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Writer Franka Leehr takes us on a tour of spaces and places, both famous and obscure, in Scotland’s wonderful, walkable capital.
Text by: Franka Leehr
Country: Scotland

henever I get itchy feet, the first place that I think of is Edinburgh. The capital of Scotland and my home for several years is the ideal place for a city break. The town itself is small enough to be explored on foot, but big enough to offer a wide range of sights and activities for every taste. These are the ten things I love most about Edinburgh:

1. Beauty

Edinburgh is a piece of art. Wherever you look, you are surrounded by beauty—be it the majestic castle, magnificent public buildings of all eras, elegant Georgian residences or medieval houses looming over crooked alleys and narrow stairs. But Edinburgh’s unique charm is not only due to the great architecture in the Old and New Town that are both listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Even more charismatic are the many small quarters and neighbourhoods with their different features and quirks. There is colourful and lively Marchmont near Edinburgh University, elegant Morningside with its villas or the idyllic Dean Village close to the river Water of Leith all just waiting to be explored.

2. Mysteries

Edinburgh is haunted. Maybe you will feel a cold breeze down your neck when you visit one of the graveyards, or you will be pulled through the room by an invisible hand in the Edinburgh Vaults or on the underground streets of Mary King’s Close. Then you might meet one of Edinburgh’s poltergeists. But even for those who don’t believe in ghosts, Edinburgh is the ideal place to let the imagination roam and be inspired to all kinds of scary stories by the many dubious characters of its past. There are the murderers Burke and Hare, for example, who supplied the surgeon Robert Knox with fresh bodies for his lectures on anatomy. Another famous villain is Deacon Brodie, whose double life inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write his novel about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. By day, Brodie was a respected cabinetmaker and a member of the Town Council, while at night he burgled the homes of Edinburgh’s rich citizens. But Scotland’s capital also has its share of heroes. The character of Sherlock Holmes, for instance, is based on Dr. Joseph Bell, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s professor at medical school.

3. Harry Potter

If you’ve ever wondered where J.K. Rowling got her ideas, you must visit the Elephant House, the coffee shop where Rowling penned the first chapters of her famous books. The big windows of the back room overlook the eerie Greyfriars Kirkyard, where Tom Riddle, a.k.a. Lord Voldemort, and the poet William Topaz McGonagall— presumably the worst versemonger in British history and namesake of Harry Potter’s teacher—are buried. Behind the cemetery, atop an extinct volcano, rises Edinburgh Castle, while on the other side of the graveyard you can catch a glimpse of the private George Heriot’s School that looks like a castle itself and is said to be the model for Hogwarts.

4. Parks

Edinburgh is one of the greenest cities I know. The well-kept Princes Street Gardens in the city centre are tiny compared to the other parks Edinburgh has to offer. In walking distance of the Old and New Town you can find the exotic Royal Botanic Gardens, Calton Hill with its many iconic monuments, the ample Meadows and the wild Holyrood Park that already gives a foretaste of the bleak and craggy landscape of the Scottish Highlands. My favourite park though is Hermitage of Braid and Blackford Hill Nature Reserve. Here you can enjoy not only nature, but also a stunning view over the city of Edinburgh, the Firth of Forth and the Kingdom of Fife.

5. History

That Edinburgh is a place of historical importance is beyond any doubt. What makes this city special though, is the vivacity of its history. Wherever you look, you are confronted with its glorious and more often quite gory past, be it a cannonball wedged between the stones of a house wall, the silhouette of gallows on the ground at an old place of execution or a tour guide dressed in historical gowns teaching visitors about the dark details of life and death in old Edinburgh. The past is always present in Edinburgh and you can dive in whenever you want.

6. Museums

Many of Edinburgh’s museums are free, which means you can take as much time as you want and come back whenever you feel like it. One of my first stops in Edinburgh is always the National Museum of Scotland. In addition to a fantastic collection about Scotland’s cultural and natural history, it also showcases interesting artefacts and oddities, such as the famous cloned sheep Dolly. The smaller museums along the Royal Mile, the main street of the Old Town, are also worth a visit. The Museum of Edinburgh, The People’s Story and the Museum of Childhood all tell about life in Edinburgh throughout its history. My favourite place is nestled in a small courtyard just off the Royal Mile: the Writer’s Museum, which is dedicated to the Scottish authors Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson and displays manuscripts, portraits and some of their personal belongings.

7. Poets and Philosophers

Those three gentlemen are not the only masterminds who lived and worked in Edinburgh. In philosophy and economics David Hume and Adam Smith were among the most progressive thinkers of their time. In literature James M. Barrie, who studied in Edinburgh, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was born there, achieved worldwide fame with their works about Peter Pan and Sherlock Holmes. Even today, the city is brimming with intellectual energy. Scientists and students from every corner of the world are drawn to the three internationally renowned universities in Edinburgh. Furthermore, it is a UNESCO City of Literature and the home of famous authors such as Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith and J.K. Rowling.

8. Pub Culture

A good pub is so much more than just a watering hole. Many of Edinburgh’s pubs can look back on a long history. The Sheep Heid Inn, for instance, is one of the oldest pubs in the country and has reputedly been frequented by Mary, Queen of Scots, and her son James VI, who later became king of England. With their cosy atmosphere, their dark wooden interiors and comfortable benches, those pubs are the ideal place to meet with friends and colleagues after work, watch sports or talk about everything under the sun with old and new acquaintances.

9. Festivals

Every year in August, the entire city of Edinburgh turns into a huge stage for street artists, actors, musicians and comedians. During the Festival Fringe, thousands of performances take place in theatres, pubs, tents, on street corners and even in private living rooms. At the same time, the Edinburgh International Festival and the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo wow visitors from all over the world with beautiful classical music, military tunes and spectacular shows. Other festivals include the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Edinburgh International Film Festival, the Scottish International Science Festival and the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival.

Another event you should not miss is Hogmanay, the Scottish New Year’s celebration. Edinburgh welcomes the New Year with a huge party and fantastic fireworks over the Castle. Of course, these can also be seen without buying tickets for the street party. The best vantage point is the North Bridge between the Old and the New Town.

10. Kilts and Bagpipes

It might be a cliché, but kilts and bagpipes really are essential elements of Scottish culture. In contrast to many visitors who sport inexpensive kilts while touring the city, locals wear their kilts only on formal occasions. The highland dress is completed by a white shirt, a black waistcoat and jacket, a bow tie, a sporran (a leather or fur pouch worn on a chain), long socks and garters, ghillie brogues and a sgian dubh, a small knife tucked into the right sock. Pipers, usually dressed in even more formal attire with an ornamented jacket, a full plaid, a horse hair sporran and a bonnet, are also part of most ceremonies. They welcome the guests at a party, pipe the bride down the aisle on a wedding or play traditional Scottish melodies at any kind of function. If you think that sounds formal and boring, you should definitely go to a ceilidh, a popular Scottish dance event. A band plays usually quite modern versions of traditional Scottish songs and young and old whirl around in kilts and skirts. Fun is guaranteed and maybe you’ll even find the answer to the eternal question of what true Scotsmen wear underneath their kilts.

Fact box

Edinburgh has 498,800 inhabitants, making it the second largest city in Scotland after Glasgow with just below 600,000 inhabitants. It has been the capital of Scotland and the seat of the monarchy in Scotland since the late Middle Ages. Since 1999, it is the home of the Scottish Parliament. Edinburgh is the second most popular tourist destination in the UK after London. In 2015, it attracted 3.85 million visitors.




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10 ways to appreciate Edinburgh


Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland and was my home for several years. It is also a great place to visit. The town is easy to explore by foot and it has a wide range of sights and activities. These are the ten things I love most about Edinburgh.

1. Beauty: Edinburgh is a piece of art. Everywhere you look you are surrounded by beauty. It has a majestic castle, magnificent public buildings,Georgian residences and charismatic neighbourhoods.

2. Mysteries: Edinburgh is haunted. You might feel a cold breeze on your neck when you visit a graveyard or meet a poltergeist.

3. Harry Potter: J.K. Rowling began writing Harry Potter at the Elephant House, a coffee house in Edinburgh. It is also home to the private George Heriot\’s School that maybe was the model for Hogwarts.

4. Parks: Edinburgh has many beautiful parks. Some of the most well-known are the Princes Street Gardens, the Royal Botanical Gardens and Calton Hill.

5. History: Edinburgh is rich in history. Everywhere you can see examples of its glorious and often gory past, such as a cannonball wedged in the stones of a house wall.

6. Museumsy: Most of the museums in Edinburgh are free. The National Museum of Scotland showcases interesting artefacts and oddities, like Dolly, the famous cloned sheep. There are also many smaller museums you can visit.

7. Poets and Philosophers: Some of Edinburgh\’s famous past residents include David Hume and Adam Smith, the most progressive thinkers of their time, and famous authors such as James M. Barrie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

8. Pub Culture: It has many cosy pubs with long histories. For example, the Sheep Heid Inn is one of the oldest pubs in the country and was visited by Mary, Queen of Scots.

9. Festivals: Edinburgh is full of festivals and celebrations. The most famous are the Festival Fringe, with thousands of performances, and Hogmanay, the Scottish New Year\’s celebration.

10. Kilts and Bagpipes: These are essential elements of Scottish culture. Locals wear their kilts only on special occasions. A fun event to visit is a ceilidh, a popular Scottish dance event where everyone wears full highland dress.

 

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