Things To Do
1. Plan your festival viewing
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, 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. 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 and don't miss the free samples of performance at Fringe Sunday, a Festival garden party that attracts 15,000 visitors to the Meadows on the second weekend of the Fringe.
2. Spy on the city
See the world turned upside down at the city's first visitor attraction, the Camera Obscura & the World of Illusion, which was thrilling enough for Victorian visitors, although the CCTV generation might be more impressed by the collection of powerful telescopes on the roof.
3. Climb a volcano in an urban park
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 the able-bodied visitor. As well as an aerobic workout, a jaunt up the hill, combined with a trip to Our Dynamic Earth, which has all the information on how the landmark was formed, can also be an enlightening geological education.
4. Brace yourself for a 1pm wake-up call
No-one should leave the city without wandering round lofty Edinburgh Castle. You could hardly forget to, as 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.
5. Creep around after dark
Hilly, cobbly, twisty and windy – Edinburgh was built for walking – and after dark 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, sealed during a plague outbreak in the 17th century. It's dark, cold and many feet below the city's modern throughfares.
6. Sort out your blends from your malts
The liquid history tour of the Scottish national drink courtesty of the Scotch Whisky Experience is an enjoyable precursor to becoming a Scotch whisky connoisseur – you may not be happy to settle for supermarket-bought blends after you've tasted a dram. The tour is highly entertaining – there's even a barrel-ride to add a thrill – but the shop will provide you with an intoxicating, if not lasting, memory of the experience. If you're after furthering your Scotch education, consider joining the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, which allows access to their members' room to sample rare whiskies and great grub. Otherwise, Bennets has more than 100 whiskies sitting on its gorgeous Victorian gantry and the Canny Man's also has a tremendous choice, including some rare bottlings. Buy a whole bottle from the wide selection available at Cadenhead's Whisky Shop, Scotland's oldest independent bottler, or Royal Mile Whiskies, an award winning purveyor of the amber nectar.
7. Visit some architectural surprises
Despite its World Heritage Site status, which inhibits such gestural architecture as London's Gherkin and Glasgow's Armadillo, Edinburgh has some modern gems to enjoy. Malcolm Fraser Architects took on the challenge of converting the old Netherbow Theatre into the modern Scottish Storytelling Centre, incorporating the adjacent, late 15th-century strucuture, John Knox House, into the project. They also completed the Scottish Poetry Library, winner of Channel 4's Building of the Year competition 2000, concealed down Crichton's Close.
Two other award-winners (both won a housing award from the Saltire Society) are Barlas House, a thoroughly modern townhouse slotted into the Georgian environs of Hart Street, in Broughton, and the sleek conjoined blocks at the foot of Old Fishmarket Close.
8. Do the Chinese T'ing at the Botanics
With its gcadmins in the 17th century, the Royal Botanic Garden is a well established breathing space for tourists. Cold days make the hothouses a major attraction, but in spring 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.
9. Savour Scottish
Haggis, venison and stovies 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. Haldanes is one such Franco-Scottish confection. For locally sourced, homely elements of the Scots kitchen you need look no further than little Duph Prais on the Royal Mile, or Stac Polly.
10. 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 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.
11. Dine at a Michelin-starred restaurant
Edinburgh's Michelin star tally currently sits at four, with local boy Dominic Jack's Castle Terrace the latest to get the nod.
The very 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.
Tom and Michaela Kitchin set up Kitchin in Leith in summer 2006, and had a Michelin star within the year. Since then, they’ve operated at the apex of the city’s restaurant scene.
Located in the historical heart of Leith, Restaurant Martin Wishart has retained a Michelin star since 2001. The food is sublime, and a meal might take in tarte fine of Cornish sardines to start, squab pigeon as a main and then raspberry soufflé to finish.
12. Drink in the traditional
A tide of style bars threatened to swamp Edinburgh's traditional watering holes, but a few originals remain. The closest thing to a historic country pub is the Sheep Heid Inn, whose guest beers are ample reward for tramping over Arthur's Seat (the tallest of Edinburgh's seven hills). Squeeze into the tiddly two-floor Royal Oak, to be regaled with folksie fiddles, squeezeboxes and guitars. A bust of poet Hamish Henderson, as well as nightly open folk music sessions arouses national pride in frequenters of the Sandy Bell's. The least lively, but refreshingly unpretentious hostelry has to be the basic, cramped and sometimes charmless Oxford. Why bother? Inspector Rebus fans will know their gruff hero drinks here, as does, occasionally, his creator, Ian Rankin.
13. Set the New Year alight
It always pays to book your accommodation way ahead – especially if you want to come in August or for Christmas and New Year (Hogmanay). The latter festival period is so redolent with arcane legends and customs (lumps of coal, endless kissing vast amounts of booze) that it takes days to explain it all to visitors. One way to ensure a great Hogmanay is to start early. You can buy a ticket for the 31 December steet party, sold in October at the Hub. On 29 December toil up to Calton Hill with several thousand others on a torchlight procession to see a wicker man ablaze or just take up your position at Princes Street Gardens to drink in the atmosphere.
14. Call the fuzz
Both a working cop shop and a museum of Edinburgh policing, the Police Information Centre is home to what must surely be the most macabre exhibit ever – a business card holder made from the cured skin of infamous grave-robber William Burke.
15. Spoil a good walk
If toiling up to the Pentland Hills and Arthur's Seat (the tallest of Edinburgh's seven hills) to see the views and burn off the shortbread isn't enough, try whacking a ball about. Scotland being the home of golf you'd expect Edinburgh to have its fair share of fairways, and Braid Hills, a pair of tricky municipal courses, represent one of the city's best golfing bargains as well as the requisite stunning views. Duddingston, south east of Arthur's Seat, is set in undulating parkland with a burn (stream) winding throughout to add to the challenge.
16. See haar from afar
Top views can be enjoyed from Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh Castle and the Scott Monument, but for a more sinister view of the old city go to the top of Calton Hill, which goes all mysterious as the sea mist – haar – rolls in from the Forth. Robert Louis Stevenson swore Calton Hill had the advantage. After all, he averred, you can't see the Castle or Arthur's Seat from the Castle or Arthur's Seat. Good point. The best point for a great view down Calton way is from the windy top of the Nelson Monument.
17. Hear the yarns spun
Everyone benefits from hearing a good story told well. Children stick thumbs in mouths and relax, adults forget their troubles and learn how to entertain their children without turning on the telly. All these good things, along with a Tower of Destiny, various mini tableaux and an annual International Storytelling Festival can be yours on a visit to Scottish Storytelling Centre & John Knox House.
18. Take 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, its grounds dotted with sculptures by the likes of Henry Moore and 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.