Streets steeped in history, world-famous festivals and, um, a kebab shop with its own DJ – when it comes to culture, Scottish capital Edinburgh ticks all the boxes (and a few more besides).
Prices may go through the roof during some of the city’s many big events, but these are a great time to see an already lively place come even more alive. Nowhere else in the world throws a New Year’s Eve party quite like Edinburgh, and Hogmanay consists of large-scale open-air concerts, torchlight processions, DJ sets and fireworks, naturally (edinburghshogmanay.com). A number of films have been set on the streets of Scotland (check out the film map online), and the Edinburgh International Film Festival (edfilmfest.org.uk) in June is a chance to celebrate the best new films from around the world, including cutting-edge independents.
For the rest of the summer there’s the Jazz & Blues Festival in July – a two-week long party with live music – and perhaps the city’s most famous event, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It’s the world’s largest arts festival, with over 2,500 shows. Be warned: go once and you’ll want to go back every year (edfringe.com). For something less well-known check out Hidden Door – a multi-platform festival making the most of the city’s derelict spaces and hopefully returning in April 2016 (hiddendoorblog.org). Wee Dub is a reggae and roots weekender in March 2016 (weedubfestival.co.uk), while the Beltane Fire Festival in April is a combination of Celtic tradition and body paint.
Given the city’s proximity to a boat-load of Scottish coastline, it’d be remiss to stick to local fare and not dip a toe into the seafood scene. Blackwood’s Bar & Grill, the resident restaurant at the Nira Caledonia hotel, will take good care of you (niracaledonia.com). The tiny, intimate space feels more like akin to an old-school drawing room than a hotel restaurant – in a good way – and you can wile the night away with cocktails, some stunning seafood (the smoked moules marinière, with freshly baked bread to mop up, is an absolute showstopper) and great scallops with parma ham. There's also a beautiful half lobster with moreish mustard mash (great washed down with a Wente Hayes Best Foot Forward chardonnay), or grap a sumptuous mixed grill with a malbec. There aren’t too many restaurants in the city whose food could top it.
Alternatively, if you’re the person waiting longingly for Burns Night to come around again so you can get your haggis fix, you’ll be best off starting the day at Urban Angel in New Town – you can add haggis to any dish on the extensive breakfast menu (urban-angel.co.uk). Vegetarians don’t panic; Hendersons is a vegetable institution (bistro, cafe, restaurant – choose your setting) that’s been churning out the good stuff since 1962 – there are cakes, plus a mind-boggling selection of salads, pies and quiche. It doubles as an arts venue, so check out the website for details (hendersonsofedinburgh.co.uk).
New to the city is Barnacles & Bones, a crab shack-inspired joint run by Liverpudlian Hal Prescott
New to the city is Barnacles & Bones (@eatbnb), a crab shack-inspired joint run by Liverpudlian Hal Prescott. Prescott uses locally-caught crab (did you know the majority we eat in the UK comes from Canada?) and offers a simple menu of crab with lemon or Scottish short-rib beef cooked in sherry gravy. Both are served with tarragon chips, or if you’re hankering after something healthy, quinoa or salad. Find him close to St Mary’s Cathedral in a grey and yellow converted Police Box.
For seafood with a seat, try the well-priced Mussel Inn on Rose Street (mussel-inn.com), or if you’re really pushing the boat out and going formal, you can’t miss the Pompadour (thepompadourbygalvin.com). It’s the Galvin Brothers’ gig at the Caledonian hotel, where a sophisticated seven-course degustation menu tastes as marvellous as the grand setting, and at around £120 with wine, it’s a relative steal. Fans of GBBO, or just the sweet stuff, should check out Love Crumbs (@hellolovecrumbs) – Edinburgh’s cake-only shop (no soups, sandwiches or time wasters, please). Peruse its Twitter and you’ll see why we’re keen. For something less artisan, the Clam Shell, er, kebab shop, is your go-to for a deep-fried Mars bar. Finally – because we have to end somewhere – round off your night at Cafe Piccante (cafepiccante.com), a late-night chip shop with a disco ball and DJ.
Thirsty? Pop into nightspot Red Squirrel (redsquirreledinburgh.co.uk), a cool bar and restaurant with a huge emphasis on craft beers from Scotland and beyond. It’s dark, and you can expect beards aplenty, but a sneering hipsters’ haven this is not: the cocktail list is bang-on (try the Bloody Mary, especially), there are some absolute gems among the beer selection (the Franciscan Wells Chieftan IPA was a favourite of ours) and the kitchen serves up quality burgers and smokehouse-style meat dishes.
If you’re up for something a little more intimate, it’d be a crime not to check out Usquabae (usquabae.co.uk), a self-proclaimed “whisky bar and larder” on Hope Street: great food is accompanied by more than 400 bottles of whisky, ranging from approachably priced to pretty punchy (the guy next to us at the bar ordered a dram of pre-war Macallan for £200). The bar staff are friendly, not pushy, and eager to help you find a few whiskies that suit both your palate and your wallet. A must-visit destination. Blue Blazer on Spittal Street is a cosy, unassuming boozer with a good selection of backbar spirits and beer on keg, while Bramble offers liquor alongside old-school hip-hop (bramblebar.co.uk). For more beer, the Hanging Bat has ale lovers swooning over 20 kegs and 100 craft beer bottles, while the urinals are also made out of beer kegs (thehangingbat.com). Waste not, want not and all that.
Dance? Rock? Jazz? Horrendous/hilarious 1980s cheese? You won’t be short of party options in Edinburgh. Check out the Prohibition-inspired Speakeasy bar at Cab Voltaire (thecabaretvoltaire.com) on the perennially lively Cowgate, or Electric Circus (theelectriccircus.biz) for contemporary music and seven karaoke rooms (you’ll see multiple hen nights and stag parties alongside hardcore clubbers at this multi-functional venue).
The 175-capacity Bannerman’s is a pub-come-rock venue for avid gig-goers located in the backstreets of the Medieval, once Plague-ridden, Old Town. Discerning music lovers should try the Voodoo Rooms (thevoodoorooms.com), an all-in-one cocktail bar/restaurant/gig venue with rock, soul and jazz, while The Caves, in Cowgate, is a two-floor warren of vaults and archways that hosts live music in a setting that was once the stables for the French Cavalry (unusualvenuesedinburgh.com). The Bongo Club (thebongoclub.co.uk) is a favourite of nostalgic Edinburgh University graduates, but it’s not just one for youths spilling beer and copping off – the 450-capacity, charity-owned venue is a cultural hotspot with rockabilly nights, techno nights, stand-up comedians and a brilliant burlesque night: Confusion is Sex. Alrighty then. For something grimier, try Garibaldi’s (or Gari’s) with it’s light-up dance floor. Trust us – just go with it.
Mary Portas’ Living and Giving shop for Save the Children is packed with designer gear at knock-down prices – think leather Ralph Lauren trousers and one-off handbags (maryportas.com). The historic and picturesque centrally-located Grass Market is a great place for vintage shopping – try Armstrongs vintage clothing emporium for antique uniforms, 1920s dresses and quirky accessories (armstrongsvintage.co.uk). Just off the historic Royal Mile you’ll find the Frayed Hem (facebook.com/thefrayedhem), where the walls are lined with very affordable vintage pieces that go beyond a faded sweatshirt with Mickey Mouse on the front.
For local and independent clothes designers, try Godiva in West Port (godivaboutique.co.uk), or for indy comic book creators, big kids should head to Deadhead Comics (deadheadcomics.co.uk), home to a weird and wonderful collection of big-name comics and some rare under-the-radar finds. You’re doing Scotland wrong if you leave without bringing back a bottle or two of whisky. It may be touristy, but The Whisky Trail in the Royal Mile is a den of single malts and more, drawing from all parts of the country (thewhiskytrail.co.uk). If you’re really keen, book onto one of its whisky journeys, where you can taste your way through several top-notch drams.
The Improverts – the city’s long-running improvisational comedy troupe from Edinburgh Uni – perform on Friday nights at Bedlam Theatre. Tickets are a fiver and you’d be a fool to miss out if you have a healthy sense of humour (bedlamtheatre.co.uk). Carlton Hill and Arthur’s Seat are two great opportunities for views of the city, with a bit of a workout thrown in thanks to steep inclines to tackle (don’t let that put you off).
The Improverts – the city’s long-running improvisational comedy troupe from Edinburgh Uni – perform on Friday nights at Bedlam Theatre
If you’re going to do one, Arthur’s Seat is the remnants of a volcano that erupted between 350 and 400 million years ago; at 823 feet above sea level, it’s pretty cool. The towering castle is the city’s number one visitor attraction, and it’s worth joining the elbow-to-elbow tourists for a chance to look at the home of the Crown Jewels of Scotland, the Mons Meg (one of the world’s most famous guns), the hammerbeam roof of the Great Hall and the sprawling magnitude of the castle’s walls, turrets and towers.
The Scottish National Portrait Gallery opened a few years back and is one of the city’s most iconic buildings and provides a comprehensive overview of Scotland’s past and present – sculptures, paintings, photography and more (nationalgalleries.org). New for this year are tours of the Real Mary King’s Close – a warren of underground streets and spaces, and a must-do for those who loved pre-GCSE history (if you can handle a costumed character talking you through the tales of the city – it’s not for everyone; realmarykingsclose.com). For insider insights into the city, check out Trip4Real – a website offering days out with Edinburgh residents, involving anything from whisky to dancing, or both, depending on how much of the first goes down (trip4real.com).
24 Royal Terrace is one of the newest hotels in the city (24royalterrace.co.uk); located at the foot of Calton Hill on a street once named ‘Whisky Row’ (due to the number of whisky merchants who worked there), it’s an ideal location for exploring the city, and the 16 art-clad rooms are pretty damn fine, too. For something super swanky, the Waldorf Astoria Caledonian (or the ‘Caley’ as it’s affectionately known) is a former Victorian railway hotel that sits in the shadows of Edinburgh castle – HELLO views (waldorfastoriaedinburgh.com). For a historic building without the hefty price point, check out Nine Nelson on coolstays.com.
The Georgian apartment sleeps nine people (split the cost and you’re laughing all the way back to king-size beds), and its location on a cobbled street in the heart of New Town is one of the city’s most sought-after areas. Strapped for cash? Motel One is a cheap but stylish chain hotel that does an efficient job (motel-one.com), or Haggis Hostel – a comfy hostel with sturdy bunks – is perfect for people set on making travelling friends during their time in the city (haggishostels.co.uk). We’re sold on the name alone.
For more information on Edinburgh, visit thisisedinburgh.com