By Rick Steves
With Cameron Hewitt
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around February 28, 2023. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
- Rick's firsthand, up-to-date advice on Edinburgh's best sights, restaurants, hotels, and more, plus tips to beat the crowds, skip the lines, and avoid tourist traps
- Top sights and local experiences: Visit ancient Edinburgh Castle and stroll the Royal Mile, uncover Scottish history at the National Museum of Scotland, or hike to the peak of Arthur's Seat for incredible views of the city. Go on a literary pub tour, sample whisky at a tasting, and tap your foot to traditional folk music at a local favorite spot
- Helpful maps and self-guided walking tours to keep you on track
Exploring beyond Edinburgh? Pick up Rick Steves Scotland for comprehensive coverage, detailed itineraries, and essential information for planning a countrywide trip.
This Snapshot guide, excerpted from my guidebook Rick Steves Scotland, introduces you to the rugged, feisty, colorful capital city of Edinburgh. A hubbub of innovation and tradition, this urbane city rambles along seven hills on the banks of the Firth of Forth. Its historic Royal Mile links Edinburgh Castle—home of Mary Queen of Scots—to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the home away from home of today’s Queen Elizabeth. To the north is the city’s New Town, a characteristic 18th-century neighborhood of Georgian mansions and upscale hangouts.
Edinburgh is the political, cultural, and intellectual center of Scotland, but intrepid visitors can still find a few surviving rough edges of “Auld Reekie,” as it was once called (for the smell of smoke during the Victorian era). Take a walk along historic cobbled streets and narrow lanes, tracing the footsteps of Robert Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson. Sip whisky with an expert and see firsthand how Scotland’s national drink can become, as they’re fond of saying, “a very good friend.” Debate the pros and cons of Scottish independence on the steps of the 21st-century parliament building. Through it all, be prepared for a Scottish charm offensive that will make you want to stay longer in one of Europe’s most intoxicating capitals.
To help you have the best trip possible, I’ve included the following topics in this book:
• Planning Your Time, with advice on how to make the most of your limited time
• Orientation, including tourist information (abbreviated as TI), tips on public transportation, local tour options, and helpful hints
• Sights with ratings:
▲▲—Try hard to see
▲—Worthwhile if you can make it
No rating—Worth knowing about
• Sleeping and Eating, with good-value recommendations in every price range
• Connections, with tips on trains, buses, and driving
Practicalities, near the end of this book, has information on money, staying connected, hotel reservations, transportation, and other helpful hints.
To travel smartly, read this little book in its entirety before you go. It’s my hope that this guide will make your trip more meaningful and rewarding. Traveling like a temporary local, you’ll get the absolute most out of every mile, minute, and dollar.
One of the three countries that make up Great Britain, rugged, feisty, colorful Scotland stands apart. Whether it’s the laid-back, less-organized nature of the people, the stony architecture, the unmanicured landscape, or simply the haggis, go-its-own-way Scotland is distinctive.
Scotland encompasses about a third of Britain’s geographical area (30,400 square miles), but has less than a tenth of its population (about 5.4 million). This sparsely populated chunk of land stretches to Norwegian latitudes. Its Shetland Islands, at about 60°N (similar to Anchorage, Alaska), are the northernmost point of the British Isles. You may see Scotland referred to as “Caledonia” (its ancient Roman name) or “Alba” (its Gaelic name). Scotland’s fortunes were long tied to the sea; all of its leading cities are located along firths (estuaries), where major rivers connect to ocean waters.
The southern part of Scotland, called the Lowlands, is relatively flat and urbanized. The northern area—the Highlands—features a wild, severely undulating terrain, punctuated by lochs (lakes) and fringed by sea lochs (inlets) and islands.
The Highland Boundary Fault that divides Scotland geologically also divides it culturally. Historically, there were two distinct identities: rougher Highlanders in the northern wilderness and the more refined Lowlanders in the southern flatlands and cities. Highlanders represented the stereotypical image of “true Scots,” speaking Gaelic, wearing kilts, and playing bagpipes, while Lowlanders spoke languages of Saxon origin and wore trousers. After the Scottish Reformation, the Lowlanders embraced Protestantism, while most Highlanders stuck to Catholicism. Although this Lowlands/Highlands division has faded over time, some Scots still cling to it.
The Lowlands are dominated by a pair of rival cities: Edinburgh (on the east coast’s Firth of Forth) and Glasgow (on the west coast’s Firth of Clyde) mark the endpoints of Scotland’s 75-mile-long “Central Belt,” where three-quarters of the country’s population resides. Edinburgh, the old royal capital, teems with Scottish history and is the country’s most popular tourist attraction. Glasgow, once a gloomy industrial city, is becoming a hip, laid-back city of art, music, and architecture. In addition to these two cities—both of which warrant a visit—the Lowlands’ highlights include the medieval university town and golf mecca of St. Andrews, the small city of Stirling (with its castle and many nearby historic sites), and selected countryside stopovers.
Generally, the Highlands are hungry for the tourist dollar, and everything overtly Scottish is exploited to the kilt; you need to spend some time here to get to know the area’s true character. You can get a feel for the Highlands with a quick drive to Oban, through Glencoe, then up the Caledonian Canal to Inverness. With more time, the Isles of Iona, Staffa, and Mull (an easy day trip from Oban); the Isle of Skye; the handy distillery town of Pitlochry; and countless brooding countryside castles will flesh out your Highlands experience. And for those really wanting to get off the beaten path, continue north—all the way up the dramatic west coast (called Wester Ross) to John O’Groats, at Britain’s northeastern tip. To go farther, cross the Pentland Firth to Orkney, with its own unique culture and history.
At these northern latitudes, cold and drizzly weather isn’t uncommon—even in midsummer. The blazing sun can quickly be covered over by black clouds and howling wind. Your B&B host will warn you to prepare for “four seasons in one day.” Because Scots feel personally responsible for bad weather, they tend to be overly optimistic about forecasts. Take any Scottish promise of “sun by the afternoon” with a grain of salt—and bring your raincoat, just in case.
Americans and Canadians of Scottish descent enjoy coming “home” to Scotland. If you’re Scottish, your surname will tell you which clan your ancestors likely belonged to. The prefix “Mac” (or “Mc”) means “son of”—so “MacDonald” means the same thing as “Donaldson.” Tourist shops everywhere are happy to help you track down your clan’s tartan (distinctive plaid pattern). For more on how these “clan tartans” don’t go back as far as you might think, see the sidebar on here.
Scotland shares a monarchy with the rest of the United Kingdom, though to Scots, Queen Elizabeth II is just “Queen Elizabeth”; the first Queen Elizabeth ruled England, but not Scotland. (In this book, I use England’s numbering.) Scotland is not a sovereign state, but it is a “nation” in that it has its own traditions, ethnic identity, languages (Gaelic and Scots), and football league. To some extent, it even has its own government.
Recently, Scotland has enjoyed its greatest measure of political autonomy in centuries—a trend called “devolution.” In 1999, the Scottish parliament convened in Edinburgh for the first time in almost 300 years; in 2004, it moved into its brand-new building near the foot of the Royal Mile. Though the Scottish parliament’s powers are limited (most major decisions are still made in London), the Scots are enjoying the refreshing breeze of increased self-governance. In a 2014 independence referendum, the Scots favored staying in the United Kingdom by a margin of 10 percent. The question of independence will likely remain a pivotal issue in Scotland for many years to come.
Scotland even has its own currency...sort of. Scots use the same coins as England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, but Scotland also prints its own bills (featuring Scottish rather than English people and landmarks). Just to confuse tourists, three different banks print Scottish pound notes, each with a different design. In the Lowlands (around Edinburgh and Glasgow), you’ll receive both Scottish and English pounds from ATMs and in change. But in the Highlands, you’ll almost never see English pounds. Bank of England notes are legal and widely used; Northern Ireland bank notes are legal but less common.
The Scottish flag—a diagonal, X-shaped white cross on a blue field—represents the cross of Scotland’s patron saint, the Apostle Andrew (who was crucified on an X-shaped cross). You may not realize it, but you see the Scottish flag every time you look at the Union Jack: England’s flag (the red St. George’s cross on a white field) superimposed on Scotland’s (a blue field with a white diagonal cross). The diagonal red cross (St. Patrick’s cross) over Scotland’s white one represents Northern Ireland. (Wales gets no love on the Union Jack.)
Here in “English-speaking” Scotland, you may still encounter a language barrier. First is the lovely, lilting Scottish accent—which may take you a while to understand. You may also hear an impenetrable dialect of Scottish English that many linguists consider to be a separate language, called “Scots.” You may already know several Scots words: lad, lassie, wee, bonnie, glen, loch, aye. On menus, you’ll see neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes). And in place names, you’ll see ben (mountain), brae (hill), firth (estuary), and kyle (strait). Second is Gaelic (pronounced “gallic” here; Ireland’s closely related Celtic language is pronounced “gaylic”)—the ancient Celtic language of the Scots. While only one percent of the population speaks Gaelic, it’s making a comeback—particularly in the remote and traditional Highlands.
While soccer (“football”) is as popular here as anywhere, golf is Scotland’s other national sport. But in Scotland, it’s not necessarily considered an exclusively upper-class pursuit; you can generally play a round at a basic course for about £15. While Scotland’s best scenery is along the west coast, its best golfing is on the east coast—home to many prestigious golf courses. Most of these are links courses, which use natural sand from the beaches for the bunkers. For tourists, these links are more authentic, more challenging, and more fun than the regular-style courses (with artificial landforms) farther inland. If you’re a golfer, St. Andrews—on the east coast—is a pilgrimage worth making.
Outside of the main cities, Scotland’s sights are subtle, but its misty glens, brooding countryside castles, and warm culture are plenty engaging. Whether toasting with beer, whisky, or Scotland’s favorite soft drink, Irn-Bru, enjoy meeting the Scottish people. It’s easy to fall in love with the irrepressible spirit and beautiful landscape of this faraway corner of Britain.
Edinburgh is the historical, cultural, and political capital of Scotland. For nearly a thousand years, Scotland’s kings, parliaments, writers, thinkers, and bankers have called Edinburgh home. Today, it remains Scotland’s most sophisticated city.
Edinburgh (ED’n-burah—only tourists pronounce it like “Pittsburgh”) is Scotland’s showpiece and one of Europe’s most entertaining cities. It’s a place of stunning vistas—nestled among craggy bluffs and studded with a prickly skyline of spires, towers, domes, and steeples. Proud statues of famous Scots dot the urban landscape. The buildings are a harmonious yellow-gray, all built from the same local sandstone.
Culturally, Edinburgh has always been the place where Lowland culture (urban and English) met Highland style (rustic and Gaelic). Tourists will find no end of traditional Scottish clichés: whisky tastings, kilt shops, bagpipe-playing buskers, and gimmicky tours featuring Scotland’s bloody history and ghost stories.
Edinburgh is two cities in one. The Old Town stretches along the Royal Mile, from the grand castle on top to the palace on the bottom. Along this colorful labyrinth of cobbled streets and narrow lanes, medieval skyscrapers stand shoulder to shoulder, hiding peaceful courtyards.
A few hundred yards north of the Old Town lies the New Town. It’s a magnificent planned neighborhood (from the 1700s). Here, you’ll enjoy upscale shops, broad boulevards, straight streets, square squares, circular circuses, and Georgian mansions decked out in Greek-style columns and statues.
Today’s Edinburgh is big in banking, scientific research, and scholarship at its four universities. Since 1999, when Scotland regained a measure of self-rule, Edinburgh reassumed its place as home of the Scottish Parliament. The city hums with life. Students and professionals pack the pubs and art galleries. It’s especially lively in August, when the Edinburgh Festival takes over the town. Historic, monumental, fun, and well organized, Edinburgh is a tourist’s delight.
PLANNING YOUR TIME
While the major sights can be seen in a day, I’d give Edinburgh two days and three nights.
Day 1: Tour the castle, then consider catching a city bus tour for a one-hour loop (departing from a block below the castle at the Hub/Tolbooth Church; you could munch a sandwich from the top deck if you’re into multitasking). Back near the castle, take my self-guided Royal Mile walk, stopping in at shops and museums that interest you (Gladstone’s Land is tops but you can only visit it by booking a tour). At the bottom of the Mile, consider visiting the Scottish Parliament, the Palace of Holyroodhouse, or both. If the weather’s good, you could hike back to your B&B along the Salisbury Crags.
Day 2: Visit the National Museum of Scotland. After lunch (several great choices nearby, on Forrest Road), stroll through the Princes Street Gardens and the Scottish National Gallery. Then follow my self-guided walk through the New Town, visiting the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the Georgian House—or squeeze in a quick tour of the good ship Britannia (check last entry time before you head out).
Evenings: Options include various “haunted Edinburgh” walks, literary pub crawls, or live music in pubs. Sadly, full-blown traditional folk performances are just about extinct, surviving only in excruciatingly schmaltzy variety shows put on for tour-bus groups. Perhaps the most authentic evening out is just settling down in a pub to sample the whisky and local beers while meeting the locals...and attempting to understand them through their thick Scottish accents (see “Nightlife in Edinburgh,” here).
Orientation to Edinburgh
A VERBAL MAP
With 490,000 people (835,000 in the metro area), Edinburgh is Scotland’s second-biggest city (after Glasgow). But the tourist’s Edinburgh is compact: Old Town, New Town, and the B&B area south of the city center.
Edinburgh’s Old Town stretches across a ridgeline slung between two bluffs. From west to east, this “Royal Mile” runs from the Castle Rock—which is visible from anywhere—to the base of the 822-foot extinct volcano called Arthur’s Seat. For visitors, this east-west axis is the center of the action. Just south of the Royal Mile are the university and the National Museum of Scotland; farther to the south is a handy B&B neighborhood that lines up along Dalkeith Road and Mayfield Gardens. North of the Royal Mile ridge is the New Town, a neighborhood of grid-planned streets and elegant Georgian buildings.
In the center of it all—in a drained lake bed between the Old and New Towns—sit the Princes Street Gardens park and Waverley Bridge, where you’ll find the Waverley train station, TI, Waverley Mall, bus info office (starting point for most city bus tours), Scottish National Gallery, and a covered dance-and-music pavilion.
The crowded TI is as central as can be, on the rooftop of the Waverley Mall and Waverley train station (Mon-Sat 9:00-17:00, Sun from 10:00, June daily until 18:00, July-Aug daily until 19:00; tel. 0131-473-3868, www.visitscotland.com). While the staff is helpful, be warned that much of their information is skewed by tourism payola (and booking seats on bus tours seems to be a big priority). There’s also a TI at the airport (tel. 0131-344-3120).
For more information than what’s included in the TI’s free map, buy the excellent Collins Discovering Edinburgh map (which comes with opinionated commentary and locates almost every major sight). If you’re interested in evening music, ask for the comprehensive entertainment listing, The List. Also consider buying Historic Scotland’s Explorer Pass, which can save you some money if you visit the castles at both Edinburgh and Stirling, or are also visiting the Orkney Islands.
ARRIVAL IN EDINBURGH
By Train: Arriving by train at Waverley Station puts you in the city center and below the TI. Taxis line up outside, on Market Street or Waverley Bridge. For the TI or bus stop, follow signs for Princes Street and ride up several escalators. From here, the TI is to your left, and the city bus stop is two blocks to your right (for bus directions from here to my recommended B&Bs, see “Sleeping in Edinburgh,” later).
By Bus: Scottish Citylink, Megabus, and National Express buses use the bus station (with luggage lockers) in the New Town, two blocks north of the train station on St. Andrew Square.
By Car: If you’re arriving from the north, rather than drive through downtown Edinburgh to my recommended B&Bs, circle the city on the A-720 City Bypass road. Approaching Edinburgh on the M-9, take the M-8 (direction: Glasgow) and quickly get onto the A-720 City Bypass (direction: Edinburgh South). After four miles, you’ll hit a roundabout. Ignore signs directing you into Edinburgh North and stay on the A-720 for 10 more miles to the next and last roundabout, named Sheriffhall. Exit the roundabout at the first left (A-7 Edinburgh). From here it’s four miles to the B&B neighborhood. After a while, the A-7 becomes Dalkeith Road (you’ll pass the Royal Infirmary hospital complex). If you see the huge Royal Commonwealth Pool, you’ve gone a couple of blocks too far (avoid this by referring to the map on here).
If you’re driving in on the A-68 from the south, first follow signs for Edinburgh South & West (A-720), then exit at A-7(N)/Edinburgh and follow the directions above.
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- On Sale
- Feb 28, 2023
- Page Count
- 144 pages
- Rick Steves