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The Best of Edinburgh

Sightseeing and More

Calton Hill











"Edinburgh should not be compared to anywhere," British author Benedict le Vay notes in his gloriously eccentric 2004 travel guide, Eccentric Edinburgh. "It is unique; a gem set in peerless scenery ... a gem, moreover, with brilliant facets of great beauty and many intriguing sinister shadows half-glimpsed within."

In fact, le Vay suggests, the classic novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by native son Robert Louis Stevenson, represents the perfect peephole into those shadows. "It could be that the whole book was a metaphor for Edinburgh itself," le Vay says. "On the one hand, you had the teeming medieval-patterned streets, the soaring dangerous tenements, the slums, the bulging graveyards, the grave-robbing, the ghosts, the disease, the drunken violence and mob rule. The stench of sewage, countless fires burning cheap coals, horse dung and sweaty humanity filled the air. People living in dark canyons, rarely seeing the sun, with little water to drink. On the other hand, you had the superbly elegant classical layout of the New Town, the 18th century creation with massive monuments, pompous banks, refined ladies with parasols, harpsichord recitals, enlightened society with brilliant minds creating scholarly works undistracted by everyday filth. Lots of sunlight, good water, baths, horses and carriages with liveried servants. Although the disease and squalor have long gone, there is plenty of this sharp contrast in character still there and it makes Edinburgh the fascinating city it is."

More recently, since Edinburgh has evolved into a modern showcase of its medieval and
Georgian architecture, Braveheart-era history, performing arts, and a literary tradition
that dates back to Sir Walter Scott and the Enlightenment before that, its sinister shadows - and split personality - have been brilliantly depicted by novelist Irvine Welsh in Trainspotting.

From the rooftop of The Balmoral Hotel, a 1902 landmark adjacent to Waverly Station, where English aristocrats rested overnight en route to the Highlands by train, you can get an archetypal visual sense of the twin facades of sandstone and granite that stretch along each side of the Princes Street Gardens that divide them. Both are designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites, looking like intricate pen-and-ink drawings washed in muted gray.

Once understood, Central Edinburgh is, for a major world city, remarkably easy to grasp and explore. One of its greatest charms is that it is entirely walkable. It’s nearly impossible to get lost, or wander into an uninteresting neighborhood. Around every corner is a hidden nugget of history or curiosity.

Two main parallel streets, about a half-mile apart, traverse the city for about a mile. The southernmost is The Royal Mile, sloping gently from Edinburgh Castle in the west to the Palace at Holyrood House, the official residence of the Queen of England when she’s in town, in the east. The other principal thoroughfare is Princes Street, on the northern side of a narrow valley that reaches across to Old Town on the south.

Despite its submission in recent years to blight including a Burger King across from The Balmoral, a Disney store and retail cell phone outlets, Princes Street is still the primary shopping promenade, where you can find everything from Scottish crystal and tartans to woolens, antiques, and the omnipresent shortbread biscuit. To the north is the elegant Georgian splendor of New Town, built on a more modern square grid. It is where Edinburghers live, work and play.

What To Do In Old Town

Victoria Street

The earliest indication of what would become Old Town can be found in an old fort on Castle Rock that dates back to the Iron Age. By the 12th century, Edinburgh had become a town and royal burgh. Wandering the ancient wynds (open-ended alleys) and closes (closed alleys), you get a visceral sense of one of the richest and most volatile periods of history.

An easy afternoon walk leads through must-see landmarks such as St. Giles Cathedral,
the Law Courts, Royal Museum of Scotland, and the University of Edinburgh, founded in 1582. Along the way, you encounter antique shops, art galleries and boutiques selling everything from Celtic jewelry to fine cashmere. A leisurely stroll down The Royal Mile, punctuated by pubs with sidewalk tables and restaurants serving local staples, such as haggis or bangers and mash, yields opportunities to shop for a clan tartan, a 16th century map, or novelty golf balls.

Stop in at Plaisir du Chocolat, a tiny, always crowded French café that is one of two Edinburgh outposts of the international purveyor of African-inspired, artfully decorated chocolates infused with exotic ingredients such as peppercorns from Cameroon, Seville oranges and Armangnac, or bitter almond marzipan and coffee. Other treats are chocolate cake and eclairs, and the rarest and most expensive teas on earth, including southwest China’s Yin Zhen, which means "silver needles" and is hand-harvested for just two days each year, which explains its $40-a-cup price.

Cross a few blocks to Victoria Street, which leads down to Grassmarket, where witches were hanged in the 17th century and body snatchers lurked in the midnight moon shadows. Today, the neighborhood is home to some of Edinburgh’s most popular pubs, intermingled among old bookstores, antique art dealers and hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Chain-smoking young musicians with cellos or guitars slung over their shoulders, including women with piercings and purple hair or men in red berets, co-exist peacefully with businessmen attired in kilted traditional Highland suits.

Stop in for a pint of ale or a dram or two of single malt Scotch at one of the numerous pubs along Grassmarket, such as No.12 Black Bull, Maggie Dickinson’s, or Biddy Mulligan’s. The blood-red Last Drop is named for its location across the street from the old city gallows. Just around the corner, on West Bow, is the wildly popular Bow Bar, known for its vast selection of malt whiskies and local ales.

Poke into the Old Town Book Shop, on Victoria Street, for first editions of Scott and Stevenson, such as A Child’s Garden of Verse for $2,000, hand-colored art prints from the 16th century to mid-19th century, or historic texts on Italian architecture or Impressionist art.

At the nearby George IV Bridge are two of Edinburgh’s most unique pubs: Sandy Bell’s,
a haven for local musicians and a popular venue for traditional Scottish music, and Frankenstein Pub, opened in 1999 in a refurbished Pentecostal church. Its ambience includes the sound of chainsaws and screaming from the rest rooms. At the end of the night, an "animatronic" Frankenstein monster descends from a vault above the bar.

One of the most fun ways to experience the city’s uniqueness is the Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour, now celebrating its 10th anniversary. Originating each evening with a beer at Grassmarket’s Beehive Inn, where Scott and poet-laureate-for-eternity Robert Burns were patrons, the tour - hosted by two professional actors working from a tight script - winds its way through four centuries of literary history and myth, including a reading from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the courtyard of The Writer’s Museum, before ending at Milne’s pub on Princes Street.

Located in the 17th-century Lady Stair’s House off Lawnmarket, near the Royal Mile, the Writer’s Museum showcases pictures, etchings, busts, memorabilia and manuscripts that celebrate the lives of Burns, Scott and Stevenson as the holy trinity of Edinburgh scribes. Outside the museum is Makar’s Court, which commemorates the work of Scottish authors through quotations set into slabs among the paving.

What To Do In New Town

Edinburgh Castle & Ross Fountain

In 1766, a 22-year-old architect named James Craig won a competition to design New Town. Today, it is a living monument to Georgian architecture. Its principal artery is George Street, which is named for King George III and runs between and parallel to Princes and Queen Streets, along a natural ridge to the north of Old Town. It has emerged in recent years as the new hot spot for fashionable restaurants, upscale pubs and boutiques. Nearby Dundas Street houses some of the city’s best art galleries, such as Torrance Gallery for contemporary work and Bourne Fine Art, for Scottish paintings and sculpture from the 17th century to the present day.

To the west, on Belford Road, is the National Gallery of Modern Art, with a collection that includes work from Matisse and Picasso to Hockney and Warhol. Scottish art from the 20th century is particularly well represented.

At the east and west ends of George Street are St. Andrew Square and Charlotte Square, designed by Robert Adam and considered one of the most beautiful Georgian squares in the world. A statue of Prince Philip so moved Queen Elizabeth that, on the spot, she knighted the sculptor, John Steele, when he unveiled it. Bute House, the official residence of the First Minister of Scotland, sits on the square’s north side. Georgian House, an early 19th century residence designed by Adam and restored by the Scottish National Trust, offers an authentic glimpse into the period lifestyle.

The grand stone townhouses at St. Andrew Square, built near the end of the 18th century, feature doorways wide enough to accommodate sedan chairs, and street lamps that were once lit with quail oil. Gardens at either end of the square include magnificent cherry trees. Famous residents of St. Andrew Square have included philosopher David Hume.

Go in search of Hume’s grave at Old Calton Cemetery, just off the eastern end of Princes Street near the Balmoral, and you will find one of Edinburgh’s least well known and most exhilarating treasures. It’s a rare thing for a U.S. citizen to visit a foreign capital and experience a profound understanding of what it means to be American. But such a patriotic epiphany can be had, free of charge, next to the moss-covered mausoleum that entombs the great Scottish philosopher. There, one encounters the only international memorial to Abraham Lincoln and Union soldiers who lost their lives in the Civil War.

Erected in 1893 and crafted of bronze and Aberdeen granite by American sculptor and Army veteran David E. Bissell, the stunningly evocative, 16-foot tall monument presents a life-sized Lincoln standing over a freed slave crouched at his feet in a reverent, iconic repose reminiscent of Mary Magdalene paying homage to Christ on the cross. It commemorates the thousands of soldiers of Scottish descent who gave their lives for a principle, expressed in one of Lincoln’s anguished 1864 letters and elegantly engraved beside the outreached arm of the slave: "To preserve the jewel of liberty in the framework of freedom." Inscribed on the four sides of the pedestal beneath Lincoln are Suffrage, Emancipation, Education and Union. The list of donors who each contributed $100 to the $6,300 cost included Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan.

What To Do In Leith

Once known for its rough, bawdy bars and brothels, Leith is a 1,000-year-old seaport that played a haunting role in Trainspotting. Over the last decade, however, its seediness has been supplanted by a neo-bohemian chic with excellent waterfront restaurants and friendly pubs that are less than two miles from the center of the city. It is accessible by a number 22 bus from Princes Street or a pleasant half-hour stroll down Leith Walk, which parallels The Royal Mile.

Serious admirers of fine Scotch should make a pilgrimage to The Scotch Malt Whiskey Society, founded in 1980 when a group of aficionado friends bought and bottled a cask of fine single malt whiskey, thereby pioneering the arcane concept of single cask, single malt whiskey that is more "pure," at a higher proof, than the slightly diluted spirits dispensed commercially by the distillers. For that reason, the bottles, which cost $75 on average, are numbered rather than labeled. Now boasting 17,000 members in 10 international chapters, including the U.S., the society is headquartered in The Vaults, a former transshipment point from which the French and Scots traded wine and whiskey in the 16th century. Today, members and guests enjoy nipping at a classic wooden bar, or in a comfortable, wood-paneled lounge with leather sofas and bay windows. Your hotel concierge van arrange a visit for 1-6 guests.
Another attraction that justifies a trip to Leith is the Royal Yacht Brittania.

Commissioned for service in 1954, the 412-foot motor yacht served Queen and country for 44 years, carrying Her Royal Highness and Royal Family members on 968 official voyages to more than 600 ports in 135 countries. Its voyages included the most remote regions of the South Seas and Antarctica. Today, Britannia, moored at the historic docks of Leith, offers a fascinating look at how royals lived in their globetrotting heyday.

Where To Stay

Lovingly restored with Italian flair by Rocco Forte Hotels in 2004 at a cost of $10 million The Balmoral features a famous clock tower that overlooks adjacent Waverly Station and Edinburgh Castle. It features the city’s only Michelin-starred hotel restaurant, a wood-paneled Palm Court bar worthy of Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, and a luxury spa. J.K. Rowling holed up here for six months to complete her final Harry Potter novel.

Located at the foot of Calton Hill, The Glasshouse, named one of the "Top 50 Hottest Hotels in the World" by Conde Nast Traveler, is a postmodern architectural wonder that epitomizes Edinburgh’s knack for blending the old with the new. Behind the 150-year-old façade of the former Lady Glenorch Church, its slick, modern interior offers 65 guest rooms that feature floor to ceiling windows, Frette Egyptian cotton bed linens and oversized bath tubs. A lavender scented roof garden provides a tranquil haven with a view.

In the shadow of historical Edinburgh Castle, the 260-room Sheraton Grand Hotel & Spa is a short walk from the restaurants, pubs and shops of The Royal Mile and Grassmarket. The mezzanine bar features rare single malt Scotch whiskies. Its One Spa reigns as one of Europe’s most sophisticated city day spas.

Where To Eat

Located in Leith, Restaurant Martin Wishart, opened in 1999, is considered by many concierges to be the best in town. In an elegant, earth-toned setting, Wishart, who earned his Michelin star in 2001 and was named Scottish chef of the Year for 2006, serves a fusion of traditional and modern French cuisine based on the finest, freshest seasonal ingredients. Typical specialties include crab and potato cannelloni with veal tartare and warm crab mayonnaise, lobster, and smoked haddock souffle, and roasted scallops with poached grapes. Canapés include smoked organic salmon with white radish and crispy risotto with tomato fondue.

Another critically acclaimed Leith eatery, The Kitchin, is one of the city’s hottest new restaurants. Edinburgh-born chef-proprietor Tom Kitchin learned his craft under European masters such as Alain Ducasse. Serving French-Scottish fare based on fresh seasonal local produce, Kitchin accomplished the rare feat of earning a Michelin star within his first year. A surprisingly priced prix fixe menu offers a two-course lunch for $25 and a three-course dinner for $30, based on summer 2007 exchange rates.

In Old Town, just off Grassmarket, The Grain Store is one of Edinburgh’s newest French-Scottish hybrids. Located on the upper floor of a centuries-old stone building, the intimate, candle-lit local favorite features the finest Scottish beef and lamb, market-fresh
fish and seafood, game birds, forest-picked wild mushrooms, and seasonal vegetables and
fruits. Appetizers include Loch Fyne oysters, torchon of foie gras with chestnuts on
sourdough toast, and buttered lobster tagliatelli with lobster sauce. Entrees include saddle
of Borders lamb, devilled lamb kidneys and thyme; roe deer with beetroot parcel and
rosemary, and wild sea trout with almond Veloute and white asparagus.

Another popular new restaurant is Abstract, located on the Terrace at Edinburgh Castle and sister to the original in Inverness. In a slick, postmodern black-and-tan setting that suggests SoHo more than Scotland, French head chef Loic Lefebvre, who earned Michelin "rising star" status with his first restaurant, serves food that has been characterized by critics as adventurous without being gimmicky. Specialties include scallops with hazelnut puree and cep mushrooms, salt cod and vegetable ravioli with artichoke puree, and roast filet of brown hare with apple mash and light offal sausage. An eight-course tasting menu is $110, based on current exchange rates.

Where To Shop

Harvey Nichols, at St. Andrew Square, is to Edinburgh what Bloomingdale’s is to New York. The store specializes in women’s wear from international designers such as Amanda Wakeley, Cesare Fabbri and Balenciaga, and men’s wear from Dries Van Noten and Paul Smith, currently in vogue for his rakish straw hats. Its latest exclusive indulgent esoterica includes the world’s first elderberry liqueur from St. Germain, Teapig teas, and Acquerello’s organic and kosher risotto rice, the preferred choice of Michelin-starred chefs worldwide.

Hamilton & Inches, another local institution, on George Street since 1866, is one of the great Victorian silversmiths and jewelers, and holds a warrant as silversmith to the Queen of England. It sells antique Scottish brooches and pendants, fine jewelry, silver tableware and barware, crystal, and gifts from flasks to cufflinks, luxury board games to fine writing instruments. Located above the store are the studios of some of the UK’s finest contemporary silversmiths.

Belinda Robertson, on Dundas Street in New Town, has been dubbed "the queen of luxurious knitwear," for men and women, by the Sunday Times. Opened in 2004, 12 years after the debut of her London shop, she showcases fine Mongolian cashmere, which is spun and dyed in Hawick in the Scottish Borders.

Sheila Fleet, located in the venerable Jenner’s department store on Princes Street, specializes in modern jewelry rooted in tradition. With a passion for her Orkney Islands heritage, Fleet creates her original designs to reflect nature’s sea, sky and landscape colors in hand-applied enamel work on silver and 18K gold.

Royal Mile Whiskies offers a vast selection of the best and rarest examples of Scotland’s most beloved export, along with expert advice and free tastings. It also sells fine Armagnacs and malt whiskey liqueurs. Its most prized current offerings include a 1948 Glenlivet, bottled by Gordon & MacPhail and selling for $1,000; a Macallan 1940 Speymalt, matured in first-fill sherry butts and bottled as a 50-year-old, for $2,300, and the granddaddy of them all - Glenfiddich 50 Year Old, with a touch of peat and a price tag of $10,000.

--John Buchanan

Summer 2007