Eight Shades of
By Mike Dunphy
“Edinburgh is what Paris ought to be,” said Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Indeed, the romance of Dùn Èideann, as the Scottish capital is called in the Gaelic tongue, has inspired generations of novelists, poets, scientists and philosophers, earning its nickname, “Athens of the North.” It comes with its own acropolis, Calton Hill, atop which a Greek-style temple pays tribute to lost Scottish sailors and soldiers. But it’s the atmospheric Edinburgh Castle on Castlehill that sets the tone, having served as the main stage for centuries of torrid history.
But if the stones of Edinburgh are ancient, the people are young, with roughly 60 percent of the half-million Edinburgers under the age of 40, and nearly 80,000 of those attending college. That translates into a thriving dining, shopping, arts and entertainment scene, rife with cutting-edge restaurants, fashion boutiques, distilleries, galleries, nightclubs, theaters and sporting venues threading the city, including the so-called “Michelin mile,” with four Michelin star restaurants and another four with Bib Gourmand status stretching from the city center to the Leith docks.
Whichever color you choose to paint the town, Edinburgh has the shade to suit you best.
Scottish cuisine is much more than haggis. Indeed, the culinary renaissance in London that spawned one celebrity chef after another made its way to Edinburgh soon after, bringing with it the same attention to local, seasonal and sustainable products, be it new twists on old favorites or old twists to new favorites. The Gardener’s Cottage, set in an actual gardener’s cottage from 1836 in the Royal Terrace Gardens at the foot of Calton Hill, is the perfect example. Seated at long communal tables, patrons can enjoy six-course menus with dishes like Shetland cod with artichoke and hazelnut and lamb with sand carrots and chanterelles.
For a fine dining version of the “nature to plate” philosophy, plus private tables and a Michelin star, aim for Chef Tom Kitchin’s restaurant, The Kitchin, for hand-dived Orkney scallops, braised highland lamb and caramel poached Perthshire pear. Edinburgh’s Asian population shows its chops at Dishoom, which channels Scottish produce into Indian and Iranian-inspired dishes — many of which are vegetarian — like gunpowder potatoes, mahi tikka and the signature house black daal.
Find your own ingredients at Edinburgh Farmers’ Market every Saturday on Castle Terrace underneath the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle. More than 40 local producers sell everything from meat, fish, fruit and vegetables to specialty products like soap, knitwear, fruit wines and gluten free cakes. Fridays in Fountainbridge (where Sean Connery was born and grew up), trucks and traders line up at Union Canal to serve the best in Edinburgh street food.
Built on seven hills, like the city of Rome, Edinburgh presents plenty of elevation for hikers and trekkers. The king of them is Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano rising 823 feet behind the Scottish Parliament. Multiple routes with varying fitness grades and terrain climb to the peak, with some paved. Along the way, the ghostly 900-year-old remains of St. Anthony’s Chapel look out over St. Margaret’s Loch.
If you prefer climbing indoors, Edinburgh is also home to Europe’s largest indoor climbing facility, Edinburgh International Climbing Arena. Built in an abandoned quarry, the space was ready made for scaling, with 300 routes and more than 11,000 bolt-on holds spanning a full range of difficulty levels. Several areas and activities cater to toddlers and kids, including vertical slides, speed climbs and the balance-testing “Stairway to Heaven.”
With Scotland’s rough highlands fixed in the mind, it’s easy to forget that the “game of kings,” otherwise known as golf, was invented here. As a result, Edinburgh is replete with courses and clubs, including The Royal Burgess Golfing Society, the oldest golfing society in the world. Its par 71 course, covering 6,511 yards of tree-lined parkland, six miles from the city center still welcomes visiting non-members by appointment. Along the water, Muirfield is the home of The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, which dates back to 1744. The course has hosted dozens of international and national competitions, including 13 Open Championships. Tee times are also available for visitors with advance planning.
There’s a bagpipe, fiddle and tin whistle in the Scottish soul, and Edinburgh is never short of musicians to prove it. Find them all together, along with willing dancers from the audience, at a ceilidh — a Gaelic word for “gathering” or “party.” There are ceilidhs every week in Edinburgh: Tuesdays at Summerhall Distillery, and Fridays and Saturdays at the Scottish bar and restaurant Ghillie Dhu.
Scotland also rocks as hard as it steps, producing world famous artists like Annie Lennox, David Byrne, Mark Knopfler, Franz Ferdinand, Belle and Sebastian and The Proclaimers, among many others. Catch touring A-listers at The Liquid Room, Usher Hall and Queens Hall, or take in the local talent (and more sweat) at Sneaky Pete’s, Henry’s Cellar Bar and Bannerman’s Bar.
Comedy clubs also thrive in Edinburgh, thanks to the success and inspiration of Scottish comedians like Billy Connolly, Craig Ferguson and Frankie Boyle. See many of them, as well as up-and-comers, at The Stand, next to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. There, you can even try out your own material at the Red Raw session every Monday night. The show gets even wilder and raunchier at Monkey Barrel, where Monday and Tuesday nights reserved for “no-holds-barred” performances that don’t just push the envelope, but tear through it.
Scotland’s renowned skills at distillation have become the namesake of some of the best whiskies in the world — Scotch. Get deep in the peat at The Scotch Whisky Experience, just next to the castle. This great one-stop-shop with six tours covers all aspects of tasting, production, the business and food pairings. A full day course offered once a month covers all the above, and more.
A new generation of craft distillers is adding high quality gin and vodka to the mix. Established in 2010, Edinburgh Gin has dedicated itself to “guiding peoples’ discovery of the modern-day gin experience” at their distillery and visitor center in West End. Tours geared to the novice and aficionado run daily with ample opportunity to sample the goods, from classic dry to infusions of rhubarb, elderflower and pomegranate. A gin masterclass teaches you to make your own, using miniature copper stills, the head distiller’s range of aromatics and botanicals and a tutor to help you create your own recipe.
Summerhall Distillery makes its gin inside a beautiful arts venue hewn from an old veterinary college built in 1916, with exhibitions, stand-up comedy, cabaret and traditional Scottish ceilidh gatherings. Still, it’s a virtual crime to leave Edinburgh without tasting some Scotch.
Thistle Street is Edinburgh’s answer to London’s Savile Row, and at 21st Century Kilts, one of Scotland’s fashion moguls, Howie Nicholsby, reimagines the “un-bifurcated garments for men” (aka the kilt), using denim, Harris Tweed, leather and suiting material. Full suits, including the “hipster fit” kilt, with one-button Argyll jackets and five-button vests and chunky knit socks are available and tailored to order in 8-12 weeks.
If you prefer your tartans old school, head to Stewart Christie & Co., which is the oldest bespoke tailor in Scotland, tracing its trading heritage back to around 1720. Its long and distinguished clientele includes lords, ladies, celebrities (including the stars of Outlander) and the Royal Company of Archers, the Queen’s bodyguard in Scotland. Thanks to Vixy Rae, who became creative director in 2015, an entire floor is dedicated to women’s attire.
For something from the pages of Vogue, look no further than the studio of Judy R. Clark, Womenswear Designer of the Year for 2013, at the Scottish Style Awards. Her dramatic pieces combining Scottish tartan, lace and tweeds were called “romantic art” by Vogue magazine. Her “Lace Noir” collection uses Madras lace produced on 19th-century looms in Ayrshire.
Inhabited since 8,500 B.C., Edinburgh has never been short of history. While highlights — like the iconic Edinburgh Castle, Greyfriars Kirk, Rosslyn Chapel (of The Da Vinci Code fame) and Palace of Holyroodhouse (where the Queen stays when visiting) — always bring lines of tourists, there are many less beaten paths to soak up the history more intimately.
Reopened in 2003, after centuries hidden underground, Mary King’s Close — a warren of underground ancient streets once bustling with traders, mountebanks and more — offers an intimate view of 17th-century Edinburgh, not to mention sordid tales of ghosts, murders and plagues, all relayed by a costumed character tour guide based on a one-time resident.
Several former villages now incorporated into the city also turn back the clock, especially in the exceedingly picturesque Stockbridge, home to the Circus Mews, one of the Edinburgh’s prettiest and most photogenic streets with rows of elegant Georgian houses bedecked in flowers and greenery. Nearby, Dean Village is another time machine, full of renovated 19th-century mills and industrial buildings once powered by Edinburgh’s oft-forgotten river, the Water of Leith, which now tranquilly flows through this deep, green valley in the heart of the city.
“It’s impossible to live in Edinburgh without sensing its literary heritage everywhere,” said J.K. Rowling, who lived in the Scottish capital during the 1990s, while writing her Harry Potter series. Two local pubs — The Elephant House and Spoon — gave her a warm place to work when the then penniless author couldn’t afford the heating bill. Dozens of other sites that inspired places in the series also welcome fans. Indeed, Potterrow, home of pottery stalls in centuries past, is right next to the campus of Edinburgh University, where Rowling was a student.
But no Scottish writer tops 19th-century romantic novelist Walter Scott in terms of adulation. In fact, The Walter Scott Monument, a 200-foot tall gothic tower installed with stained glass windows and 64 figures from Scott’s novels carved by a variety of Scots sculptors, is the largest monument to any writer in the world. The titular character of his 1814 novel, Waverley, is also the name of Edinburgh’s main train station — the only one in the world named after a literary character.
To experience the Scottish passion for literature more intimately, visit the Storytelling Centre on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. The venue hosts live storytelling, theatre, music, exhibitions and more. Workshops also teach you to improve your own gift of gab. The Scottish Poetry Library, just steps from Scottish Parliament, does the same. Join a poetry reading group (no preparation required) or simply take in the works of locals at a “slam.” Whatever the case, expect to learn a lot about Robert Burns.
The rich Gaelic green of Scotland doesn’t stop at the gates of Edinburgh. More than 130 public parks, gardens, greens and preserves blanket and surround the city, totaling 49.2 percent of its total land area, making it the greenest city in the United Kingdom.
In addition to the obvious parkland of Arthur’s Seat and other hills, Edinburgh is home to Britain’s largest rhododendron and azalea gardens, covering a full 70 acres at The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Also on site is an impressive Chinese garden, with the largest collection of wild-origin Chinese plants outside of China, and the vast and steamy Tropical Palm House, which feels like stepping into a rainforest.
For the quintessential “secret garden,” look no further than Dr. Neil’s Garden next to the 12th-century Duddingston Kirk on Duddingston Loch. Created in the 1960s by doctors Andrew and Nancy Neil, the garden is replete with conifers, heathers, magnolias, rhododendrons, azaleas and many other shrubs, not to mention the classic Monet-style bridge and waterlilies. In one corner is Thomson’s Tower, built in 1825, to store curling stones. Feel free to take your time here. The goal here is less to appreciate the greenery, but find beauty and peace. The cinematic views of Arthur’s Seat make it easy.