Sunday, 14 December 2014

A weekend in Edinburgh: what to do?

Like most things in life, when it comes to city breaks, 'who you know' turns out to be pretty handy. I'm lucky enough to know a few Edinburgh dwellers, so during my first visit to the city, I tapped them for their best local tips, and they proved to be more helpful than all of the apps and guide books an OCD organised kind of gal such as myself could ever consult. So, if you're heading there yourself this festive season, here they are for you too:

Stay somewhere central 

A city break in a sprawling metropolis like London, Paris or New York invariably means having to get your head around a new and (initially, at least) confusing public transport system. Happily Edinburgh, though still a sizable city packed with things to see and do, is easily manageable by foot. So if you make sure your digs are somewhere pretty central, you can make your stay a smelly bus-free one.

Drink and be merry 

No trip to Scotland would be complete without a few drinks, and of course a taste of their excellent whisky. We sampled the delights of a number of bars and pubs, and favourites were Under the Stairs on Merchant Street, a hidden gem of a place with cosy armchairs, twinkly fairy lights and an impressive arsenal of cocktails to work your way through, and Brass Monkey, a pub where despite its distinct hipster vibe, with walls covered in film posters and beds in lieu of seats, it was unpretentious, and well suited to a long session (particularly given the decent prices). The only real downside was the couple opposite who didn't appear to realise that the bed they were lying on was missing its bedroom setting. Yuck.

Eat well 

...of course! Food is always takes the top spot on my list of priorities, so when travelling to a new place, I take discovering new restaurants pretty seriously. This is where those local tips really come into their own. The 'best restaurants' listings you find elsewhere tend to come with an extortionate price tag, but I was advised on some very tasty but reasonably priced offerings:

For pub grub and traditional Scottish fare: The World's End

Centrally located on Edinburgh's famous Royal Mile, The World's End is a 'traditional' pub with the all the haggis, neeps and tatties you could ever wish for. Or not, in my case - I wasn't feeling quite adventurous enough for the haggis, but the salmon was a delicious alternative. A cosy atmosphere and decent prices make for an excellent lunch spot.

For amazing Italian: Ciao Roma 

Not a particularly glamorous setting, but Ciao Roma in South Side provides an authentic-feeling Italian experience, complete with homemade pasta and ice cream, and family friendly atmosphere. The fake frescos and statues were endearingly tacky, and belied the quality of the food; I went for the cannelloni, and as something of a cannelloni expert (I have a sad tradition of trying a new version whenever I spot it on a menu), can confirm that it's one of the best I've ever had.

For all round deliciousness: Howie's 

There are two branches of Howie's in Edinburgh, and I ventured to the one on Victoria Street, a short walk from drinking hot-spot Grassmarket and the famous Royal Mile. Both my friend and I opted for the free range Scottish chicken, 'stuffed with sun dried tomato and pine nuts, served with spinach, dauphinoise and rich chicken gravy', according to the menu, and there was certainly no regret on either of our parts. It was deliciously tender, and the sticky toffee pudding rounded the meal off very nicely. The service was great, too - the Scots didn't match up to that Willeh of the Simpsons gruff stereotype one bit during my stay...

Feel festive 

Having gone to uni in York, I was doubtful I'd ever find a comparably festive city, but Edinburgh is definitely a contender. For optimum seasonal good cheer, head to The Dome. It's like Christmas on steroids there, and I'm not ashamed to say that I squealed like a kid on Christmas morning on entering this mansion house-cum-restaurant, in all its twinkly glory. Afternoon tea is reasonably priced - well, as reasonable as you could expect from a posh tea room - and the trip is worth it alone for the setting, dominated as it is by a Christmas tree that, not content with merely being humongous, also periodically changes colour.

Get cultural 

When it comes to culture, art is particularly plentiful in Edinburgh, and we made sure to visit the biggest of the bunch, including the Royal Scottish Academy and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. It actually featured one of the highlights of my weekend - a First World War exhibition with portraits of the wide-ranging Scots affected by the conflict, from army generals to Peter Pan author JM Barrie and the Scottish suffragettes. We visited a few of the smaller galleries that are dotted all over the city, too, including the City Art Centre, which is also home to a book shop that got me all excited, thanks to the satisfying coffee table-type books that I would go crazy for, were I to actually own a coffee table.

Other highlights included the National Museum of Scotland, where I brushed up on my Scottish history (Queen Mary was imprisoned by the pesky English for nearly 20 years, I was reminded!), and of course Edinburgh Castle (although we didn't get too far in - the £20 ticket for full access seemed a little steep).

Worship at the altar of JK Rowling

No self-respecting Harry Potter fan could visit Edinburgh without paying homage to our lord and saviour, JK. The Elephant Cafe is the establishment where a young and penniless Rowling famously first penned the story, eeking out her cup of tea for as long as she could. Going there, and sitting at the back near the window where she supposedly wrote, you can't miss the definite Harry Potter vibes, with Edinburgh Castle looming over a graveyard just outside, looking distinctly Hogwarts-esque.

The cafe doesn't milk things all that much, with just one singular board of cuttings about the author gracing the wall. And yet...step into the facilities, and you'll find walls plastered with tributes from her adoring fans. My personal highlight was the arrow pointing to the toilet, above which the person had written, 'This way to the Ministry'. Excellent.

Head up to Arthur's Seat 

The flat that my friend and I stayed in had a glorious view of Arthur's seat just outside the living room window, and we couldn't leave without venturing to the top. I'd say that level of climbing difficulty lies somewhere between 'oo I should really go to the gym more' loss of puff, and Anna Hathaway-in-One Day-'oo this isn't actually hard at all'-ness. In any case, the walk to the top is well worth the brilliant view from the top, where you can take in the entire city and the coast in the distance.

Wrap up warm 

Call me a southern Jessie, but bloody hell it's chilly there. I recommend layers, and lots of them.