Scotland’s capital city, and the country’s second most populous, Edinburgh is an enchanting city with the uncanny ability to transport visitors back in time via its narrow closes, medieval buildings, and lush gardens. Having been inhabited by various cultures, clans, and monarchs since as far back as the Mesolithic, the city (and especially its Old Town neighborhood) has a rich and varied history. It has been home to kings and queens, and holds Scotland’s Crown Jewels to this day. It’s been described not just as the Athens of the North, but also as “Auld Reekie,” a city of loud, crowded pubs and decadent restaurants. To us, it was home for four days in late May.
We arrived via train, by way of London late on a Sunday afternoon. Our Accommodation was a lovely little mewes apartment in Stockbridge (it seems it must’ve been a carriage house and garage at one point). After the long journey, we found it prudent to stay local for our first evening, and explore the neighborhood. A short walk downhill took us to the nearest thoroughfare, and after a pint at one of the local pubs (Stockbridge Tap, whose pints made up for what it might have been lacking in atmosphere), we found ourselves at The Scran & Scallie. Having been recommended by multiple friends who’d been to the area before, S&S was our introduction to the food of Scottish Chef, Tom Kitchin. It was a wonderful first impression. The Sunday Roast was phenomenal, and we left with full bellies and tired bodies, but ready to see the city.
Monday morning was a quintessential Scottish morning, chilly and gray, and the forecast had us worrying that rain might be in our future. Luckily the weather held, and after a bacon & egg “butty” and coffee at a little coffee & wine bar called Vesta, we set out to see Edinburgh’s Old Town.
Our first stop was in what are probably Edinburgh’s most famous gardens: Princes Street Gardens. Covering 29 acres, the parks were created following the draining of what was once loch used as part of the city’s defenses. Today, the parks are home to quite a bit of green space, an amphitheater, as well as numerous statues and memorials. As we moseyed through the parks, we noticed a bit of crowd gathering, including men and women in uniform. Unbeknownst to us, one of the memorials in the Princes Street Gardens is a Scottish-American War Memorial, at which, soldiers from both Scotland and the United States were presenting their respective colors for an annual US Memorial Day ceremony. It was quite a nice surprise.
Next on the itinerary, was Calton Hill. Right in the city centre, it’s impossible to miss, as it’s topped by Edinburgh’s own Acropolis. Not nearly as ancient as its namesake in Athens, Scotland’s version was also never finished, as funds ran dry during the 1822 construction of what was once called the “National Monument,” leaving only a facade complete. Calton Hill is also home to an old observatory and to Nelson’s Monument, but its true attraction is wonderful views of the city, and of the nearby Arthur’s Seat. Despite the cloudy day, the views were great, and it’s a spot that I’d recommend to anyone visiting Edinburgh. The Hill would be a great spot for a picnic lunch. It is easily accessible, not too crowded (though there were quite a few people there), and not a very difficult climb.
Our afternoon took us to the heart of Old Town in Edinburgh for a tour of the city’s centerpiece: Edinburgh Castle. The castle sits atop Castle Rock, overlooking the Royal Mile. It has been home to monarchs, military, and now tourists (fun fact: it is actually still an active military installation!). We joined one of the castles guided tours, and were glad we did. Our guide provided just the right amount of context and history as she showed us around the site. We explored the Scottish National War Memorial, toured the Great Hall, gazed up on the Honours of Scotland (amongst the oldest Crown Jewels in all of Europe), and walked through what used to be the castle’s prisons (seeing what is one of the earliest renditions of an American flag, dating back to the American Revolution).
As the resident history buff of the group, I found the castle fascinating, particularly the story of the Black Dinner, which is said to have inspired Game of Thrones’s infamous Red Wedding. As a historical landmark, Edinburgh Castle is certainly one of the city’s must-see landmarks, and I think the opportunity to spend some time walking around, learning about the Scottish capital’s history was well worth the price of admission.
Our first full day in Scotland concluded where the previous evening did: in Stockbridge. Lauren and Caroline’s cousin Joanna was scheduled to arrive via train after dinner, so we made sure to grab a bite at local pub (The Bailie’s fish and chips really hit the spot!) before embarking on a pub crawl of sorts, with a stop for a couple of pints at Hectors on our way back to The Stockbridge Tap for a second visit in as many nights, where we welcomed Jo to the traveling party, and wound down our evening.
Tuesday began as Monday did, with a walk through the heart of Edinburgh over to Old Town. This time, our destination was a tour of a different sort at Mary King’s Close. A historic close located along the Royal Mile, Mary King’s Close has become something of a tourist destination (maybe even a tourist trap). An old street of partially demolished and buried tenement buildings (the city’s Royal Exchange was built on top of what remained of the buildings), the close has a history of hauntings and is the subject of many urban myths. Today, it is a historical tour that takes visitors on a journey through the old buildings’ remaining rooms and through time; telling tales of sewage in the streets, residents falling to their deaths from rickety ladders, and the horror of the plague. While elements of the tour were fascinating, I’m not sure its a tour that would top my list of recommendations for future visits.
After spending a morning in the dark and dusty remains of a buried street, we emerged into the fresh air; making our way to the nearby Leith for the highlight meal of the trip at The Kitchin. Showcasing the best of Tom Kitchin’s ideas, the restaurant is one of eight in Scotland showcased in the Michelin guide (with 1 star), and one that showcases the country’s ingredients. Highlights of our meal included an ox tail appetizer, guinea fowl main, and the wonderful cheese cart. The Kitchin is not to be missed when in Edinburgh.
As we left the restaurant, we found ourselves in the midst of a bright sunny day, and took the opportunity to take the scenic route back to our accommodations with a stroll along the banks of the Water of Leith, a meandering little river that connects Edinburgh to Leith. Along the way, we passed numerous cyclists, residents out for an afternoon walk, and of course a number of westies being walked by their owners.
Wednesday featured a persistent light rain. Luckily, it was not enough to deter us from enjoying our final day. We continued our trend of moving around by foot, as we set off for Arthur’s Seat. Only about a mile east of the castle, the extinct volcano is a striking peak that overlooks the city of Edinburgh. It has been mentioned in a number of literary works over the years, and is thought to be named for the legendary King Arthur, as it may have been the location of the mythical “Camelot.” Our “hike” that day was more of a walk, as we chose to spend our time and energy exploring the base of the hills, rather than brave the wind and rain at the peak. Climbing to the summit will surely be on our list the next time we visit.
Lunch consisted of burgers, haggis, and a flight of various whiskies at Whiski Rooms. I quite enjoyed the haggis spring roll appetizer, but was less than impressed with the burger. After lunch, we spent the early part of the afternoon browsing various gift shops and boutiques. Caroline had a particularly fruitful visit to Scribbler, as she walked away with more than a half-dozen of their unique brand of greeting cards, while Lauren managed to find a Harris Tweed coat for Lucy that we just could not pass up. With no end in sight to the rain, we spent the remainder of the afternoon and early evening first at Bramble sipping cocktails against an early 90s hip-hop soundtrack, and then at Kay’s Bar milking a happy hour pint (and whisky).
After watching a less than satisfying Europa League final in a return visit to The Bailie, we squeezed in one last meal: a late evening dinner at Nok’s Kitchen. After a few days of delicious local cuisine and pub food, a bit of Thai spice hit the spot. We enjoyed all of the dishes we ordered, but the pad ka prow was an especially tasty choice. Following dinner, we made our way back up the hill from Stockbridge, and ended our time in Scotland with a well-deserved night of sleep.
Edinburgh is a gem of a city. It combines old with new in quite a unique way. Its history is enchanting, and it has a unique Scottish beauty to it. I’m happy to have spent some time in it, and it’s a city that I’ll look forward to visiting again. When I think back to our mornings and evenings in Stockbridge, and contrast them with our afternoons enjoyed downtown, it feels like Robert Louis Stevenson really nailed when he wrote:
“Half a capital and half a country town, the whole city leads a double existence; it has long trances of the one and flashes of the other; like the king of the Black Isles, it is half alive and half a monumental marble.”