The biggest-selling items in Edinburgh’s souvenir shops are not postcards, fridge magnets or tartan bonnets sprouting ginger hair, they’re plastic rain ponchos – even in summer. Edinburgh is nicknamed Auld Reekie (Old Smokey) for the coal-fired filth that used to spew from its chimneys. Now the air is pure but frequently heavy with the threat of a downpour, which is why the city is also known as Auld Leaky. However, when its historical streets and monuments are bathed in sunshine and Edinburgh puffs out its chest, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.
Anyone who tells you Edinburgh Castle is the foremost must-visit attraction during a long weekend in the Scottish capital is talking through their sporran. Granted, no other city in the world has a crowning glory quite as magnificent as the don’t-mess-with-me fortress that sits atop a volcanic plus. However, the 12th century castle is best seen from the comfort of a bench in Princes Street Gardens, so grab a pew with an amazing view, get your camera out and snap away.
Visit Edinburgh in August and you’ll find the world’s biggest international arts festival and the Festival Fringe in full swing, with the streets of the Old Town – especially the ancient Royal Mile – packed with tourists and performers from morning to midnight.
Year-round, though, indoors and out, there’s an abundance of things to see and do, and a great many won’t cost you a penny. Guidebooks and websites trumpet lists of the city’s top-this and best-that, and they’re all excellent recommendations, but here are my Magnificent Seven Edinburgh must-sees, based on 30-plus years of frequent visits – and one of them just happens to be a pub.
Forth Rail Bridge One of the most thrilling experiences for adventurous visitors to Edinburgh involves getting the hell out of the place for a couple of hours after breakfast. Hot foot it to Waverley or Haymarket station and take the train to North Queensferry – a mere 20-minute journey – for a trip across the most instantly recognisable rail bridge in the world. Train buffs (or should that be buffers?) know everything there is to know about this colossal feat of Victorian engineering, but here are a few facts for the uninitiated
The bridge is 2.5km long and the track is 48 metres above the water.
The steel superstructure weighs 53,000 tons and is held together by 6.5 million rivets.
There are 45 acres of metal surface, each square centimetre of which has three coats of the colour known as Forth Bridge Red.
Painting the bridge used to be a full-time, year-round job for a team of workers with a head for heights, but the high-tech topcoat applied in 2012 should last until 2032.
Construction began in 1883 and the bridge opened on March 4, 1890.
The cost was £3.2 million, which today would be around £235 million.
The best thing about crossing the bridge is that you’ll do it twice with a return ticket in your pocket. As well as that, having set out after breakfast, you’ll be back in the city in plenty of time for lunch in the Cafe Royal, the most beautiful pub-restaurant in Scotland. See www.forth-bridges.co.uk and www.scotrail.co.uk
Cafe Royal If anyone’s ever looking for me in Edinburgh at lunchtime, I’ll be sitting at the bar in the Cafe Royal, tucking in to a bucket of steaming fresh mussels or a plate of oysters and studying the single-malt menu, while to hand will be a creamy-topped pint of craft ale. No pub that serves grub comes closer to perfection.
The Cafe Royal’s exterior is elegant and enticing, the interior exotic and exquisite, the food is the finest you’ll find without paying a fortune and the professional and personable staff are the envy of their peers – if you work here, you’re regarded as a Premier League player. I was there on the day an inexperienced new kid behind the bar was chalking up the wine of the week and wrote “Sauvignon Plonk”. Several years later, she’s still there and is now an authority on all things red, white and rosé.
Hidden up an alleyway (West Register Street) opposite the majestic Balmoral Hotel on Princes Street, the Cafe Royal opened in 1836. It has changed little since then and it won’t be changing any time soon, because the whole building is protected by the highest category preservation order. See www.caferoyaledinburgh.com
Nelson Monument The £5 fee to enter the Nelson Monument on Calton Hill is hardly steep, but the 143 well-worn winding steps to the open-air balcony at the top certainly are. The 360-degree views from up there are breathtaking, and the climb will take your breath away too. This is where photographers get their kicks and their most memorable clicks.
Built to commemorate Vice-Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson’s victory over the French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 (at which he died, with his body being preserved in a barrel of brandy for the voyage home) and resembling an upturned spyglass, the monument opened in 1816. Edinburgh-born Robert Louis Stevenson wasn’t impressed – he said it was “among the vilest of men’s handiworks”, which is a bit rich coming from the author who created Dr Jekyll’s vile alter-ego Mr Hyde.
Sharing the picnic-perfect hilltop with an unfinished replica of the Parthenon in Athens, the monument is 32-metres-tall, and on a clear day you can see for more than 20 kilometres. Be aware that the door on to the balcony is only 18 inches wide, which could prove a problem for some visitors.
The Parthenon, or National Monument of Scotland, was intended as “A Memorial of the Past and Incentive to the Future Heroism of the Men of Scotland”. Work began in 1862 but stopped three years later when the money ran out, the city having raised only £16,000 of the required £42,000.
Another historical building on the hill is the City Observatory (opened in 1818), where Scotland’s Astronomer Royal for 42 years, Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900), was based. Smyth was brilliant at his job but otherwise bonkers – his initially harmless fascination with the Great Pyramid at Giza turned into an obsession, and he came to believe its dimensions pointed to the date of Christ’s Second Coming. He’s buried beneath a pyramid-shaped tombstone in Sharow, Yorkshire. See www.edinburghmuseums.org.uk
Scott Monument The smoke-darkened sandstone monument to the historical novelist Sir Walter Scott (1771 to 1832) in Princes Street looks like a big black space rocket and is known locally as Thunderbird 1.
If you have any energy left after conquering Calton Hill, part with another fiver and climb the 287 internal steps to the top. At 61 metres tall and comprising neo-Gothic spires, niches, gargoyles and statues of characters from Scott’s novels, it’s the biggest monument to a writer in the world and was inaugurated in August 1846. At the base, the white marble statue of Scott with his deerhound, Maida, by his side is the work of John Steell (1804-1891), who was the spitting image of Oscar Wilde.
Apart from Scott and his dog, 68 statues and busts by various sculptors adorn the monument. Ninety-three real life people and literary characters are represented, including Bonnie Prince Charlie, Queen Elizabeth I, Mary, Queen of Scots, Robert the Bruce, Rob Roy MacGregor, Oliver Cromwell, Friar Tuck, Richard the Lionheart, Robert Burns and Lord Byron.
The monument’s designer, George Meikle Kemp, missed the grand opening ceremony, having fallen into the Union Canal while walking home on a foggy March night in 1844. He was a good swimmer, but got snagged on something beneath the water – most likely a supermarket trolley – and drowned. See www.edinburghmuseums.org.uk
Camera Obscura If you’re too cuddly to get through the Nelson Monument’s narrow balcony door, stand in front of the magic mirrors in the Camera Obscura close to the castle esplanade and you’ll be transformed into a beanpole.
At £17.50 for adults and £13.50 for children (so £62 for a family of four), the entrance fee is bordering on a bit of a cheek, but take it on the chin because this is by far the most fascinating and fun-filled attraction in Edinburgh, and kids adore it. See their wide-eyed smiling faces (and those of their dads) when they come out and you’ll know you just have to go in.
The building’s five floors are packed with a wealth of weird and wonderful optical experiences, interactive science exhibits and, as Dougal of Father Ted fame would say, mad stuff. I grumble about the ticket price, but I visit every time I’m in town because there’s always something new at which to marvel. See www.camera-obscura.co.uk
Greyfriars Bobby’s statue and grave To be awarded the freedom of your home city and have a statue erected to you is a great honour. To be the subject of a couple of Hollywood movies further enhances your reputation. Greyfriars Bobby went one better and had a pub named after him as well – the ultimate accolade. The faithful little dog is buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard behind the pub (it’s the most-visited grave in Scotland) and his statue stands outside on Candlemaker Row, opposite the National Museum.
Skye terrier Bobby, who died aged 16 in 1872, is famed for his dogged devotion to his late master – he remained pining by city constable John ‘Auld Jock’ Gray’s grave in all weathers for 14 years.
Bobby’s weathered bronze statue has a shiny nose from people rubbing it for luck, but they wouldn’t be so eager if he had been a Rottweiler.
Edinburgh Military Tattoo I’ve saved the best for last. The Tattoo isn’t something you get inked on your ankle, but the memory of one of the most spectacular shows on Earth, which was first staged in 1950 and each year attracts a worldwide TV audience of 100 million, will prove just as indelible.
Every August, the floodlit castle esplanade is the venue for nightly sold-out performances by pipe bands, drum bands, marching bands and precision drill squads from all over the world. The audience is international too, but it’s tourists from the United States who appreciate it most – they buy more tickets than anyone else and place the greatest number of orders for the souvenir DVD.
The highlight of each night is the grand finale march-off led by the massed pipes and drums of the tartan-clad Scottish regiments, bagpipes skirling, kilts swinging and snare drums rat-tat-tatting like machine guns as they take their leave of an ecstatic audience. Tickets should be booked months in advance. See edintattoo.co.uk
GET THERE: Aer Lingus and Ryanair fly several times daily, year-round, from Dublin to Edinburgh. Regular shuttle buses and trams run between the airport and the city centre.
GUIDED TOURS: Edinburgh-based Ken Hanley is one of the most in-demand Blue Badge driver-guides in Scotland and specialises in history, golf, whisky, photography and corporate and incentive tours. For a memorable guided tour of Edinburgh or farther afield with one of the nicest fellas you could ever wish to meet, see small-world-tours.co.uk and realscotchwhiskyguide.co.uk
FURTHER INFORMATION: To learn more about the wealth of attractions Edinburgh and Scotland have to offer, see www.visitscotland.com