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Issue 5 - Edinburgh – a truly capital city

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 5
November 2002


This article is 15 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Edinburgh – a truly capital city

Alison Thomas ensures that you won't be at a loss in Scotland's capital city, armed with a selection of the best places to stay, eat and visit

Edinburgh is a capital city in every sense of the word. Its setting alone makes it special, straddling a cluster of ancient extinct volcanoes between the Pentland Hills and the Firth of Forth. Rugged mountain landscapes penetrate the very heart of the city and the sea can be glimpsed from street corners all over town.

It makes a dramatic backdrop for the glorious architectural mix of neo-classical and mediæval.

Then there is its momentous past, which hits you in the face at every turn. You see it everywhere, from Edinburgh Castle to the wynds and well-worn steps of old stone stairways. The city boasts an impressive collection of museums and galleries; there are theatres and concert venues galore. For this is one of the world’s great festival cities, not just in August but all through the year.

Two recent historic events have fired the Scottish capital with renewed energy and self-confidence: in 1996 the coronation Stone of Destiny returned to its homeland after 700 years, and in 1999 a Scottish parliament sat in Edinburgh for the first time since 1707.

Shopping too has really taken off, and the restaurant scene is undergoing a renaissance as world-class chefs take Scotland’s rich larder as an inspiration for creative cuisine.

Edinburgh is a capital city in every sense of the word.

The city's highest point is Arthur's Seat, at 823 feet.
Edinburgh Castle encapsulates 1,000 years of history within its stout walls.
Edinburgh's reputation for culture and its extraordinary collection of neo-classical buildings have earned it the nickname 'Athens of the North'.
The newly opened Harvey Nichols will become the anchor store for a new high-fashion street off St Andrews Square. George Street is already a mecca for shoppers with excellent taste and deep pockets.
Thistle Street, Broughton Street, Causewayside, Victoria Street and the Grassmarket are the places to go for curios and antiques.
A year-round programme of festivals includes the exuberant New Year party of Hogmanay and the latest addition, Capital Christmas.

Edinburgh has a remarkable range of hotels. Whether you want to stay in a grandiose building right in the thick of things or retire to a quiet boutique town house, there is something for everyone.

Balmoral Hotel
1 Princes Street, EH2 2EQ
Tel: +44 (0)131 556 2414

The Edwardian Balmoral Hotel offers everything you would expect of a topdrawer, historic hotel including 186 beautifully-appointed rooms, two
excellent restaurants and a health club incorporating the largest swimming pool in the city centre.

The Scotsman Hotel
20 North Bridge, EH1 1YT
Tel: +44 (0)131 556 5565

The city’s latest five-star establishment has made it into the Condé Nast Traveller magazine’s ‘Hot List’ of the world’s 52 best hotels. Located in the former Scotsman newspaper building, its 56 bedrooms and 12 suites combine baronial elegance with contemporary chic and luxurious modern facilities. Its second restaurant, Vermilion, opened in May 2002 and the North Bridge Brasserie has already established itself as one the city’s happening places. It also boasts a magnificent health club and spa.

Sheraton Grand Hotel &
One Spa
1 Festival Square, EH3 9SR
Tel: +44 (0)131 229 9131

260 five-star, beech-panelled, tartan bedrooms (including 16 suites), a fine dining grill room (the only restaurant in Edinburgh with three AA rosettes) and a traditional piano bar and brasserie with ‘live’ cooking have long made this a popular choice, but now it’s irresistible
thanks to the addition of a £15 million state-of-the-art spa, with Santini restaurant and brasserie serving up the best Italian food in the city. Opposite Usher Hall (for concerts), the Lyceum and Traverse Theatres and very close to Edinburgh International Conference
Centre and new business district.

Apex City
61 Grassmarket, EH1 2JF
Tel: +44 (0)131 300 3456
The latest of three modern city centre Apex properties to open, Apex City, next to Apex International in the Grassmarket, looks great: stylish colour and lighting schemes, DVD players, a pillow menu and humorous touches such as jelly beans and a rubber duck in the rooms.

The city centre is teeming with venues, from real ale pubs to slinky modern café bars which are lively meeting places for the pre-club crowd.

Bennet’s Bar
8 Leven Street, EH3 9LG
Tel: +44 (0)131 229 5143
Next door to King’s Theatre, Bennet’s is an Edinburgh institution, with tiling, stained glass windows and lots of mirrors. The carved Victorian gantry holds over 100 single malts.

The Dome
14 George Street, EH2 2PF
Tel: +44 (0)131 624 8624
A sumptuous bank conversion with 1930s cocktail bar, leafy garden café and elegant grill room. Mosaic floors, stained glass windows and a stunning cupola make this a very classy joint.

The Oxford Bar
8 Young Street, EH2 4JB
Tel: +44 (0)131 539 7119
Long reputed for being the haunt of Scottish writers, it is occasionally the place to find Ian Rankin, author of the Inspector Rebus mysteries (see Q&A, page 54). The regulars are very loyal to this place.

The restaurant scene is buoyant, and some of the best establishments have collaborated to form the Edinburgh Restaurateurs’ Association. For more information, ask at the Tourist Information Centre or visit It’s wise to reserve a table, especially at
festival times.

Le Café St. Honoré
34 North West Thistle Street
Lane, EH2 1EA
Tel: +44 (0)131 226 2211
A friendly, bistro-style restaurant tucked away down a quiet New Town lane. The small but imaginative menu combines fine Scottish produce,
including fish and game, with French culinary flair.

Café Royal Oyster Bar
17a West Register Street, EH2 2AA
Tel: +44 (0)131 556 4124
The ornate Victorian splendour of this legendary establishment creates the perfect ambience to enjoy a feast of tasty seafood. It makes a serious dent in the wallet but is great for a special treat.

67 Morrison Street, EH3 8YF
Tel: +44 (0)131 228 2700
Glorious taste combinations (nouvelle, but decent helpings) in a sleek black and white setting are the hallmarks of restaurateur Dave Ramsden’s creation on the ground floor of the new glass tower building. Razor-thin Ramsden is always to be found shimmying between tables, telling you which of the great-value wines will go perfectly with what you’ve just ordered. A class act; and won’t break the bank either.

Martin Wishart
54 The Shore, EH6 6RA
Tel: +44 (0)131 553 3557
Wishart is the only Michelin-starred chef in Edinburgh, so the food here is quite superb, but the clean, white space is small, so book ahead. Good opportunity to wander around the regenerating Port of Leith.

10 – 14 Victoria Street, EH1 2HG
Tel: +44 (0)131 225 1721
One of four Howies in Edinburgh, a very reliable small chain that does great lunch and dinner at affordable prices in atmospheric settings. Victoria Street is painted blood-red, with Van Gogh-style art on the walls and slightly rustic wood tables; good stop if you’re on the Royal Mile or visiting the Grassmarket.

The Witchery
352 Castlehill, EH1 2NF
Tel: +44 (0)131 225 5613
Tapping in to the ghostly heritage of this part of the Royal Mile, the Witchery is the creation of James Thomson, award winning restaurateur, who has since set up the excellent Tower Restaurant on top of the Royal Museum in Chambers Street. Where that is sleek and glassy, the Witchery is gothic, candlelit and romantic.

The Vintners Rooms
The Vaults
87 Giles Street, EH6 6BZ
Tel: +44 (0)131 554 6767
Always one of Edinburgh’s most reliably excellent eateries, the Vintners Rooms shares its old building with the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, and has a main dining room and whisky / wine bar – eat in the bar and you can sit by the log fire. French / Mediterranean food; great service from staff who know their stuff.

For the first-time visitor, the well-trodden Castle / Princes Street / Royal Mile / Holyrood circuit is a must, but it’s well worth making time for some of Edinburgh’s other unique attractions. Calton Hill has wonderful views of Princes Street and Holyrood Park. Visit Charlotte Square and admire the grace and symmetry of Robert Adam’s Georgian creation. Relax amongst the luxuriant plants of the internationally renowned Royal Botanic Garden. Potter around the old-fashioned shops of Victoria Street and West Bow.

Entrance to many museums is free. Art lovers won’t want to miss the National Gallery of Scotland, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, and the City Art Centre – venue for major international exhibitions and home of the city’s permanent fine art collection. The Royal Scottish Academy, closed for major refurbishment, re-opens in August 2003 with a Monet exhibition.

The Royal Museum of Scotland contains a huge range of exhibits of everything from fossils and Egyptian mummies to space technology, while the brand new Museum of Scotland next door offers cutting-edge displays on Scottish history. Our Dynamic Earth is another big league player and there is a plethora of smaller, more intimate venues, such as Gladstone’s Land, a 17th century Old Town tenement, and The Writers’ Museum, which evokes Scotland’s literary past. The Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre tells you everything you could possibly want to know about the Scottish national drink; the Museum of Childhood spirits you back to a world of teddy bears, tiddlywinks and castor oil. And so the list goes on.

The best way to explore is on foot, but if you tire of huffing and puffing up hill and down dale, an all-day bus ticket offers excellent value. Alternatively, an open-top bus ride is a good way of getting your bearings and you can hop on and off whenever you please.

Edinburgh has been home to various illustrious figures including Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, philosopher and historian David Hume, and writers Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Walter Scott.

The Stone of Destiny, stolen by Edward I in 1296, is now back where it belongs. But is it the real McCoy? Some believe that the canny Scots fobbed the English king off with a fake, which may have been the stone used to hold down the cesspit cover at Scone Palace.

Jenners is the world's oldest independent department store, founded in 1838 (see Issue 3).

Designed by William Playfair to resemble the Parthenon, the National Monument on Calton Hill used to be known as 'Scotlands Disgrace'. Funds ran out before it was completed.

The clock on the tower of the Balmoral Hotel in Princes Street is set a little fast to help rail passengers heading for Waverley station catch their trains on time.

Don't be surprised to see people spitting on the heart-shaped arrangement of cobblestones outside St Giles Cathedral. It is the Heart of Midlothian, site of the old tollbooth and city jail. The tradition dates from when prisoners were led past angry crowds to the gallows in the Grassmarket.

The 'world's worst poet', William McGonagall (see pages 56 to 58), was born in Edinburgh around 1830. His verse is so truly awful that he has developed quite a following, and in 1999 a plaque was erected in his honour in Greyfriars Churchyard.

J.K. Rowling wrote most of her Harry Potter novels in an Edinburgh cafe.