During the high season, Edinburgh can feel very tourist-trappy– perhaps this is inevitable in a place widely known for kilts, Harry Potter, and bagpipes. But like some overplayed songs derided by music snobs, Edinburgh’s tourist epicenter is more catchy than trite, and popular for good reason.
Visiting Edinburgh is like stepping into a storybook, but not the amusement park sort of storybook in the style of hollow façades and plastic and wood painted to look like stone. Edinburgh is a lived-in storybook, fantastically beautiful and unapologetically grim, hiding its greatest charms and most twisted secrets not too deep in the shadows while modern life rushes by in between.
I knew next to nothing about Edinburgh when I arrived at Waverley Station for the first time on Halloween night in 2009. Emerging from the station, I saw street lamps lighting the zig-zagging paths up into the main part of the Old Town on its dark, craggy hill. The immediate impression was mysterious and completely magical.
When I reached the Royal Mile, the street running the length of Edinburgh’s fortified hill, I noticed people gathering along its borders. I threw my stuff down in a hostel, grabbed my camera, and less than an hour later watched as performers quietly assembled, garbed in elaborate costumes of paint and leaves and swishing robes, then lit torches and began beating drums to dance down the length of the street in a press of color and sound. I had to do an internet search later to figure out what the pagan hell I’d just been a part of. Samhuinn.
Aside from that annual, free festival, which seems to have become increasingly crowded since I first found myself in the middle of it, here are a few quick Edinburgh highlights:
- Arthur’s Seat– This is a Hill of impressive size in the park at the edge of the Old Town. As soon as you enter the park, it feels like you’ve left the city– there’s a path, but it’s muddy and rocky and bordered by long grass and bright flowers. You can climb to the top for a lovely Edinburgh overlook, and there’s even a pond with resident swans and some stone ruins to admire on the way up. Your rewards at the summit are a view reaching all the way to the firth and an exhilarating fight against gale-force winds. There are a few other rises to climb in Edinburgh, each with its own unique features (atmospheric graveyards, mid-city panoramas, and out-of-the-way gardens, to name a few), but Arthur’s Seat is the most rugged.
- National Museum of Scotland– This museum covers a lot of ground (as in, the entire history of the world), but its pretty Celtic treasures are most worth the trip. Having been to many museums in other major cities, I like to prioritize the local when I travel, and there’s plenty here to satisfy that.
- Scottish National Gallery– The art gallery has a decent, if small collection of European art, but the basement full of Scottish work is another fine way to soak up some regional flavor.
- Destinations nearby– I wasn’t a huge fan of the over-participatory nature of the Highlands tour I took (when asked to CHEER LOUDER I tend to either lip-sync apologetically, glare murderously, or duck under the nearest seat or piece of furniture), but it was cheap and I saw lochs, castles, gloomy conflict sites, and a bit of the Isle of Skye. Whether you rent a car and organize lodging yourself or let a cheaper tour do the work for you, get yourself to the north! Also worth an overnight: Glasgow. Glasgow feels a bit like a northern American city, except that the people are warm and speak with an accent that is totally impossible to understand. I recommend the giant creepy necropolis and the very bizarre Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, which more resembles a crazy person’s junk hoard than a collection (but in a good way). I didn’t get a chance to experience it myself, but Glasgow supposedly also has a great live music and nightlife scene.
- Sandemans New Europe (free) walking tour– I know I’m aways talking about these tours, but they are very un-tourlike in the best way– it’s more like walking with a very knowledgeable acquaintance who’s good at telling stories. The one in Edinburgh is my personal favorite, because there seems to be a hilarious, chilling, poignant, or fascinating anecdote packed into every gray stone of this city.
- Drink whisky and eat haggis– There’s never a bad excuse to drink whisky, which I personally find to be the most wondrous, glowing, nerve-tamping liquor in existence. As for haggis, it’s not SO bad. There’s at least one place in Edinburgh that sells potatoes stuffed with haggis (The Baked Potato Shop on Cockburn Street– yes, really, Cockburn Street), which is a suitably painless route to adventurous eating (especially if you drink whisky first and look up what haggis actually is after). Otherwise, maybe try a few bites of it with a full breakfast.
Logistics: This is a Time Travel post, so I don’t have up-to-date budget suggestions for my fellow residents of Europe. To get to Edinburgh, you can take a train or bus from the south, grab an Easyjet from any number of major hubs, or even ride a ferry from Ireland to Scotland and then jump on a bus from there (if you want to make it part of a longer ramble around the British-Irish Isles). There is plenty of accommodation on the Royal Mile, but I enjoyed the reasonably-priced Castle Rock Hostel enough to stay there several times. It’s in a gorgeous building just next to the castle walls, with fun decor inside and plenty of cozy common areas.