Written by Lucinda Day
If I shout Edinburgh, you might shout festival. But while Edinburgh has the characteristics of a bestseller during August, when visitors flock to frolic in the festivities, it is definitely a classic in the grand scheme of things: timeless, mysterious and with infinite potential for exploration.
Non - literary (and literary) folks take note; a trip to Edinburgh is rewarding all year round. A stroll through the spectacular city park is best savoured with a sprinkle of blossom - and the lovely trees that line Princes Street can be admired whether you’re park-side or enjoying a serious shopping strut. In December, the city is buzzing with excitement as crowds gather for the charming Christmas markets. There may well be a Scottish chill in the air, but warming whisky and tartan woollies are never far away- whatever meandering, medieval street you might turn down…
This three day itinerary is a fusion of the fundamentals, the fresh and the freaky – with a different kind of festival.
On day one, I started at Waverley Bridge and cruised in the big, red open top city bus, and got my first spectacular glimpse of Edinburgh’s Greek inspired neo-classical architecture. The National Gallerybuilding is a work of art in itself and worth stopping off to admire.
Edinburgh has a reputation as the ‘Athens of the UK’, and it’s worth finding out why – that’s where your friendly informative headset comes in. Tune in, hop off and hang out is the general ethos, and when you reach the Medieval Old Town you’ll want to do just that for plenty of cosy pubs, where poets muse and people watch, will lure you from your seat (also, it’s breezy up there).
Whether your pub crawl leads you to the famous Royal Mile, or you smugly observe those climbing up the cobbled hill from the comfort of the bus, you’ll inevitably end up at Edinburgh Castle. It’s an attraction so grand, and with such a powerful allure, that all that ‘it’s the journey not the destination’ stuff will be ditched upon arrival, along with any remaining desire you have to sit on the bus.
The stunning views from the castle are designed to capture everyone’s imagination, and the audio-guided tour around the grounds paints a colourful and dramatic history of Scotland’s past, with all its Kings, Queens, troubles and triumphs. The Imperial War Museum is rather aptly situated on site, and despite its tiny size, St Margaret’s Chapel is so beautifully delicate and understated it’s impossible to miss. The journey around the castle grounds, and Scotland’s legendary history, culminates with the opportunity to see the sparkling artefacts at the heart of all the stories: the Crown Jewels.
Edinburgh’s culture is steeped in tradition and historical significance, yet a new theme is emerging of late, sculpting the city’s status as a thoroughly modern European City. The theme is boutique, and the centre is scattered with hidden hangouts where food, drink and décor are all crisp, cool and modern. It would be rude not to try.
I stayed in the elegant Rutland Hotel apartment, where each room seemed uniquely designed to delight and surprise. Its basement apartment where I slept for two nights was no exception; its rug that reminded me of marshmallows, velvet armchair that looked like a delicious chocolate orange, and mirror made entirely of magazines, were just a few of the details that made me feel part of the city’s quirky modern undercurrent, which seemed to flow out from its striking late-night venues and into my complimentary Nespresso maker. The Rutland restaurant, where I dined one evening, was as innovative with its use of space, matter and dimension as it was with its menu. A walk-in glass wine cellar and views of the city’s busiest shopping street were the embodiment of contemporary cool design. The menu was composed of trendy, tasty, takes on traditional dishes - clever but not intimidating, original but affordable.
Hotel Missoni is another Edinburgh must for lovers of modernity. Its décor is bold; bright patterns, both light and dark, mix with an array of surfaces and textures to create a theatrical vibe. The lunch menu is as colourful as the décor, and tastes like Italy on a summer’s afternoon; did I mention the gelato on offer for dessert?
If you’re after a night of pure indulgence, begin with a flavoursome dinner at designer chef Mark Greenaway’s restaurant in the Hawke and Hunter; its east-end hotel occupies five floors of gorgeous Georgian townhouse. Following that, stroll back to the Old Town and stumble, like me, across hidden gem Bramble Bar. It’s a cosy little basement bar where cocktail making becomes an art-form, and you’ll drink spirits from tea – cups. Think Alice in Scottish Wonderland.
When you’re done with fine views and fresh cocktails, there’s a dingier, creepier, side to Edinburgh that must be explored. Just underneath the bustling Old Town lie warrens of underground streets and relics; a dark reminder of the living conditions in Edinburgh’s past. Tour guides jump out all along the Royal Mile by day, frantically signing up as many tourists as possible to their late night shows, and excited rabbles of ghost spotters glide along at night, nervous with anticipation.
I sampled The Real Mary King’s Close Tour, which involved a wander around one of Edinburgh’s oldest, and most notorious, closes with a costumed character relaying tales about the plague and indulging me with ghost stories. The close itself has been admirably retained, and is the closest thing you’ll get to Edinburgh as it was in the 1630s. This tour is more historical in focus than some of the other orchestrated ‘ghost walks’ on offer, but if, like me, you think that real history is stranger than a man walking round with a white sheet over his head, then you’ll get a real buzz as the drama of the historical close is unravelled to you by candlelight.
The past might seem weird, but the future looks weirder. At least, it did from my seat in Edinburgh’s cutting edge scientific exhibition centre, InSpace. This all white space is a university owned laboratory that specialises in exploring the cultural significance of informatics and technology. It couldn’t look more futuristic if it tried; live twitter feeds about robots project on to its bright white floor, while scientists smile sweetly and inform the public that robots are smarter than they think. At least, that was my experience, as InSpace hosted Edinburgh’s most unlikely festival during my stay – the Festival of Science. Guest Professors and nutty inventors were cool and charismatic, and revealed to me a bizarre, real, and very contemporary side to the city. I sat on the train ride home and tweeted; I was already missing Edinburgh and the endless opportunities for expansion it offered.
Lucinda's trip was sponsored and organised by This is My Edinburgh, and their site is a good place to start looking when you're planning your own trip.