Welcome to the third installment of my new Ask a Local series. Today, we’ll get the skinny on Edinburgh, Scotland from Paul, one of the first people I met when I started traveling full-time.
Without further ado, then…
First, tell us a little about you. How long did you live in Edinburgh? What kinds of things do you like to do on your days off?
I have lived in and around Edinburgh for 34 years. At the moment I live in Aberdour in Fife and have a very intense job (school teacher) so evenings and weekends are often spent chilling out, going for walks, baking, and a making wine, jam, and chutney. I also still play the fiddle from time to time either with friends in an informal session or for a ceilidh (Scottish dance). I’ve also been known to lead the singing in a session.
Tell us a little about the culture and history.
Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland and is also the financial centre. The city has a massive arts culture as a result of the annual Festivals, most of which take place in August. There is music, dancing, galleries, museums – something to suit all tastes. During August, Edinburgh is a completely different city to the one you will visit any other time of the year. I’d recommend visiting at the end of August to get the best of both worlds, although the best weather tends to be in May and autumn is beautiful.
The city is split into the Old Town (South of Princes Street) and the New Town (North of Princes Street). The Old Town dates from medieval times while the New Town Dates from Georgian times (so is still pretty old). The centre of Edinburgh is effectively an island with a number of bridges running to it. Princes Street Gardens was a loch (lake) called the “Nor Loch” before it was drained in the 18th century.
If someone is visiting Edinburgh for the first time, what would you recommend they see or do?
If you’re visiting for the first time, just take a walk around! Most of the things worth seeing can be seen for free including various historic and beautiful streets and buildings, fantastic views from the top of various hills and museums such as the National Museum in Chamber’s Street and The People’s Story on the Royal Mile for a bit of the history of Edinburgh told through the people. The Botanic Gardens is within an hour’s walk of the City Centre and is relaxing and free.
What neighborhoods or parts of Edinburgh are the best to stay in? (And why?)
You can stay in pretty much any neighbourhood as Edinburgh is a small city and the transport links are excellent. If you can stay in the centre, then all the better but it will certainly be more expensive and the demand is much higher. Edinburgh has a lot of tourists!
Let’s talk about day trips…what nearby places should everyone make sure to visit?
There’s a lot of countryside worth visiting, particularly in Midlothian. Penicuik is a good place to reach the Pentland Hills as the bus links are very good. You should take a trip across the Forth Bridge on the train, but also try and cross the Forth on the road bridge so you can take a look at the Forth Bridge from afar. It’s the equivalent of the Eiffel Tower here. Head to the beaches in places like Aberdour in Fife and even Gullane and North Berwick if you fancy a longer journey. You can go on a day trip to the Highlands quite easily. I’d recommend Glencoe.
Tell us about local dishes. What kind of food should people try while they’re in Scotland?
You have to give the haggis a go while you’re here. It’s usually served with neeps (turnip) and tatties (potatoes) but also makes an excellent chicken stuffing, pizza topping, nachos topping, or even deep fried as pakora. Scotland is famous for deep fried food and will serve you a deep fried Mars Bar or pizza if you ask for one, but don’t say I recommended that. There’s a lot of craft beers, excellent meats, gorgeous cheese, and o’ course amazing whiskies!
What are your top three picks for local restaurants or bars?
The Witchery is the most expensive restaurant in Edinburgh and fantastic if you can afford it. The best fish and chips is probably the Newington Fish Bar which makes everything fresh.
I’d also recommend the Mosque for a curry. Due to the days of the empire, curry is very much part of Scotland just as much as haggis is and the mosque is a very important and well loved part of the Edinburgh community. Newington Road is also very good for curries. Curry is essential in the UK.
Is there anything that tourists do that locals find rude or strange? Any way we can better fit in with the culture?
Be aware that there is an independence debate going on and not everybody is necessary for or against. Don’t make assumptions. Make sure that you are confident about the meaning of the terms “Scotland,” “England,” “UK,” and “Britain”. Ignorance will almost certainly get you into trouble. Do not refer to anything in Scotland as “Scotch” unless it’s an egg or a pie.
What’s the best way to make local friends?
Try and get in with a few locals (Couchsurfing is a good start). Edinburgh people can be very reserved and will think you very odd/suspicious if you approach them randomly. Getting involved with a University society is a good way to get in with younger folk.
Where can visitors find out about local music and music- or dance-related events?
Check out the Gig Guide for information on goings on.
For traditional music, the best places are the pubs with the most notable venue being Sandy Bells on Forrest road, which has sessions pretty much constantly. There’s a weekly Ceilidh club at Summerhall and monthly giant ceilidhs at South Hall, Pollock Halls.
You can find out more about traditional arts events at www.tracscotland.org or visit the Scottish Storytelling Centre on the Royal Mile. On the 3st April/1st May there is a major pseudo-pagan fire festival Beltane on Calton Hill. It is spectacular street theatre and people come from all over the world to see it.
At the same time and into the 1st week of May is Edinburgh’s new traditional arts festival, TradFest, which brings genuine traditional culture that local people want to see (none of your kitsch tartan stuff). You’ll get the best traditional artists involved.
Where should someone go to take the best photos of the town and/or region?
Victoria Street is probably the most beautiful for the Old Town with streets like Palmeston Place good for the New Town. There’s a great view from Arthur’s Seat obviously, but don’t neglect Calton Hill or Blackford Hill which will be a lot quieter. The top floor of the museum has a great and quite unusual view as well.
In Scotland, what does the rooster say?
Unfortunately, the Scottish rooster sound is also “cock-a-doodle-doo” (although bear in mind that the North Americans probably got it from us in the first place…).
Thanks, Paul, for giving us the skinny on Edinburgh! Anyone have a question Paul didn’t tackle? Toss it in the comments.
Gigi, Thanks so much for this info. we are ending our month, in ireland and the UK, in Edenburgh and will be looking for some of these places. this kind of info from locals is exactly what were are hoping to find for all the places we visit.
Glad to be a help!
I was there during the Fringe festival, it was a wonderful experience.