Scotland’s capital has many Fringe benefits
Edinburgh is often called the “Athens of the North” – not because of the weather, but because the neoclassical architecture and dramatic vistas conjure up images of myths and gods. The city centre is dominated by Edinburgh Castle, sitting proud on Castle Rock – an extinct volcano – at the top end of the Royal Mile. Views of the castle greet you soon after you arrive by train at Waverley station, or if you fly and arrive by tram pulling into Princes Street. The Royal Mile is so called because it stretches from the former royal seat of Holyrood House (and, more recently, the postmodern Scottish Parliament Building) right to the castle’s summit. The Royal Mile is touristy, but it’s still worth the half-hour stroll – averting your gaze away from the tartan gift shoppes – to take in the dramatic buildings that line this main thoroughfare through what is rather prosaically called the Old Town.
THE OLD TOWN
Author JK Rowling has lived in Edinburgh since 1998, and the influence of the look of the Old Town on the Harry Potter stories can be seen everywhere: Gothic Revival architecture, cobbled streets, narrow closes and wynds (alleys), ancient graveyards, true tales of grave robbers and highwaymen – and a castle that seems to have inspired Hogwarts.
If it’s your first time, you’ll likely stay in the Old Town, mostly constructed during the 16th to 18th centuries. Stroll in any direction and there are marvels to be discovered. From the Royal Mile, head down the helter-skelter curve of Victoria Street to the Grassmarket, taking in a few of the extraordinary shops that Edinburgh fosters. A tiny store that for 130 years made and sold broomsticks (really) closed some years ago, but other delights remain.
IJ Mellis Cheesemonger specialises in artisan and farmhouse cheeses, most of them Scottish. Try the Lanark Blue, whose producers won a court battle against the dark forces of health and safety to continue making their cheese with unpasteurised ewe’s milk. Almost opposite the cheese shop is the Bow Bar. If it’s already that time of day, drop in to sample some local cask ales; traditional Scottish brews are maltier and sweeter than their English equivalents. Ask for an “eighty shilling” if in doubt, which is a style of beer – any pub in Edinburgh will produce an excellent pint of red ale at the utterance of this magic phrase. The bar is also a great place to meet local characters.
The Grassmarket is still home to a street market on Saturdays, though these days you’re more likely to find some vegan cupcakes than a frisky tup at this cobbled marketplace. Head for W Armstrong and Son. This huge store has been selling second-hand clothes since 1840, and even if you have no interest in kitting yourself out like a dandy, browsing is sheer pleasure.
TO THE NEW
But – jings! – you’re still in the Old Town, and ye’ve nae seen the haif of Edinburgh yet. Hasten yourself back around the castle (via Castle Terrace for spectacular views) to Princes Street, the city’s main shopping street, in the New Town. “New”, in local parlance, means built a mere 200 to 250 years ago, during the
The New Town is the largest (and most unspoilt) area of Georgian and neoclassical architecture in Europe
Scottish Enlightenment. The New Town is the largest area of Georgian and neoclassical architecture in Europe: a masterpiece of urban planning, with leafy squares, grand avenues and pretty mews streets that follow the contours of the land. The district is mostly residential, but George Street is where some smart boutique hotels and lots of expensive shops can be found.
To get a sense of the enormous wealth of the city. which can still be felt today, take a short wander down to Charlotte Square, Moray Place or Royal Circus. Edinburgh has been Scotland’s capital since 1437, but this Georgian wealth is a result of banking, insurance, finance and commerce, much of it established during the Napoleonic Wars. Atmospheric bars such as Kay’s Bar are perennially popular with local folk, while the Café Royal is a perfectly preserved Victorian gin palace.
Today, Edinburgh is the second-largest financial centre in the UK. The New Town used to be the heart of the financial district, but many enterprises have now sprung up in the business parks that line the tram route between the airport and Princes Street; even the Royal Bank of Scotland has moved its headquarters this way. RBS was briefly the biggest bank in the world, and is also the only one that issues £1 notes. These notes are legal currency throughout the UK – but spend them all in Scotland if you want to avoid arguments with greengrocers elsewhere in Britain.