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Things to see and do in Edinburgh – EDUC 2018

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There is a great deal to see in Edinburgh, so if you have limited time available you will need to make choices. To help with that I will break down some of Edinburgh’s many attractions into categories.

The heart of Edinbugh is divided between the tangled three-dimentional maze of the Old Town (Scots: the Auld Toun, or Auld Reekie), which clusters around the Royal Mile, built on the volcanic tail left when the flow of the ice-age glaciers parted around the obdurate mass of the Castle Rock, and the elegant neo-classical grid of the New Town (no Scots version: the wealthy residents here spoke proper English!) to the north (top-left area of the map above; the New Town actually extends farther to the north and east, but the map shows its original design). The newness is relative (like The New World, or Newcastle-upon-Tyne, whose “Castle” was “New” in 1080!) – Edinburgh’s New Town is over 250 years old. Separating the two is a valley (a drained loch) now occupied by Princes Street Gardens and Waverley railway station, crossed by The Mound (constructed on the excavated rubble from the New Town’s foundations) and the Victorian spans of North Bridge and Waverley Bridge.

The obvious ones

  • You can’t go to Edinburgh and not see the Castle… pretty much literally, as, glowering on its volcanic basalt (technically, dolerite) crag, it dominates the city centre. However an actual visit is almost mandatory and well worth while. The entrance is at the top of the Royal Mile, via the Esplanade. A Royal Castle since at least the 12th century, here you can see the Scottish Crown Jewels, the huge 20-inch bombard Mons Meg, St Margaret’s Chapel – the oldest building in Edinburgh, the famous One O’Clock Gun and much more besides. Opening hours are from 09:30-17:00 and tickets are £17 each for adults.
  • Holyrood Palace – sitting at the bottom (east end) of the Royal Mile, the Palace of Holyroodhouse has been the official residence of the Monarch in Scotland since the 16th century (although, in truth, I suspect Her Majesty actually prefers her Balmoral Estate in the Highlands). Here you can see the State Apartments and the Throne Room, Mary Queen of Scots’ chambers, the Palace Gardens and the ruins of the 12th century Holyrood Abbey. Admission: £14 (or £23 for a “Royal Visit”).
  • St Giles Cathrdral – Edinburgh’s cathedral church, or High Kirk, the present building of St Giles on the Royal Mile dates from the 14th century, although there has been a church on the site for around 900 years, so the home of the reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland was once an unreformed Catholic place of worship. Its famous “crown steeple” is a notable feature of the Old Town skyline. For the brave, rooftop tours are available: £6 per person – maximum 4; contact: stgilestower@gmail.com. In Parliament Square, just outside the main entrance to the kirk, you can find the “Heart of Midlothian” set into the cobbles, marking the site of the old Tollbooth Prison (demolished in 1817) where criminals were executed in days gone by.
  • The Scott Monument – standing on the south side of Princes Street at the bottom of St David Street, like a gothic stone version of Alan Tracy’s Thunderbird 3, this iconic symbol of Edinburgh houses a small museum on the 1st floor and can be climbed to the top, via 287 slightly claustrophobic steps, for unique views over the city – not for the faint of heart! Admission: £5.90 per adult.
  • The Camera Obscura – this piece of clever Victorian technology, housed in an old town house on the upper section of the Royal Mile, uses a periscope and mirror to cast images of the view from the top of the tower onto a viewing table below, so is a way to take in vistas over Edinburgh from that vantage, or you can climb to the viewing platform to see them directly. Five floors of other optical illusions are also featured. Adult admission: £15.50.
  • The Royal Yacht Britannia – once the beloved private home-from-home of Her Majesty the Queen on the High Seas, Britannia now sits at dock alongside Ocean Terminal shopping mall in Leith, the Port of Edinburgh, about two miles north of the city centre. The tour takes in the five main decks, from the Bridge to the Engine Room, including the State Apartments, the Crew Quarters and the personal studies of Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh. Adult admission: £16.00, with audio guide.

Eating and drinking

  • Pubs – I am not even going to attempt to list these, but suffice to say that anywhere you go in Edinburgh city centre you will rarely be more than a few steps from a watering hole. An eclectic list can be found at the start of this rather good blog article. A favourite event for Universityfreshers” (in my dissolute day, at least) was to “crawl” the Royal Mile, having a pint in every pub from the bottom to the top – few lasted the whole course from the Blue Blanket (now the Canon’s Gait) to the Ensign Ewartan’ they’re a’ deid (as we say in Scotland). Rose Street in the New Town (just north of Princes Street) was another favourite for this kind of activity, and although it has become a more refined shopping street over the years, it still boasts many drinking establishments. English “bitter” drinkers may want to try “Heavy“, “70-shilling” or “80-shilling” (the latter two named for the historic excise duty payable on each barrel – even 90-shillling can be found in places), although IPA is also common. However a wide selection of international beers are available, while most pubs will allow you a free taste of the brews on offer before you order – it can’t hurt to ask! Spirits in Scotland used to be sold in 1/5 (or sometimes even 1/4) Gill measures, as compared to the more niggardly English 1/6 Gill, but standardisation at 25ml (or sometimes 35ml) has, alas, ended such practice (best order a “double“, just to be sure – you know you want to!). Most pubs also serve – often very good – food, as that is where the money is to be made these days.
  • Restaurants: again, there are too many to sensibly list… and again, in the city centre you are never very far from one and most serve excellent food, but a few of note are:

And what to eat? Well, haggis, neeps and tatties obviously! (Oops, sorry about that last link! Try Google Translate, maybe?) No, seriously, although haggis may be made out of all the bits of a sheep you’d rather not hear about, the result is delicious!

OK, so haggis is not to your taste. Let me sing instead the praises of Cullen Skink – made well, it is Nectar of the Gods… made less well, it is still to die for. Give it a try – you won’t regret it!

Shortbread and tablet are Scottish confections which strip away the non-essentials and concentate on delivering the consumer their desired maximal sugar-hit with minimal extraneous fuss. Alongside chip-suppers and deep-fried mars bars (yes, that really is a thing), they are probably responsible for the poor state of Scots dentistry, the prevailing coronary rate and the Scottish obesity epidemic. Yummy!

Oh, and don’t forget whisky! (You hadn’t? Good!)

Shopping

  • Princes Street – world famous for the mile of shops which line its north side, facing Princess Street Gardens and the Castle to the south, this is Edinburgh’s eqivalent of London’s Oxford Street. The streets leading north off it – Hanover Street, Frederick Street and Castle Street – also house numerous well known stores. Of particular note are:
    • Jenners department store: Edinburgh’s answer to London’s Harrods (my mother once told me a story – probably apocryphal – of queuing to pay in Jenners, where the gent in front was paying by cheque… which he signed with a flourish: Donald MacDonald, The MacDonald of MacDonald – the clan chief doing his shopping!)
    • John Lewis department store: in the St James Centre just off the extreme east end of Princes Street
  • The Royal Mile – lined for most of its upper length with smaller, more niche establishments, the Royal Mile is the place to look for those souveniers of your visit which are special to Scotland and Edinburgh: shortbread and tablet, Highland Dress and tartan (American: “plaid” – but please: pronounce it pl-aid not pl-add!) or perhaps a wee bottle of 25-year-old malt to help ward off the northern chill!
  • Waverley Mall – lots of shops in one building – useful if the weather is bad and shopping is your agenda.
  • Ocean Terminal – a seriously large collection of retail outlets and other facilities – many restaurants, a cinema, a gym and a childrens’ play area – Ocean Terminal is also the main point of entry to the Royal Yacht Britannia, so a visit to one might conveniently take in the other.
  • The Tron Kirk and Royal Mile Market – this one-time church on the Royal Mile, just a minute’s walk from the Radisson Blu, has now been converted into a market full of stalls offering craft goods, souveniers and – in one case – a booth where they offer to identify your clan based on your surname, in which cause they are not put off by that not sounding especially Scottish.  This confidence turned out to be misplaced in the case of “Nikijuluw“, however!

Other attractions and sights

My own personal preference is for simply strolling around the Old Town, in particular the upper parts of the Royal Mile and the numerous ancient closes, wynds and alleys that descend from it, or down Victoria Street to the Grassmarket and the Cowgate, but here are some of the places you might like to specifically visit:

Talking to the locals

In spite of my occasional imputations to the contrary, most Scots you will meet in Edinburgh speak perfectly comprehensible English, albeit with a distinct accent (much less so than in many other parts of Scotland, however). Topics of conversation which you may want to avoid if not wishing to become embroiled in heated debate are Scottish Independence (Scots are profoundly – and in some cases, passionately – divided on the issue) and Brexit (Scotland voted very strongly against such lunacy, proving that, on some subjects at least, Scots are fully rational).

The Scots are prone to define themselves in opposition to the English (Sassenachs). Abroad, if asked if they are English, they will assert their nationality quite forcefully (Je suis Écossais!Ich bin Schottisch! – the latter almost the first German phrase I learned). It is not that they don’t understand that their interlocutor really intended to ask if they are “British”, it is simply that they are making a point! Centuries of warfare and conquest have not entirely been forgotten, nor forgiven, even in Edinburgh – probably the most “English” city in Scotland.

Otherwise the denizens of Edinburgh are almost universally friendly and welcoming… just don’t get into arguments with the drunk ones! The toast is: “slàinte mhath” – don’t worry about the strange Gaelic spelling – almost nobody in Edinburgh speaks Gaelic anyway – just say “Slanje!” (no Assia, notZanzibar“!).

Galleries and Museums

Edinburgh has a centuries-old reputation as an international centre of arts and culture, dating back to (and even beyond) The Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th century. Supporting that tradition, and exhibiting many of its fruits, are Edinburgh’s copious array of art galleries and museums (admission is generally free except where noted); a small sample are:

Walking and Views

  • Princes Street Gardens – filling the drained basin of the old Nor Loch, in good weather the gardens provide a very pleasant place to stroll and spend time admiring the view of Edinburgh Castle and the imposing north frontage of the Old Town. Generally open until early evening, the gardens can be accessed from many points around their perimeter.
  • Arthur’s Seat – the remains of this ancient volcano can be climbed: the easiest way (for certain values of “easy“) is from the back, parking on Queen’s Drive by Dunsapie Loch, then climbing to the summit up the mostly grassy slopes. Warning: the last stretch is tricky and probably best not attempted if the weather is inclement or windy (it will be a whole lot windier up there!)  The views from the top over Edinburgh and the Firth of Forth to the Kingdom of Fife make the effort worth it if you can manage.
  • Salisbury Crags – a more gentle walk than attempting Arthur’s Seat, but with views over the city which are almost as good, the Crags could be the objective of a pleasant 1 hour round trip hike (click the “on foot” symbol in the blue “Options” section) from the hotel.
  • Blackford Hill – another volcanc feature (although from the Devonian, ~400my ago, rather than the rest of Edinburgh which is from the Carboniferous, ~300my ago), Blackford Hill lies about 2 miles south of the city centre. Gentler than Arthur’s Seat, the hill still presents a stiffish climb for wonderful views over the city, especially at sunset. Best reached by car (the 38 bus which serves it comes nowhere near the city centre), you can take the pain out of getting to the top by parking in the car park outside the Royal Observatory, close to the summit. In the valley to the south of the hill, and accessible from it, there is a very pleasant walk (click the “on foot” symbol) through the Hermitage of Braid.
  • Dean Village and the Water of Leith – Dean Village is a charming old settlement hidden away 10 minutes walk from the West End of Princes Street. The Water of Leith is the river flowing through it, which can be walked for much of its length. Side trips might take in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art or The Royal Botanic Garden (see both above).

Getting around

In a few places above I have mentioned getting one bus or another to wherever it is you would like to go. Here is a tip: in Google Maps zoom in on where in Edinburgh you are heading for. Once in close, look for the little blue public transport icons nearby. Hovering your mouse over these, or clicking on them, will bring up the numbers of the bus services which stop there (remember they will generally be on two sides of any given street and in Britain we drive on the left, so make sure you are looking at the correct direction, while on busy streets like Princes Street, different services use different stops).

Then go to this Lothian Buses page and from the combo-box select the number of the service you are interested in. The map below the combo will refresh with that bus’s route (including an indication of whether the service is currently running) and you can then zoom in on that to see where you might most conveniently catch it (or not, as the case may be).  You will need to use the zoom-in/out buttons here, but as a plus the direction the bus is going in is indicated with arrows on the stops. You can then build your own timetable in the panel to the right.

Also very handy is the Lothian Buses app (download links at the bottom of that page). As well as showing timetables, it does real-time tracking of the actual buses by GPS, so once at your stop (or sitting comfortably in a nearby pub!) you can see how long you will be waiting, which can take a lot of the frustration out of bus travel.