Edinburgh’s dirtiest trick is hiding in plain sight. Sold a 2D iteration of Braveheart, bagpipes and festivals, tourists cling to trademark attractions that have steep prices and no soul. When festival revellers swell the population in August, most of them head indoors, trading the capital’s spoils for darkened rooms. But there’s much to discover beyond the summer festivals and the shortbread Scottishness sold in the tourist traps.
Venture out from the Royal Mile and you’ll find weathered stones and tall spires punctuated with green giants. In an afternoon, you can conquer an ancient volcano or scale an abandoned acropolis without leaving the centre.
Edinburgh is a city of rises and falls. Her crags, wynds, vennels and vaults entice you up crooked steps with good reason. Get some height, and you’ll really see her. Medieval tenements clustering on a glacial tail. The geometric perfection of rational Georgian streets. A lick of blue where North Sea meets sky. Gilded by summer sun, this city sings, but she wears her storm clouds effortlessly. Brooding under a blackened sky with the malting sweetness of hops on the air, Edinburgh gets into your bones.
With the city’s rich history, it’s easy to lose yourself unearthing the past. But beyond the cobblestones, a modern city aches to tell its tale. This capital’s present is just as relevant, if you know where to look. Here you can go urban foraging with the Edinburgh Larder, find a fetish club in a cave, welcome May Day with fire, or sit in Scotland’s first cat cafe with a fat Persian called Guillaume. Edinburgh is losing its stiff upper lip, and embracing a world beyond bygone heroes and royal ties.
WHAT TO DO AND SEE
For a cultural fix, look no further than multi arts venue Summerhall. Housed in the former veterinary school, it has an eclectic, well-curated calendar of events all year round, including science lectures, challenging art exhibitions, and food festivals. It’s also home to the much-loved microbrewery Barney’s Beer.
• Summerhall Place, summerhall.co.uk
Edinburgh is dripping with literary history, and it’s easy to lose a day perusing the musty wares of the West Port’s many secondhand bookshops or get a high-octane hit from the city’s best wordsmiths. In addition to events at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, there are spoken word nights all over the city. Loud Poets,Rally & Broad (rallyandbroad.com) and Neu! Reekie! offer noisy slam poetry, eclectic cabaret and unforgettable evenings – all at bargain prices.
Give the tartan souvenir shops a wide berth and head down to Armstrong’s vintage clothing emporium on the Grassmarket for the real deal: a heavy pre-loved woollen kilt could cost about £25. Given that a new one can cost £600 or more, it’s a keepsake worth splashing out on (if the prospect of a previous bare-arsed Scottish owner doesn’t put you off). Other great vintage shops are Those Were the Days, Herman Brown and Godiva.
• 83 Grassmarket, armstrongsvintage.co.uk
Edinburgh Gin Distillery tour
The city is known more for its whisky heritage, but good gin is everywhere at the moment. Top of the list is the Edinburgh Gin Distillery, where passionate guides will lead groups of visitors on a connoisseur tour. Afterwards, design your own gin cocktail, or just enjoy their other wares – the elderflower gin liqueur is a show-stopper.
• Tours from £10pp, 1a Rutland Place, 0131-656 2810,edinburghgindistillery.co.uk
Get sandy at Portobello
Porty is Edinburgh’s seaside. Only a few miles from the middle of the city, this seafront was once the go-to destination for Midlothian holidaymakers. Its Victorian splendour has long faded, but Portobello’s allure lies in that nostalgia. Walk the esplanade, play the penny arcades and eat fish and chips (with salt and sauce) by the sea. If the weather’s grim, enjoy the public Turkish baths (£7.20) – one of only a handful left in the UK.
• Take the 26 bus from Princes Street, £1.50 each way
WHERE TO EAT
This pocket-sized Mexican cantina was an instant hit with locals, but closed after a serious fire within a few months of opening. A year on, it has risen triumphantly from sooty ruin, and this second coming has been worth the wait – for the best tacos in town and rotating flavours of frozen margarita. There are no reservations, so if there’s a queue, have a drink in the Bon Vivant pub over the road and they will give you a call when there’s a table. Standout antojitos (snacks) are the duckcarnitas, fish tacos (£6.50) and guacamole national.
• 64 Thistle Street, elcartelmexicana.co.uk
Aizle – say it like hazel – isn’t your by-the-book fine dining restaurant. There is no menu, just a list of the season’s exceptional local produce, so your dining is at the mercy of the chef’s whim – but it is as generous on the eye as it is on the palate. Recent highlights included stout bread with whipped duck butter and carrot salt, miso-cured hake, and prosecco with strawberry puree and dill.
• Five courses £45, 107 St Leonard’s Street, 0131-662 9349, aizle.co.uk
Sandwiched between a couple of the city’s more lauded reataurants, this cosy, family-run Turkish bistro is easy to miss. Serving traditional meze and solid vegetarian options, it is frequented more by regulars than visitors. You can bring your own booze, so take advantage of the cheap corkage. Those in the know order the special meze platter (£15.95pp, single meze £3.95) and a glass of traditional apple tea.
• 24 St Mary’s Street, 0131 466 0100,empirescafe.co.uk
Mary’s Milk Bar
If you’re looking for a nutritious meal, you won’t find it here. This tiny pastel emporium deals in two things only: chocolate and ice-cream. Sit at a Formica table, sipping hot chocolate, or spooning up freshly made gelato. With come-hither flavours like butter-fried bananas and creamy gorgonzola, this is a Wonka factory for pudding hunters – unabashed culinary hedonism.
• 19 Grassmarket, marysmilkbar.com
Bringing Scandinavian fika to Scotland, this Swedish bakery and cafe has a loyal fanbase and is the perfect spot for long, lazy lunches of open sandwiches, button-bright salads and glossy, plump cardamom buns. Snap a sirap snitt cookie and swirl it into black coffee for instant bliss.
• 27 Simpson’s Loan, petersyard.com
A piece of cake (or several)
For impromptu indulgences, try the Opera cake at Falko (185 Bruntsfield Place), passionfruit and ricotta doughnuts at Twelve Triangles (90 Brunswick Street), and if you find yourself swithering in Mademoiselle Macaron (22 Grindlay Street), try one flavoured with Innis & Gunn beer (65p).
WHERE TO DRINK
The Royal Mile is lined with mediocre boozers, but you don’t have to venture far for a pint with some personality.
The Holyrood 9A
Beer and burgers have always been friends. Through some witchcraft, the Holyrood has turned one of the city’s scarier dive bars into an elegant go-to for both. Its drinks selection is bountiful – for hoppy session ale go for Fyne’s Jarl, or Williams Blackball for a roasted, chocolatey stout. Wash down a venison burger (served with clava brie from the Summer Isles and mulled cranberry) with a pint of Marmalade on Rye IPA from Tempest Brewing.
• 9a Holyrood Road, theholyrood.co.uk
If you didn’t know exactly where to look, you’d miss Bramble. Without signage, this nook-filled cocktail bar in a Queen Street basement feels private even when it’s busy. Expect Roots Manuva on the sound system, a tealight glow and not a mojito in sight. The Rheingold Express (Bols Genever, house cardamom and vanilla syrup, fresh lemon juice and crème de cacao) is worth the visit on its own.
• 16A Queen Street, bramblebar.co.uk
Among Edinburgh’s growing family of Swedish bars, Joseph Pearce still reigns supreme. The shabby-chic sitting-room vibe, solid drinks menu and great food keep regulars returning. In true Scandinavian spirit, the outside tables don’t hibernate – in winter, it’s alfresco boozing under a borrowed blanket.
• 23 Elm Row, bodabar.com
This fun and unusual cafe and cocktail bar in Leith’s vibrant shore area has a large selection of drinks displayed among teapots and ladies’ hats. Tunes are of the old-timey variety, and the two-dozen cocktails are served in china cups. Try the Scottish Skagen open sandwich (local smoked salmon, shrimp, dill and crème fraîche on toasted brioche) and a Rose Garden “pot-tail” (cocktail in a teapot) with apple, rose liqueur and cucumber.
• 23/24 Sandport Place, roseleaf.co.uk
WHERE TO STAY
Edinburgh is overrun with big hotels and grotty hostels, so it takes a bit of sleuthing to find something different …
The Wee Palace by the Castle
Small in size but big on character, this little apartment offers hotel luxury with the privacy of an apartment. Other good stuff includes a four-poster, Molton Brown goodies and castle view.
• From £84 a night, sleeps two, edinburghhideaways.com
Once the home of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, this unpretentious independent hotel won’t dent your savings. Spanning five Victorian townhouses in bohemian Stockbridge, it has bedrooms full of character, an excellent bar, fine dining and toiletries from the White Company. It’s incredible value in one of Edinburgh’s most interesting neighbourhoods.
• Doubles from £82 B&B, channings.co.uk
Edinburgh wouldn’t be Edinburgh without its tenements. These towering flats are a marker of days when it built up instead of out. Once overcrowded and unsafe, many of the oldest have vanished, though as the city expanded, newer, roomy tenements became the norm. With their high ceilings, bay windows, intricate cornicing and grand fireplaces, they’re synonymous with the city, and the closest you’ll get to genuine central living.
• From £240 a night, sleeps eight, holidaylettings.co.uk, ref 94281
Old School Tower
As city views go, little can top this studio’s panorama of Arthur’s Seat – where people look like matchsticks. Spend your nights in the bell tower of the former James Clark School, with 63 acres of Holyrood Park mere paces from the door.
• From £72 a night, sleeps two, edinburghhideaways.com