- Visiting a Pub: In Edinburgh, there are a good number of more traditional pubs, many of which serve hand-pulled, cask-conditioned ales made in Scotland and England. Glasgow’s scene is more modern, with several so-called “style” bars as well as the more traditional pubs. As the evening wanes and you’ve established common ground with the locals, you’ll realize you’re having one of your most authentic Scottish experiences.
- Experiencing Edinburgh’s Famous Festival: The Edinburgh Festival has become one of world’s most prestigious annual cultural events. In fact, it encompasses several “festivals” at once. While the International Festival is primarily devoted to classical music and dance, it’s the Fringe that really draws people. There are hundreds of stages with music, drama, comedians, and other entertainers. Plus book, film, and jazz festivals take place between the end of July and the first of September. If you’re planning to sample the many offerings, make your hotel and flight reservations early.
- Savoring the Cuisine: No, we’re not joking. Fresh fish and seafood harvested from Scotland’s icy lochs and seas is world-class. Then there is lamb and Aberdeen Angus beef. If you think the food in Scotland is rotten, you’ve not been there in some time. Scotland, like Britain as a whole, has made leaps and bounds in improving the reputation of its cuisine.
- Enjoying Art in Galleries & Museums: Edinburgh is the home to the Scottish National Gallery, and the country’s collection ranges from Renaissance painting to pop art sculptures. Glasgow has one of the best municipally owned collections of art in the U.K. and possibly Europe. The crowning glory for many critics is the Burrell Collection, which was bequeathed to the city by an industrialist, but the now restored Kelvingrove is the soul of the city’s collection.
- Playing Golf: Yes, most people think of St. Andrews, Gleneagles, Troon, or Turnberry. But both Edinburgh and Glasgow have fine courses. The birthplace of the sport’s rules is Edinburgh. While the historic Leith Links are no longer playable, the short course Bruntsfield Links, closer to the city center, can be played — and all you need is a ball, pitching wedge, and putter.
- Strolling in Parks or Gardens: In the capital, you have the option of the Meadows, the splendid Royal Botanic Gardens, Holyrood Park, Arthur’s Seat, or Calton Hill. Glasgow (which many believe means “Dear Green Place”) has a host of options from Glasgow Green along the River Clyde to Kelvingrove Park in the salubrious West End.
- Shopping: Glasgow has become the second biggest retail playground in Britain after London. And, as no self-respecting city likes to be upstaged, Edinburgh is giving chase. There is a combination of posh department stores, such as Harvey Nichols; old favorites, such as the House of Fraser or Jenners; and plenty of trendy designer shops.
- Discovering Ancient Edinburgh: Just take a stroll off one of the many narrow lanes from the Royal Mile in the city’s Old Town to get a sense of what ancient Edinburgh was like. Although not as well preserved as some continental examples of medieval Europe, it is not too bad. In addition to exploring on your own, walking tours will help to heighten the experience.
Edinburgh Best Dining Bets
- Best Fine-Dining Restaurant: With one of the city’s precious Michelin stars and its most talented chef/owners, Restaurant Martin Wishart, 54 The Shore, Leith (tel. 0131/553-3557), is where the leading out-of-town chefs want to dine when they visit Edinburgh.
- Best Cafe: In the heart of Old Town, Spoon, 15 Blackfriars St. (tel. 0131/556-6922), forks out some the best salads and sandwiches in Edinburgh — and the freshly made soups are even better.
- Best Vegetarian Restaurant: Near the Royal Mile, David Bann’s Vegetarian Restaurant, 56-58 St. Mary’s St. (tel. 0131/556-5888), continually sets the highest standards for meat-free dining.
- Best Modern Scottish Restaurant: Owned by Andrew and Lisa Radford, Atrium, 10 Cambridge St. (tel. 0131/228-8882), offers dishes prepared with flair and imagination but without excessive amounts of fuss or overly fancy presentation.
- Best Restaurant Views: It’s a dead heat between Oloroso, 33 Castle St. (tel. 0131/226-7614), and Forth Floor, Harvey Nichols, 30-34 St. Andrew Sq. (tel. 0131/524-8350). Both offer wonderful cooking of fresh Scottish produce to go with those scenic vistas.
- Best on a Budget: Nothing fancy, but the Kebab Mahal, 7 Nicolson Sq. (tel. 0131/667-5214) serves up good, hearty Indian food at budget prices.
Edinburgh: The Best Castles
- Edinburgh Castle: It is a landmark that symbolizes this city in the way that the Eiffel Tower represents Paris or the Empire State Building exemplifies Manhattan. Begun around A.D. 1000 at the highest point of a narrow ridge, it is a natural fortress, with only one easy approach. The castle has witnessed some of the bloodiest and most treacherous events in Scottish history. Today it is home to the crown jewels and the famous stone of Scone on which ancient Scottish royalty was crowned.
- Palace of Holyroodhouse: At the opposite end of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile from the Castle, Holyrood has housed an assortment of monarchs involved in traumatic events. Highlights of the palace are the oldest surviving section, King James Tower, where Mary Queen of Scots lived on the second floor. The building’s present form largely dates from the late 1600s, when it was rebuilt in a dignified neo-Palladian style, and the pile remains an official residence for British royalty.
Edinburgh: The Best Historic Sites
Gladstone’s Land, now run by the National Trust for Scotland, is a 17th-century merchant’s house and worth a visit to get the impression of how confined living conditions were some 400 years ago on the Royal Mile. On the second floor, in the front room that Gladstone added, you can see the original facade with its classical friezes of columns and arches. Here, as well, is the sensitively restored timber ceiling. Across town, the Georgian House is in Charlotte Square, which was designed by the great Robert Adam. This town house is set out and decorated in the manner of the 18th century.
Edinburgh: The Best Pubs
- Best in New Town: In a city famous for its pubs, the Café Royal Circle Bar, 17 W. Register St. (tel. 0131/556-1884), stands out. This longtime favorite, boasting lots of atmosphere and Victorian trappings, attracts a sea of drinkers — locals as well as visitors.
- Best in Stockbridge: At the heart of the village of Stockbridge, The Bailie Bar, 2 St. Stephen St. (tel. 0131/225-4673), usually has plenty of banter between the regulars and the staff, and no music ever drowns out the conversation here.
- Best in Old Town: Just below the castle, the Bow Bar, 80 W. Bow (tel. 0131/226-7667), pours some of the best ales in town in a traditional and comfortable pub with a good whisky selection, too.
- Best in Leith: The Shore, 3-4 The Shore (tel. 0131/553-5080), fits seamlessly into the seaside port ambience, without resorting to a lot of the usual decorations of cork and netting. Excellent food, too.
- Best for Folk Music: It is a tossup between Sandy Bell’s, 25 Forrest Rd. (tel. 0131/225-2751), and the Royal Oak, 1 Infirmary St. (tel. 0131/557-2967), when it comes to spontaneous Scottish folk and poetry. Try both if this is your bag.
Edinburgh: Along the Royal Mile
Old Town’s Royal Mile in an attraction in itself, stretching down the spine of a hill from Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. It bears four names along its length: Castlehill, Lawnmarket, High Street, and Canongate. Walking along, you’ll see some of the most interesting old structures in the city, with turrets, gables, and towering chimneys. Some of the highlights are listed here, in order from west to east.
For Fans of Mr. Hyde — Not far from Gladstone’s Land is Brodie’s Close, a stone-floored alley off the Lawnmarket. It was named after the well-respected cabinet-making father of the notorious William Brodie, who was a respectable councilor and deacon of trades by day — but a notorious thief and ne’er-do-well by night. Brodie’s apparent split personality (actually he was simply calculating and devious) was apparently part of the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Brodie was finally caught and hanged in 1788. In a final irony, the mechanism used in the hangman’s scaffold was perfected by none other than Brodie himself — and he tried to defy its action by secretly wearing a steel collar under his shirt. It didn’t work. Across the street from Brodie’s Close is one of the more famous pubs along the Royal Mile: Deacon Brodie’s Tavern, 435 Lawnmarket (tel. 0131/225-6531).
Canongate Kirkyard & Dunbar’s Close — Take a few minutes to wander about the graveyard that surrounds the Canongate Church and the neighboring walled garden in Dunbar’s Close. If you use your imagination, they can evoke the past in a way that museums, audio loops, videos, and tour guides can’t do half as well.
National Gallery Bus — If you plan to visit the various branches of the Scottish National Gallery, from the Dean to the Portrait, a good way to get around is by using the free shuttle bus service that stops at them all.
Edinburgh Favorite Experiences
Contemplating the City and Environs from on High — At 250m (823 ft.) Arthur’s Seat is presumably the best — unless you want your panorama to include Arthur’s Seat; in which case you might prefer Castle Hill. But then you will miss the castle. Calton Hill affords views of all. And if you are not up for climbing, take the elevator in the Museum of Scotland, which has an observation deck atop its magnificent modern building.
Downing a Pint in an Edinburgh Pub — Whether sampling a pint of real ale — look for Dark Island from Orkney and the local Deuchar’s IPA — or a dram of whisky (peaty island Laphroaig or smooth Highland Dalwhinnie), Edinburgh has numerous traditional pubs. Our favorites include the Bow Bar, Café Royal Circle Bar and, for something a bit more hip, Black Bo’s.
Visiting the Royal Botanic Garden and National Galleries — The garden is not just for plant lovers (although that helps). There are paths and paths to stroll amid a variety of foliage and settings: from redwoods in a miniforest to rock gardens with a waterfall. The collections of the National Gallery are split between different museums and while the size of them is not exceptional, some of the works hanging in them are.
Strolling in Old Town or New Town — Take your pick of these two central and historically preserved districts, and don’t be afraid to get off the beaten track of their main roads and boulevards. Explore the many cobbled side streets and alleyways for a feel of the real Edinburgh. Get a little lost. The city center is not so large that you’ll go very far astray.