Edinburgh is like a graceful lady, trawling the world with calm and composure, unfazed by the loud, big cities that make themselves heard with the noises of traffic and swarming crowds. On my way there, the five-hour train ride from London served the purpose of washing away the weariness of a working day, taking me right to the middle of a fairytale world: the perfect setting for a long weekend that felt dreamlike to me.
Looking at the peaceful, ordinate streets, and admiring the many uncontaminated landscapes in and outside of the town borders, you’d never think you’re in a capital city. Hard as you may try, you won’t find a gaudy Piccadilly Circus or a bustling Rambla here. This unassumingness, this simplicity, is the greatness of Edinburgh: a city that wraps you in a delicate embrace of pristine beauty, and presents you with a little treasure at every corner, without having to scream slogans and flash advertising bills to draw your attention.
This surreal quiet reigned, almost uninterrupted, for the whole three days my family and I spent there. Only once did we come across a definite break, brought about by a group of street performers, engaging in an impromptu gig outside the National Gallery. Even then, I felt grateful, for those joyful vibes reminded me that there’s more to city life than hour-long commutes and train disruptions: there’s vitality too, there’s fun.
We managed to see quite a lot in Edinburgh, without our holiday feeling too hectic. Of all our walks and visits, I want to share the things I most enjoyed, and make them my travel tips to you. Take your curiosity, your camera, and a nice warm coat to stave off the wind: you can learn a lot about Edinburgh by just walking around, and that’s exactly where you should start.
Do it more than once, in both directions. Don’t shy away from wandering around side streets, or down hidden closes. You’ll find that many of the treasures the city has to offer lie down a narrow staircase, around a corner, in the back of a sunlit churchyard. If you’re a music fiend, there’s one gem in particular you cannot miss. Plus ones if the name rings a bell – and if it doesn’t, it only goes to show you need to get yourself a record!
Set off for a morning visit, and remember to book your ticket online, so you can overtake the endless box office queue. Witness the clout of history unfolding in the museums and exhibition rooms, and then realise that the best attraction, the one that really takes your breath away, is the view from the bastions. The landscape is different at every angle, diverse to the point of tricking your eyes into believing they’re not looking at the same city.
3. Have a bite at the Elephant House Cafe
If you’re a Harry Potter enthusiast, you’ll be delighted to know that the Elephant House is the notorious coffee bar where J.K. Rowling started writing the series. If you’re not, you’ll still get decent warm food, and a cosy spot to get some rest between one trek and the next. There’s no doubt the place will impress you, thanks to the tens of elephant memorabilia lying around (including an elephant-shaped armchair!).
Once you’re satisfied you’ve seen enough of the Old Town, cross Waverly Bridge and plunge into the New. Head towards Charlotte Square, and look at the neat rows of houses taking the place of medieval buildings, the private gardens cropping up at every junction. Enjoy walking down neat and silent streets, akin in elegance to London’s Belgravia, or the backstreets of Angel. Leave with the feeling that you want to live here, settle here, experience the pleasure of looking at the world from one of these pretty windows.
Once again, marvel at the view unfolding before your eyes: on one side, Holyrood Park and Arthur’s Seat, standing out so distinctly that you can see people climbing to the top; on the other side, the city giving way to the ocean, inspiring that sense of freedom you can only feel in the presence of the sea. Then turn around, take in the green expanse before your eyes, and savour of the sensations it evokes. I, grown up to wild runs in the fields, felt tempted to drop my bulky bag and coat, and roll on the grass like a kid, or an undisciplined puppy. If only there hadn’t been so many people around!
I can’t tell you what the shore looks like (we were led astray by a surprisingly unhelpful travel guide, possibly the only downside of the whole trip), but I can guarantee you’ll enjoy getting lost in the journey. Witnessing Edinburgh’s more scruffy, down-to-earth side as you stroll down Leith Walk, and exploring the quiet, quaint spots along the canals, is well worth the tiresome trek.
I left Edinburgh feeling it was too soon to let go of such charm: however much I love London, I wasn’t quite ready to face its manic frenzy once again. Indeed, there are a few things I left undone. Climbing to Arthur’s Seat, reaching the shore, wandering outdoors to Rosslyn Chapel. Trying all the eateries I missed out on, and returning to the excellent ones I have found (next post spoiler alert). All good reasons to return, and I hope I will, one day, very soon.