Welcome to festival city
SOME EDINBURGH LOCALS ARE BRACING THEMSELVES FOR THEIR HOMETOWN’S AUGUST TRANSFORMATION. OTHERS, LIKE DAVID MCCANN, CAN’T WAIT FOR THE FUN TO START. HERE’S HIS INSIDER’S GUIDE TO THE BEST PLACES TO STAY, EAT AND DRINK
AUGUST is dawning and Edinburgh natives are growing restless. Across the elegant New Town, a symphony of suitcases zipping shut can be heard echoing off the Georgian terraces as the well-heeled embark on an annual festival exodus – their substantial mortgages to be paid, for one-month only, by excited visitors itching to drink in the world’s greatest cultural bonanza.
During this period of flux, much that you hold dear is turned on its head as almost every inch of public space is repurposed to serve the festival. That old-man pub which earns its crust from hardened drinkers is now a hotbed of hipster-laden poetry slams, while public toilets and stationary lifts host enterprising performers desperate to make their name in a city brimming with the most thrilling entertainers of their day.
At any other time of year, just shy of half-a-million souls inhabit Scotland’s capital. Right now the city is limbering up to accommodate five world-class festivals, a tourist influx of hundreds of thousands, and 5am closing times.
Go to any bar in late summer and it feels like the world has arrived – and everyone is getting served before you. But backlash from the jaded has begun. Already, an innocuous-looking photo of tourists at the foot of Edinburgh Castle has triggered a collective face palm on social media.
The offending tweet is a picture of a young couple posing next to the livery of the Vodafone shop on Princes Street. It features a magnified image of the city’s famous rock-mounted fortress. Looming large, but out of shot, in the background is Edinburgh Castle. “Tourists in Edinburgh are a different breed, turn around and get your picture taken with the actual Castle you melts.” This exasperated post by Laura Lawson characterises a cumulative sigh from the 20,000 locals who responded. Among them was a gem from another festival veteran. “Silly season has begun ... time to deploy the 1,000-yard stare and sharpen the elbows for the walk to work!”
There are hideaways to beat a retreat from the over-zealous dance troupes and underwhelming stand-ups as well as hidden gems to enhance the August experience.
As an adoptive Edinburgher (via Belfast) who has turned every ancient wynd and trodden every warped cobble, I have sought to explore lesser travelled paths the city might have to offer its new visitors. What and where in Edinburgh would I recommend? Walk this way ...
Cement your festival credentials at a luxurious base on the busy Royal Mile – the swirl of street performers just a stone’s throw away.
Located within 10 minutes’ walk of the all the must-see Edinburgh attractions, the contemporary core of The Radisson
Tourists in Edinburgh are a different breed, turn around and get your picture taken with the actual Castle you melts
Blu hotel betrays its faux medieval architecture. The lobby – stylishly grey and minimal but with bold purple lighting – extends into the award-winning Itchy Coo Kitchen and Bar near the hotel entrance, while at the rear there are several floors of parking bays (a considerable perk in a city notorious for its unflinching “blue meanie” traffic wardens). There are rooms to suit most budgets but expect to pay upwards of £160 a night during the festival.
I enjoyed a two-night stay in the deluxe double-bedroom – it is a treat worth the extra expense. Chic and smart, the charcoal-coloured living room boasts one huge L-shaped sofa that could comfortably sleep three. A gigantic topspec TV is set on the main wall while a soft carpet and cosy furnishings create an unexpected feeling of lavish homeliness. A well-stocked minibar boasting a selection of quintessentially Edinburgh snacks and beverages, such as the full-bodied Innis and Gunn beers, is topped off with a first-rate Nespresso coffee machine.
The bedroom walls are home to ink sketches of Edinburgh landscapes, and there are some special touches, including a pillow menu where the guest can select from a range of head-and-neck
comforters christened with Caledonian namesakes such as Agnes, Bruce and Irvin, while a fragrant pillow spray aids a restful slumber.
Given its central location, one not immune to the delights of stag and hen parties, one of the most surprising aspects is the quiet and sense of tranquillity. To help with the latter, the hotel also has a spa, treatment room and gym, as well as some of the best masseurs and beauty therapists to help the frazzled festival-goer unwind.
Yet to be acknowledged as an Edinburgh institution, Dine on Lothian Road is one of the most distinctive eateries the city has to offer. Nestled on an upper floor beside the Traverse Theatre, few restaurants can boast a wall blanketed with rich, green earthy moss. Hanging foursquare on the stairs up to the restaurant, it’s like a huge picture framed bowling green, with all the accompanying fresh aromas.
Another feature, exclusive to Dine one should imagine, is that you can eat your tea under the branches of what the management tells us is a real, living tree. Yes, a tree. Not hanging ivy, or overblown pot plants, but the kind of thing beneath which well-heeled children from an Enid Blyton novel might eat picnics.
Given its horticulturally-inspired décor, Dine creates an unrivalled atmosphere heightened by the calibre of its chefs. The final rubber stamp of excellence is the classy cocktail bar with a team of braces-wearing mixologists, each of whom exhibits a savant-like knowledge of aperitifs, inducements and alcoholic enhancements.
A spot of lunch
Afternoon tea with your mum at the Balmoral Hotel has been a rite-of-passage for many, but perhaps lesser known is The Colonnades set inside the majestic Signet Library.
None of your pub lunches here. This neo-classical masterpiece is so incredibly ornate it transports you to a time of bowler hats and penguin suits, when high society was in full swing and people knew how to treat themselves.
Lunch is served in bite-size samples on a tiered silver platter with carefully selected teas – or wines – to extract the best from the dishes, which include everything from duck parcels and prawn cocktails to heart-shaped macaroons and blueberry cake with champagne jelly.
The sandwiches and cakes are made using the finest, fresh seasonal ingredients and alongside the extensive list of teas there are mouth-watering champagne and cocktails. The Colonnades also has its own gin, created in partnership with Edinburgh Gin.
Despite the grand setting – the upper library was described by King George IV as the “finest drawing room in Europe” – the attentive staff make everyone feel relaxed and at home.
Whetting the whistle
There is no shortage of excellent public houses. Ensign Ewart, established in 1680 at the top of Royal Mile, is the city’s highest pub (with the lowest ceilings). It is particularly quaint, though mobbed during festival time.
To enjoy a sup away from the crowds, head to the New Town to try the earthy Star Bar on Northumberland Place. A hidden gem, its folksy interior jars interestingly with the grandeur of the surrounding street, and there is a cosy beer garden. The Star Bar is a solid spot to take a load off, its fantastically crotchety publican drawing me back time and again. It has, however, attracted some churlish comments on Trip Advisor: “Avoid on a sunny day as the ponytailed barman will be too busy sunbathing in the garden to come and serve you. Otherwise nice bar with a good but loud jukebox.”
On my first visit to the pub, the same fella refused to serve me for 20 minutes while he murdered the Kinks on a battered piano on the upper floor. I NTRIGUED, excited, cannot wait to get here? Then this welcome note has done its job. There is nothing more to be done for some of us than to zip up that case, close the door behind us and put the key in a safe place. “Take care of our Edinburgh,” say the New Town types. “See you in a month!”.
Me, I’ll be staying with the rabble. Who would want to miss this – our moment in the sun. David McCann was a guest of the Raddisson Blu, High Street, Royal Mile : www.radissonblu.com/ Edinburgh and ate dinner at Dine https://dineedinburgh.co.uk. He enjoyed lunch at www.thesignetlibrary.co.uk