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London sits comfortably atop the table of most visited cities in the world; and with its countless sights it’s really not hard to know why. Like really, is there a more famous clocktower than Big Ben? Or a better-known Royal family than the Royal Family? In fact, London’s iconic landmarks, including its modes of transport – double-deckers, anyone? – have become synonymous with Britain and Britishness.

Yet, London is but one of the UK’s many and varied cities, actually, it is but one of four capitals in the land. The ‘home countries’ of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland each proudly host their own capital cities. And each of these are as much a beacon of their nation’s culture, as an intrinsic component of Britishness. Whether it’s the swaying of kilts in Edinburgh, a love of choirs in Cardiff, or a proud shipping heritage in Belfast, there’s plenty to explore in these Great British capitals. So, if you’re planning on making a trip to the UK, think outside the (London) box and consider visiting Edinburgh, Cardiff, and/or Belfast instead.

***This article is part of a series, see Cardiff here and Belfast here***

 

Edinburgh, Scotland

 

Edinburgh is by no means an unvisited, much less unknown city. In fact, in terms of visitor numbers, Edinburgh sits in second place behind London… albeit with a differential of some 17 million tourists (in 2018 London received approx. 19m visitors compared to Edinburgh’s 2m).

The city owes its iconic skyline to the prehistoric landscape on which it rests. In fact, the built city shares a deep and intrinsic connection with the rocky hills that encase it. Not only are Edinburgh’s contours shaped by the rugged crags of Arthur’s Seat and Castle Rock, but so too are the city’s pale buff-coloured tones a product of locally quarried stones.

Edinburgh’s city centre is broken down into two component parts: the Old Town on the southern side of Princess Street gardens, and, the New Town to the north. Visitors will quickly find these labels to be somewhat of a misnomer, however, as the ‘New’ Town is a product of Edinburgh’s 18th century expansion. But this quirk serves as a useful metaphor for the city’s long history; where new is old, and old is ancient.

The Old Town spills into a spiderweb of cobbled streets and (very) narrow alleyways (known locally as ‘closes’) from its central thoroughfare, the ‘Royal Mile’. The street runs West-East from the heights of Edinburgh Castle to Holyroodhouse Palace. *Fun Fact* the Royal Mile stretches for 1.81km, which is the length of an old Scottish mile – as opposed to the 1.6km length of an English mile.

Royal-mile-edinburgh

 

Edinburgh Castle

The imposing Edinburgh Castle houses the Honours of Scotland (the UK’s oldest crown jewels), the Stone of Destiny, and two Scottish Regimental museums, as well as the 800 year-old St Margaret’s Chapel. Most famously, it is on the Esplanade of the Castle that the renown Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo is hosted every year.

Vising Edinburgh

Edinburgh Castle viewed from Ross Fountain in Princess Street Gardens

 

From the Castle’s gate you can begin the march down the Royal Mile, and the Old Town. *Another Fun Fact*, although the street is signposted with “Royal Mile” there is in fact no formal address to that name, rather a sequence of connecting streets, from Castlehill street, to Lawnmarket, to High Street, to Canongate and Abbey Strand. Nomenclature aside, the streets in the Old Town are brimming with interesting buildings, such as St Giles’s Cathedral (with its crown steeple) and Parliament House (the old one), and curious establishments, including old pubs (try the Bow Bar if you’re in to Single Malts) and kilt makers for those who fancy sporting some tartan. Oh, and be sure to walk yourself round the bend of the timeless Cockburn Street.

Spooky stuff

There’s a Harry Potter-esque feel to the meandering streets and narrow passageways of the Old Town which is really brought to life upon the setting of the sun. The quirky charm that delights visitors and residents during the day is transfigured by the darkness and an eerie silence of nightfall. Under lampposts’ dimed light, the cobbled streets find it hard to keep secret the many grim and ghastly tales of old. Those visiting Edinburgh can immerse themselves in spine-chilling tales of squalor, murder and mystery, on one of the many ‘ghost tours’. There are some free walking ghost tours available too (see here)!

Visiting Edinburgh

 

Food, shopping and the New Town

Hopefully the haunting tales haven’t killed your appetite because Edinburgh offers a good many culinary treats. ‘Makars Gourmet Mash Bar’ just off the Royal Mile is the go-to restaurant for a taste of Scotland. You’ll be able to trial the national favourite ‘haggis’ with the tastiest mashed potato anywhere. Short of time? You can taste Makars’s dishes in small tubs from their ‘Makars Mound 2 Go’ a little further up the road. Looking for the quintessential British upper-class fine dining experience? ‘Number One at Balmoral’ at the Balmoral Hotel on Princess Street offers the finest of culinary experiences – both in taste and service.

In New Town, you’ll find the ordered streets of Georgian rows and crescents and more than enough shopping opportunities. On Princess Street, the front-row avenue of the New Town – overlooking Princess Gardens, the Castle and the Old Town – you have access to virtually every highstreet shop there is. Make sure to pop into the palatial 19th century department store ‘Jenners’ (House of Fraser) for a unique shopping experience.

Festivals in August

One of the best times to be visiting Edinburgh is during the month of August, when the city is a hive of activity. Not only is it in this month that the castle hosts the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, but the famed Edinburgh International Festival and Edinburgh Fringe Festival are also in full swing during this month. So, when you consider your holidays for next August, be sure to place Edinburgh firmly on your list, and you’re guaranteed not a single dull moment in the city during the month.

 

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Words: Jeremy Sacramento