By Tom Boon
It’s easy to lose track of time wandering through the medieval streets of Edinburgh. Built atop an extinct volcano, this picturesque city serves as the capital city of Scotland, and there is so much to do there that it would be impossible to say you were bored. So far this year I’ve been fortunate enough to spend an awful lot of time in this magnificent place, so I have many experiences to share.
Possibly the most breathtaking thing to do in the city, which is also free, is to climb up to Arthur’s Seat: the majestic peak nestled in the centre of the city. Climbing to the top will take you about half an hour, and you’ll climb to 822ft above sea level. This takes a little bit of effort, but the view from the top is breathtaking; offering panoramic views of the whole city that stretch as far the Forth Bridge. This is certainly something to save for a nice day as, speaking from experience, you don’t want to climb to the top on a snowy day in trainers to discover a storm rolling in as you’re about to descend.
If the weather is looking bleak, you could visit the National Museum of Scotland, a free museum nestled right in the city centre. This impressive building hosts a combination of exhibits about science, human history, and natural history, and also hosts another impressive view of the city from its roof garden. I’d definitely recommend the technology wing which hosts relics such as an iPhone 3G and a first model iPad, as well as Dolly the Sheep; the first cloned mammal ever to be created from an adult cell.
On the other side of the museum in the natural history section, you are able to see a panda, dinosaur skeletons, as well as a number of other animals. Since writing this paragraph, I’ve been back to the museum a few times, and there are genuinely too many interesting objects to list!
If live animals are more your thing, you would be wise to head over to Edinburgh Zoo, home to the only giant pandas and koala bears in the United Kingdom. Brigadier Sir Nils Olav of the Norwegian King’s Guard is a king penguin resident at the zoo, one that was knighted by Norway in 2008. Identified by a small band on his wing that proudly displays his name, he is arguably my favourite part of Edinburgh.
The zoo has also been home to the daily Penguin Parade since 1951, where the penguins are allowed to voluntarily waddle out of their enclosure for a trip around the adjacent green. Unfortunately, as it is voluntary, the penguins can decide they don’t want to take part as was the case during my visit.
It’s also well worth seeing the giant pandas (a free reservation is required), as these stunning but endangered creatures have so much character. Tian Tian (Sweetie) and Yang Guang (Sunshine) are incredible to see, but do be aware that there are an awful lot of other people all wanting to catch a glimpse of these majestic creatures at the same time.
Edinburgh is also an exciting place to go shopping, with a number of big brands scattered around New Town, specifically on Princes Street and George Street. There are also a number of smaller independent shops dotted around Old Town, particularly on The Royal Mile and Grassmarket. There’s something to cater to every interest out there, from quirky Harry Potter themed shops, to the many touristy shops selling fridge magnets, postcards, and coasters.
After an exciting day in the city, a good spot to grab dinner is The Elephant House on George IV Bridge. This interesting venue has great food, and proudly markets itself as the birthplace of Harry Potter, and with the impressive view of the castle it’s easy to see how JK Rowling came up with the amazing story that we all love. If you do visit, it’s well worth taking a trip to the toilets, where the walls are covered with Harry Potter-themed graffiti from floor to ceiling.
Alternatively, slightly outside the centre of the city in Morningside is a lovely little Italian restaurant called Mia. This romantic restaurant is the perfect place to take a date, and the food served is beyond delicious. Highly recommended are the authentic pizzas they cook, but the kinds of pasta are also great, and unmissable at this restaurant are the excellent cocktails.
A great place to retire for a drink or two afterwards is Panda & Sons, a bar on 79 Queen Street in New Town. Though it looks like a fairly unassuming barbers shop from the outside, a quick trip down the stairs and through a secret bookcase will land you in one of the most interesting bars around. Take a seat and read the menu, revealing the story and history of Panda and his sons, whilst taking a sip on one of the many delicious cocktails. Although costing around £10-12, these sizeable cocktails come highly recommended, especially the Long Island Eclipse and the Russian Spring Punch!
[Credit: Tom Boon]
If you want to spend the evening out and about exploring the city, why not take one of the many Ghost Tours the city has to offer. Taking around one to two hours, a tour guide takes you around the city, telling stories of gruesome goings on from witch trials to grave robbers and everything in between. It’s well worth trying to book a tour that also includes access to the ghostly vaults underneath South Bridge, as the atmosphere lit by candles can get very intense, and who knows what ghostly spirits will join you?
With advanced train tickets from London to Edinburgh for just £31.25 (With Virgin Trains East Coast at the time of writing) and flights from just £12 (With Ryanair at the time of writing), you’ve got nothing to lose!