Edinburgh is a city that moves. Visitors are constantly streaming through Scotland’s capital, and the population of the city swells by roughly one million during the month of August (Festival season, or Fest). The city is full of locals with an intense pride in their city, and you might have to coax information out of them over a pint and a blether (Scottish-speak for drink and a chat), at which point they will reveal a certain attitude toward the rest of the British Isles. A majestic city, it’s one of those places where you watch the sun go down over the castle from the top of a hill and wonder just how you managed to wander into such a spectacular place. However you did it, keep going: Edinburgh was made for it.
Edinburgh’s most famous neighborhoods, Old Town and New Town, are easily divisible, as they are separated by a large gully that houses Waverley Station and Princes Street Gardens. This ravine is bisected by three bridges: Waverley Bridge, North Bridge, and The Mound. Stockbridge is to the north of New Town (walk as if you were heading to Leith and the sea) and Haymarket and Dalry are in the area west of New Town. The Meadows, Tollcross, and the West End are all over the hill from Old Town, off toward the south end of town.
Scotland's capital is full of locals with a strong pride for their home and for good reason. Edinburgh is as magical as a fairytale. Watch the sun set on a castle on a hilltop or enjoy free entertainment during festival season (or "Fest"). No matter what you chose, Edinburgh is sure to charm you.
In Edinburgh for just a short trip? Make sure you squeeze in as much magic as Edinburgh has to offer before you go! We have picked the top five attractions we think are must sees to help you accomplish just that. Click the links to explore and book tours or local guides.
B&B regulars will encounter many a Scottish breakfast, consisting of beans, fried eggs, potato cakes, fried tomato, and a rasher of bacon. In general, Scottish cuisine greatly resembles English food. Although buttery shortbread will please everyone, only adventurous travelers are likely to sample more traditional dishes, which include Scotch eggs (boiled eggs wrapped in a sausage meat mixture, breaded, and fried) and haggis, the infamous national dish made from sheep stomach. Those courageous enough to try it will be rewarded with a zesty, if mushy, delicacy. Scotland’s most deliciously foul specialty is the fried Mars bar. While the fad may have peaked in the 1990s, many chip shops will still make you the crispy, gooey treat.
If many visitors are disappointed by the fare, few can find fault with Scotland’s whisky (spelled without the “e”). Remember: all Scotch is whiskey, but not all whiskey is whisky. Scotch whisky is either “single malt” (from a single distillery) or “blended” (a mixture of several brands). The malts are excellent and distinctive, with flavors and strengths varied enough to accommodate novices and lifelong devotees alike. Raise a glass yourself at the distilleries in Pitlochry, the Speyside area, or on the Isle of Islay. Due to heavy taxes on alcohol sold in Britain, Scotch may be cheaper at home or from duty-free stores than it is in Scotland. The Scots know how to party: they have the highest alcohol consumption rate in Britain and, no surprise, are more generous with their licensing laws than England and Wales—drinks are served later and pubs are open longer (often until midnight or later).
Historically, England has been derided for its horrific cuisine. But do not fear the gravy-laden, boiled, fried, and bland traditional nosh! Britain’s cuisine is in the midst of a gourmet revolution. Popular television chef Jamie Oliver led a well-publicized and successful campaign to increase the British government’s spending on school lunches. Thanks to its colonial legacy, ethnic food is ubiquitous, and Britain offers some of the best tandoori and curry outside India.
British “tea” refers to both a drink and a social custom. The ritual refreshment, accompanying almost every meal, is served strong with milk. The standard tea, colloquially known as a cuppa, is PG Tips or Tetley. More refined cups specify particular blends such as Earl Grey and Darjeeling. Afternoon high tea includes cooked meats, salad, sandwiches, and pastries. Cream tea, a specialty of Cornwall and Devon, includes toast, shortbread, crumpets, scones, and jam, accompanied by clotted cream (a cross between whipped cream and butter).
Sir William Harcourt believed that English history was made in pubs as much as in the Houses of Parliament. Brits rapidly develop loyalty for neighborhood establishments, which in turn tend to cater to their regulars and develop a particular character. Pubs are everywhere in London.
Bitter, named for its sharp, hoppy aftertaste, is a standard pub drink. It should be hand-pumped or pulled from the tap at cellar temperature into government-stamped pint glasses (20 oz.) or the more modest half-pint glass. Real ale retains a diehard cult of connoisseurs in the shadow of giant corporate breweries. Brown, pale, and India pale ales—less common varieties—all have a heavy flavor with noticeable hop. Stout, the distinctive subspecies of ale, is rich, dark, and creamy. Try Irish Guinness, with its silky foam head. Most draft ales and stouts are served at room temperature, but if you can’t stand the heat, try a lager, a precursor of American beer typically served cold. Cider is a fermented apple juice served sweet or dry. Variations on the standard pint include black velvet, which is stout mixed with champagne; black and tan, layers of stout and ale; and snakebite, lager and cider with blackcurrant syrup or Ribena.
A bell or the phrase “Last orders!” marks the last call 10min. before closing time. When the bar officially closes, the bar staff traditionally shouts, “Time at the bar!” or (more fun), “Time gentlemen please!”
In a nation where stories have long been recounted by fireside, oral literature is as much a part of the literary tradition as novels. Unfortunately, most medieval Scottish manuscripts were lost in raids on monastic centers of learning, effectively erasing pre-14th-century records. John Barbour is the best-known writer in Early Scots. His epic poem, The Brus (c. 1375), preceded Chaucer and favorably chronicled the life of Robert I in an attempt to strengthen national unity.
In 1760, James Macpherson published the works of “Ossian,” supposedly an ancient Scottish bard who rivaled Homer. Macpherson was widely discredited, however, when he refused to produce the original manuscripts. James Boswell (1740-95), the biographer of Samuel Johnson, composed Scots verse as well as journals detailing his travels with the good doctor. “Scotland’s National Bard,” Robert Burns (1759-96), ignored pressure from the south to write in English, instead composing in his native Scots. New Year’s Eve revelers owe their anthem to him, although most mouth “Auld Lang Syne” (Old Long Time) without knowing what it means. Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) was among the first Scottish authors to win international accolades for his work. The chvalric Ivanhoe is one of the best-known, if sappiest, novels of all time. Scott was also quite nostalgic, and his historic novels (such as Waverley) helped to spark the 19th-century revival of Highlands culture. Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94) is most famous for his tales of high adventure, including Treasure Island, which still fuel children’s imaginations. His Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is nominally set in London, but some recognize Edinburgh’s streets in Stevenson’s Gothic descriptions. Scotland’s authorial sons also include Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), whose Sherlock Holmes series is beloved by would-be gumshoes across the world, and JM Barrie (1860-1937), inventor of Peter Pan.
Scotland’s literary present is as vibrant as its past. A series of 20th-century poets—most notably Hugh MacDiarmid and Edwin Morgan—have returned to the language of Burns, fueling a renaissance of Scottish Gaelic, particularly the Lowlands (“Lallands”) dialect. Neil Gunn (1891-1973) wrote short stories and novels about Highland history and culture. More recent novelists include Alasdair Gray, Tom Leonard, James Kelman, and Irvine Welsh.
Scotland has produced fewer famous visual artists than it has writers, but the extrordinary galleries and museums of Glasgow and Edinburgh display a rich aesthetic history. Eighteenth- and 19th-century portraitists like Allan Ramsay and Sir Henry Raeburn and genre painter David Wilkie have international reputations, while James Guthrie and others from the Glasgow Schoolreveal the influence of Impressionism in their works. As a participant in both the Arts and Crafts Movement and the Art Nouveau scene, Glaswegian artist and architect Charles RennieMackintosh (1868-1928) boosted Scotland’s artistic prestige with his elegant designs, many of which can be found around Glasgow.
The Gaelic music of western Scotland has its roots in the traditional music of Irish settlers. As in Ireland, ceilidhs (KAY-lees)—spirited gatherings of music and dance—bring jigs, reels, and Gaelic songs to halls and pubs. The clarsach, a Celtic harp, was the primary medium for musical expression until the 16th century, when Highlander bagpipes and the violin introduced new creative possibilities. Ballads—narrative songs often performed unaccompanied—are a significant Scottish musical heritage. The folk tradition is evident in Scottish pop music, including The Proclaimers, folk rockers Belle and Sebastian, and Britpop entries Texas and Travis. Glasgow has been an exporter of talent since the 80s, generating bands like Simple Minds and Tears for Fears. Today, Glaswegians are proud of their stylish guitar rock revival band Franz Ferdinand.
Scotland’s cold, drizzling skies loom over some of the warmest people on earth. Life is generally slower outside the densely populated belt running between Glasgow and Edinburgh, and etiquette is somewhat less important here than in London’s urban sprawl. But this is no reason to forget your manners. Hospitality and conversation are highly valued, and most Scots will welcome you with geniality (unless you call them English). In parts of the Highlands, nationalism runs deep and strong. Here, using the technically correct “British” will win you no friends. Religion and football, and the religion of football, are topics best left untouched if you’re not prepared to defend yourself—verbally and otherwise.
Although it’s unlikely you’ll see very many during your travels, the kilt is not a purely romanticized concept. Criminalized as Highland garb after the Jacobite rebellion, kilts were revived during the mid-19th-century nostalgia for Highland culture. Tartan plaids originally denoted the geographic base of the weaver. Today, few Scots still wear their family tartan, although many do own one for use at formal gatherings and sporting events.
The early Picts left behind almost no record of their language, but settlers in southern Scotland transported their native tongues—Gaelic from Ireland, Norse from Scandinavia, and an early form of English (Inglis) from northern England. By the 11th century, Scottish Gaelic (pronounced GAL-ick; Irish Gaelic is GAYL-ick) had become the official language of Scottish law. As southern Scotland expanded and spread its political influence, Gaelic speakers migrated to the Highlands. Inglis, a dialect of English now called Scots, became the language of the Lowlands and the monarchy.
While a number of post-1700 Scottish literati, most notably Robert Burns and the 20th-century poet Hugh MacDiarmid, have written in Scots, union with England led to the rise of the English language in Scotland. Today, standard English is spoken throughout Scotland, but with a strong Scots influence. In the Highlands, for example, “ch” often becomes a soft “h.” Modern Scottish Gaelic, a linguistic cousin of modern Irish, is spoken by approximately 60,000 people in Scotland, particularly in the western islands. Recent attempts to revive Gaelic have led to its introduction in the classroom and even on street signs in the Hebrides.