A grey sandstone building half-way up Edinburgh’s Lothian Road, opposite the city’s imposing Usher Hall, has for more than 30 years offered escapism into different worlds, through visual story-telling of intrigue, romance and fantasy. Here at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse, an independent cinema, I was captivated by Claude Berri’s ‘Jean de Florette’; seduced by visual richness of Gabriel Axel’s ‘Babette’s Feast’; and both amused and confused by Almodóvar’s ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’.
It was during those years, in the late ‘80s, as an undergraduate student of film that I first got to really know Scotland’s capital. It’s a spellbinding place that over the years has truly flourished, and one I love to revisit.
City of writers
As opposed to film though, Edinburgh is surely best known for its literary heritage. For example it’s here that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, and of course JK Rowling famously sat in the back room of the Elephant House tea & coffee shop, penning the drafts of her Harry Potter novels.
For the literary curious, pay a visit to The Writer’s Museum in the historic Lady Stair’s House. It celebrates the lives and works of Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. Outside is Makars’ Court, where one finds flagstones inscribed with quotes from famous Scottish writers. It’s one of the many quirky and original features of a European capital city that has a unique identity, charm and character.
Ancient, old and new
Architecturally, Edinburgh is not only notable for its Georgian New Town, an elegantly planned and constructed part of the city that runs north of George Street; but also for its atmospheric Old Town. With its ancient wynds, those narrow alleyways between dark-stone buildings, it’s little wonder it makes the perfect back-drop for touristy ghost-themed walking tours.
The city is a showcase too of Scottish baronial architecture, with the style’s distinctive little turrets, battlements and romantic towers adorning many of the city’s buildings. The gothic St Giles Cathedral and the elegant Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Scotland, are two architectural headliners but if one steps away from the Royal Mile and its gift shops selling tartan scarfs, then one discovers a myriad fascinating streets and squares that reflect the hidden Edinburgh.
Taste of Scotland
Although each street feels infused with history, there is plenty of 21st century energy in this increasingly cosmopolitan city. To feel the pulse of modern Edinburgh means enjoying the lively bar and restaurant scene.
Scottish cuisine is affirming its contemporary credentials with a generous helping of new restaurants celebrating the nation’s larder. Edinburgh also now boasts a handful of Michelin star restaurants yet one doesn’t have to fork out for fine dining in order to enjoy some of the best bites in town.
For example, head to the Leith, the city’s docklands area and one will find some smart, informal places offering creative dishes from some of Scotland’s emerging young chefs. When I first moved to the city, Leith felt disconnected from the centre, but now this port area has embraced positive change and is part of the city’s urban cultural and gastronomic scene.
Talking of culture, of course the Festival and the Fringe are now well and truly international events that define the summer season. Yet a winter break will still be rewarded with the opportunity to engage with local events. Admittedly the weather may not be exactly Mediterranean but Edinburgh has plenty more to offer. The hottest ticket in town is Hogmanay, the famous New Year’s Eve celebrations that see the streets fill with revellers and the sky light up with fireworks. Many book ahead for this time of year as many businesses typically close on the 31st except for those hosting events, dinners, galas and parties. If you don’t book something, then join the locals and enjoy the atmosphere in the street.
Edinburgh is one of those European capitals that although vibrant and lively, doesn’t pulse with frantic urban energy. So a city break here won’t leave you exhausted, but instead encourage you to relax, unwind and gently explore. Nature is never far away. Arthur’s Seat is the highest peak of a series of volcanic remnants that are in the city centre, including Castle Rock upon which Edinburgh Castle is built. Arthur’s Seat is less than two kilometres from the castle and offers the surprising opportunity to enjoy city centre hill walking, affording wonderful views across Edinburgh to the Firth of the Forth and beyond.
After a morning’s hike up to the top, followed by a rewarding lunch in town, then you’ll feel like catching a movie matinee at the Filmhouse.