On being a tourist in Edinburgh

Having spent my university years just 50 miles up the coast in St Andrews I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Edinburgh many times. Rarely, though, did I go as a tourist; shopping, visiting friends, celebrating Hogmanay or catching a Fringe show or two took precedence and I somehow managed to neglect Scotland’s first city’s many tourist attractions.

Now based in London – and with the weather turning a bit dour, to use a Scottish term – I was excited to hop over the border and spend a long weekend in Edinburgh with my friend Mark. I was determined, though, to be a tourist.

I had never climbed Arthur’s Seat; I had never scaled Calton Hill; I had never been inside St Giles’ Cathedral. So Mark agreed to take me on a walking tour of my host city and here’s how it went:

We started with a few indulgent pastries at the bijou café Twelve Triangles just off Leith Walk – easy to miss if you don’t know where to look, the unassuming blue, wooden door leads you into a veritable Carb Heaven: peanut butter and cream doughnuts, banana and chocolate croissants, charcoal sourdough loaves and so much more, we broke our fast with more treats than I’d like to admit to!

Energised (or on a sugar high!) we took a couple of backstreets up to London Road from where we began our climb to the top of Calton Hill. At its summit are several stone monuments and buildings, most notably the City Observatory and the National Monument (modelled on Athens’ Parthenon). The view of the city from up here is panoramic yet intimate: the cityscape is wide-reaching and yet you feel close enough to the tapestry of buildings to discern their individual features.

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Descending gradually along a quiet path we ambled through the New Calton Burial Ground on the south-east slopes of Calton Hill before reaching the cobbled streets below. We made a quick stop at the Palace of Holyroodhouse to peek through the gates of the Queen’s Scottish royal residence before continuing on to the main event: Arthur’s Seat.

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Blustery but beautiful is how I’d describe this iconic site. The walk up takes about 20 minutes if you’ve got a quick pace and it’s a bit of a scramble towards the top as you navigate the craggy rocks but, once you’re at the peak, the view of Edinburgh is second-to-none… Look north-east out across the Firth of Forth and spot North Berwick’s Bass Rock, a haven for squawking seabirds. Look south towards Portobello Beach and the suburb of Musselburgh. Look west into the city and search for the castle. Look north-west and try and figure out which Forth Bridge is which!

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The strong wind expedited our descent and by the time we reached the bottom we were most certainly ‘windswept and interesting’, as Billy Connolly and my mother would say. Passing Scotland’s modernist Parliament building we entered the Royal Mile, where we stopped for a quick lunch. Oink is the brainchild of two farmers from the Scottish Borders who wanted to bring quality hog roast to urban folk: in the window sits a rather delicious-looking pig (disclaimer: this depends on your culinary/ethical outlook!). The concept is simple: choose the size you’d like, choose the type of roll, choose an extra (this sentence has unintentionally turned into a sandwich-based Trainspotting parody…) of either sage and onion, apple sauce, chilli relish or haggis and, if you’re a real porker like me, ask for crackling!

Often perceived as a tourist trap, the Royal Mile undoubtedly has its fair share of tourist tat and tartan traders – Tammy Hat anyone? But look beyond all this and you’ll stumble across hidden gardens at the end of a close or an alleyway leading to an unexpected shop – so follow your instincts, nip down that passageway and discover a slightly more esoteric Edinburgh.

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Towards the end of the Royal Mile is the magnificent St Giles’ Cathedral. Dating to the late 14th century, the church is unusual in its layout as more and more chapels were added over the course of the years. The interior is beautifully intricate and, unlike many churches I have visited, you get a real sense of where you are: faded flags bearing the Lion Rampant or the Saltire bedeck the walls and tributes to great Scots abound. In hindsight I wish I had paid the fee to take photographs as it really is one of the loveliest cathedrals I’ve ever seen!

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We rounded the castle which looms overhead and made our way towards Dean Village. Quaint, delightful and an oasis of calm just moments from the hustle and bustle of the city, Dean Village sits on the river, which, for almost 800 years, powered the grain-milling industry. Saved from decline in the 1970s, millworkers’ cottages, mills and warehouses have been converted and restored and the area is once again popular (not to mention very pretty!).

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As the light began to fade we wandered along the Water of Leith Walkway, passing under the Dean Bridge, admiring the autumnal colours, spotting the odd heron and feeling close to nature, before re-emerging in the city in the buzzing suburb of Stockbridge.

And so my day as a tourist in Edinburgh came to an end. The sun was setting, the air was cooling and our legs were giving out – it was time to go home and enjoy a sit-down and a well-deserved G&T!

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