Home to history, haggis, Harry Potter and Hogmanay, Edinburgh is a cosmopolitan, vibrant city that comes to life as temperatures plummet thanks to Christmas markets, festivals and the world’s biggest New Year’s Eve party.
Perched on a series of extinct volcanoes and rocky crags, Edinburgh can trace its history back to around the 17th century. In the intervening centuries it has picked up a few nicknames, including ‘Auld Reekie’ (‘Old Smokey’) thanks to the coal-fire induced haze that is said to have hung over the city, the ‘Modern Athens’ and ‘the Athens of the North’. Sir Walter Scott called it “yon Empress of the North” and Robert Louis Stevenson went a step further by declaring that “Edinburgh is what Paris ought to be”.
A city renowned for its festivals, Christmas And New Year is when the city really comes to life. The sun sets in the late afternoon towards the end of the year, but this gives rise to plenty of opportunities to see sit with a wee dram in front of a fire and enjoy a true winter experience.
Christmas in Edinburgh lasts about six weeks and starts in late November, and in that time you can expect live shows, music, ice skating, Christmas markets, and lots of festive lights.
Then there is Hogmanay, the most Scottish of celebrations that ushers in the New Year. The three-day festival includes live music, art, theatre, fireworks and the chance to participate in the world’s biggest rendition of Auld Lang Syne as the bells ring out at midnight on December 31.
Prince’s Street is the city’s main artery, and along with a few key landmarks, you should have no trouble finding your way around this ancient city. Chief among those landmarks are the two imposing figures at either end of the Royal Mile, the main thoroughfare of the city’s Old Town.
The Holyroodhouse, which sits at the east end of the Mile, is the Queen’s official residence. A collection of monastic buildings that James IV decided to convert into a palace, the Queen is in residence during Holyrood week, which usually takes place from the end of June to the beginning of July. An audio tour will give you the lowdown on the important events that have taken place over the centuries involving the dozen monarchs that have called it home.
At the other end of the Mile is the imposing Edinburgh Castle, but before tackling the Castle you might consider lunch. Three quarters of the way up the Mile towards the castle you will cross George IV Bridge, and on the right hand side you will find the Outsider. Serving good food at prices that belie its quality, it’s a great place for a lunch pit stop during a busy day of sightseeing. Their mussels with French fries are fantastic and, dare I say, better than many Belgian offerings of moule frites. Reservations are recommended for dinner or if you want to sit in the table with a great view of the castle at lunchtime.
Back on the Royal Mile and to Edinburgh Castle. Dominating the skyline, the castle is the jewel in Edinburgh’s tourism crown, and from its ramparts the city stretches out in front of you. The approach is something of a gauntlet of souvenir hawkers and street performers touting for your business, but once inside, an air of history takes over and even though the castle will likely be busy, it is easy to get a sense of its history. A formidable fortification thanks to its lofty location, the castle is home to several key buildings including the Royal Palace where Queen Mary of Guise died and her daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, gave birth to James VI in 1566.
At the centre of the castle complex is the Great Hall. With a magnificent wooden roof, the hall has played host to numerous banquets and ceremonies. It was also a barracks for a period. And that is just the beginning. It is possible to spend at least half a day exploring the castle where you can learn about the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh, see the One O’Clock Gun fire, visit the Scottish National War Memorial and find out just what the Stone of Destiny is.
For some more recent history, head north-east of the city to Leith’s Ocean Terminal. Here you will find the now decommissioned Royal Yacht Britannia. The former floating residence of the Queen and the Royal Family for over 40 years, the yacht sailed over 1,000,000 miles around the world before being retired in 1997. Britannia is grand, but a combination of changing times, definitions of luxury and the Queen’s apparent insistence that the yacht have the feel of a country home, means that it is more impressive for its layout and what is crammed inside than it is for its opulence. Among other things you will find an industrial laundry, an infirmary, dining rooms for crew members, as well of course as the state dining room that can seat almost 100 for dinner, and has hosted world leaders.
One thing book lovers will know is that Edinburgh has given rise to some of literature’s greatest writers. Among the famous authors who are from or have called the city home are Sir Walter Scott, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, and JK Rowling, who wrote the Harry Potter series in Edinburgh (The Elephant House on George IV Bridge is where the boy wizard was ‘born’). In 2004, the city became the world’s first UNESCO City of Literature, and hosts the world’s largest book festival, the Edinburgh International Book Festival, every August.
Perhaps most famous for its festivals, there is one on every month of the year, with many concentrated in the latter half of the year including Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, the Edinburgh International Festival, the Edinburgh Art Festival.