Pip's Pages • Doing Edinburgh - a city guide
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Not only is Edinburgh Scotland's capital, and home to the Scottish parliament, it was also used to great effect in films like Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. It feels like a city in the ascendancy, and is certainly worth a look. Click on the Top anywhere to return here.

Before you go   Getting around   Where to stay   Sightseeing  Places to eat/drink   Miscellaneous

  • Get a guidebook - you could just print this page, or you could spend a couple of quid on the excellent Mini Rough Guide... small, yet perfectly formed. Alternatively, those nice people at Lonely Planet do a very popular guide but it's a bit on the big/heavy side for the jeans pocket. Good fiction for your trip is anything by Iain Banks, Ian Rankin or Irvine Welsh.
  • Get wedged up - you can convert your $/¥/whatever into Sterling with the Universal Currency Converter.
  • Get a weather forecast - courtesy of Yahoo Weather.
  • Flying - it's a long way up to Edinburgh so probably the best way to get there is to fly. Edinburgh International Airport is about seven miles west of the city centre. Shuttle buses costing around 3.50 run into town regularly (the 100 bus runs to the end of Princes Street); alternatively, taxis charge about 13-14 for the same journey. Airlines like Go run regular scheduled services to Edinburgh from Stansted at reasonable prices, as do a number of smaller operators. British Airways are dearer, but operate frequent services out of Heathrow and Gatwick. It might also be helpful to know that there's a Tourist Information office right opposite Gate 5 if you need help getting your bearings.
  • Buses - an easy means of getting to Edinburgh from London is the National Express service (number 591 or 596) from Victoria Coach Station. Barring adverse traffic down the A1/A1M, the trip takes just under nine hours so pack a good book to read on the way. It is cheap though, especially for students. Edinburgh's bus station is currently right in the middle of the city centre in St Andrew's Square, and only a couple of hundred yards from the main Tourist Information centre so it's handy for picking up info on arrival. Once you're in town you'll find that a number of different bus operators operate services, for example Lothian Regional Transport (LRT) run a fleet of maroon buses; daily and weekly passes can be bought for these buses from ticket offices in Waverley Street and Hanover Street, and represent excellent value for getting around during your stay.
  • Trains - Waverley Station is right in the heart of Edinburgh. Trains from London make the 5-hour journey regularly, from Victoria, Charing Cross and Waterloo. It is a long journey though, so take a good book. If you're coming from elsewhere in Scotland, you might want to check out Haymarket Station too. As ever, for all train timetable enquiries check out National Rail.
  • Taxis - if you've made your way to Edinburgh by public transport, taxis make a reasonably cheap way of getting around during your stay. Cabs charge a fixed fare for the first 340 yards, an incremental sum for each additional 240 yards, so watch the meter as you're in transit to avoid being diddled. Fares should be the same for all companies - expect to pay time and a half after midnight though. I used City Cabs (0131 228 1211) and had no complaints.
  • Driving there - if you're driving, the RAC can help plan your route - you might also want to check the traffic. Be aware that parking isn't always easy (or cheap) here though.
  • Maps - a fully scalable map of the city is available here.
  • Going upmarket - there are a number of fine hotels in the city, notably the recently refurbished Holyrood House Hotel, unsurprisingly in Holyrood Road - double rooms start at around 95, and guests can use the well-appointed gym, pool, sauna and steam-room for free. It's very well located for Dynamic Earth, The Palace of Holyroodhouse and the new Scottish parliament. Also recommended for the wealthier among you, and superbly located in the city centre, is the Balmoral Hotel, on Princes Street, famous for its clock which runs two minutes fast for the benefit of commuters hurrying to Waverley Station. The hotel, formerly known as the North British, has a bewildering array of bars and restaurants a pool, sauna and gym, which is nice, but rooms start at getting on for 200, which is less so. 'Tis the best hotel in the city though. Equally well appointed and just as expensive is the Caledonian Hotel at the other end of Princes St, which boasts excellent views of the Castle and a suitably posh French restaurant in the shape of The Pompadour.
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  • More reasonably... - you could try the Apex International Hotel tucked away in the Old Town in the Grassmarket. Again, you'll get excellent views of the Castle, especially from the upper floors and the rooftop bar/restaurant. Alternatively, check out the ideally placed Parliament House Hotel, in Calton Hill - it is quite new, having recently been converted from council offices where Irvine Welsh supposedly wrote Trainspotting. Regardless of its literary provenance, it's a very nice, modern hotel with all amenities, with double rooms weighing in at around the 90 mark.
  • B&B and guesthouses - 26a Abercromby Place is fairly typical of the type of decent B&B you can find in Edinburgh if you look hard enough. A double room will cost around 60 and the breakfasts are very good. Close by is the similarly priced Ardenlee Guest House in Eyre Place, particularly if you fancy a vegetarian meal for the second "B" in B&B! There's private parking for the drivers amongst you too. Alternatively if you're looking for alternative budget lodgings try the Jewel and Esk Valley College's halls of residence, about five miles east of the city centre. The rooms are pretty cheap, there's a swimming pool onsite and the number 44 bus takes you right into town. Not available during term-time, obviously.
  • Hostels - there are untold hostels in the City, including many in the Old Town. Examples include the fantastically central Royal Mile Backpacker's in the High Street, and the Edinburgh Backpacker's Hostel in Cockburn Street. Of course there's always the YHA too. I'll let you review their relative merits for yourself here.
  • Let someone else find a hotel for you - for more info, or for a wider choice of hotels, check out the AA's excellent hotel finder.
  • The Castle - you cannot come to Edinburgh without visiting the Castle. Sitting atop an outcrop of volcanic rock, it dominates the City skyline, and has done so since the 12th Century - St Margaret's Chapel, dating from that era, still stands. There's a lot to see in the Castle grounds, so much so that for the sufficiently interested it would be quite possible to spend a whole day there. Having said that, try to arrive just before noon as you could then be fortunate to see the guardsmen who stand watch at the Castle gates change shifts. Soldiers in kilts may sound like an obvious touristy photograph, I know, but everyone takes one! Anyway, once in the Castle (admission is currently 5.50) pick up a free audio-guide - I'm not always keen on wandering round such places with headphones on but this is one of the best guides you will come across and brings the Castle to life for you. Anyway, look out in particular for the One O'Clock Gun, fired daily from the Castle ramparts - now a tradition, this was originally done as an audio time signal to ships in the Firth of Forth (a ball is dropped on the roof the Nelson Monument to give a visual signal). Anyway, crowds start gathering at the Mill's Mount Battery from about 12.45pm so get there early if you want to get a good picture. Also, be warned - the gun is very loud! Anyway, there's loads to see in the Castle, including the Honours of Scotland (a kind of Scottish crown jewels) and the Stone of Destiny, aka the Stone of Scone, the ancient coronation seat of Scottish monarchs that was only returned from England as recently as 1996. Also, check out the National War Memorial, a sombre reminder of the 150,000 Scots who died in World War I, housed in a converted barracks. For me, this added a note of irony to the statue of Field Marshal Haig outside the Castle gates, whose "over the top" trench warfare tactics were a contributory factor to the massive death toll.
  • Whisky - another essential stop on your visit is the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre at the top of Castle Hill, not least because whisky was called uisge beatha - the water of life - in Gaelic. On arrival you are given a generous measure of straight whisky to take with you on your tour (soft drinks are available for the kids), and are given a potted history of whisky's history and an explanation of the many different types. Then you get to sit in a barrel and go for an interactive ride through a number of audio-visual displays giving you the same potted history again which might not sound so great but it is quite interesting. Of course there's a bar downstairs too but the best place to end the tour is in the shop where you'll be greeted with row after row of different types of whisky and whisky-flavoured memorabilia. The bottles come in various sizes to suit all budgets too, and what better souvenir could there be for a male relative than a miniature bottle of 20-year old single malt? Admission is somewhere between 4 and 5, if memory serves.
  • Obscure - Also at the top of Castle Hill is Edinburgh's Camera Obscura, offering live projections of images from around the city by means of a mirror rotating atop the Outlook Tower. Pretty tame, you might think, but this show is made by the quality of the guide who will offer you a unique and entertaining perspective of the city - watch pedestrians get "picked up" or cars "re-routed", all done with a piece of white cardboard. Also, whilst you're up the tower you have excellent panoramic views of the city and its environs. Clearly these attractions are best enjoyed on a bright, sunny day (try to visit around noon, when there are fewer shadows) but even when it's a little overcast there are still things to do here - the tower also houses Europe's largest collection of holograms, plus an exhibit of optical illusions. I've always been a sucker for such things, it's true, but everyone else there seemed to be enjoying them too. Also, as you wind your way up the stairs to the top of the tower you can peruse a collection of photographs showing Edinburgh life in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
  • Dynamic - Dynamic Earth is a relatively new attraction house in a dramatic tented structure in Holyrood Road. The aims of the place is lofty indeed: to trace the changing face of our planet from the Big Bang to the present day in a tour that lasts a couple of hours! Fair play to the place, I think it succeeds pretty well, although if you read everything thoroughly you'll be there for a lot longer than that. Any tourist attraction that takes you from the beginnings of life in the primordial soup right through to the Space Shuttle has surely got to be worth seeing, right? I seem to recall that tickets aren't too cheap though, which might be a consideration if you're taking a family.
  • Get educated - there are numerous museums of varying quality in Edinburgh. Some of the better examples include the Royal Museum of Scotland (open 'til 8pm on Tuesdays, if you're trying to fit a lot into your days), John Knox House and the excellent (and free!) Museum of Childhood. What makes the latter especially enjoyable is that the toys on display are not all ancient, so you're find yourself pointing into display cases and saying "I had one of those!" Also worth a visit is Gladstone's Land in the Lawnmarket (essentially a 350 year old tenement house preserved in as original a condition as possible) and the National Gallery of Modern Art in Belford Road which features works by Matisse, Picasso, Magritte, Hockney and Bacon.
  • Palatial, monumental or just plain fancy - the Palace of Holyroodhouse nestles at the foot of Arthur's Seat (an extinct, 823ft high volcano) and was home to many a Scot's monarch - "rood" is an alternative word for "cross", by the way. Quite grand, and certainly worth a look, as is the Scott Monument in East Princes Street Gardens. This is the world's largest monument to a writer (Sir Walter Scott). It stands at over 200 feet and (if you don't mind heights and can squeeze up the very narrow spiral staircase) it's worth a climb, as you will be rewarded with excellent panoramic views. If you're wondering why the stonework is so blackened, it's because the monument is considered too delicate to be cleaned. Finally, check out the Kirk of St Giles in the High Street, Scotland's principal church, which houses some pretty fine stained glass windows - in particular, look out for the great west window, dedicated to Robbie Burns. Also, if you stand on Princes Street and face west you'll see what looks like three upturned ice-cream cones in the distance - that's St Mary's Cathedral which, if approached from Melville Street on a sunny morning offers a nice photo opportunity. The west door is quite nice too, but it's pretty dour inside.
  • Get walking - if walking tours are your thing, you've come to the right place. There are plain sightseeing walks, ghost walks and themed walks - your best bet is to wander round the Kirk of St Giles where most of the operators have meeting points and numerous advertising boards, so that you can check out the best offers and compare content. I went with Mercat Tours on a tour of the vaults below South Bridge, which was fascinating. If ghost walks are more your cup of tea, it's probably worth noting that they are supposed to get scarier later in the evening, so if you have kids you might want to take them earlier in the day. Alternatively, there's always the McEwan's 80/- Literary Pub Tour which takes in numerous pubs whilst bringing Scottish literature, from Robert Burns to Irvine Welsh, to life. The walk starts outside the Beehive Inn at the end of Grassmarket, lasts two hours and costs 7... plus whatever you spend in the pubs! Finally, there's the Edinburgh Pub Crawl which combines drinking, singing, dancing, and a selection of venues with the freedom to set your own pace or explore more adventurous beverages such as shooters and cocktails. The perfect thing to start off a Stag or Hen night
  • House on the hill - take a stroll up Waterloo Place and onto Calton Hill, home to the Nelson Monument and the somewhat peculiar National Monument. The first of these is home to the time ball that is dropped as a visual time signal, in sync with the aforementioned One O'Clock Gun. The latter was originally intended to be a Victorian replica of the Parthenon in Athens, but the builders ran out of money so only one wall was finished. Anyway, the best time of day to go up Calton Hill is mid- to late-afternoon, when the sun streams across the city, making for excellent pictures of everything from Arthur's Seat in the west to the Castle in the east.
  • That boat - the Royal Yacht Britannia is moored just a few minutes drive from Edinburgh, near Leith. Allow at least two hours for your visit and get the excellent audio guide to take round with you as you tread in the footsteps of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. The yacht was very popular with honeymooning Royal couples, most of which have subsequently split up. I came away with a number of overriding impressions: grandeur (especially the Dining Room), vanity (there are so many mirrors), standards (the engine room doesn't look like it has ever been used) and contrasts (compare the tiny crew quarters with the floating luxury of the Queen's and Prince Philip's (separate) bedrooms.
  • Get your top off - there are a number of open-top sightseeing buses operating in the City. I used the Edinburgh Tour bus which offers excellent value at 7.50 for a hop-on/hop-off day ticket. It's also one of the view operators that goes out to Dynamic Earth. Also recommended is the Guide Friday service, not least because their route takes in the Royal Yacht. Keep hold of your Guide Friday ticket stubs, as they will entitle you to discounts on Guide Friday sightseeing buses in other cities.
  • Festival town - there are too many festivals in Edinburgh to go into in great depth here. Just follow these links to find out more about the Edinburgh International Festival, the International Film Festival, the Fringe, Hogmanay and the Military Tattoo. Just bear in mind that everything get busier and dearer during festival season in August. Check out The Hub on the Royal Mile which acts as a festival information centre, and has a neat cafe too.
  • And finally... - a couple of sundry items. Take a walk down George IV Bridge to see the tiny statue of Greyfriars Bobby, the devoted Skye terrier who maintained a vigil by his dead owner's grave in nearby Greyfriar's Kirkyard, until his own death fourteen years later. It's a bit of a clichéd thing to do but you can't leave Edinburgh without a photo of the little dog - be warned though, it's quite easily missed as it's so small. Also, take a walk round the wide boulevards of the New Town, which provide an ideal setting to many interesting shops and restaurants. Following a competition in 1766 to find the best design, the New Town was laid out on reclaimed land (the Nor' Loch had been drained the previous decade) according to the designs of 20 year old architect James Craig, so I guess this qualifies as a very early example of town planning. Strolling down these streets (especially George Street) leaves you feeling you are somewhere much more cosmopolitan - it's my favourite part of the city. In addition, although Princes Street is famous for its shops all you'll find there are the same stores you'll find in your high street back home. It's far more interesting to take a wander along Victoria Street and West Bow, where you'll find an eclectic mix of infinitely more interesting shops.
  • Brown's - George Street. You'll know from other guides that I am not a huge fan of restaurant chains. Having said that, Brown's is excellent. The menu is a superb mixture of basic and fancy, the wine list (if a little pricey) stacks up well, and the ambience is most pleasant. The restaurant itself is light and airy - modern without being too modern. The perfect place to take your other half.
  • Garfunkel's - Castle Street (?). What's this, another chain? Garfunkel's does good, no-nonsense food at sane prices. It's never going to win any prizes... but it won't let you down either. If you find yourself unable to choose a restaurant one night, cast your preconceptions aside and try it out. Comes with the added bonus that the money you save on food you can spend on beer instead...
  • Dubh Prais - High Street. Gaelic for Black Kettle, Dubh Prais specialises in traditional Scottish fare and, as a result is very popular with tourists, especially those with healthy bank balances as it's not a cheap place to eat. The entrance is very plain and unobtrusive though, so be careful you don't walk straight past the door.
  • Creeler's - Hunter Square. A seafood restaurant, again with a heavy emphasis on traditional Scottish dishes. It has some interesting paintings on show in its brightly decorated interior, whilst some tables make their way outside in the summer.
  • Jackson's - High Street. Another traditional Scottish restaurant, serving such delicacies as Aberdeen Angus beef, salmon, venison, and the like. This basement restaurant is again a little pricey but you can console yourself with a malt whisky from their selection of around fifty!
  • The Magnum - Albany Street. The perfect antidote to the touristy restaurants mentioned above. Divided into two sections (bar and restaurant) with different menus for each, the Magnum offers good food at sensible prices, with friendly service and comfy surroundings thrown in. Can be a little quiet on out-of-season weeknights though.
  • Mamma's - Grassmarket. Cheap and cheerful pizzeria, offering cheap wine and outdoor seating in the summer. Warrants a mention here for the fact that it offers haggis pizza!
  • Pancho Villa's - Cannongate. A colourful Mexican restaurant that seems to be as popular with locals as with tourists. Excellent chicken fajitas, fine beer (try the Dos Equis Amber), tempting puddings (Mexican flan recommended)... good work!
  • Number One - Princes Street. I'm not usually a fan of eating in hotel restaurants unless you're staying there but this is an exception. Why? The fillet of beef I had here was quite possibly the best I've had all year, and cannot be recommended highly enough. Be warned though, this place (part of the Balmoral Hotel) is very expensive and has a smart dress code. If you're looking for something a little more low-key, try Hadrian's Brasserie on the other side of the same hotel or the adjacent NB's Bar, which has a pleasing but not overstated sports theme.
  • The Guildford Arms - West Register Street. A fine pub with a broad selection of real ales, many of which you won't find south of the border. Its Victorian interior has been well preserved and there's a kind of balcony which is a fine spot to partake of a lunchtime sandwich. Or alternatively you could just try another of those real ales...
  • Café Royal - West Register Street. Right next to the Guildford Arms, as luck would have it. The late-Victorian Circle Bar features tiled portraits of such famous Scots as James Watt and William Caxton. Again, fairly decent light bites are on offer at lunchtime.
  • Bannerman's - Cowgate. Popular with Edinburgh's large student population, and just about everyone else. Serves a nice pint of Theakston's too. It's a bit of a maze inside, but then it did use to be a cellar apparently, which probably explains that.
  • The Doric Tavern - Market Street. There's no other word to describe this place but trendy; maybe it's the brasserie, maybe it's the views of Princes Street, maybe it's the late-night McGuffie's Tavern downstairs, I don't know. Go along and decide for yourself.
  • The Last Drop - Grassmarket. So-called because people on their way to the nearby gallows had their last drink there, apparently. Worth a drink for that alone, although I doubt you'd want to spend a whole night there.
  • Bow Bar - West Bow. With over one hundred malt whiskies on offer in its oak-panelled confines, it's no wonder that the Bow Bar won an award a couple of years ago as the best drinker's pub in Britain. Go, drink, enjoy.
  • The World's End - High Street. This place has many things going for it: good food, well-kept ales, a cosy atmosphere, a quiz night on Tuesdays, live music on Thursday, a central location on the Royal Mile... all that and it feels very cosy too (some might say cramped, but not me).
  • Fiddler's Arms - Grassmarket. If you fancy a pint of that most Scottish of Scottish ales, McEwan's 80 shilling, this is the place to go. There's live music on Monday night's too, if that's you thing.
  • Green Tree - Cowgate. Is literally heaving in the summer, when the courtyard beer garden proves very popular. There's something about drinking outside, after all.
  • The Dome Bar and Grill - George Street. There's a number of bars in this rather grand building, converted from an old bank. It's not the cheapest watering hole in town but it offers a good contrast to some of the more traditional venues in town.
  • Mather's - Broughton Street. Renowned for its stout, Guinness, Murphy's and, most appropriately, the local brew, Gillespie's. Its clientele is equal parts post-work office crowd and pre-clubbers.
  • Club life - The Peppermint Lounge in Blair Street is a very popular mainstream choice. The Liquid Room in Victoria Street aims for a slightly more indie crowd, and so is very popular with students. The Venue in Calton Road is spread over three floors and is a live music venue as well as a club, so check what's on before you go. Also, I don't know whether it's still there but there's Club Mercado in Castle Street, which had a 70's night on Fridays (called Kerplunk, amusingly enough).

Page updated 21-Nov-2006 10:56:55 GMT

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