Picturesque beyond belief and impossibly beguiling at dusk, Edinburgh is a city of élan, cobbles and architectural contrasts. Frequently swathed by cloud, Scotland’s cultural and traditional capital is ideal for those who delight in discovery. There’s the famously lyrical (or should that be inscrutable) dialect, fondness for foraged food and a literary history made up of wizards, sleuths and treasure islands. A World Heritage Site twice over – the Medieval Old Town overlooks the Georgian elegance of New Town - here you can be a romance-seeking tourist, climb a volcano, overindulge or fall under a Scottish spell … and I mean this a little literally.
HIGH ON A HILL
I’ve got to call out Robert Louis Stevenson. This native son of Edinburgh claims that the best view of the city is gained from Calton Hill - a monument-dotted hilltop overlooking the port-town of Leith (made famous by Trainspotting), Princess Street and Salisbury Crags. It’s stunning, don’t get me wrong, but the view from the once volcanic Arthur’s Seat, well, that’s just breathtaking.
Reached by scrambling past grassy knolls and weathered ruins, Arthur’s Seat’s rocky summit rewards you with more than a panoramic vista. When it’s not too blustery (standing atop this peak can be a tad tricky when a breeze picks up) you’ll find yourself greeted by a rather mixed bunch; travellers posing excitedly with Edinburgh beneath them, suit wearers on an unconventional lunch break and locals accompanied by a book, cider and slightly bemused expression. Such company is an experience in itself.
If climbing isn’t your forte make for Edinburgh Castle. Charming despite the throngs of tourists it attracts, the castle’s battlements offer up a view of the city from every conceivable angle. Or just get amongst it. Brave the bagpipe and busker adorned Royal Mile, which leads from Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse (once the home of the ill-fated Mary, Queen of Scots), before wandering down a ghost-guarded close and getting a little lost. No doubt you’ll soon find yourself sun bathing with students on The Meadows.
BOOKS, ART AND ACROBATS
The heart of the global theatrical, musical and comic community every August, Edinburgh doesn’t just celebrate art. It thrives on it. But while this ancient city of spires and stone may be a menagerie of mind readers, contortionists and mimes when the famed Edinburgh International Festival, and equally enthralling Fringe Festival, takes hold, its creative antics reach far beyond this one month period. It is, after all, a UNESCO city of literature. Ian Rankin, Walter Scott and Arthur Conan Doyle have all called the capital home. Yet Edinburgh’s most iconic literary export, at least in recent years, has to be J. K. Rowling.
Her rags-to-riches story is the stuff of bookish dreams and Potter pilgrimages are unavoidable for those who grew up with the books. Start with the graffiti covered bathroom at The Elephant House, where early drafts were perfected against a backdrop of rooftops and gravestones (Thomas Riddell’s oft visited grave is only a short walk away) and end at the iconic Balmoral Hotel. Rather than splurging on room 552, where Rowling completed her mammoth project and engraved a bust to celebrate, I’d recommended investing in Afternoon Tea, complete with all the Scottish trimmings - slightly more affordable opulence.
The artistic, sartorial and all-round-cool allure of the Grassmarket and Victoria Street is another source of creative amusement. Packed with independent retailers, galleries and vintage stores, this is Edinburgh at its bohemian best. Retro art lovers should stop by the Red Door Gallery, which is filled with prints and illustrations created by local and UK artists. Further along, Armstrongs is ideal for those willing to dig for fashion or with a penchant for Bowie, who is played on repeat and not out of place in this eclectic vintage haunt. For something quieter there’s the boutique-feeling Analogue Books, which focuses on the arty and alternative. Who said print was dead!
More traditional artistic wonders are housed within the Scottish National Gallery. With a collection that covers everyone from Lippi to Leibovitz, and an eye for innovative temporary exhibitions, this is where you head when the weather turns Scottish.
During the day the labyrinth-like array of courts leading away from the Royal Mile contain nothing but museums and kilt makers. Yet at night, you can’t help but feel that these narrow passages are more than a little haunted.
And it makes sense. Edinburgh’s history of battles, witch trials and royal murder has resulted in a goblin-rich folk law that speaks of a sword-wielding White Lady, headless riders and phantom squadrons of soldiers. To get acquainted with said spirits, all of which have undoubtedly been embellished over time, join a Mercat Tour. Perfectly theatrical, it’s sure to bring out your inner child and make you glance cautiously behind you as you descend into the dimly lit, subterranean world that is the Edinburgh Vaults – the domain of The Watcher. Supposedly.
Yet it’s the places that should be most unnerving that are the most enchanting.
Case in point, Edinburgh Castle. While you’d expect this to be the stomping ground of battle-ready poltergeists and disgruntled witches, all you notice is its beauty. And that’s always been the case. During the Victorian Era the visiting English were so captivated by the fortress they launched rather ambitious schemes to give it a more romantic vision – think French Chateau meets stately home. Thankfully they left it in its original, windswept state. Effortlessly striking and precariously positioned, places like this are haunting in a very different way.
In Edinburgh it’s the restaurant scene that proves just how much Old World Scotland (whiskey, shortbread and haggis, a favourite of Robert Burns and pretty much everyone north of the boarder) and New World fuse. This city prides itself on cutting edge regional cuisine, made from foraged foods and served with an artistic twist.
At Wedgwood, where dishes are prepared under the watchful eye of both chef and patron (the perks of a semi open kitchen), Highland leaves, game and general chicness reign supreme. For characterful local suppliers and a seasonable menu head to Edinburgh Larder Bistro. Sweet and friendly, this is where you go for a contemporary taste of Scotland and suitably homely atmosphere. And then there’s The Tower, attached to the National Museum of Scotland. Here the rustic menu is accompanied by one of the most stunning views of the Edinburgh skyline, often set off by a seemingly endless sunset that makes you contemplate flavours and life. In such moments you realise just how enthralling Edinburgh’s spell can be. And just how much you like haggis.
Stay For something perfectly unique spend a night at The Glasshouse. Blending a Georgian façade with gallery-worthy interiors, this hotel, nestled beneath Calton Hill, is the epitome of Scottish elegance.
Travel Go old school and catch an East Coast train up from London. Taking just over four hours, you’ll pass drystone walls, gravity-defying viaducts and British gardens filled with life-sized Thomas the Tank Engine replicas.