Edinburgh: Auld and New
PHOTO: The iconic Edinburgh Castle dominates the skyline from its perch on a dormant volcano.
Just as steeped in ancient history as it is invigorated by arts and culture, Edinburgh bridges the centuries and presents to visitors a unique opportunity to celebrate the past while immersing themselves in the here and now.
The centerpiece of this stunning ancient city is, of course, Edinburgh Castle, a fairytale structure with a treasure trove of fascinating stories that is built on the rim of a long-dormant volcano. Spilling forth from the castle’s grand esplanade, the Royal Mile weaves between solemn centuries-old churches and tourist-friendly shops offering custom-built bagpipes, tailored kilts and bottles of fine single malt. It eventually unravels at Mile End, giving way to a city that has positioned itself as a cultural hotspot and ground zero for discovery of the next big thing.
Edinburgh offers a unique dichotomy of new and old, a reverence for the rich traditions that define Scotland’s heritage and a thirst for creating new ideas that defines Scotland’s culture. This quiet ushering in of the ingenious has been a part of Edinburgh’s character since John Knox first introduced elections to the country’s Calvinist churches, unwittingly reintroducing Western civilization to the concept of democracy. The art of innovation continues today with Edinburgh’s lively music scene and annual Fringe Festival.
Even in terms of physical geography, the city is a juxtaposition. A rich metropolitan vibe permeates its streets, even as the façades of its buildings gaze down with Victorian solemnity. But head just moments outside the city, or simply perch yourself on the castle walls and gaze out, and you’ll see rolling hills and glens that tuck into small Scottish towns and villages largely unchanged since the days of Robert the Bruce.
In short, whatever you’re coming to Edinburgh to find, you’ll find it.
“The Year of Food and Drink”: VisitScotland has declared 2015 The Year of Food and Drink, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better place to celebrate than Edinburgh. Here again, you’ll find a city that embraces its roots with a focus on the unique offerings of Scotland’s farms coupled with an adventurous culinary spirit.
The gastronomic buzz phrase “farm to table” has become perilously close to cliché, but here in Edinburgh that trendy buzz is actually just the modern world catching on to what Scotland’s been doing all along.
Order a dish at The Scottish Café and Restaurant, on Princes Street, where slow food and sustainability rule, and you’ll not only hear about where each selection of meat, cheese and veg came from, but you’ll also probably enjoy a humorous anecdote about the farmer who provided it. Odds are good you’ll even get directions to the farm, and it won’t be more than a 20-mile drive.
And if you want to venture outside the boundaries of traditional Scottish cuisine, Edinburgh’s love of culture in all its forms sets a table rich with options. Five Michelin-starred restaurants call the city home, stretching from the city center to Edinburgh’s port town of Leith on a path dubbed the “Michelin Mile.” The Castle Terrace and Number One are relatively close to The Mile, with 21212 at the Royal Terrace and The Kitchin and Martin Wishart in Leith.
Get to know the city: Edinburgh is not a hard city to get to know, thanks to droves of tour operators peppering the city offering visits to haunted graveyards, raucous pubs, locales made famous by the Harry Potter films and more. These ground operators couldn’t exist in a city that didn’t offer so much.
Edinburgh’s long history has its darker chapters, and an evening spent among its ghosts never disappoints. The quiet sanctuary of Greyfriars Abbey transforms in the moonlight into a startling scene of terror, and any tour guide with the gift of Scottish storytelling will share its numerous haunts with relish, creating the rare legitimate chill.
Likewise, Scotland’s pub culture can make for a much more festive night out, with a crawl along The Mile offering a dizzying array of local real ales and whiskies in a series of pubs that have stood for centuries. (Tip: Head to Heads & Tales just past Princes Street’s western terminus. It’s tucked away, but the speakeasy atmosphere is enthralling).
Then there is, of course, the history. Edinburgh Castle is definitely worth the £16.50 admission, with includes guided tours. Here, you gain an appreciation for the silent watch this magnificent structure has kept over history as you wander down corridors that were well-trod before the history books were first being written.
The Royal Yacht Britannia is definitely worth a visit as well. Permanently docked in Leith since being decommissioned, the yacht offers a peek inside the life of the royal family. Here you can see where the Queen slept, entertained dignitaries and enjoyed life at sea in her family’s pleasure craft.
Getting outside the city: Just north of the city, at the chokepoint between the Firth of Forth and Loch Lomond, the border forms between Scotland’s lowlands and its Highlands. This breathtaking countryside reveals itself with just a short trip out of town, the hills of the lowlands gradually rising up into the dizzying craggy spires of the Highlands.
There should be no need to extol the virtues of the Scottish countryside, a place at once wild and untamed while filling the soul with tranquility. Even today, you can still find a quiet spot along a brook, watch tendrils of fog weave between the hillsides, and know the view has remained largely unchanged since the days when Highland Scots roamed in kilts, waging war against English invasion.
Thankfully, you’ll find far fewer battles in places like Stirling and Falkirk these days. The roles these towns played in Scotland’s history have created a wealth of opportunities for the historic-minded traveler to trace the steps of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce as they spurred their countrymen on to freedom.
If Scotland’s history appeals to the historic tourist, its geography is a perfect fit for the outdoor soft adventure tourist. Loch Lomond’s banks bristle with hiking trails for every fitness level, and the Highlands present the perfect challenge for mountain biking.
But here, we’ve left out that most iconic of Scottish pastimes: golf. The birthplace of the gentleman’s game offers some of the best places in the world to play it, and several gorgeous courses call Edinburgh and the surrounding area home. Here you’ll find the historic, such as Bruntsfield Links Golfing Society, the fourth-oldest course in the world, as well as the famous, such as Muirfield and Gleneagles.
Where to stay: As Edinburgh attracts visitors of many stripes, from college backpackers to luxury golf travelers, you’ll find a room to suit any budget. For those millennials looking to get the real hostel experience, there are a plethora of these accommodations throughout the city, but the ones near the Royal Mile tend to be a little nicer, plus are that much closer to all the action.
On a more mid-range level, brands like DoubleTree and Radisson Blu have embraced Edinburgh’s unique character in creating some fascinating properties, from DoubleTree’s ultra-minimalist look to Blu’s castle-like façade.
On the luxury side, Edinburgh shines. Hotels like The Scotsman and the Caledonian have shown the world how to convert a property. The Scotsman, which had at one point been a newspaper building, now boasts one of the city’s most celebrated hotels. Likewise, in the Caledonian, Waldorf-Astoria took the bones of an old train station and built a stunning luxury property. They even kept the train platform and converted it into a stylish lounge.
By far Edinburgh’s most prestigious property, and with good reason, is The Balmoral. Commanding sweeping views of the whole city, every corner of the property exudes Scottish hospitality and modern elegance. Home to the Michelin-starred Number One, Balmoral is also notable for being the home of the J.K. Rowling Suite, where the author completed the seventh and final book in the Harry Potter series.
For more information, visit www.visitscotland.com.
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A version of this article appears in print in the July 2015 issue of Agent@Home Magazine.
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