It’s an inviting city, full of characters, and although some might lament that there is little to do, for a tourist like myself, Edinburgh is ripe with activities big and small. However, not all are created (or priced) equally, which is unfortunate.
Much of Edinburgh’s sites and sounds are free, which makes choosing a few days to be structured instead of just at a pub is rather simple, but there are a few places to avoid or perhaps save for a later time if one is on a crunch.
Do: Go to the National Museum of Scotland & the National Galleries of Scotland
Both exquisite museums, one dedicated to all walks of life and the other, an extensive art museum respectively, are free to enter, which makes either a good rainy day activity.
The National Museum of Scotland (Chambers St) is the capital’s natural history and science museum, boasting multiple floors with a mixture of classical glass box exhibitions and interactive setups that will humour both children and adults. Simply behemoth in size, one might not see everything he or she desires in one trip as a result of sheer magnitude and the fatigue one may experience as a result of how many damn steps there are in this building.
Highlights include the animal/ wildlife wing (which is a reminder that taxidermy standards in Europe are less than that in North America), the science and technology wing (across through the great hall), and the cultural/anthropological chamber, which is adjacent to the animal area.
Much to my surprise, there is a whole section of First Nations artworks and belongings, which if I do say so myself, is outdated and … well … a bit mislabeled.
Firstly, friends, it is called Haida Gwaii, not Queen Charlotte Islands …
But also, there is a lack of consistency with naming and categorization with some materials being vaguely just, “Central Northwest Coast,” when they, with proper consultation, could be easily deduced; I have my own theories of their origins.
Of course, repatriation, is always a lingering thought, especially the massive Nisga’a pole that stands at the exhibit’s center.
In contrast, the Scots section’s curation is rather refined if not overwhelming. Ceremonial swords, a fancy golden chicken (see my Twitter), and rune carvings take one through Scottish history along with all the bumps that it takes to make a kingdom and the influence of Christianity on the region and people. The multi-level aspect of the museum contributes to the chronological alignment of each chamber, so start at the bottom with Scotland’s earliest peoples and ascend to the modern day for the full experience.
The National Galleries of Scotland, another free gem to enjoy, is located on Princes Street, making it rather central and located downhill from the national museum. Expansive and labyrinthine, the museum houses an array of famous Scottish works as well as modern art, giving a contemporary look at Scottish culture and aesthetics.
Nevertheless, the galleries are comparatively smaller than the other museum, which makes it a good morning activity for those that want something else to do in the day that is more lively.
Highlights include the Dutch and Flemish art in the National section and Abstract Art and Britain between the Wars in the contemporary wing.
Another worthwhile museum, although not free, is Surgeon’s Hall, which houses Scotland’s medical freakiness that one should view perhaps prior to lunch. Only 7 pounds for adults, the museum is representative of an interest here in Scotland: the macabre.
Don’t: Enter the Castle or Get Swept Up in the Harry Potter Fandom
I know. It’s a castle. In Scotland. Iconic. However, the Edinburgh Castle costs 17 pounds and is a tourist trap to say the least. Nevertheless, the views around the castle are worth the short trek.
Alice and I ventured here after a fabulous lunch for a more aerial view of the city and at least see the building. Apparently, the superstition is that only after graduating can Edinburgh students cross the threshold, so Alice could not even come along with me if I wanted to enter.
Along the way to the castle (and honestly most places in the city), Harry Potter memorabilia is all consuming on the streets. J.K. Rowling, who some may call a problematic fav, is from Edinburgh, so it is no surprise the city quite literally capitalizes on the franchise.
Nevertheless, much of the tourism surrounding the creation of Harry Potter and such is less than accurate. Many of the locations deemed, “where such and such occurred/was written/ shalalala …” should be taken with some skepticism, as it is possible just to buy the rights to call oneself, the birthplace of Harry Potter. In my opinion, if one really wants the Harry Potter experience – try Universal Studios.
Avoid the shopping frenzy if one can here; the only plus side is that one will encounter ecstatic children dressed as the famous wizard on the street occasionally. So, if you have children, don’t spoil the magic for them! I can, however, shatter your dreams, just not theirs. It is all a lie.
Do: Eat Cheaply
I am a glutton for (punishment and) cheap eats, so Edinburgh (comparatively to Vancouver) is a wonderful city to dine in price-wise.
A wonderful little local is The Outsider, located across from the castle on George IV Bridge. It boasts splendid views and elegant edibles. Although dinner is a bit pricey, the lunch specials are unbeatable. I describe it as cheap posh – with delicate soups, tarts, and fish dishes ready for consumption.
Another adorable feature is all the wines are described in a longwinded, comical fashion. It really helps one get to know the alcohol.
And, another adorable feature, the waitstaff could be described as daddy af by the correct person. Me. I am the correct person.
Lunch goes from 12 pm (open) to 5 pm.
Across the street is Uncle. Simply a fish & chips, kebab, and pizza place, this more casual establishment is well known by locals as a place for after a night out.
Definitely come here for a massive thing of fried fish or the many other comfort foods of this region.
Finally, Mosque Kitchen (Nicholson Square) is a stable for some, including my sister. A buffet-esque Desi restaurant, if one desires a cheap curry or biryani, life supplies.
I only wish UBC had something like this place in lieu of the crappy butter chicken at the Nest (our Student Union building). Portions are plentiful, which makes it perfect for students or backpackers. Just remember, if one’s stomach is not equipped for this cuisine or is simply just prone – flatulency may be a consequence.
Don’t: Order Food at the Pub
Go to many pubs. I will never deter one away from these establishments, especially in a place like Edinburgh.
However, do not order food there!
If one does desires the classic staples, do not go to the places where it is clearly advertised. A fish & chips shop like Uncle (see above) is a much better bet for a cheap, authentic meal than many of the more tourist geared bars.It is at these junctions that one’s stomach, mind, and wallet must coordinate.
Do: Climb Arthur’s Seat
The iconic Arthur’s Seat (Holyrood Rd) is actual an extinct volcano, now part of the heritage of Edinburgh and a popular destination for dog walks (Wiener Walk) and tourists looking for the panoramic view of the city and sea.
Beware, the hike is rather free form. Multiple paths can lead one up the hillside, but some are easier than others. At one point going down, I more so scaling a vertical wall, following a yorkie I wanted to hug, than actual descending the monument. Still, side quests are always highly recommended!
Regardless of my experience, the site is rather safe, and as long as one uses normal precaution and wears proper footwear, there should not be any problem going to or from. Additionally, if one does not desire the full fledged summiting, the Crags are another option, which are a less strenuous excursion at a lower altitude.
Don’t: Buy Anything on the Way There
If one begins from the castle and heads straight down the Royal Mile, Arthur’s Seat is adjacent in about a 15 minute stroll downhill.
Unsurprisingly, this avenue is heavily saturated with tourists and thus speciality shops and entertainers. One will likely be sick of the bagpipes after time there, and it goes almost without saying that purchases should be avoided along this street.
Do you really need a kilt? Even if you are like 1/16th Scottish? Is this the thing you want to blow your budget on?
That is not to say there are not establishments in which to partake on the side alleys. One eatery, without a sign I might add, aptly called Wings (Old Fishmarket Close) specializes in chicken wings and is a local favourite, although inconspicuous.
Finally, regarding transportation in this city, I say it is a toss up between either walking everywhere or indulging in a bus pass. As my sister lives in the suburbs, I found it useful to pop by Waverley station to secure a weekly ride pass for about 30 pounds, which guarantees free transit for the allotted time period.
However, if one is staying the main city centre, there is no point. Edinburgh at its core is walkable; although, one might still feel a great distance has been traveled as a result of how tightly packed shops can be.
More to come in the next few days, most likely about clubbing culture here in Edinburgh. Stay tuned for more food and sighting tips. The week is not over yet! Special appearance by Croatian goddess, Nina, too!