Edinburgh is a city that has spawned high thinkers smack dab in the middle of Celtic ways. Robert Lois Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, to name a few. The first Medical University in the United Kingdom. Ancient rituals performed to celebrate the cycle of the heavens. But it also had a dark undercurrent. The inspiration for “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” came from a local politician, William Brodie, respectable by day but a common thief at night. Or Dr. Knox, who secured cadavers exhumed at night from local cemeteries to perform anatomical investigations. Only some of these bodies didn’t come from graves, rather they were obtained through murder.
Today Edinburgh is much more genteel. Designated a World Heritage site, it has over 16,000 buildings listed in the combination Old/New town as either historically or architecturally important. The Old town holds the Edinburgh castle, twelve story medieval equivalents of condos, and is studded with narrow walkways called closes. This random, chaotic collection of buildings stands in marked contrast to the New town with its orderly, neo-classic Georgian structures.
The best way to arrive is by train from London, just an afternoon’s ride north. Waverly Station was built between the lake drained to create the New town, just below Calton Hill, and the Old town. Grab your bags and take a brisk 15 minute walk over the North Bridge to the Royal Mile, the medieval street running the length of Old Edinburgh. Or if you’d rather, catch a taxi for a few pounds; they’re cheap and fair too. Either way, the least expensive hotel in the old section is the Travelodge. It’s a modern hotel, just off the Royal Mile, and right in the middle of the “tourist’s” Edinburgh.
During the first day the thing to do is orient yourself by catching a hop-on hop-off bus tour. We used “Guide Friday”, but others operate using similar routes (web site listed below). Take the complete grand tour to sightsee. Pick out the spots where you’d like to stop on the first loop and on the second loop hop off. At your leisure use the bus like a taxi to hop back on and see other sites. The bus hits all the major attractions; the Royal Mile, Museum and National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh Castle, New town, Grassmarket, Princes Street, Calton Hill, and others. Best nine quid you’ll spend.
Edinburgh can be enjoyed at night as well. Countless pubs dot the city, serving local ales and whiskies along with traditional and folk entertainment. One of our favorites was the “World’s End” [pic 10], so named because one wall served as the city’s defensive wall. To townspeople living inside the city this truly was the edge of the barbarian world. Try a heather ale bellywasher (Gaelic slang = a pint), brewed by the Picts as early as 325 B.C. (for a sample, the imported brand Fraoch Heather Ale can be found here in the states). For a wee stiffer drink, Scotch single malt craturs (Gaelic slang = whiskies) are world renowned for their quality. Our favorite among the best is Glenmorangie Cellar 13, a specialty unfortunately only available in Europe. Another option is an evening “Witchery Tour”, a walkabout of haunted areas of the old town. For up-to-the-minute information on nightlife, visit the Tourist Information office at Waverly Market on Princes Street and pick up the free “Gig guide” or buy the booklet “Essential Guide to Edinburgh”.
But for us, the reason to come to Edinburgh in spring was to attend the annual Beltane Festival. Beltane is the cross-quarter day marking the midpoint in the Sun’s progress between the spring equinox and summer solstice. This ancient Celtic festival celebrated the beginning of the summer season with the lighting of bonfires on hills of ritual significance, hence the alternate name “Fire Festival”. In ancient times it didn’t occur on any fixed solar date as the idea of solstices and equinoxes came later, but was held on the first full moon after the first of May. However since 1988, the festival has been held on the evening of April 30th. It’s an all night outdoor party with nearly fifteen thousand neo-Celts enjoying huge bonfires, elaborate parades and dancing, stunning stages, magnificent costumes and makeup all staged by volunteers. While the festival in the past was free to anyone who wandered up that evening, now a six pound ticket is required. Be sure to dress warmly, as the night sky can be clear and at 55 degrees north it dips below freezing. Check out the Beltane Fire Society web site for advance tickets and more information.
Edinburgh can best be enjoyed in 4 days/3 nights. The best time to go is the final week of April (for Beltane, of course), or from May to September when you’ll experience the best weather. Just be sure to book early if you plan for August as numerous festivals in town fill every hotel. However, whenever you go you’re assured a barry (Gaelic slang = splendid) time.
http://www.lothianbuses.com/edinburghbustours/edinburghtour/index.html for Lothian Buses