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16 Things to Know Before You Go To Edinburgh

1. Edinburgh is the perfect city. Almost. It doesn’t look like any other place on earth: a series of smoky, gothic building fronts grafted onto the shoulder of an extinct volcano, and the rest of it spilling out over seven hills. The rocky summit of Arthur’s Seat, the former volcano, watches over the Old Town and doubles as a striking navigation tool visible from almost all corners of the center. As the capital of Scotland, it’s cosmopolitan and outward looking, yet it’s a comfortably small city, not much larger than Oakland, California. You can eat and drink incredibly well on a budget. Just beware the weather. It can be miserable: wet, grey, and windy.

2. If you’re going for festival season, plan ahead. The Edinburgh Festival, which is really several festivals running simultaneously, is one of the best experiences you can have in the UK, if you’ve planned well: over six weeks in the summer, the city is an all-day and all-night bacchanal of authors, actors, comedians. But for travelers this is a mixed experience: there are 1,000 shows a day, but also the deluge of flyers and pamphlets that are pressed into your hand when you’re taking a walk or getting coffee. Cabs and beds are equally hard to find in August. Unless you’re up for that challenge, consider visiting some other time. Try the Beltane Festival, which is a like a chilly, one-night Burning Man at the end of April. Or come for one of the UK’s best German Christmas markets around the holidays. New Year’s Eve revelry includes names like Hogmanay (an all-night street party) and Loony Dook (the morning-after dip in the icy Firth of Forth). But if you’re really looking for deep, loamy Scottishness, go on Burns Night on January 25, when the Scots celebrate the national poet (and author of Auld Lang Syne) Robert Burns the best way they know how—with poetry, whisky and offal. At a Burns Night supper, a guest of honor reads his 1787 poem, Address to a Haggis, before ceremoniously slicing it open with a sword (a carving knife works too).

3. Don’t mind the smell. It’s just beer… sort of. Edinburgh has a unique smell—depending on the wind, it can smell like the sea, but it’s just as likely, especially in the Old Town, to smell a little stronger (someone once described it to me as redolent of dog food). It’s the malted barley from the city breweries. A lot of the old ones have shut down, but the Caledonian Brewery on the west side is still going, and with more breweries opening up, the smell is not likely to go away. Brewdog started up in 2007 and is now Scotland’s largest independent brewery, but more are on the rise, including Pilot in Leith, and Innis & Gunn, who mature their beer in oak.

4. Know your “fitba” colors. Edinburgh’s two professional soccer clubs, Heart of Midlothian and Hibernian Football Club (“Hearts” and “Hibs”) have one of the longest rivalries in world soccer, dating back to their founding in the 1870s. Hibs supporters or ‘Hibbees’ are swathed in green and white, while Hearts (also known as “Jam Tarts” by rhyming slang) fans wear maroon. Edinburgh’s soccer allegiances aren’t comparable to the scale of Glasgow’s sectarianism, where Irish-Catholic Celtic and Protestant Rangers fight for soccer supremacy, but Hibernian (the Latin word for Ireland) was founded by Irish Catholic migrants, and initially the team met with some sectarian resistance in Scotland. Edinburgh’s supporters are more closely aligned with geography, and the rivalry is sometimes fiercer outside the stadiums, with so-called “casuals” or “cashies”—soccer hooligan groups—looking for fights against rivals. While these casual clubs are not as prolific as in the 1980s, there are still skirmishes with other ‘firms’. Hearts and Hibs play each other occasionally, but have only ever met twice in the Scottish Cup Finals, in 1896 and 2012; Hearts won both matches.

5. The city is for walking. Despite its steep terrain, Edinburgh belongs to pedestrians and cyclists. Car traffic is terrible, because there is effectively an impenetrable core formed by the Castle, Princes Street Gardens, and Waverley train station. Buses are cheap, and there is a newly re-introduced tram system, but it only has one route—from the airport to the city center. And much to residents’ dismay, the tram’s route clocks in at one minute slower than the bus system that was already in place.

Fleshmarket Close—named for the meat market once located there that led to a slaughterhouse. It is also the title of a crime novel by Ian Rankin. Photo: Donna C Green

More importantly, only on foot can you discover the city’s underground heartbeat: the remnants of tunnels, caves, stairways and old haunted closes that give the Old Town its spooky character. The Edinburgh Vaults are a series of spooky chambers carved into the arches of the South Bridge, which was built in the 1788 to link the Old Town to the University at the top of the hill. (The bridge rises above rocks and streets, not water). The vaults once held taverns and businesses, but then later as they became too damp, they housed the poorest of the city’s poor. You can go on official Vaults tours, and many bars around the South Bridge and the Cowgate are built into the old vault system. (Try Brannigan’s and Nicol Edwards’s for vault drinking.) During the festival the Vaults are often transformed into sweaty comedy and theater spaces.

6. It’s a tale of two cities. The Old Town is the network of medieval streets that winds down from the Castle. The New Town begins to the north of the Castle and the gardens that used to function as a moat around the old city. Both are UNESCO world heritage sites. Old Town got its distinctive look from a time when residents were forced to live crammed together behind the moat for protection. After a disastrous defeat at the hands of the English at the Battle of Flodden, Edinburgh’s residents built walls around the city to keep out the English, and as its population grew, they had nowhere to build but down. The New Town was started in 1765 with a modern grid design—considered a masterpiece of city planning in its time—that fit with ideas of the Enlightenment. The professional and businesses classes then deserted the medieval old town and moved to the shiny, broad boulevards in the New Town, and the social character of the city was changed forever. Even now, the New Town is the ‘posher’ end of town.

Pedestrians in the Old Town. Photo: Daniel Hill

7. Edinburgh has more bars and restaurants per capita than any other city in the UK. Edinburgh is home to five of Scotland’s 16 Michelin-starred restaurants, but there are reasonably-priced and distinctive restaurants everywhere. Also, 2015 is the year of Food and Drink in Scotland (presumably, though, people ate and drank in previous years as well). It’s not hard to find reasonably-priced and good food in town, but there are a few unusual places worth a special trip out of the city’s core.

Since you’re never far from a coast in Scotland, the seafood game is strong. Yes, have the fish and chips and smoked salmon, but don’t forget the cullen skink, a thick soup made from smoked haddock. The Ship on the Shore & The Mussel Inn on Rose Street are two fine places try it. If you’re more terrestrially minded, you can grab a pulled pork sandwich at OINK, or go for the famous Three Little Pigs dish at the Witchery next to the Castle. There’s deep history with non-Scottish food too. Kushi’s was the first Indian restaurant in Edinburgh, opened in 1947. Because the essential spices for Indian food—chili, cumin, coriander—were not available anywhere in Scotland, founder Kushi Mohammed became a spice smuggler of sorts, using students as mules. If you’re on a truly tight budget, though, just go the Central Mosque next to Edinburgh University for the city’s best value meal—a heaped plate of cheap, rich curry.

The steep, curving Victoria Street, from the terrace above. Photo: Alexa van Sickle

8. Don’t fear the haggis. Haggis is, of course, Scotland’s national dish: a softball-sized mass of Sheep’s Pluck (heart, liver, lungs) minced with spices, onion and oatmeal. It has a nutty texture and is savory, like sausage. It may have a fearsome reputation, but for those who are not fans of British offal-based specialities, the haggis might be one of the easiest to stomach, so to speak. Haggis is common in bars, cafes and restaurants—but the Arcade Bar, a haggis and whisky restaurant on Cockburn Street, specializes in it. Enjoy. But just don’t mention that haggis has possible English or even Scandinavian origins.

9. Whisky is not the only spirit. Of course whisky is the main event in Edinburgh, but it’s also a famous gin hub: Edinburgh drinks more gin than any other British city. There is a gin distillery in the West End with a bar attached where you can custom-make make your own with spices. If gin is too sophisticated for your palate, there is Buckfast, a fortified wine made by Benedictine Monks—not for the faint of liver. On the soft drink front, the mighty Irn Bru is Scotland’s other national drink. A fluorescent orange cream soda that is the national hangover cure, the ‘Bru has made Scotland one of the only places in the world where a local drink outsells Coca-Cola. It is also known, a little ominously, as one of the toughest stains to get out of carpets.

10. Take refuge indoors. Edinburgh’s great solace in winter is its vast array of pubs. The Brass Monkey on Drummond Street, an ale pub opposite Edinburgh Law School, has a carpeted room for its daily 3pm movie screenings. The Last Drop Inn in the Grassmarket is where criminals were taken for a last pint of ale before they were publicly hung at the gallows outside; The Canny Man in Morningside has to be seen to be believed; the Royal Oak is for Scottish folk music, both to listen to and to join in if you brought your banjo. Pivo is a Czech beer bar; Cloisters is in an old chapel; Lebowskis is a Big Lebowski-themed bar with an unadventurous menu, but an extensive White Russian-themed cocktail list. But if normal opening hours don’t suit, the city’s daytime drinking institutions such as Diane’s Pool Hall and The Penny Black have an interesting mix of die-hards keeping their night alive hours after sunrise, and local night shift workers on their happy hour.

The infamous deep-fried Mars Bar. Photo: Peter Shanks

11. Make your way to the Disco Chippie. The post-pub ritual of a Turkish kebab, a curry, or fish and chips is deeply ingrained in UK culture. Scotland adds their twist by deep-frying anything— most notoriously, Mars Bars—for late-night revelers. To make the chip shop visit an experience, head to Edinburgh’s “Disco Chippie”. Broughton Street’s Café Piccante is a hub of post-pub socialising and refuelling. Once everything else closes, people gather here to wring out the last of a night. It’s open until the wee hours, has a DJ, and also sells late night essentials like cigarettes and aspirin.

12. Find your clan. So many Scots have left Scotland for better climates and opportunities that its greatest export is people. If you’re fortunate enough to have retained a Scottish name, you could have your very own clan tartan (check the Tartan Register) that will enable you to buy Anderson or McDonald clan-branded kilts, blankets and toilet paper. But be warned that although the clan system did exist in medieval times to distinguish between the Picts (from the North), the Normans (from England), Britons (from Wales) and the Scots (who invaded from Ireland), the authenticity of today’s clan-tartan system is disputed.

13. Get high in the right places. Because the city is built on hills, there are plenty of views. Most people head to the Castle Esplanade and the Castle itself to look down on the city, but if you want to avoid crowds, try going to the the top of the Camera Obscura—a science museum and temple to optical illusions.

Arthurs’ Seat, the dormant volcano overlooking the city, can be climbed from any direction, but the simplest ascent is from the east, heading up the slope that rises above Dunsapie Loch. The slopes of the hill that face Holyrood palace are where young girls in Edinburgh traditionally bathe their faces in the dew on May Day to make themselves more beautiful. For a good view of Arthur’s Seat, there is Calton Hill. Another option is the top floor of Appleton Tower, a truly hideous university building that was meant to be a temporary fix in the 1970s. It’s ugly to look at but has the best view from the Southside. There are also great views from indoors: probably the best city view of the Castle is from back room of the Elephant House coffee shop (where JK Rowling wrote some early drafts of Harry Potter). Maxie’s Wine Bar’s outdoor terrace has a great view of curvy Victoria Street. The Tower restaurant in the National Museum of Scotland has an excellent view and and a little further out, there is a great view of the Castle from Inverkeith Park.

Dusk at Salisbury Crags. Photo: Steven Oates

14. Know who’s who. It is helpful to know the main characters—fictional and non-fictional—that make up Edinburgh’s best-known history and myths. As a seat of the Enlightenment, Edinburgh had a huge impact on European thought; it produced Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations as well as an array of Scottish inventions, listed here in verse. It has also made an oversized contribution to the arts (even beyond the fact that Sean Connery once worked as a naked model at the art school). Edinburgh’s main train station, Waverley, is said to be the only one in the world to be named after a novel. Deacon Brodie, a respected businessman who led a double-life as a gambler and burglar, was the real-life inspiration for Edinburgh native Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Edinburgh’s scientific contributions include Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and Dolly the Sheep, but as medical science advanced, Edinburgh Medical School was also aided by body-snatchers and anatomy murderers such as Burke and Hare for a steady supply of human cadavers. (The cemetery from which Burke & Hare poached is just off Princes Street.) Edinburgh is also a feast of pop culture: scores of movies and TV shows are shot here; Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series (book and TV) has spun off its own tours, and both character and author frequent New Town’s Oxford Bar. The women’s toilets in The Elephant House, where J.K. Rowling worked on early Harry Potter manuscripts, are covered in quotes and tributes to her.

15. Plan your escape route. If you want to get off the carousel of the Old and New Town, venture farther north downhill to Leith—Edinburgh’s historic port, made famous by Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. Leith maintains a separate identity to the rest of the city, and not all were thrilled when Edinburgh and Leith merged in 1920 into the City of Edinburgh. Only 20 minutes outside the city is the engineering porn that is the Forth Rail Bridge, built over the Firth of Forth in 1890. The best view of this bridge, which that was built the height of St Paul’s cathedral to let the Navy ships pass underneath, is from the shores of North Queensferry. And for a more pronounced change of pace, the largest city in Scotland, Glasgow, is only an hour away by train. Glasgow has a very different feel, with large buildings and squares on a big grid. If Edinburgh can be twee, small, and staid, Glasgow is the antidote: gritty, sprawling, and boisterous.

16. Master the urban dictionary. According to a recent poll, numpty is Scotland’s favourite word, so it might be a good idea to learn that one: “the term implies general idiocy, often accompanied by windbaggery”. Although the Edinburgh accent is one of the most forgiving to the uninitiated, Scots actually use different words for things, so a cheat-sheet of terms relevant to city-exploring and imbibing will be useful: A dram or wee dram is a measure of whisky; scran is food; a close or wynd is a minor street, like an alley; loch is lake; a law is a hill; a burn is a stream, and a kirk is a church. To ‘greet’ is actually to cry, not to say hello; when you say you are ‘on the peeve’ you are getting your drink on. In Edinburgh, the area between Lothian Road and the Grassmarket – containing mostly strip bars, saunas and antique bookstores, is known as the ‘pubic triangle’. Also: a sauna is not actually a sauna, it’s usually a brothel.

Top image by Eduardo Leal

Alexa Van Sickle
Alexa Van Sickle is senior producer for Roads & Kingdoms and a journalist focusing on international affairs. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, openDemocracy, and in scholarly journals. Follow her on Twitter @Lex_vanSickle.
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