It was about time we got to Scotland’s capital and grandest city: Edinburgh. We were meeting our friends Lars & Melissa Mininni here, with their kids Kai and Sienna, friends of Griffin since birth. Lars & Melissa were undertaking something arguably more bold than we are: they were renting out their home in Goleta and relocating to Italy for one to three years, settling down in one of the towns in the north—they hadn’t decided which yet—and enrolling their kids in school. (Did we inspire them to do something this crazy? We’d like to think so!) But before school started, they were taking some time to visit relatives in Scotland and Germany and to meet up with us. Melissa was our informal tour guide, as she was actually born in Scotland and had spent her first few years here, and after relocating to Canada & the U.S., still visited her grandparents in Edinburgh regularly.
Together with my mom, we had a crew of eight, sharing a large house in the suburbs for six nights. It was guaranteed to be a lively time, as Griffin would finally have some playmates his own age and a yard to play in, and we would have some drinking buddies—since Lars and Melissa are even bigger fans of Scotch whisky than I am!
Edinburgh (or Dùn Èideann in Scots Gaelic) is a magnificent place—it nabbed the #1 spot on Time Out’s list of best cities in the world this year. It’s also an interesting capital. Not because it’s Scotland’s largest or most industrious city—you know by now that title goes to Glasgow. And like Glasgow, Edinburgh is nowhere near the middle of the country—both cities are in the south, near the border with England. This area is called the Scottish Lowlands, and the two cities are to be found on opposite sides of the narrowest part of it, scarcely an hour apart by car or train. Though the vast majority of Scots live in this belt today, it is arguably the much more sparsely populated Highlands that are the soul of the country. Every image that comes to mind when you think of Scotland—especially those rough-and-tumble Highlander clans in kilts sprinting around the mountains and glens—is from the Highlands. So are almost all of the good single malt whiskies!
But if the heart of Scotland is the Highlands, then the head is Edinburgh, which has been the intellectual center of the country for centuries. It was founded before the 7th century and has been the capital since 1437. Its university, one of the oldest in the English-speaking world, was founded in 1582. Many of Scotland’s greatest thinkers, scientists, engineers, and writers (and there are many) called Edinburgh home. When much of Europe was still illiterate and a bit backwards in the 17th and 18th centuries, in Scotland, education, intellectual inquiry, and scientific discovery were flourishing, a period called the Scottish Enlightenment—and its center was Edinburgh. (Though Glasgow was no slouch!)
Aside from its past achievements, Edinburgh remains a striking place to experience today, definitely one of the grandest and most dramatic cities I’ve yet seen. The old city is centered around a steep ridge. On the west end, atop a 700 million year-old extinct volcano, imposing Edinburgh Castle looms above the rest of the city. On the east end, this ridge levels out at the entrance to Holyrood Palace, the official residence of the royal family in Scotland, and the rather avant-garde Scottish Parliament building next door. Connecting these landmarks is a wide road known as the Royal Mile (actually, actually one mile + 107 yards!), which today is the city’s most popular tourist spot, lined with pubs, tourist shops, museums. But it wasn’t always so welcoming.
The medieval city walls constrained the city to a fairly small (and defensible) area, so the burgeoning city was forced to grow the only direction it could—up. As a result, Edinburgh’s old town is comprised of surprisingly tall brick and stone townhouses which reach to ten and eleven stories, called Europe’s first skyscrapers. This concentration of humanity made old Edinburgh a rather filthy place, earning it the nickname “Auld Reekie”, and the poorer residents lived in pretty miserable conditions. For instance, on the north side of the Old Town:
The Nor’ Loch (North Lake), which today is the site of the picturesque Princes Street Gardens, was unfortunately the drainage site for the citizenry’s waste and effluence, as well as a popular site for dumping dead bodies. The foul smell that would thus rise from its stagnant waters was overwhelming, to say the least. Compounding the loch’s reeking stench was the air pollution from the city’s chimneys and coal fires. The smoke which billowed out created a thick, choking smog over the city.Culture Trip
Today, the city wall is gone and things are, to say the least, much better. In the 18th century, the city finally made official plans to expand, holding a contest to design a grand new Georgian-style district on an adjacent, parallel ridge, studded with monuments and immaculate parks. (Edinburgh is today the greenest city in the UK, with 112 parks and more trees per capita than any other.) A grand train station, the UK’s second busiest, was shoehorned into the narrow valley between those two main ridges, tucked away from view. Impressive bridges were built to connect the old and new sides of town (right over the train station) and span various other chasms. In many places, buildings grew up alongside these bridges, obscuring the fact that they are bridges at all, and the “street-level” businesses are actually on the third and fourth floors of those buildings! The effect is bizarre: you’ll be walking down a reasonably wide and level street lined with shops, when a sudden break in the buildings reveals that you’re actually 50 feet or more off the ground, sometimes with other streets running beneath you. It all feels a bit like an MC Escher drawing. Perhaps not the most practical layout for a city, but plenty interesting and dramatic! Today, both the Old and New Towns are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. But it’s perhaps more famous as the place JK Rowling wrote and drew inspiration for most of the Harry Potter series, which you can learn all about on various Harry Potter-focused city tours.
Paradoxically, this capital of a very proud Scotland—which may very soon secede from the UK to become its own country—has been called the most English of Scottish cities. Indeed, the Edinburgh New Town was built practically as a shrine to the unified Britain, with architecture indistinguishable from an upscale neighborhood of London, statues of British heroes, and road names such as George Street, Queen Street, Princes Street, and Hanover Street. Meanwhile, the accent here (mocked as “posh Scottish”) is considerably more English-sounding than the thick brogue of the Highlands or the utterly unintelligible stuff they speak in Glasgow. If it weren’t for all the bagpipers and souvenir shops hawking plaids and Nessie trinkets, you could perhaps forget for a moment that you were in Scotland. Not us, of course!
We explored this fascinating city over 5 days of unusually warm and lovely weather, our eight-strong crew piling onto the city’s double-decker buses each morning for new adventures. Everything went pretty swimmingly, except for two issues: first: Amy had to leave halfway through the week to fly home for a hearing (and, ahem, Fiesta). Second, most of us adults seemed to be fighting some virus or another. The Mininnis were just getting over COVID when we met up with them, and alarmingly, Melissa was still testing positive the day they arrived, but had no symptoms. (We took precautions, of course, and she wore a mask religiously.) Meanwhile, I had a sore throat and didn’t sleep well all week, though a couple of COVID tests said it wasn’t that. Oh well. I did my best to soldier on!
Here are the highlights from those five days, most of which ended with us in a pub enjoying a pint…followed by a whisky nightcap at home!
Hiking Arthur’s Seat. In a town of surprising topography, one spot stands above all the others: Arthur’s Seat. This ancient volcano crowns a large greenspace just behind the palace, called Holyrood Park, a royal pleasure ground for nearly 1,000 years—which explains why it was never developed. Where did this peak get its strange name? Like so many places in the old world, nobody knows. Melissa suggested we tackle this peak on our first day since the weather was so nice, and in Scotland you never know how long it will last! We weren’t the only ones with this idea, and alongside plenty of other hikers of all ages, we clambered up to the rocky, windswept summit for some selfies and fantastic views over the city and out to the sea. Afterwards, we wandered along the Royal Mile and got our first pub lunch.
Exploring the National Museum of Scotland. While it may not compare to the epic British Museum in London, Scotland’s own state museum also doesn’t take itself so seriously, and has a wonderful collection of clever, colorful exhibits on almost every topic you can think of, from biology to fashion. The kids especially enjoyed the technology gallery, which featured rockets and airplanes hanging from the ceiling, plus lots of hands-on experiments and devices. Perhaps the most striking feature, at least at first, is the architecture, centered around a huge light-filled Victorian-style atrium.
Promenading about the Old Town. Afterwards, we did some more wandering about the Old Town, the university, and a large park called The Meadows. We ended up at the Greyfriars Churchyard, a surprisingly old and atmospheric place just off one of the main streets which follows the contours of this topsy-turvy city. Though plenty of important people are buried here, its most famous resident is Bobby, a Skye Terrier. Legend has it that this small, devoted dog guarded the grave of his owner, a night watchman, for 14 years. When he died too, in 1872, the beloved canine was interred just inside the gate, and his story has inspired multiple books and movies. Other colorfully-named residents inspired a host of Harry Potter characters, most famously Tom Riddle. Next door, we found a pub with a wonderful little patio and gorged ourselves on chips and beer before heading home.
Meandering along the Water of Leith. Edinburgh is somewhat unusual in that it doesn’t straddle a river or bay (though a large inlet called the Firth of Forth lays just north of it). But a tiny river called the Water of Leith does cut deeply across New Town. Most visitors probably don’t even notice it as the city seems to carry on right over it, unhindered. We spent our third morning finding our way down into this deep, leafy gorge, meandering along the riverside path, and admiring some of the adorable little homes tucked away in this strangely peaceful spot.
Touring Edinburgh Castle. This imposing fortress, probably Edinburgh’s most popular attraction, dates from at least the 12th century and offers breathtaking views over the city from its ramparts, and a lot more. There’s a small palace that was inhabited by several Scottish monarchs, which now houses the country’s own crown jewels, the “Scottish Honours,” consisting of a richly jeweled crown, scepter, and sword. (These were actually buried within the castle during WWII so that the Nazis couldn’t steal them, and only four people knew where they were.) There’s a great hall that was used for royal feasts. A small 12th century royal chapel, the oldest building in the city. A massive, broken 15th century cannon named Mons Meg. A much more modern cannon that fires every day at 1 pm, by which ships in the Firth used to set their clocks. A dungeon. A military barrack that is still in use. A rather boring museum dedicated to the Scottish military. And a tall stone building which looks like a small cathedral but is actually a monument to the many fallen soldiers of World Wars I & II. We saw it all! Then got ice cream. 😊
Wandering Inverleith Park and the Royal Botanical Gardens. A mandatory stop for us in any city, and in fact on almost every day’s jaunt, is a playground where we can run Griffin. (We may yet publish the authoritative guide to Europe’s playgrounds!) And since Amy & my mom love botanical gardens, we killed two birds with one stone by heading to Inverleith Park and the Royal Botanical Gardens, both formerly part of a large private estate. It’s a beautiful spot, surrounded by Edinburgh’s most expensive townhomes and commanding great views over the city. Too bad Amy had to fly home that morning and missed it!
Touring the Holyrood Distillery. After I tried and failed to book any whisky distillery tours during our tour of the Highlands, I resorted to booking one in Edinburgh instead. The city used to have a number of whisky distilleries back in the day, but sadly, none survived. A new one has opened, which champions innovation over traditional methods, and it’s still so young that they don’t even yet have a true Scotch (which must by law be aged for at least three years). But it was still fun to learn about the whisky making process and sample their “new make” year-old whisky, which is perfectly clear because it has not yet spent time in oak barrels, and gin.
Or so I hear. By this point in the week, I felt so awful that I stayed home, and Lars & Melissa went without me…though I’m sure they enjoyed a little alone time without the kids!
Ascending Calton Hill. On our final day, I planned a brisk walking tour of some of the city’s remaining sights, including the massive, lacey stone monument to the city’s favorite author, Sir Walter Scott. Then we hit Calton Hill, much smaller than Arthur’s Seat but only steps from the city center. For only a few minutes’ climb up some well maintained stairs, the payoff is great views over the city and a great spot for selfies, especially atop the National Monument of Scotland, a copy of the Parthenon that was started and never finished. The hill is crowned with an old 19th century observatory and a few other photogenic monuments.
Learning about our planet at Dynamic Earth To keep the kids busy that afternoon, Melissa and I took them to a fantastic museum which looks more like a Coachella tent than a museum. But appearances can be deceiving, and inside, primarily underground, we were taken on a fantastic guided tour of the history of the Earth, from the Big Bang to the present. Each room was an immersive experience, including earthquakes (with a shaking floor), polar ice caps (quite chilly, with a miniature glacier in the middle of the room), and a rainforest (with animatronic jungle animals, a small river, and a brief rain shower). The production quality was quite impressive. But I think the kids’ favorite was a theater where we took a simulated airplane ride through all of the Earth’s different biomes, and where soap-foam “snowflakes” started falling from the ceiling at one point. Somehow, Griffin and Kai got covered! We also enjoyed an underwater submarine adventure projected on the roof of the in-house planetarium.
While we did this, Lars and my mom went off to see a free photography exhibit at the Scottish Parliament next door, then did some more wandering about town. We all met up again around 6 on the edge of New Town, at a very lively bar on a deck atop Waverly Station, overlooking Edinburgh Castle. Somehow Lars wheedled us a seat in one of a dozen clear, closable cocktail “pods”, each of which contained a couple of couches, a small table, a personal sound system, and a heater (since this is Scotland). We weren’t sure if these magical little pods had been conceived as a way to deal with COVID or Edinburgh’s famously unpredictable weather (or both), but it was a pretty amazing way to spend an hour, enjoying some drinks and the view and reminiscing about our week.
It was Friday night and everything was abuzz with a wonderful energy. I don’t know how we managed this, but we were leaving on the first day of Edinburgh’s legendary August festival season, when the famous Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, the thespian Fringe Festival, and myriad other events converge upon the city for over three weeks of continuous celebration. The Fringe Festival in particular claims to be the the largest arts festival in the world (Burning Man might have something to say about that!), with over 3,000 shows staged across 300 venues for a total of 50,000 performances. We were stunned to see a temporary steel & aluminum stadium being erected in front of Edinburgh Castle for the Tattoo, parks morphing into stages and beer gardens, food booths springing up on the university campus, streets being shut down, and posters advertising the shows plastered everywhere. It was fascinating to wonder how the city would be transformed during this period, and we certainly wondered whether we could somehow change our plans to stay for just a couple of days of it?
But no. The next day, we parted company with the Mininnis, reluctantly packed up our things, and headed back to Glasgow for a final few days in Scotland. But we were so smitten with Edinburgh that I’m pretty certain we’ll be back someday!
For more on Edinburgh, check out Rick Steves’ excellent 25-minute video tour.