The capital city of Scotland is a beautiful place at any time of the year, but it really comes alive in August, with the Edinburgh Fringe Festival running until August 29, and the Edinburgh International Festival until September 4. There isn’t a city in the UK more dynamic than this right now. Want to take a look? We’ve picked the 10 things you must do on your trip.
1 Plan your festival
The cultural jamboree that takes over the city in August is generally referred to as ‘the Festival’, but it comprises separately administrated elements. Film, books, jazz, politics and art all have their own festival, and the Fringe, which broke away from the main shebang in 1998 and starts a week earlier, is a whole other ball game. Plan your schedule online at www.edinburghfestivals.co.uk, or arm yourself with a copy of The List (www.list.co.uk).
Hot spots for Fringe favourites include the Traverse Theatre and the Hub, the Grade A-listed former General Assembly church that’s fascinating to visit at any time of year. More highbrow performances of theatre, dance and opera can be enjoyed at the opulent Edinburgh Festival Theatre.
2 Climb a volcano
No other city has an extinct volcano in its limits, so climbing to Arthur’s Seat, the tallest of Edinburgh’s seven hills, is an essential activity for able-bodied visitors. As well as an aerobic workout, a jaunt up the hill, combined with a trip to the Our Dynamic Earth exhibition (www.dynamicearth.co.uk), which has all the information on how the landmark was formed, can also be an enlightening geological education for visitors to the city.
3 Brace yourself for a 1pm wake-up call
No one should leave the city without wandering round Edinburgh Castle (www.edinburghcastle.gov.uk). You can hardly miss it – the edifice can be seen from all over town. Lest you should forget to pay it due attention, however, the castle has a surprise for unsuspecting tourists behind its walls. At 1pm daily (except Sundays), a field gun lets rip with a burst of shellfire. Take a pew at the memorial bench commemorating the late Tam the Gun, who fired the piece for 27 years, if you think your eardrums can take it.
4 Creep around at night
Hilly, cobbly, twisty and windy: Edinburgh was built for walking, and after dark its spooky walks are a speciality. Tour companies devoted to putting the wind up their visitors include Mercat Walking Tours and City of the Dead Tours. Our favourite, and more historically accurate than paranormally hysterical, is the tour that shows you round Mary King’s Close (www.realmarykingsclose.com), sealed during a plague outbreak in the 17th century. It’s dark, cold and many feet below the city’s modern throughfares.
5 Do the Chinese T’ing at the Botanics
Dating back to the 17th century, the city’s Royal Botanic Garden (www.rbge.org.uk) is a well-established breathing space. A walk on the Chinese Hillside – dotted with the largest collection of wild specimens outside China, with a pause for thought in the T’ing (traditional pavilion) – is good for the soul.
6 Savour Scottish
Haggis, venison and stovies (meat stew) turn up on the menu of many self-respecting restaurants in this town, but the posher ones like to season the basic Caledonian with some Gallic. Modern venue Haldanes (+44 131 556 8407) is one such Franco-Scottish confection, offering high-end dining. For locally sourced, homely elements of the Scots kitchen, look no further than Dubh Prais (www.dubhpraisrestaurant.com) on the Royal Mile, or Stac Polly on Dublin Street (www.stacpolly.com).
7 Join the clan
It pays to know your tartans if you fancy yourself in a kilt. Watch and learn at the Edinburgh Old Town Weaving Co (+44 131 226 1555) behind the extensive tartan-stacked shop, where the mill’s noisy working looms produce the stock in trade. Peruse the tartan guide, check out your clan history, then buy the garb.
8 Call the fuzz
Both a working police station and a museum, the Police Information Centre (+44 131 226 6966) is home to what must be the most macabre exhibit ever – a business card holder made from the cured skin of infamous grave-robber William Burke.
9 A breath of fresh art
Green up a gallery trip by combining a visit to Scotland’s modern art collection with a bracing riverside walk. The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (www.nationalgalleries.org), its grounds dotted with sculptures by the likes of Edinburgh’s own Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, is perfectly placed along the Water of Leith Walkway. The walk follows the river that rises in the Pentland Hills and pours into the Firth of Forth at Leith.
10 Eat offally well
Shortbread may be the national dish, but big appetites demand haggis. Select yours from renowned manufacturer Macsween (www.macsween.co.uk). If you prefer sausages, the best bangers are created by Crombies of Edinburgh. Vegetarians will be relieved to hear that meat-free haggis is also an option from Macsween’s.
Need to know
Virgin Atlantic flies from Dubai to Edinburgh via London from Dhs4,300 return.
Where to stay
Some of Edinburgh’s grander hotels have an interesting back story, and none more so than The Scotsman, whose grand marble interiors were for a century the workplace of an ink-stained team of storytellers working for the national newspaper.
Rooms with breakfast and use of the spa from Dhs870 per night. www.thescotsmanhotel.co.uk
Hotel Ceilidh-Donia Edinburgh
A cute three-star hotel in a Victorian building with a great little bistro and a good, central location.
Rooms with breakfast from Dhs420 per night. www.hotelceilidh-donia.co.uk
Where to Eat and drink
Talented executive chef Jeff Bland at Number One in The Balmoral hotel delivers a heady menu, which might include crab millefeuille with brown crab pannacotta and wasabi mayo, or vegetarian pithivier of squash, chickpeas and spinach with red onion marmalade.
A tide of style bars have threatened to swamp Edinburgh’s traditional watering holes in recent years, but a few originals remain. The closest thing to a historic country pub (Scotland’s oldest, in fact) is the Sheep Heid Inn, which is worth tramping over Arthur’s Seat, the tallest of Edinburgh’s seven hills, thanks to delicious grub and a great selection of guest hops.