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What a wonderful surprise: Hello Edinburgh!

 

My flight from Newark back to London got cancelled. It had been a long week of travelling to business meetings and I was done in. I had 2 choices. Wait for an indeterminate amount of time to fly to London (and stay at a non descript, drab airport hotel in New Jersey) as the plane was taken out of service or be re-routed. Joining the dots I could fly directly to Edinburgh, have a Saturday stop over, and then fly onto London on Sunday. I thought it was time to turn these lemons into lemonade!

Quick and easy

It was an uneventful flight back to the UK (and those are the best!). Edinburgh is not a large airport and I had cleared customs and passport control very quickly. From getting off the plane to being landside at the airport was done in 10 minutes. Suddenly Heathrow felt a whole lot less attractive.

There are several ways to get from the airport to the city centre, which is about 10 miles out. You can take a taxi for about £25 or the local Airlink bus for £4. One is direct and takes you to wherever you are going, the other is cheap and cheerful. You pay your money and you take your choices.

“It’s quiet and offers a good, comfortable ride especially for public transport.”

I chose to take the newly opened tram service into Princess Street. Its £5 and seems to be much quicker to getting you into the city centre than the 2 other options as road traffic can get quite congested. The ride is about 40 minutes and there seems to 3 services per hour. It’s quiet and offers a good, comfortable ride especially for public transport.

The City

I had heard that Edinburgh was a beautiful place. I was left a little breathless when I got off the tram in the city centre taking it all in. First impressions are impressive. I have to agree it’s simply stunning. All around you is this confluence of 2,000 years of history. Locals call it the “Athens of the North” and I get why.

The Old Town on the Mound dominates the skyline with its Royal Mile and the Castle giving commanding views all around. All perched on a dormant volcano that can be seen from every angle.

“The New Town with all its Georgian splendor, carefully planned out in rows and large garden squares is equal to or better than Bath.”

The New Town with all its Georgian splendor, carefully planned out in rows and large garden squares is equal to or better than Bath. The New Town arose from the 1800s onwards as the wealthy wished to move away from the overcrowding, dirt and squalor of the Old Town (I think that’s why Edinburgh was called “Auld Reekie” or Old Smelly/Smokey). It all looked grand and graceful.

I couldn’t check into my hotel room as it was about 9:00am but I dropped off my bags with the concierge. I was absolutely stunned when a hotel receptionist asked me quite spontaneously whether I would like to shower and clean up in their gym facilities after learning I had flown in overnight from New York?! Yes please! In fact, this became a theme all over the city - everywhere I went I was greeted with a heartfelt smile and a great welcoming attitude. Everyone went out of there way to be helpful.

Onto the bus and then onto the road

I’m a great believer in taking the hop on hop off tour bus. In an hour or so you are driven around, which allows you to familiarise yourself as to where everything is and assess what is worth going to visit. Just outside my hotel was the stop for one of those red bus tours and I duly waited for the bus. I think it cost £14.

Over 9 – 10 stops I got to sit down and let the tour show me all the noteworthy places whilst giving some colour to the story of Edinburgh. There are so many elements worth highlighting and I wished I had more time to get off the bus and see them all. I was astounded to learn how many things that we take for granted today had their origins from this city, many of it going back to the Scottish Enlightenment of the 1700s.

The Royal Mile in the Old Town
The Royal Mile in the Old Town

After a full circuit I decided to alight and walk up the Royal Mile in the Old Town and head towards Edinburgh Castle. I got off the bus at a stop next to the World’s End pub. Seemingly this particular pub stood at what had had been the city’s protective wall. Many of its citizens had never ventured out of the walls – hence the name World’s End Gate. Sadly, there wasn’t time to head down the Mile to the Palace of Holyrood (which I was told was stunning) or the Scottish Parliament.

There are incredible Gothic Churches and fine civic buildings to see as you walk up the Mile. As the day got dark you really did get the impending sense of the murky shadows that inspired Robert Louis Stevenson and his novel Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

I decided to tour the Castle. It’s a very old site with all sorts of additions having been added over the centuries. Fortifications had been a top of The Mound for at least 2,000 years. I took an hour or so to wander around. Its impressive but has very little of the ornate wealth of its English counterparts. Accommodations for the Scottish royal family was comfortable at best, certainly not opulent. I did see the Honours of Scotland or its crown jewels. They have had a turbulent history having been hidden from various factions over the centuries for long periods of time.

I popped into a Tartan Weaving Shop, where they actually do weave the material on site, when I left the castle and bought myself a nice tartan scarf for the winter. They had some very nice (and expensive) Scottish cashmere jerseys that were out of my price reach.

“I was just blown away at how good and interesting the displays were. I’m not instinctively a museum person.”

It was getting quite chilly and so I decided to pop into the National Museum of Scotland. What was supposed to be a short coffee break turned into a 2 hour visit (and I could easily have spent more time there). I was just blown away at how good and interesting the displays were. I’m not instinctively a museum person but there we such engaging displays it was hard not to want to press on and see more. And it’s all free.

In the Old Town there are actually a number of streets (that look like streets) but are actually bridges. If you look carefully below you will see that all the “ground floor” fronts are actually 3 stories off the ground! These were built this way due to the gradients of the town in the 1800s. I popped into the Elephant House coffee shop on the George IV Bridge to see a good example of these “streets” AND to see where JK Rowling wrote the Harry Potter books.

Lunch in Leith!

I used the Guardian newspaper’s review to choose an appropriate place for lunch. I decided to go the Spanish inspired Tapa restaurant near the waterfront at Leith (http://www.tapaedinburgh.co.uk/menu.html), which is about 2-3 miles from the city centre.

I don’t normally write food reviews but I was very pleased with my choice of venue. The menu was great, the food was perfect and was all very well priced. Best of all when I was done I decided to walk along the waterfront for about a mile or so looking at the boats, the harbor and the lovely shops and buildings.

“It suddenly made London feel too hard or difficult to get the same retail therapy kick. Quite simply, it is a shopping paradise.”

Back to the New Town

The New Town, whether on Princess or George Streets, offers incredible shopping. Whether it’s the high street brands you would expect to see or the amazing high end stuff its all there and easily accessible plus these are not branch shops but often their flagship store. It suddenly made London feel too hard or difficult to get the same retail therapy kick. Quite simply, it is a shopping paradise without all the hassle or congestion charge of London. There is even a well ranged Harvey Nicols store.

By now it was getting on in the afternoon and I decided to head back to the hotel. One last stop was at the Scottish National Art Gallery where they have a great range of paintings from the 1300 onwards. It’s just off Princess Street and admission is free (I like that!)

The National Museum of Scotland
The National Museum of Scotland

It was getting on (it was now near 7pm) and I was now weary from the over night transatlantic flight and a full day on my feet. I decided to have dinner at the hotel and have a (reasonably) early night for my 9am flight back to Heathrow in the morning.

Final Thoughts

Edinburgh rocks, quite literally as it is built on an old volcano. I met wonderful, hospitable people who made my day trip truly memorable. If you like Bath, then you will love Edinburgh. They both have wonderful Georgian heritages and are just graceful – and in fact inspirational places to visit. I’ll be back.

 

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