It’s all uphill from here. Literally and steeply.
Everywhere I look in this city founded in the 12th century on the slopes of a dormant volcano, sharply graded cobblestone streets wind. Now and then, alleyways pop up, leading to immense, calf-shattering staircases.
These alleys are called closes, and what they are is shortcuts. While tourists trudge up the cobblestones, locals zip up and down the stairs, getting from the higher to the lower levels of the same street. This has to be the fittest city in the U.K.
At the moment I’m visiting in August, it’s also the most festive and crowded. During three weeks of this month every year, Edinburgh’s festivals more than double the city’s half-million population. The biggest draw is the massive Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the world’s largest arts festival with emphasis on short (an hour, mostly) theatrical and musical productions spanning a host of genres: drama, comedy, juggling, magic and more. I find drummers drumming, lords a-leaping, ladies dancing. My favorite is a mime show.
Emerging acts hope for footholds here. It worked in 1966 for a Tom Stoppard play called “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” which played to just a handful of people, but a critic was among the handful. The 2017 Fringe, its 70th year, tallies more than 50,000 performances of more than 3,000 shows (not counting random buskers) in nearly 300 venues. So, yes, the streets are clogged, but it’s all very merry.
Contrary to reports that Fringe is expensive, I find plenty of free shows as well as some that are £5 or so (roughly $6.50 at this moment). And, yes, you can grab affordable lodging if you plan in advance. My hotel, Motel One Royal (minimalist, modern, good bed and desk, nice breakfast, not-always-reliable free Wi-Fi) can be had for £159 if you book now, and it’s right in the middle of the city, just blocks from the High Street, where performers stage free samples of shows. Watching the samples and picking up leaflets (as if you could avoid having them thrust at you) is one of the best ways of finding out about cool shows. Another is to simply park in a pub and catch the buzz. It’s a very walkable city, so don’t worry about getting around.
Like Austin’s South by Southwest, Fringe has sprouted smaller sub-fests for visual arts and books, each offering little contemplative cul-de-sacs in which to catch your breath. There’s also an international festival showcasing emerging global acts.
If you’re in Edinburgh during festival season, don’t fail to catch the Royal Military Tattoo at Edinburgh Castle, a nightly spectacle of military bands (including hundreds of bagpipers), Scottish dancing and light projections onto the field and onto the castle, which looks magnificent wrapped in tartan. This is the stuff of goosebumps, as the entire field becomes packed with bands from all over the world playing “Scotland the Brave” in unison. At the end, the entire assemblage of about 8,000 sings “Auld Lang Syne.” I feel a kinship with the Scots as well as admiration of their relentless love of country. Tattoo tickets start at £25.
But whether you visit Edinburgh for the festivals or at another time, there are a few experiences you shouldn’t miss. Edinburgh Castle, for sure. A £17 ticket lets you roam at will, learning the history of the looming 12th-century fortress.
You must, of course, have a wee taste of Scotch whisky (that’s right: They don’t put an E in it). Tastings are offered all over town, but I enjoy a hilariously tourist-driven one near the castle that starts with a Disney-like barrel ride and ends with a tasting of your chosen Scotch in a room lined with more than 3,000 bottles. The Scotch Whisky Experience costs £15.
You want to see Queen Elizabeth’s yacht, right? Although it’s nowhere as tricked out as the yachts of today’s CEOs, the yacht that sailed the royal family for 40 years, decommissioned in 1997, is elegant and fascinating, especially the queen’s little single bed and the laundry room. Each room is festooned with stuffed corgis.
Visit Dolly the sheep — the clone, not the original — at the National Museum of Scotland. She’s been stuffed.
Eat, eat. Whether you’re up for a lovely herbed lemon sole at the Wee Restaurant, crunchy fish and chips at Innis & Gunn Beer Kitchen (I even find the beer-battered haggis bon bons acceptable in a funky way) or braised lamb at Spoon, you’ll find whatever cuisine you’re after.
And do take the stairs. Stores and pubs are hidden in these little closes, and staircases get you places. Example: To run between Old Town (dates to the 12th century) and New Town (merely the 18th), trek up and down the Scotsman Steps, 104 steps forged in 104 colors of marble between North Bridge and Market streets.
After the excitement of Edinburgh, it’s nice to get away to the countryside for a bit. I take a bus (you can also take the train or drive) out to St. Andrews in the Kingdom of Fife, so called because it was once a kingdom and it still sounds good, although these days it’s more the kingdom of golf. St. Andrews has 11 courses, the most prestigious of which (though not necessarily the most interesting; others are very cliffy and challenging) is the Old Course at St. Andrews Links. To play it you have to have a good handicap, then enter a yearly lottery and win a spot, for which you’ll pay about £350 green fees. But it’s 600 years old, the very first golf course in the world, so everybody wants to play it. Of course, they do.
I don’t play golf, but I enjoy watching others who’ve won a slot slog out into heavy rain to make good their tee times from my elegant hotel at the edge of the course, Macdonald Rusacks (rooms start at £227). When the rain stops, I take a tour of the gorgeous St. Andrews University, opened in 1413, and, at the edge of the North Sea, check out the ruins of St. Andrews Castle, built as an archbishop’s home in the late 1200s and renovated in the 1500s (the ruins on which I scramble are the reno).
On the last night in St. Andrews, I’m persuaded by locals to head off late at night to a pub to engage in something called a ceilidh (pronounced kay-lee). It involves Scottish dancing, I’m promised. I dutifully order a gin and tonic and watch the disorganized whirling to Scottish folk music, a caller trying fruitlessly to get all to dance in the same direction. Everyone’s having fun and looking hilarious, so I join in, just as they’re calling … the Virginia reel. The Virginia reel? Seriously? I grew up in Virginia dancing this reel. I dance in the right direction, thank you very much, amid the tangled Scots.
The food’s great in this neck of the woods, from a juicy local steak at Balgove Larder Steak Barn in St. Andrews to a seven-course extravaganza at “MasterChef” U.K. winner Jamie Scott’s Newport in nearby Newport-on-Tay, starring silken venison. I also stop by Eden Mill Gin in St. Andrews for a tour and tasting (£10) and Lindores Abbey Distillery in nearby Newburgh for … not Scotch, because the place just started making it, so it won’t be ready for years. So, I took a look around the striking event venue in this former abbey that boasts it’s where whisky was first distilled by monks in 1494. Lindores also will soon offer a chance for visitors to gather herbs on property and, with mortar and pestle, make their own healthy waters.
On my last day, I take a bus down the coast to the little village of Crail, which proves a delight as I sip tea at the Honeypot, taste crab just plucked from the North Sea, visit highly regarded Crail Pottery and take the Castle Walk along a turreted walkway that suggests the castle that once stood on the seaside site.
Final stop on the way to the train back to London: Queensferry, the town just across the River Forth from Edinburgh.
Three bridges span the water. One of them, Forth Rail Bridge, will soon launch a tourist experience, and I get a sneak peek. An industrial lift zips me 400 feet up to the very top of the bridge — the very, very top, where winds are fierce but I can see all the way to Edinburgh in one direction, St. Andrews in another. It’s been raining lightly, so I’m even favored with a very brief, fuzzy rainbow that disappears so fast it seems almost a mirage.
The message is clear: Sorry, but it’s time to go.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Fly nonstop on British Airways to Heathrow, then connect to Edinburgh. If you’re visiting London also, you can also get there by train (four hours). Take an umbrella. It rains a lot.
Edinburgh Castle, Castlehill, edinburghcastle.gov.uk
Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, tickets at 1-3 Cockburn St., edintattoo.co.uk
Scotch Whisky Experience, 354 Castlehill, scotchwhiskyexperience.co.uk
National Museum of Scotland, Chambers St., nms.ac.uk
Royal Britannia, Ocean Terminal, royalyachtbritannia.co.uk
Motel One Edinburgh Royal, 18 Market St., motel-one.com
The Wee Restaurant, 61 Frederick St., theweerestaurant.co.uk
Spoon, 64 Nicolson St., spoonedinburgh.co.uk
Innis & Gunn Beer Kitchen, 81-83 Lothian Road, thebeerkitchen.co.uk
Newport’s, 1 High St., Newport-on-Tay, thenewportrestaurant.co.uk
Macdonald Rusack Hotel, Pilmour links, St. Andrews, macdonaldhotels.com
Balgove Larder Steak Barn, Balgove Farmhouse, St. Andrews, balgove.com
Eden Mill Gin, Main Street, St. Andrews, edenmill.com
Lindores Abbey Distillery, Abbey Road, Newburgh, lindoresabbeydistillery.com
The Honeypot, 6 High St., Crail, honeypotcrail.co.uk
Crail Pottery, 75 Nethergate, Crail, crailpottery.com
Forth Bridge Experience will open to the public soon in Queensferry, forthbridgeexperience.com