THINGS TO DO IN EDINBURGH
Edinburgh, capital of Scotland, home to the national parliament and seat of the Scottish royal monarchy; an old city embodying the stoicism of its people, resting in the relatively temperate climes of the North Atlantic Gulf Stream. In winter, the sun breaches the horizon for a scant few hours, barely long enough to warm the air, and casting the city in an ominous gloom before dwindling below the hills again. During summer there are picnics in The Meadows and long sunny afternoons wandering through Holyrood Park. No matter the weather, there are always things to do in Edinburgh.
The cobbled streets and cold stone buildings are riddled with dark alleys. Edinburgh Castle dominates the skyline. A walk through old town will take you past Greyfriar’s Kirkyard and Mary King’s Close. All with gruesome histories. There is a thriving business in everything haunted. It is home to one of the most haunted castles, most haunted graveyards and most haunted hotels. As you can imagine it is quite a charming place.
It is the birthplace of many famous people, but one of the most significant in my mind is Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Treasure Island, books that I read while very young and which influenced me a great deal. I am as yet unsure if having Edward Hyde or Long John Silver as role models was entirely appropriate.
Here’s a few things I can recommend in Edinburgh, having actually experienced them myself.
This is almost a must-see attraction. From Princes Street, the castle looms over Edinburgh atop dolerite cliffs, the remnants of a volcanic plug that resisted glacial erosion and formed an almost perfect landscape for a fortress. It looks seriously awesome, but definitely haunted.
There has been a settlement on this land since the Iron Age (2nd Century AD). Margaret’s Chapel dates from the 12th century and is regarded as the oldest building in Edinburgh. It has been built on, demolished and rebuilt a number of times through the centuries.
As you wander through the Castle grounds imagining how life was hundreds of years ago, listen for the whispered cries from the Screaming Vaults, a network of rooms that are considered some the most haunted in Europe. According to my expert opinion based on horror movies I’ve watched, this is generally what happens when you round up plague victims and force them into quarantine underground and leave them to die.
If the history of the place doesn’t entice you, then the views might. If the history and the views don’t, then I can only assume you’re in Scotland for the whisky!
Scotchy scotch scotch. Proper scotch. Whisky that shouldn’t be mixed with anything except maybe a touch of water. Though there aren’t many lowland distilleries around the area, you can still do a lot of whisky tastings around Edinburgh, especially down the Royal Mile. It’s the national drink. It would almost be disrespectful not to.
If you want to do a distillery run, then there are tours that leave from Edinburgh. If you’re doing a single day tour, you’ll likely only have time to visit one or two in the lower highlands. There are multi-day options though and you can get someone else to drive you around and let you drink. Not much wrong with that idea.
FREE WALKING TOURS
There are free walking tours every day at 11am and 1pm from the Royal Mile. I love free walking tours. They’re an awesome way to get to know some of the highlights from people who know the city. You could be walking past something interesting and significant and never know it without a guide to point it out.
WALK UP ARTHUR’S SEATS THROUGH HOLYROOD PARK
If you have a couple of hours to spare and the weather is nice then a walk up Arthur’s Seat will give you access to some beautiful views over the entire area. There are a few different tracks heading to the summit, depending on how fit and adventurous you’re feeling.
For those who are only partially committed to fitness and adventure, there’s an option to walk along the top of cliffs which is about a third of the distance. The views are not quite as amazing as they would be at the summit though. Of course you could just tell people you made it all the way up.
Want to see the grisly and gruesome history of surgery? Me neither. But I went anyway and I got exactly what I was expecting. It was all very interesting, some of it cringeworthy and a few parts completely disgusting. They have a number of exhibits, including shelves of the preserved weird and wonderful collected over decades of surgery. Gross yourself out, learn a few things and come away believing you have a few diseases you’d previously never heard of.
Don’t bother taking your camera as you aren’t allowed to take photos, as these are the real remains of actual people. Why would you want a photo of a shelf of pickled penises anyway?
On another side of Edinburgh is Calton Hill. At the top of this hill are a number of monuments and buildings which you’ll want to take some photos of. They’re the ones you see in all the photos of Edinburgh. Without them, people may not believe you’ve actually been there and they’re perfect for your Facebook cover photo, desktop screen saver or for rubbing in the faces of family members you don’t like.
Included in these is a replica of the Parthenon called the National Monument of Scotland, or more commonly known as Scotland’s Disgrace, Edinburgh’s Folly and the Pride and Poverty of Scotland. Basically it is a huge monument that ran out of money part way through its construction and has been left ever since. A few enthusiastic people have tried to rally support over the last century to have it completed but been told to sod off by disinterested locals.
If you want to hear about another infrastructural disgrace, asking a local about the Edinburgh tram system is always a fun experience.
ST GILES CATHEDRAL AKA THE HIGH KIRK OF EDINBURGH
They say that parts of this church are over 900 years old, though most of it is from the late 14th century after a fire destroyed most of it. It is a great old church and if you like old things and churches then it will be right up your alley. You’ll no doubt see if if you’re walking around Edinburgh as it is located on the Royal Mile and fairly central. Like all old churches, it is a pretty cool testament to what people in history were able to achieve when they didn’t have TV and social media sucking all of their time away.
THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF SCOTLAND
The National Museum of Scotland is a cool and modern museum. There is a wide range of exhibits from Scotland and around the world, including huge claymores and armour, artifacts from industrial Scotland, a Maori waka brought over in the 1850s, a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton and leaf cutter ants. Great for when the weather isn’t co-operating. There are also some tube things that you can make music on, or at least they make noise. Take the opportunity to drive a few people crazy.
There’s a few companies operating ghost tours in Edinburgh. Some will take you through Greyfriars Kirkyard at night, where an angry poltergeist has been known to attack visitors. Others will take you through the underground storerooms in Southbridge, where William Deacon Brodie, the man whom Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was based on, would gamble, drink and carouse before he was arrested and sentenced to death. Learn about Burke and Hare, men who committed murder when they could no longer steal enough bodies to supply the university with cadavers.
We did a tour with Mercat Tours and they were awesome. The guide was a superbly creepy, humourous storyteller. He definitely had a flare for theatrics and did an awesome job.
Dean Village was a milling village a short distance from the heart of Edinburgh. It sits on the banks of the Water of Leith and there are several bridges spanning the river. It really is a nice walk through Dean Village and the Dean Gardens, up to Stockbridge, where you can find a nice meal and some decent coffee. It is picturesque and tranquil. Save it for a morning after the whisky tasting.
HARRY POTTER TOUR
Whether you do it through a company, or by yourself there are a few places to see in Edinburgh that serve as inspiration for Harry Potter.
J. K. Rowling moved to Edinburgh and wrote the first two books sitting in a small cafe called the Elephant House. If you’re a big fan, you could go there for a coffee, assuming you can get a seat. I imagine the cafe has seen a massive upturn in business since J. K. Rowling’s meteoric rise to success. Greyfriars Kirkyard is a cemetery, where you can find the grave of Thomas Riddell. It is also an inspiration for the graveyard where Voldemort is buried in the books. George Heriot’s School has been used for inspiration for Hogwarts. The Balmoral Hotel is where Rowling completed the final book, checking herself in to free her from distraction.
While you’re wandering along the trail between these sites, you’ll have a great opportunity to see some other great parts of Edinburgh and get a feel for the old town.
I have been told to check out Holyrood Palace as well, however I wasn’t able to while I was in Edinburgh last. I will definitely be going through if I ever get another chance.
Just to round things off, most people won’t be aware, but there is a firth in Edinburgh called the Firth of Forth. They have been building a new bridge over the firth. It will be the third bridge built across this firth. A competition to name the bridge was conducted.
I would just like to say how disappointed I am. I believe the Third Firth of Forth Bridge should have been a clear winner. Queensferry Crossing will never have the same ring to it.
THE EDINBURGH FESTIVAL FRINGE
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the largest arts festival in the world. During these three weeks in August, the population of Edinburgh explodes and thousands of shows come to town. The town is electric during these weeks. It seems every spare room available has been set up to host the huge variety of shows. It is impossible to see them all. This is easily the most popular time to visit Edinburgh and a lot of accommodation books out, so get in early.
THE EDINBURGH MILITARY TATTOO
The original meaning of the tattoo comes from the dutch doe den tap toe which means turn off the tap. This apparently comes from the time when drums would play to tell bar owners to stop serving soldiers, and for them to return to the barracks.
On the esplanade in front of the Edinburgh Castle, grandstands are erected during the festival fringe and the modern equivalent of the military tattoo is performed. Military bands from around the world are on display, as well as guest performers, and they are as varied as they are entertaining. Some are flashy and modern, some are strict discipline.
If you are looking for a nice restaurant meal, I really like the Scran and Scallie in Stockbridge. The food and the service are great and they have an excellent selection of whiskies. The menu is filled with deliciousness. I go there every time I visit Edinburgh. Ok, so that is only twice, but it is still true. I will go there again if I ever go back.
I’m not much of a foodie. I really like trying new food while travelling and I like to think I’m fairly adventurous. But I’m also a sucker for sausages and mashed potato. I know, adventurous right? This really was Mums Great Comfort Food for me and I went a few times while I was there and ordered a pile of venison sausages and cheesy mashed potatoes. Bangers and mash, the perfect midday meal to fuel myself during a day wandering around Edinburgh. If that is a bit of you, then give them a go. They do an excellent chocolate milkshake too.
These guys take their coffee very seriously. You can tell. It is pretty amazing. Expect to have to wade through a crowd.
If you like coffee, then try The Caffeine Drip. They saved me. I also loved their omelettes for breakfast.