… nor the sight of a countless variety tartan. This is Scotland’s capital city, dramatically placed between cliffs and the sea. Within minutes you can be walking through narrow medieval streets and discovering hidden secrets underground, exploring a massive castle or enjoying some shopping within the spacious surroundings of Princes Street before relaxing in amid the beauty of Princes Street gardens.
Walking is definitely the best and quickest way to get round this beautiful city, which attracts thousands of visitors every year. In the summer the streets can get very crowded, especially when the world famous Edinburgh Festival is underway. Yet strolling around the city this summer will be slightly different. Due to the dreaded Covid 19, the Edinburgh Festival has been cancelled. Normally August is the month to go if you want to enjoy a positive feast of literature, music, dance, theatre: Art both mainstream and fringe. Accommodation and tickets for Festival events sell out fast – which means the Edinburgh Festival 2021 will undoubtedly be very, very popular!
As a result, 2020 provides a great opportunity to explore Edinburgh. Finding your way around is relatively simple since most of the main attractions are located in, or very close to, two streets.
The Royal Mile is definitely the heart of Edinburgh. This is the ancient route connecting Edinburgh Castle with the royal palace of Holyroodhouse, where the Queen still stays whenever she is in Edinburgh. It is a bustling, busy street, which seems to get narrower as you walk down it, but there is plenty to see along the way.
Edinburgh Castle definitely looms over the entire city, occupying a really dominant position. The views from the battlements are amazing, and at 1pm each day – without fail – soldiers fire the Mons Meg cannon. The sound can be heard across the city. Elsewhere in the castle are the Crown Jewels of Scotland, as well as the Stone of Destiny. When Prince Charles ascends the throne, the stone will be sent down to Westminster Abbey to be placed under the Coronation throne just like it was for his mother, and other monarchs before her. These immense grey stone walls have seen many battles, as well as dramatic events, such as those surrounding Mary Queen of Scots in the sixteenth century, whose choice in husbands could not have been more catastrophic, causing her eventually to flee to England and a long imprisonment resulting in her death on the scaffold. Reminders of those tumultuous times can be seen in the massive displays of arms and armour, as well as the vaults that were once home to prisoners of war from all over the world. It is a fascinating exhibition with a sad message written on a forged banknote: ‘this item was taken in the course of business by Alex Blaikie who wishes he had not taken it.’
The outer courtyard houses the annual Military Tattoo, an event full of drama, music and dance, involving military bands and soldiers from numerous countries. As with the Edinburgh Festival, this year it has been cancelled, but it normally attracts thousands of spectators.
Leaving the Castle, stop off at the Tartan Weaving Mill Experience, containing a massive array of different tartans including the World Peace tartan and the Diana, Princess of Wales tartan. Watch tartan cloth being woven on giant looms, and discover some of the earliest tartan designs. On sale are countless tartan items from scarves to kilts and capes.
Other places worth dropping into as you walk along the Royal Mile include St Giles Cathedral and the Museum of Childhood, as well as the yellow painted sixteenth century building occupied by the Museum of Edinburgh. Although small, the Museum of Edinburgh contains some fascinating exhibits, including the story of surrounding the Poppy worn for Remembrance every November.
The Royal Mile does contain some very unusual hidden secrets – creating some incredible memorable experiences, but you will need a guide. Stories of buildings hidden below buildings have persisted in Edinburgh for many years. In the late 1990’s, these buildings were discovered, highlighting a lost world where people lived almost underground. Book on a Mercat tour starting at the market cross near St Giles Cathedral, to discover the entrance to the Blair Street Vaults where you descend narrow stone staircases into hidden vaults which were rediscovered when a bar owner started digging in his cellar – only discover a network of passages and rooms. These vaults date back centuries, reflecting the way buildings had been built upon buildings, rendering those rooms located at the bottom almost underground. They became tenements, occupied by the poorest in society. Their only heating came from fires lit outside doorways, it was smoky, dirty and cold. In the 1860’s, these tenements were eventually closed down, and forgotten until that accidental discovery over twenty years ago.
The Real Mary Kings Close provides another opportunity to explore this hidden world. The atmospheric tour brings to life the tales of the people who lived in this hidden close, frozen in time since the seventeenth century.
At the far end of the Royal Mile is Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s official Scottish palace. Take a stroll round the state apartments; see the Throne Room and the rooms used by that ill fated lady, Mary Queen of Scots. After exploring the gardens, you can head up to the other dramatic Edinburgh viewpoint – Arthur’s Seat. A massive 251 metre rock, rearing high above the city, it takes a while to reach the top but the resultant views are definitely worth it.
Away from the Royal Mile, it is worth taking a stroll along Princes Street with its excellent range of shops and pretty gardens, perfect for relaxing. Further out of town is Edinburgh Zoo with its irresistible giant pandas, and the daily penguin parade. It is totally up to the penguins whether they choose to join the stroll through the zoo – their keepers give them the choice and most decide to go for a walk!
Head over to the Port of Leith on the outskirts of Edinburgh for more shopping opportunities at the Ocean Terminal centre, containing numerous Scottish specialist stores as well as high street brands, and pay a visit to the Royal Yacht Brittania. Used by the Royal Family for over 40 years, it was eventually decommissioned and turned into a tourist attraction. The cabins are still kept just as they were when in use by the Royal Family, and offer a fascinating glimpse into royal life.
There are a vast range of hotels throughout the city, but it is best to book well ahead if you want to visit the Edinburgh Festival or Military Tattoo next year. Alternatively, if you want something slightly different, Host Unusual has some memorable self catering options perfect for families. How about a stay on a luxurious Green houseboat only a short walk from the Royal Mile, which even includes foldaway bicycles for travelling? Alternatively step into the past with a stay at a beautifully restored fifteenth century tower house ten minutes from Edinburgh or a mansion house sleeping up to 21 people.
www.visitscotland.com – Image credit Visit Scotland
By Angela Youngman