As cruises in the northern territories of Europe and the inner and outer Hebridean islands gain traction in the popularity polls, the good news is that means more downtime in Scotland. But if that isn’t the case this season, Edinburgh is still within easy reach: An hour from London and just over two from continental Europe, Scotland’s capital city — “Auld Reekie” (Old Stinky!) — Edinburgh is the obvious place to start your visit.
Edinburgh Castle looms over the city from the rock of an extinct volcano. King Malcolm III, Canmore (1058–93), was the first royal to have made his home there. The oldest surviving building on the castle grounds is St. Margaret’s Chapel (1130) where his wife Queen Margaret, later canonized, is buried. The castle also houses Scotland’s Crown Jewels and the Stone of Destiny. Stolen by English King Edward I and built into a throne at Westminster Abbey, it was returned to Scotland in 1996. The Stone is still used in crowning ceremonies today, most recently at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Below the castle lurk the narrow dark alleyways and stairs of the medieval Old Town and to the north, the wide, elegant streets of the New Town, built during the Georgian period (1714–1830).
If you’re looking for a festival, you’ve come to the right place: The city hosts 12 major festivals throughout the year, such as the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August, the Hogmanay, a New Year’s Eve winter festival, and the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues in July.
This is the city where J.K Rowling wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (at The Elephant House Cafe). It’s also the city that inspired Muriel Spark’s novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The cult film T2 Trainspotting was set here (although largely filmed in Glasgow) and author Ian Fleming’s James Bond character went to school at Fettes College.
You might start your day with breakfast at The Lookout on Calton Hill with views overlooking Scotland’s National Monument, then take a donder down to the seaside at Newhaven and pick up your fish and chips from The Fishmarket. Then grab a spot on the dock of the bay and enjoy looking out over the Firth of Forth.
Be sure to visit the decommissioned Royal Yacht Britannia, the Queen’s former floating palace for more than 40 years, berthed at Leith. Then head back into the Old Town to The Signet Library, the home of the Society of Writers to Her Majesty’s Signet. This is where officers — authorized to produce royal manuscripts with the King of Scotland’s seal, The Signet — were based. It’s now a highly respected body of lawyers. But the library also does a rather good afternoon tea.
For a wee snifter before dinner, head down to the (now not so) shady docklands of Leith and The Port O’ Leith Bar, a hangout of Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh. The Oxford Bar in the New Town is a favorite for the fictional Inspector Rebus, by Scotsman Ian Rankin. In the Old Town, the Deacon Brodies pub inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Pickles of Broughton Street is a favorite with East End locals.
Supper could be at the magical Witchery restaurant sheltered in the shadows of the Castle. Both Restaurant Martin Wishart in Leith and Condita have Michelin-star status. If you dare, forgo a takeaway at the local chippy and opt for a deep-fried haggis, then deep-fried Mars bar for afters. Next day, a walk along the meandering Water of Leith river will walk off the calories and lead you to the adjacent modern art galleries. The city has 112 parks and more trees per person than anywhere else in Britain, so go wander. Or drive away into the outskirts to Jupiter Artland to restore mind and body. But if that’s not enough, reboot with a plunge into the sea.
Or, if you feel daring, drive to Go Ape, where you can take your head for heights and your need for speed in the nearby town of Peebles. This 325-meter long zip wire goes across a glen at 160 meters high. But don’t forget to “Haste Ye Back.”
This article originally ran in the October 2020 issue of Dockwalk.