Last updated: 10:19 AM ET, Wed May 13 2015

Dispatch: Returning to Edinburgh

Destination & Tourism | Barry Kaufman | May 01, 2015

Dispatch: Returning to Edinburgh

As I mentioned in my previous dispatch, my trip to Edinburgh marked my fourth time in the city. I’ve visited as a child, enthralled by the castles and ancient streets, my young imagination picturing knights engaged in pitched battle with dragons everywhere I went. I’ve visited as a college student, my appreciation for the city’s non-fictional history growing and my love affair with the city being cemented by a visit to the Military Tattoo.

I can still picture that moment, every detail. Perched on bleachers overhanging the walls of the massive court out front of Edinburgh Castle, the whole of the commonwealth paraded before me. Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Royal Marine Band, they all put on a legendary performance for an audience that included me, one of my oldest friends and, oh right, the Queen. She was there. She had better seats, but she was there.

The roar of the bands in that wide court high above the city on the lip of an extinct and ancient volcano poured down the Royal Mile, filling the city with sound. The din was incredible, echoing off storefronts as old as my home country and rolling down cobbled streets my ancestors had called home.  And then as the sound reached critical mass, pipers and drums and brass instruments building to a wall of sound bigger than anything in this ancient city: silence.

It’s a moment frozen in my mind, one of those great travel moments we all yearn for, and it’s part of the reason why I love this city.

Then a spotlight. A lone piper on the top battlements of Edinburgh Castle, surrounded by smoke. He played Scotland the Brave, his single set of pipes proving just as powerful an auditory force as the many bands below him. It’s a moment frozen in my mind, one of those great travel moments we all yearn for, and it’s part of the reason why I love this city.

I’ve visited once since in my 20s, with my wife, brother and sister-in-law, for a quick stay at possibly the world’s worst hostel, but even the questionable sheets and even more questionable decision to pub crawl without a map or sense of direction could not shake my love for this great city (although it did give me a few more stories about Edinburgh that I won’t share here).

Edinburgh Today

On my fourth trip, my first since entering the profession of travel media, I was interested to see how that romanticized Edinburgh that exists in memory matched up with the destination I was now tasked with viewing with a more seasoned, more critical eye.

Happily, even through the gimlet eye of a travel reporter, I’ve gained an even greater appreciation for Edinburgh as a destination.

Taken alone as a city, Edinburgh has plenty to offer travelers. Families can bring the kids round to the Elephant Room and show them where a struggling Scottish writer named Jo Rowling gave life to Harry Potter. Or stay at the Balmoral where Rowling penned the seventh and final Harry Potter novel when her increasing fame made writing at a small café impossible. Walk around any of the small closes (alleyways, essentially), and the kids can easily picture themselves trodding the cobble stones of Diagon Alley.

Luxury travelers will find their pick here, with the Balmoral and the nearby Waldorf-Astoria giving a five-star experience that puts a beautiful shine on the city’s lustrous history.

And for the younger millennial traveler, let’s just say that a bagpiper selfie in front of an ancient castle has the power to blow up Instagram. And I can attest that the pub crawls are fantastic, especially now that your smartphone’s GPS is there to save you if you decide to leave your map back at the room.

PHOTO: Honestly, tell me that #haggisnachos wouldn't kill on Instagram. You read that right. Haggis nachos.

It’s almost impossible to nail down any specific reason why this city is so incredible. There are plenty of cities in Europe and the U.K. where rich history has given fertile ground to an exciting, modern metropolis. There are plenty of places where you can stay in a five-star hotel with views of a castle.

But there’s something so distinctly different about Edinburgh. It’s the shops selling scarves of family tartans that predate history. It’s the way every inch of city around you has a story to tell, and a nearby Scot who’s all too happy to tell it (storytelling being the chief habit of Scots). It’s the way that Scottish diaspora ensures you have a pretty good chance of finding some familial tie to this place.

PHOTO: For example, I'm related to this guy, one of Edinburgh's most notorious criminals who was hanged not far from this spot for pathological burglary. I'm also related to many people who weren't publicly executed, but how many of them got their own mural?

Nearly any segment of traveler is going to find something about this multi-faceted city that appeals to them, but outside the city, the whole of Scotland opens up before you.

I was lucky enough to join a Travel Leaders group on a Rabbie’s Tour of Edinburgh and a few surrounding towns, a whirlwind two days that saw me enjoying the scenery from the Queen’s former royal yacht, filling my senses with the exquisite aromas of Scotch being aged, and seeing so much more of this city and surrounding country that I only thought I knew so well.

More on that in my next dispatch.

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