Travellers so often know other countries better than they know their own regions. That’s certainly true of this British-born writer who has explored just about every nook and cranny of New Zealand yet was past 30 years old before first stepping foot on Scottish soil! But, thanks to my Celtic fiancée, how I’ve enjoyed making up for lost time.
Edinburgh isn’t just the UK’s most beautiful city, but one of the most enchanting spots anywhere on Earth. History hangs heavy over its labyrinth of cobbled streets, and you sense its presence with every step. The Scottish capital is also the festival capital of the world—including the fabled Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival—with combined tickets sales eclipsed only by the Olympics and football World Cup.
Like Auckland, Edinburgh is fabulously green (the greenest city in Britain), sits in the shadow of extinct volcanoes (most notably, Arthur’s Seat) and overlooks an endless expanse of water, known as the Firth of Forth. Only London has more listed buildings, while Edinburgh’s oldest pub, the Sheep Heid Inn, was founded around the time humans first landed on Aotearoa’s shores. If you can, it’s worth braving the city for Christmas and Hogmanay to witness its evocative landscape blanketed in a layer of glistening frost or snow.
The best view of Edinburgh is from Arthur’s Seat, but verdant Calton Hill comes a close—and far more convenient—second. Protruding right from the heart of the cityscape, it takes just a few minutes’ strolling to be rewarded with expansive urban, rural and water views. Also, atop its gentle peak rests a handful of historic structures such as an unfinished replica Acropolis (building began in 1822, but it was deemed to expensive too finish), and the City Observatory.
There’s a vibrant café culture in Edinburgh—the city is said to have more eateries per head than anywhere else in the UK—including a few where JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter (most notably The Elephant House and Nicolson’s Café). But, I’m always glad to nurse a hangover at Southern Cross (a name also befitting our Antipodean audience), a bustling, two-tiered café that serves a hearty Scottish breakfast—including some nicely spiced haggis—alongside aromatic artisan coffee.
The Royal Mile
City strolls don’t come much more memorable than the main artery of the Royal Mile that connects the Queen’s official Scottish residence, Holyrood Palace, to Edinburgh Castle. The heart—and soul—of Edinburgh’s Old Town, the strip snakes past markets, museums, antique stores, and the 14th-century St Giles Cathedral with its iconic crown steeple. There are a multitude of classic, British pubs—look out for the Jolly Judge on the adjoining James Court, a tiny underground tavern replete with timber beam ceilings, a log fire and real ales; it’s like stepping back in time.The strip also serves as the jumping off point for many of the city’s legendary ghost tours of the nearby ancient laneways and underground vaults.
The views from the hard-to-pronounce Chaophraya’s rooftop conservatory (make sure to book a table ‘outside’), stretch all the way over to the firth, meaning this one’s best for lunch or an earlier dinner. Fabulous modern Thai food accompanies by some imaginatively mixed drinks—save space for the chilli chocolate cocktail.
Fit for a fairytale, Edinburgh Castle is perched atop a volcanic crag that serves as the crowning glory of Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site. The architectural wonder was built in parts, beginning way back in the 12th century. Much was designed during the Renaissance, with memorials added after the first world war. Among its most famous residents are the Scottish Crown Jewels and keep an eye out for the tiny easy-to-miss enclave that serves as a cemetery for military dogs. Come nightfall, the gently illuminated castle goes next-level gorgeous.
There are, unsurprisingly, heaps of awesome arthouse cinemas in the Scottish capital, but the Edinburgh Filmhouse is the favourite. It sets the ideal moviegoing tone owing to its setting in a former stone church now kitted out with old-school theatre-style seating and substantial red curtains guarding the screens. There are three auditoriums and a bar, and it also hosts the world’s longest running film festival.
The Printing Press is an uber-sophisticated, special occasion destination in honour of the city’s rich, publishing heritage (Edinburgh was the first Unesco city of literature). This bar and restaurant is famed for its exceptional cocktails and modern take on classic Scottish fare (like grouse) enjoyed on leather studded seating beneath decorative stone ceilings supported by marble pillars. Heather and I enjoyed some bubbly here with her family following our engagement.
The Scotch Whisky Experience
There are undoubtedly less touristy—and more authentic—whisky tasting sessions to be had on the Isles and in the Highlands, but the sheer sight of the world’s largest collection of this writer’s favourite drink sure is breathtaking. Interactive displays and informative talks concerning the history of whisky are complemented by a tasting session and tour of the nearly three-and-a-half-thousand-bottle-strong scotch collection, including some of the rarest and most valuable tipples on the planet—some worth tens of thousands of dollars (but, alas, you don’t get to sample those ones).