Like millions of others, I fell in love with Edinburgh on my very first visit. The charming, historic Old Town with its ‘fishbone’ street pattern, narrow closes, steep staircases, and the majestic castle perching on top of the plug of an extinct volcano is a fascinating area to explore, especially early in the morning when the city is still half asleep, the crowds are yet to emerge, and there is no bagpiper within earshot.
The vibrant New Town entices you into its gardens, galleries, restaurants, and entertainment venues after a hard day’s shopping on the buzzing Princes Street (if that’s your thing) or invites you to walk down the quiet residential streets, lined with grand neo-classical buildings. The views to and from the Old Town are magnificent, and throughout the year the city hosts a variety of festivals. Culture, history, and amazing stories seem to ooze from all nooks and crannies. Oh, and you can find a good game of football or icehockey too!
Of course, the most popular areas get almost annoyingly busy, especially the top part of the Royal Mile that runs downhill from the castle to Holyrood Palace. Numerous tourists, buskers, bagpipers, living statues, tour advertisers, and charity fundraisers all cram in, making the place ‘bustle’, say some, ‘claustrophobic’ says yours truly! Luckily the businesses are not all souvenir shops and expensive cafes although you find plenty of those too. Apparently The Scotch Whisky Experience just by the castle is worth a visit if you’d like a tour with a tipple before escaping the crowds. My own absolute favourite of all the more commercial visitor attractions is the amazing, very hands-on optical illusion wonderland of Camera Obscura and World of Illusions. Over there, as they say, ‘seeing is NOT believing’! The camera obscura show itself is good fun: live moving images of Edinburgh are projected onto a viewing table through a giant periscope, and you can pick people or cars up on your hands. It’s a great place for a birds-eye view of the city, too.
It seems that whatever you are interested in, there is a walking tour for it. History walks, ghost tours, underground tours, city of the dead walks – take your pick. Out of curiosity, I once joined an evening stroll that included a visit to the underground vaults. I had expected more facts and history but as these events are as much about captivating storytelling as they are about visiting haunted graveyards, underground chambers, or places where gruesome punishments took place, I ended up feeling slightly disappointed. However, if you are mainly after entertaining tales whilst you wander the streets in the evening, the tours are worth a try. Although I have also followed a walking tour from a guidebook to educate myself as I stroll, I have found that most of the time drifting is the best way to get to know a place.
As far as stories go, one of the more charming ones is that of Greyfriars Bobby, a night watchman’s skye terrier. After his master’s death, he allegedly kept constant watch over his grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard for fourteen years until his own death. The kirkyard has a memorial for him and just outside you can find a statue, whose nose many tourists rub for good luck. (I have never done it and I might be too short to reach it anyway!) I wonder if the pub next to it sells any Bobby-related beverages?
Not far from the statue is Victoria Street, a wonderfully curving street known for its eccentric shops, boutiques, and places to eat. Its elegant two-tier buildings with colourful shopfronts make it probably the most picturesque street in town. Close by is the Grassmarket, a historic market place which has always been surrounded by pubs. After walking up and down steep staircases and cobbled side streets, it feels great to get to this big open space and wander around the open market, do some people-watching at a pavement cafe, or pop in for a pint. Although it’s difficult to imagine now, the area used to be extremely poor and was up to 1784 used for public hangings.
For some reason, climbing is always a big part of my and my husband’s travel: staircases, towers, hills, anything goes. On one January day we decided to climb up to Arthur’s Seat. Although there was little snow, the paths were icy and good footwear was a must, especially on the way down. Why we had never attempted this in warmer weather is still a mystery. However, the view from the top was worth the effort, despite the chilling wind, and some fellow hikers felt like on top of the world. Finding Clarinda’s Tearoom afterwards was the perfect finish to our trek.