I remember the moment I knew I liked Edinburgh. My friends, Amy and David, brought me to the city during my first trip to the UK and we hopped on a sightseeing bus. When the bus trundled along Queen St I saw the little stone staircases bridging the footpath to the front doors of grand stone buildings and thought “there’s something about this place”.
Over the next three years I had the same thought every time I walked out of the Waverly train station.
That visit was my first taste of the Edinburgh Festival, which I planned my summers around for the next two years. This week the festival starts for another year and it feels strange not to be poring over the thick event programs and planning how many shows I can see in one day.
Despite the time I’ve spent there, I’ve written very little about Edinburgh, which seems ridiculous because this is my favourite city.
Not my favourite in Scotland or the UK or Europe.
My favourite city in the world!
At first it was the architecture. Where London looked proper and regal, Edinburgh was gritty and rough around the edges, its glorious Victorian buildings stained with history.
Then I discovered the bookshops. I found a little row near Grassmarket and raided their shelves in my hunt for the oldest Winnie the Pooh I can find and added to my collection of Agatha Christie murder mysteries. Each trip revealed new bookshops and I could easily take an afternoon to walk the few hundred metres from West Port to Grassmarket. As my possessions on the wrong side of the world grew I had to limit myself to one book per shop.
As I got to know the city better I became fascinated with its past. An introduction came through a walking tour on my second visit. I enjoyed walking through the beautiful city trying to imagine the public executions in Grassmarket and the sewage from the Old Town spilling into the space that’s now Princess Street Gardens. It’s easy to see why Edinburgh has inspired so many literary identities such as JK Rowling and Ian Rankin.
Soon enough I was smitten.
Part of the reason I enjoy Edinburgh so much is because I’m extremely comfortable there. I should have written buckets about this place, but for whatever reason I seem to not write much about the places I know the best such as Tasmania, Vancouver or the Lake District.
With the Fringe Festival around the corner and a few friends visiting the city this summer I thought now was a good time to share what makes Edinburgh so special.
It’s easy to get to know
Edinburgh might be the capital of Scotland, but it doesn’t feel like a big city. It’s very easy to navigate and the centre is small enough that after a few days things are familiar and you feel you’re getting to know it. Walk from the New Town to the Old Town and back again a couple of times and you probably won’t need a map anymore, although getting lost here is great fun. You never know what you’ll find!
Everything you’ll want to visit is within walking distance so it’s unlikely you’ll need to worry about public transport and if you fly here the public bus from the airport to the city is just a few pounds.
Great tea shops and cafes
When a good friend moved to Edinburgh we indulged our mutual love of tea by frequenting as many tea shops and cafes as we could. Weekend trips always included afternoon tea at Anteaques, a pokey antique shop where the tea and scones are served by men in waistcoats. Regular readers will know I’m always on the lookout for great cafes and some of my favourites are in Edinburgh. Last year I discovered Milk on Morrison St, which I began visiting for breakfast. I liked that it was a bit out of the city centre and was a cosy local haunt. Another favourite is Lovecrumbs on West Port, which is on the same street as some of the bookshops I frequent. The cake servings are huge!
Serious tea drinkers will enjoy Pekoe Tea on Leven St. If you prefer more caffeine, check out Artisan Roast on Bruntsfield Pl.
August divides the city. The locals either flee, most likely renting their homes at a premium in the process, or they stay and enjoy the incredible atmosphere that is the Edinburgh International Festival. I’m all about The Fringe Festival, but there are a bunch of festivals running concurrently throughout the month. The general rule of Fringe is if you can find a venue, you can run an event. The result is a crazy, eclectic and ridiculously entertaining range of comedy, music, theatre and dance events. Royal Mile is either the best or worst place to be – depending on how you feel about crowds and people in costume. There are a lot of free events and even those that charge keep the ticket prices reasonable. There are always some recognisable names, but I think the magic of the Fringe is just walking into a venue and checking out whatever is on. Sure there’ll be some duds, but sometimes there will be something great. You just never know.
The cheap eats
Whenever I’m in Edinburgh I’m usually spending my money on tea and cake, books or tickets to Fringe events so eating anything more substantial was always done on a budget. In fact I think the only “restaurant” I’ve eaten at is Guchhi, a great and cheap Indian tapas and seafood place in Leith, which is worth the trek down Leith Walk.
Every other meal is either cheap, or cake. I always visit Oink at least once for a hot roast pork roll with apple sauce and love the falafel at Mediterranean Gate, which, after a lot of research, my friend Michael declared to be the best in town. JK Rowling wrote at The Elephant House and the novelty factor draws a crowd, however I prefer its sister café, Elephants and Bagels, because bagels aren’t just for breakfast. Also The Baked Potato Shop on Cockburn St serves up huge dishes on the cheap. I discovered the very cute Pinnies and Poppyseeds in the final days of my last visit, but still managed to enjoy too many of its treats before I left.
It’s a modern city with a historic look
The buildings may be old, but Edinburgh has everything you could want in a modern city. There’s great shopping in the New Town and excellent vintage and second-hand stores in the Old Town. There are plenty of places for an old fashioned Devonshire Tea, but lots of trendy restaurants and bars. If the tram ever gets running (construction has been ongoing since I first visited the city in 2011) it will be fun to ride that through the city. Generally I find the city to be a lot cheaper than London and even more fun. Frankly I don’t get all the fuss about that place!
There’s always something new to discover
I don’t think you could ever plan to spend too many days in Edinburgh. Each visit has always given me new reasons to love the city such as discovering the chapel Agatha Christie got married in, stepping into a small gallery in Leith or walking what felt like the length of the city to buy bread from Falko in Bruntsfield Place because my friend recommended it.
And there’s always a new tea shop or bookshop.
I’m so comfortable in Edinburgh that I often forget I’m a visitor when I’m there, but I still enjoy a lot of the tourist favourites. Last summer I walked up Arthur’s Seat for the first time and returned the next day because a comedian was using the hilltop as his venue for a Fringe Festival gig. The climb up Scott’s Monument is cheap (although rising every year) and on a clear day the view is marvelous. And of course there’s the Edinburgh Castle. Even if you don’t want to tour inside the castle, at least walk to the gates – you’ll still have a nice view of the city.
If this is the only city in Scotland you visit then it’s also your only chance to try a deep fried Mars Bar! I wouldn’t say it’s a “must”, but it’s definitely an experience. There’s a shop in Grassmarket that advertises them in the window, but indulge at your own risk.