Kilts. Popcorn. Witchcraft. Cowboys who hate modern technology. What do all these things have in common? Edinburgh, is what. If you’ve ever been on the fence about whether travelling to the Scottish capital is worth it, thistle convince you that it most certainly is (‘thistle’, get it? Scottish humour). This UNESCO City of Literature is a hub of culture, and a must-see destination for any student that’s already been to Amsterdam, so you might as well try Edinburgh – it’s fairly handy, like.
The Royal Mile
Now, if I was to be pedantic about it, I’d say this street would more accurately be named ‘the Royal Lie’, and that’s not just down to any anti-monarchical sentiment on my part. No, the Royal Mile is actually about 10% longer than a modern mile, so maybe they’d do better to name it the far cooler-sounding ‘Royal Mile Point One’. It’s actually measured in Scots Miles, though – a unit which has been obsolete with over a century. However it’s measured, it’s a good starting point: pretty much slap-bang in the centre of Edinburgh, it’s a very pretty, historic street that lies right in front of the castle and is within walking distance of most tourist attractions. It’s also where you’ll be able to buy copious amounts of fudge, whiskey, and culturally insensitive tartan caps with ginger sideburns.
The Edinburghers (which is a cute name for the people of Edinburgh – I picture tiny, anthropomorphic cartoon burgers when I hear it) are big into their street performance. It’s a bit like Grafton Street, but with more bagpipes. Even in the middle of October, on the Mile there were a healthy number of musicians who were being ignored in favour of a guy juggling swords, and a cowboy who whipped a plastic cup from a man’s hand and then screamed about the evils of modern technology for a few minutes. There’s plenty to see beyond the Mile, mind you – a hip pagan drumming group featuring fire jugglers and a man wearing a kilt over a pair of harem pants, for example. A lady in moonshoes complimented my dress, so I took a flyer from them.
I didn’t actually go to the castle, because at £16.50 for a ticket they would want to be offering me the actual throne. It looked pretty, though.
Edinburgh, as I mentioned, became UNESCO’s first City of Literature way back in 2004, and nowadays you can barely turn a corner without bumping into some aspiring author penning the next Great Scottish Novel or a shop claiming to have had some part to play in the creation of the Harry Potter series. They even have a Writer’s Museum – which is free, and if you’re not an English student or a very well-read individual, fortunately so. I don’t know if I’d have been too happy to have paid to view “a stool from a room where Robert Burns may or may not have been at some stage”. The Scott Monument is also a sight for sore eyes as the tallest monument in the world dedicated to a writer (they really, really like Walter Scott in Scotland, guys). For the Game of Thrones fans among you, though, you might be interested in visiting the grave of one David Rizzio, who’s believed to have inspired the character of Tyrion Lannister, in Canongate Kirkyard. If, y’know, that’s where he’s actually buried. It’s disputed.
There’s a pretty neat art gallery about a two-minute walk from Waverly train station, but I won’t Van Gogh-on about it, ha ha. Oh, shut up – you managed to keep reading after that thistle pun, so you can keep reading now.
Listen, kid: between you and me, I didn’t really party while I was in Edinburgh. The wildest thing I did was eat half of a deep-fried Mars bar and then contemplate where my life had gone wrong for a while. There was a group of drunk students on the train back from Musselburgh who said “woop” when the ticket guy walked up to them, though, so I’m sure they had something worthwhile to get to. If you’re looking to party, by all accounts you should be going to Glasgow, anyway.
I had been in Edinburgh a good 12 hours before I so much as laid eyes on any handsome men in kilts, not counting the life-size cardboard cutout of the main character from Outlander that was on display in the window of a jewellery shop. Disappointing. This should be a far more widespread trend, in my opinion, and not just in Scotland.
Whether it’s the castle sitting atop an extinct volcano, a visit to the Natural History Museum to see the Mega Sloth (if you had gotten this far without ever learning of the existence of the Mega Sloth, you are very much welcome), or a stroll by the Nor’Loch where – fun fact! – they once drowned accused witches in what was essentially a giant pool of excrement, Edinburgh is a history lover’s dream. The Old Town has a wonderful collection of Tudor-era buildings that are almost sickeningly Instagrammable. If you, by the way, as an Irish person, ever make the mistake of letting a tour guide know that you’re from the Emerald Isle, you can look forward to a comprehensive lesson on the grave-robbing shenanigans of Burke and Hare. Typical, isn’t it – you get two serial killers in Regency-era Scotland, and suddenly we’re all serial killers in Regency-era Scotland.
Once you consider that Edinburgh is built like the contents of your primary-school copybooks after they let you do your work in pen instead of pencil (built, Tipp-Exed over; built, Tipp-Exed over – just on and on until they ban Tipp-Ex altogether) it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there happens to be a network of underground vaults underneath the surface of the city. The particularly interesting part is that these vaults were apparently rediscovered by two drunk students who broke through the wall of their apartment because they could hear noises coming from the other side (please, don’t get any ideas). Alleged to be pretty dang haunted, the part the tour companies have been given access to has been kitted out with some very atmospheric green lighting which lets you see the impressive collection of Wiccan paraphernalia and a ring of stones that’s supposedly there to confuse demons or something. You wouldn’t see it on Location, Location, Location, is what I’m saying.
You’re probably aware that whiskey, fudge, and shortbread are staples of the Scottish diet (that’s why they were selling them in all the tourist shops, right?) but what you may not have known was that the Edinburghers apparently have an insatiable appetite for popcorn. Yes: popcorn. Presumably this caught on as a way of counteracting the obnoxious sweetness of Irn Bru (10/10 would recommend). There was popcorn on every corner; there was more popcorn than there were novelty whiskey bottles – I saw one shaped like a moose – or cafés staffed by hip youths that sold things like ‘smoothie bowls’ and ‘bubble tea’ and healthy smoothies that tasted like the underside of a rat’s boot. There was far more popcorn than there was haggis, which I never got the chance to try, you’ll be devastated to know. I did spill a whole lot of curry from the chipper onto my coat at one stage, though, which I imagine was a punishment from Ye Olde Scottish Foode Gods for not searching hard enough.
Edinburgh is a must-see for anyone interested in history, culture, overcast weather or fans of Irn Bru. If you’re willing to travel at heathen hours of the day or night, you might be in with a chance of nabbing an excellent deal on flights – with Ryanair, mind, but when you’re paying €9.99 each way, beggars can’t be choosers. It’s a wonderful city that’ll make your Instagram feed look fresh for days.