Edinburgh Castle from the south-east

17 Oct Travelling to Edinburgh – the AA Roadwatch guide

It’s no surprise that Edinburgh was once known as the Athens of the North. A city of exquisite medieval architecture built on hills, Scotland’s capital makes for a great autumn city break. Whether you’re a history buff, a comedy fan or an urban explorer, there are plenty of attractions for all ages and budgets. And, take it from a former resident, AA Roadwatch’s Lauren Beehan – you get used to the hills. Eventually.

WHY GO NOW?

Edinburgh makes a great destination for an autumn city break, when the parks are resplendent in orange and yellow. Known as one of the world’s most haunted cities, it really comes into its own at Hallowe’en, with numerous ghost tours, cemetery trails and guided underground visits. There really is no better place to see off All Hallow’s Eve than the supposedly haunted pubs on Niddry St and Cowgate, complete with spooky vaulted basements under the medieval Old Town. For those more easily scared, there are plenty of Harry Potter-themed events, ceilidhs and Celtic Samhuinn celebrations.

From late November, the Christmas festival adds craft markets, ice rinks and a ferris wheel to your usual list of must-sees in the city. The world famous Hogmanay celebrations on New Years’ Eve attract crowds with the street party, fireworks and outdoor concerts. It’s also the only night of the year that the imposing clock above the Balmoral Hotel shows the correct time: the rest of the year, it runs three minutes fast to ensure that travellers make their train at the neighbouring Waverley Station.

But what about the weather? It is cold and it’s always windy, so you’ll need to pack your Arran jumpers and tartan scarves, but let’s be honest: no-one goes to Scotland for a sun holiday.  And, really, who needs an excuse to buy more tartan?

GETTING AROUND

Edinburgh’s compact city centre is best experienced on foot, although be prepared for uphill struggles. It can be difficult driving in the historic centre: many of these cobbled streets were built before anyone had even dreamed of cars and the Royal Mile is partially pedestrianised.  If you do decide to drive, keep in mind that most on-street parking is pay-and-display. Many car hire companies are based in the airport, with a few city centre offices. Click here for advice on speed limits in Scotland. The newly-built tram line runs from the airport to the city centre via Haymarket, while Lothian Buses provide an inexpensive service throughout the city. A fairly extensive Night Bus network will get you home safely in the wee hours, and taxis are easy to find at designated ranks.

WHAT TO DO

WHAT TO DO

No trip to Edinburgh is complete without visiting the castle and taking the mandatory photo on the esplanade, no matter how windy it is. The castle – which doubles as a handy navigation point, given that it sits on a volcano above the city and lights up at night – actually comprises several buildings and exhibits.

From the castle, you can walk down the Royal Mile (which is longer than a mile) towards Holyrood Palace. This is the main street in Old Town, the oldest part of the city, with a labyrinth of ‘closes’ (narrow medieval streets) off each side. Centuries old, these are worth exploring and serve as useful detours when the main street is full of shoppers stocking up on tartan and shortbread. You can also take a ghost tour from the Royal Mile, although this writer, shamefully, was scared off by the photographs.

On the other side of Princes Street Gardens (above, photo by the author) is New Town, built in a Georgian grid pattern. Princes Street is the main shopping area, while bars and restaurants fill Rose Street and George Street. The best photo opportunities – especially at sunset – are from Calton Hill, home to a curious collection of half-finished monuments.

Make sure to try the national dish of haggis, neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes). While you’ll hear about deep-fried Mars Bars, this mythical ‘delicacy’ is only available in a handful of chippers.

Edinburgh’s numerous bars are matched only by its multitude of coffee shops. Harry Potter fans can visit the cafés where JK Rowling wrote the early books: looking out the windows, it’s not hard to see where the inspiration for Hogwarts came from.

On a sunny day, climb Arthur’s Seat, one of three extinct volcanoes in the city. If you visit in summer, follow the local tradition and take a disposable barbecue to The Meadows. This is not advised at any other time of year!

A lesser-known walk is along the Water of Leith through Dean Village. Less than fifteen minutes from the bustling city streets, it feels like a country walkway with truly baffling architecture. Stockbridge, a village on the river, holds a great farmers’ market on Sundays: come for the cheese and meats, stay for the cupcakes.

FESTIVALS

Edinburgh is the festival capital of Europe and there’s always something going on. If you decide to hold off until next summer there are the world famous August Festivals, when six festivals take place simultaneously. They double the city’s population and make walking in Old Town at 4am feel like crossing Times Square at midday. The Festival Fringe alone boasts 50,000 performances before the month is out. Whether you make plans or let yourself be whirled away by the relentless teams of ‘flyerers’, you’re bound see exciting and unusual shows.

Apart from these stalwarts of the festival calendar, smaller events take place throughout the year, including festivals dedicated to jazz, storytelling, film, science and cake.

DAY TRIPS

If you’d like to venture further afield, you’re spoiled for choice. South Queensferry, the home of the impressive Forth bridges, is just one train stop away. Meanwhile the bigger city of Glasgow – great for shopping or events – is just an hour away by car or train. The medieval city of Stirling and even older town of St Andrews are both within 50 kilometres.

Many people use Edinburgh as a base to begin their tour of Scotland’s beautiful Highlands, either by coach or by rental car. If you’re driving, the roads deep in the Highlands are single-lane country routes, with designated points for passing cars travelling in the opposite direction. Popular spots include Fort William, Glencoe, Inverness and the Isle of Skye. Skye is deceptively big: the capital, Portree, is almost an hour’s drive from the bridge at Lochalsh. Once you’re there, though, hike to the Old Man of Storr for unrivalled views of the isle and its neighbours.

FURTHER READING

If you’re planning your next city break, why not consider a trip to Berlin? Check out our guide and learn more about what to expect when visiting the city. Before going on holiday, we advise all travellers to take out AA Travel Insurance. It offers a wide range of travel insurance benefits like flight cancellations, lost or stolen luggage and medical expenses.

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Lauren Beehan
beehanl@theaa.ie