount Battery is the famous One O'Clock Gun, where crowds gather to watch the World War 2 artillery fire a time signal at exactly 1pm. At the summit of Castle Rock is a group of buildings that surround Crown Square. There is the Great Hall, with its original 16th century hammer beam roof and the shrine of the Scottish National War Memorial. On the eastern side of the square is the Royal Palace, built during the 15th and 16th centuries. Inside is the highlight of the castle, a room housing the Honours of Scotland (the Scottish Crown Jewels). Locked away in a chest following the Act of Union in 1707, the crown (made in 1540 from the gold of Robert the Bruce's 14th century coronet), sword and sceptre lay forgotten until they were unearthed at the instigation of the novelist Sir Walter Scott in 1818.
From the castle, make your way down the Royal Mile - Edinburgh's main thoroughfare in the Old Town. It stretches from the castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse and is one of Europe's best sightseeing walks, with lots to see and do along the way. Start at the Scotch Whisky Experience, just below the castle at 354 Castlehill. This attraction tells the tale of Scotland's national drink with interactive exhibits, demonstrations and a barrel ride. It has the world's largest collection of malt whiskies (3384 bottles) and tours include whisky tastings. For some more of the dandy drink, stop in at Royal Mile Whiskies at 379 High Street. This place has a fine selection of single malts in miniature and full size bottles. My favorite whisky shop in town is Cadenhead's - Scotland's oldest independent bottler. Located at 172 Canongate, it offers you a chance to gain an education and buy a small bottle filled directly from the cask of your choice. Founded in 1842, Cadenhead's prides itself on bottling pure whisky without watering it down or adding coloring.
The Royal Mile is packed with history. After sampling a wee bit of that tasty whisky, explore the narrow back alleys (closes) and imagine Edinburgh in the 17th century when locals walked the same alleyways. Better yet, take a tour of the Real Mary King's Close at 2 Warriston's Close, High Street. Edinburgh's 18th century City Chambers were built over the sealed off remains of Mary King's Close and the lower levels of this medieval Old Town alley have survived almost unchanged amid the foundations for 250 years. This spooky, subterranean labyrinth gives a fascinating insight into the everyday life of 17th century Edinburgh. Costumed characters lead the tours through the plague stricken home of a 17th century gravedigger and a room supposedly haunted by the ghost of a little girl called Annie. Across the road on High Street is the impressive St Giles' Cathedral. Also known as the High Kirk of Edinburgh, the church was named after the patron saint of cripples and beggars. It is filled with monuments, plaques and stained glass windows dedicated to great Scots and historical moments. One of the most interesting corners of the kirk is the Thistle Chapel, built in 1911 for the Knights of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle. The elaborately carved Gothic style stalls have canopies topped with the helms and arms of the 16 knights. The super cool crown steeple dates from the late 15th century. St Giles' was at the heart of the Scottish Reformation and John Knox served as minister from 1559 to 1572. His fiery sermons helped turn once Catholic Edinburgh into a bastion of Protestantism. Just down the road from St Giles' at 43 High Street is the John Knox House, the oldest surviving tenement in Edinburgh (circa 1490). The leader of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland is thought to have lived here from 1561 to 1572. The interior has period furniture, painted timber ceilings and an interesting display on Knox's life and work. Conclude your Royal Mile stroll past the Scottish parliament building at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. This palace is the royal family's official residence in Scotland, but is more famous as the 16th century home of the ill fated Mary, Queen of Scots. The self guided audio tour leads you through a series of impressive royal apartments, culminating in the Great Gallery. The tour continues to the oldest part of the palace which contains Mary's Bed Chamber, home to the unfortunate queen from 1561 to 1567. It was here that her jealous second husband, Lord Darnley, restrained the pregnant queen while his henchmen murdered her secretary David Rizzio. A plaque in the neighboring room marks the spot where he bled to death. The tour ends with the ruins of Holyrood Abbey.
Just beyond the base of the Royal Mile in Holyrood Park is the rocky peak of Arthur's Seat. It was carved by ice sheets from the deeply eroded stump of a long extinct volcano. The commanding view from the summit is well worth the 45 minute hike. Next, head to Lawnmarket and the Writers' Museum. Tucked down a close between the Royal Mile and the Mound you'll find Lady Stair's House. It houses this museum that contains manuscripts and memorabilia belonging to three of Scotland's most famous writers: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. From there, visit the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street. Its extensive collections are spread between two buildings, one modern and one Victorian. The five floors of the museum trace the history of Scotland from its geological beginnings to the 1990s, with many imaginative and stimulating exhibits. The old building houses an eclectic collection covering natural history, archaeology, scientific technology and decorative arts. Finish up in the Old Town at Grassmarket. This historic market place lies in a hollow, directly below Edinburgh Castle. The site of a cattle market from the 15th century until the start of the 20th century, the Grassmarket has always been a focal point of the Old Town. It was once the city's main place of execution and over 100 martyred Covenanters are commemorated by a monument at the eastern end, where the gallows used to stand. The notorious murderers Burke and Hare operated from a now vanished close off the western end. Today, the square, lined by tall tenements and dominated by the looming castle, has many lively shops, pubs and restaurants - including the White Hart Inn, which was once patronized by Robert Burns. Claiming to be the city's oldest pub in continuous use (since 1516), it also hosted William Wordsworth in 1803.
After your Old Town adventure, walk the Waverley Bridge to the New Town. Stop off at Princes Street Gardens for some down time. These beautiful gardens lie in a valley that was once occupied by the Nor' Loch (North Loch), a swampy depression that was drained in the early 19th century. At the gate beside the Mound (artificial hill which connects Old Town and New Town) is the Floral Clock, a working clock laid out in flowers - it was first created in 1903 and the design changes every year. The eastern half of Princes Street Gardens is dominated by the massive Gothic spire of the Scott Monument, built by public subscription in memory of the novelist Sir Walter Scott after his death in 1832. The exterior is decorated with 64 carvings of characters from his novels and inside you can see an exhibition on his life. Climb the 287 steps to the top for a superb view of the city. Located on the Mound is the Scottish National Gallery. Designed by William Henry Playfair, this imposing classical building with its Ionic porticoes dates from 1850. Its octagonal rooms, lit by skylights, have been restored to their original Victorian decor of deep green carpets and dark red walls. The gallery houses an important collection of European art from the Renaissance to post Impressionism - with works by El Greco, Rembrandt, Monet and Van Gogh. Be sure to seek out the gorgeous portrait of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw by John Singer Sargent. The basement galleries dedicated to Scottish art include portraits by Allan Ramsay and Sir Henry Raeburn, rural scenes by Sir David Wilkie and Impressionistic landscapes by William MacTaggart. Note: the museum is open daily from 10am to 5pm and admission is free. Also worth a visit is the Scottish National Portrait Gallery located at 1 Queen Street. Its galleries illustrate Scottish history through paintings, photographs and sculptures - putting faces to famous names from Scotland's past and present, from Robert Burns to Sean Connery. Conclude your tour of Edinburgh at the outstanding Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (75 Belford Road). It is split between two impressive neoclassical buildings surrounded by landscaped grounds just west of Dean Village. The main collection, known as Modern One, concentrates on 20th century art with various European movements represented by the likes of Matisse and Picasso. The second building, Modern Two, presents Surrealism and focuses on works by Dali and Ernst. The museum is open daily from 10am to 5pm and admission is free of charge.
WHERE TO EAT
Edinburgh has several great spots to eat and drink. Start your day at Lovecrumbs, it's a quirky cafe located at 155 West Port. Scrumptious cakes and tarts are presented in a vintage wooden dresser and the artisan Steampunk coffee along with hot chocolate by Coco Chocolatier are top notch. For lunch, head to Devil's Advocate, just off the Royal Mile at 9 Advocates Close in Old Town. This cozy restaurant is set in a converted Victorian pumphouse and does some solid pub grub. The Tweed valley beef burger with Dunlop cheddar, smoked bacon, tomato relish and pickle on a brioche bun is dynamite. It pairs nicely with the 200 plus strong whisky shelf. Mums is another cool spot to munch. Found at 4a Forrest Road, this retro style diner serves up traditional British comfort food and has a good selection of bottled craft beers and Scottish brewed cider. They have everything from bangers and mash, fish and chips to shepherd's pie and haggis (the national dish of Scotland that everyone should try at least once - but I won't tell you what it is).
When dinner time arrives, make your way to Timberyard at 10 Lady Lawson Street. The setting is hip and the space is set in a former warehouse with worn floorboards, iron pillars and old mahogany tables. The menu is creative and focuses on locally sourced produce from artisan growers and foragers. Highlights include cured halibut with horseradish, seared scallop with apple and Jerusalem artichoke with sorrel. They have a nice wine and cocktail list, plus offer a 4, 6 or 8 course dinner menu. Another option if you're the sort who sometimes has trouble deciding what to eat, Aizle (107 St Leonard's Street) will do it for you. There is no menu, just a 5 course dinner created from a seasonal harvest of the finest and freshest local produce. Everything is listed on a blackboard and the room presents a comfortable countryside vibe. Cannonball Restaurant & Bar is next to Edinburgh Castle at 356 Castlehill on the Royal Mile. This sophisticated eatery and whisky bar is where the Contini family work their Italian magic on Scottish classics. Start with some Scottish oysters then go for the house favorite Cannonballs (Findlay’s haggis with pickled turnip, Glengoyne whisky and Seville orange marmalade). The Eyemouth lobster with herb chilli garlic and lemon butter is marvelous. Be sure to save room for the Contini tipsy ice cream - espresso and vanilla ice cream with Scottish raspberry liqueur.
Note: the restaurant is closed Sunday and Monday. Located on Commercial Quay in Leith is The Kitchin. Fresh and locally sourced Scottish produce is the philosophy that has won a Michelin star for Tom Kitchin's elegant, but unpretentious restaurant. Housed in a converted whisky warehouse, the team at Kitchin are "fanatical about seasonal cooking from nature to plate." I recommend the Chef's Surprise Tasting Menu - it moves with the seasons, of course, so expect fresh salads in summer and game in winter. Delights from the sea are also on the menu when there's an 'r' in the month. Finally, there is Ondine - located at 2 George IV Bridge in the heart of Old Town. It is one of Edinburgh's finest seafood restaurants with a menu based on sustainably sourced fish. This modern space has a curved oyster bar and I particularly enjoyed the fish and shellfish soup with gruyere and croutons, along with the crab and pea risotto. Note: reservations are suggested.
Edinburgh has many cool places to have a drink and see a show - I would like to share a few of my favorites. Begin at the Grassmarket area Bow Bar, located at 80 West Bow. This no frills pub serves a range of excellent real ales, malt whiskies and Scottish craft gins. It's usually busy and often has standing room only on most evenings. Another solid go to is Bennet's Bar at 8 Leven Street. A distinguished institution since 1839, little has changed since it was created as the sister to the adjacent King's Theatre. Bennet's has managed to hang on to almost all of its lovely Victorian splendor, from the stained glass windows to the brass water taps on the bar. They have a nice selection of cask ales and over 100 malt whiskies from which to choose. Over in the New Town at 3 Rose Street is The Abbotsford. This lavishly decorated Edwardian pub dates from 1902 and is named after Sir Walter Scott's country house. It has many loyal regulars and is a hang out for writers (including your author). The pub's centerpiece is a grand island bar carved from Spanish mahogany and they have plenty of tasty cask ales. If you are in the mood for a stiff drink then Bramble is your place. Also in the New Town at 16a Queen Street, it's an unmarked cellar bar where a maze of stone and brick hideaways conceal what is arguably the town's best cocktail joint. The Kingfisher (Hendrick's gin, Absinthe, salt, pistachio, cardamom and lime) and the Black & Yellow (Monkey Shoulder whisky, Rinquinquin, Kilchoman Machir Bay single malt whisky, honey, bee pollen and lemon) were most enjoyable.
If the weather happens to be miserable (it's Scotland after all) or if you just want to see some live music, I advise checking out the following 2 venues. Bannerman's is located at 212 Cowgate in Old Town. This long established rock and whisky bar straggles through a warren of old nooks and crannies beneath South Bridge. It pulls in crowds of students and locals alike with live rock, punk and indie bands six nights a week. The staff is super friendly and the scene is tons of fun. One of the prettiest venues I've ever visited is Usher Hall, located on Lothian Road in the west end. Opened in 1914 with a capacity of 2200, this architecturally impressive hall is the Edinburgh home of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO) and hosts concerts by notable acts. There is not a bad seat in the house and the acoustics are excellent.
WHERE TO STAY
Edinburgh has numerous places to call home during your stay and there are 2 that I especially enjoyed. Both are in prime locations that provide exceptional service, modern amenities and comfort. The first is The Balmoral, located at 1 Princes Street in the New Town. This sophisticated Victorian landmark hotel, opened in 1902, is surrounded by shops and restaurants and is a short walk from Edinburgh Waverley train station. Contemporary rooms have marble bathrooms, free WiFi and flat screen TVs. Dining options include a brasserie, a fine dining restaurant, an elegant lounge serving afternoon tea and 2 bars, 1 specializing in whiskies. The Balmoral Spa has an indoor pool, a gym and a sauna, as well as steam rooms and beauty treatments.
A second option is the G&V Royal Mile Hotel, located at 1 George IV Bridge in the heart of Old Town. This modern hotel is near many attractions and just a 5 minute walk from Edinburgh Castle. The bright, contemporary rooms with vibrant color schemes are very comfortable and have designer toiletries, complimentary WiFi, iPod docks and in room coffee machines. The lively restaurant Cucina serves traditional Italian cuisine and the bar Epicurean offers drinks, serves light meals and also does afternoon tea. There is a wellness spa on site to help you relax and recharge.
Edinburgh is rich in history, culture and tradition. I truly enjoyed my time in the land of scotch, bagpipes and kilts.