Guide to Edinburgh's Old Town
It may be best known for some of the city’s most impressive attractions, but Anna Millar finds an Old Town offering so much more
Not for nothing is the Old Town famed for its tartan tat. From Jimmy hats to bagpipes and ‘I Heart Scotland’ badges to ‘I Love Ewe’ cards, it’s all too easy to write off Auld Reekie’s historical hub as simply a place to partake in the city’s tourist-laden jollies. Sure, it boasts the lion’s share of Edinburgh’s must-sees (more of that later), but in the past decade it has become so much more. From its growing cafe culture (Always Sunday and Elephant House, we salute you) and old-school watering holes to its award-winning restaurants and vintage emporiums, the Old Town now does considerably more than it says on the (shortbread) tin. From Wedgwood, La Garrigue and to The Witchery and The Tower, the area has plenty of options for those keen to dine out in style. Meanwhile relative newbies like Mother India Café and GRV, alongside the Caves – not to mention a hive of other clubbing options – mean the party down Old Town way can keep going for as long as you want it to.
Fashionistas won’t be disappointed either. From Victoria and Cockburn Streets down to the Grassmarket and West Port, the area’s a-buzz with life, whether you fancy a fabulous hat or vintage suit. Books, art and music lovers should also find ample reason to be cheerful with Underground Solu’shun, Analogue and The Red Door Gallery all in residence. For those looking to mark their experience, there’s even tattoos and piercings a-go-go at Tribal Body Art.
For something a bit more sedate, simply take the time to enjoy the incredible buildings, history and architecture that the area has to offer. Before you set off, if you’ve time to spare, head up Arthur’s Seat in Holyrood Park for one of the best views over the Old Town. On a clear day you can see all the way to the jagged coastline of the Forth Estuary and beyond. After you’ve had an eyeful, head back down the Radical Road to the bottom of Salisbury Crags and get ready to explore. A veritable tale of two cities, from the foot of the Mile up, there’s a wealth of things to see and do. The Palace of Holyrood House, in all its resplendent glory, keeps an eye on its more contemporary neighbours, namely the Scottish Parliament and Our Dynamic Earth. The Old Town more than earns the city its UNESCO World Heritage Site status, too, with the Poetry Library nestled down a lane in the Canongate, and Holyrood Abbey sitting beautifully nearby. Keep wandering up the Mile to St Giles Cathedral, with the Royal Museum and Surgeons’ Hall both just a short walk away. A pit stop at Deacon Brodie’s, or a swift dram at the Scotch Whisky Experience should stand you in good stead for the final frontier, up past Camera Obscura and on to the mighty Edinburgh Castle . Then take a pew, rest your paws and look out over the city in all its splendour.
Don't miss it
A stirring recital
St Giles Cathedral, High St, 0131 225 4363
Sitting in the heart of Parliament Square, St Giles’ stained glass windows and beautifully ornate stonework make it more than worth a look, but for the ultimate experience, don’t miss one of their lunchtime or early evening concerts and recitals. Highlights for the coming month include Britten’s ‘Missa Brevis’, Leighton’s ‘Elizabethan Lyrics’ and Stanford’s ‘The Blue Bird’ on Sun 27 Sep at 6pm.
www.edinburghliterarypubtour.co.uk, 0800 169 7410 or www.mercattours.com, 0131 225 5445
One thing Embra certainly isn’t lacking in is ghost tours and the Royal Mile has them in spades. For a trip round Edinburgh’s gloomy closes and dark underground vaults look no further than Mercat Tours. Scaredy cats should head for a more sedate literary tour, which allows you to ‘meet and greet’ the colourful characters who have populated over 300 years of Scottish writing.
Sample a wee dram
The Scotch Whisky Experience, 354 Castlehill, 0131 220 0441
You’ve got to love an attraction that actively encourages a wee tipple, and the Scotch Whisky Experience does just that. Learn all there is to know about the national drink, or simply sit back and enjoy the wondrous supplies of whisky cocktails on offer.
Eating & Drinking
This pretty French bistro, just off Canongate, has the feel of a small gallery space about it with its welcoming disposition, colourful demeanour, lavender walls and warm sunshine glow. More importantly, the food doesn’t disappoint. Hitlisted in our Eating & Drinking Guide, starters range from trout fillet on a bed of chickpeas to croquette of slow-cooked pig’s head. Mains are just as varied, from lamb shank to beef in a red wine sauce. Top pick on the dessert front has to be the lavender crème brûlée. 31 Jeffrey Street, 0131 557 3032.
Setting its tasty wares a stone’s throw from the tartan tat of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, Wedgwood is the sophisticated yin to the tourist-driven yang. The atmosphere is buzzing and warm, and the service attentive. The menu reflects the Wedgwood commitment to creating imaginative twists on traditional dishes, so expect plenty of surprises. Starters and mains include scallops, pollack and baby squid, with ample pork, beef and lamb options. 267 Canongate, 0131 558 8737.
Pork lovers rejoice! Simple is best down Oink’s way and certainly there aren’t many menus in Edinburgh as short: choose a roll stuffed with slow-roast pork or a roll stuffed with slow roast pork with crackling. The roll can be white or brown, haggis is an alternative to sage and onion stuffing, or there’s chilli relish instead of apple sauce. This does exactly what it says on the tin and we love it. 34 Victoria Street.
Housed just a few minutes walk from the Parliament, LL’s is good shout for a quiet lunch, boasting as it does a good soup and sandwich menu. Equally popular is the evening menu when this small bistro comes to life. With good vegetarian options, delicious home-made bread and a midweek early-bird menu - and let’s not forget the home-made desserts (vanilla brûlée and freshly baked chocolate fondant) – Lohan’s provides ample reason to be cheerful. 58 Canongate, 0131 556 8999.
Mother India Café
Ah, Mother India. Those familiar with the Glasgow branches of this curry emporium will be licking their lips at the sheer mention of the name. The one-sided menu has about 40 dishes designed to share, like an Indian version of tapas. Okra and tomato is a subtle, spicy, fresh-tasting dish; aubergine and spiced potato has good chunks of both; ginger chicken comes with discernible leaves of spinach and shreds of fresh ginger; chicken dosa is a crisp pancake generously stuffed with spiced pieces of chicken. And don’t even get us started on the fish dishes … Bliss. 3–5 Infirmary Street, 0131 524 9801.
With its proliferation of pubs, the Grassmarket has not always had the kudos it perhaps deserves for its variety of culinary options. That looks to be changing as the area – and the eateries – are enjoying a facelift and some well earned attention at the moment. The first thing you notice in Petit is the bustling atmosphere, while the carafes of house red and white ensure the culinary experience begins in good spirits. If you’re in the mood for a more traditional three-course meal, try kicking things off with the grilled snails with garlic and pastis butter. For dessert you can’t go wrong with the crème brûlée. 38–40 Grassmarket, 0131 226 2442.
Our Dynamic Earth
Situated next to the mighty Holyrood Palace and across the road from the worth-a-sneaky-peek Scottish Parliament, Our Dynamic Earth is a firm favourite whatever your age. Charting Earth’s evolution from the big bang to the modern day though a series of interactive exhibitions, including an earthquake simulator and a tropical rainstorm, there’s plenty here to wile away an afternoon. Holyrood Road, 0131 550 7800, www.dynamicearth.co.uk
Camera Obscura and World of Illusions
A great shout for those heading to the top of the Mile for the Castle, this quirky attraction affords visitors a real-time, 360° image of the city. The most recent addition to the venue is the Magic Gallery, giving hands-on experiences of the art of visual trickery. There is also an exhibition devoted to holographs and photography on the lower floors. Castlehill, Royal Mile, 0131 226 3709, www.camera-obscura.co.uk
A shining beacon on Edinburgh’s landscape, the castle has enjoyed its various statuses as medieval fortification, temporary prison, seat of parliament, royal residence, and now world-renowned symbol of Scotland. The views are awesome, even if the viewpoints can be windy. There’s also more to the Castle than royal memorabilia, with a chance to see the Scottish Crown Jewels, the tiny St Margaret’s Chapel, the Scottish War Memorial and War Museum, as well as a slightly off-the-wall ‘dog cemetery’ for regimental mascots. Look out too for special events year-round. Castle Hill, 0131 225 9846, www.historic-scotland.gov.uk
It’s no great secret that Glasgow (whisper it now) pips the capital to the post when it comes to the sheer volume of its high street meccas. Fortunate, then, that it more than makes up for any inadequacy in size with a joyful selection of independent emporiums. A wander up the Royal Mile showcases Embra’s ability to do small, kitsch and just a little special in all its glory. Heading from the Palace up, expect a hefty wad of Tartan-tasticness – not to mention the year-round Christmas Shop – before hitting the shops properly at St Mary’s Street and Jeffrey Street, just off the Canongate, both of which play host to some real gems. Present is a must for those who are looking for jewellery or indeed any number of gift ideas with a quirky twist. Nearby, Corniche and Ragamuffin can assist your fashion needs while List favourite Lickety Spit, the cutest retro sweetie shop the city has to offer, will provide you with sustenance along the way. Keep heading up the Mile, and you’ll hit Cockburn Street, home to an array of suitably grungy-cool clothes shops, namely Pie in the Sky and Cookie (check out their dress collection); one-off T-shirts at Fabrick, as well as homeware at Eden, all of which make it more than worth the trip. A bit further up and round and you hit the mighty Victoria Street. Right down at the foot, check out the uber-hip gallery and bookstore Analogue and Totty Rocks run by two former ECA fashion lecturers, while further up the hill, Swish keeps it cool with skate smart gear. And so to the Grassmarket and West Port, where Helios Fountain offers ample reason to stop in and rummage. This area is also home to some of the capital’s finest vintage and fashion shops – don’t miss Fabhatrix, Bill Baber’s and of course, Armstrong’s, Edinburgh’s classic vintage clothing juggernaut. Nearby, the combined delights of Barnardo’s Vintage, Herman Brown, Godiva, Focus and Pageant should leave you wanting for nothing.