Prepare to be spellbound: a bewitching Edinburgh city break

July 14, 2011

The Royal Mile

EDINBURGH, UK – You might not have noticed (because, hey, maybe you live in an isolated hermit’s hut), but it’s that Harry Potter time again… (For those in the hut: the final film is out this week.) And sure, you could cave to pressure and spend your weekend indoors watching the movies or reading the cannon to bone up for the grand finale–but a true jetsetter would hop on an aeroplane (or broomstick!) to the bewitching curio of a city that started it all, Edinburgh. It’s where JK Rowling penned her books, and many of the stories’ most intriguing details are based on real-life Edinburgh locales and historical events and characters.

And frankly, Harry Potter aside (yeah, we get it, some people just aren’t fans), you still couldn’t make a better choice for a quickie city break than this juicy-yet-bite-sized medieval city. There’s certainly enough nifty stuff to keep a curious tourist poking around for months (or years), but if you stick to the compact historic heart of the city, you’ll have no problems covering in the highlights in a few days. (Beware though that its cobbled charm and storied history can really cast their spell on you–I came on a rush weekend visit and ended up staying for two years…)

Assuming you’re not a wizard with time-warp tricks up your sleeve to extend a weekend jaunt into a lifetime of Edinburgh exploration, head straight to the Royal Mile, the “Diagon Alley” of Edinburgh, if you will. This is the heart of the old town, a cobbled road running between Edinburgh Castle and the Queen’s Edinburgh residence, Holyrood Palace. Because of an ancient tax on residents for leaving city walls, Edinburgh’s clever medieval residents turned their sights inward and built a curiously dense, layered city packed around the Royal Mile, with roads running at various levels and buildings shooting up and plunging down at odd angles. All of this is connected by a series of steep, shadowy staircases called “closes”–common spots for otherworldly encounters with wizardy types, according to Edinburgh lore.

Starting from the Holyrood Palace end, stroll up the hill, making sure to dive into any alluring closes and poke around in the touristy boutiques. I usually hit up Royal Mile Whiskies (for smashing scotch), Kinross Cashmere (for high-end Highland knits), and The Edinburgh Fudge Kitchen (for divine free fudge samples). Close to the top you’ll pass 17th century St. Giles Cathedral (make sure to spit on the cobbled Heart of Midlothian in front, as the outlaw set did back when a tollbooth stood on this spot), before carrying up to Edinburgh Castle. After you’ve had your fill of suits of armour, royal apartments, and canons, make sure to scope the vistas to the south from the castle fortifications–you might be able to spy George Heriot’s School, a still-functioning 400+ year old school whose stone towers and stained glass windows are rumored to be the inspiration for Hogwarts.

Of course, all this trekking about is bound to leave you with a rumbling tummy, so unless you can magic up some food, you’ll need to head back down the hill. If you’re feeling posh, saunter over to The Witchery for haute Scottish nosh. For lighter fare (or something that’s lighter on the wallet), the quaint Baked Potato Shop serves one traditional Scottish dish (guess which one) with aplomb. Of course, if you really want to immerse yourself in Hogwarts-esque adventures, there’s no question that your lunchtime stop should be The Elephant House, the funky little coffee house where J. K. Rowling penned her first instalment of Harry Potter’s adventures.

Next, dive down winding Victoria Street and onto the Grassmarket, where you can find Edinburgh’s funkiest collection of boutiques and curio shops–everything from hip vintage emporiums to a liquid deli to trendy knitting suppliers to a costume couture house (probably your best bet for sourcing wizard robes…) And of course, don’t forget to treat yourself to a pint at one of the nearby historic pubs like The White Hart—it may not be the Three Broomsticks, but it’s haunted with enough scandalous historic figures to keep up.

Holyrood Park

To wrap up the day, put on your comfiest shoes, head back to Holyrood Palace (where you started off), and make the thigh-burning 45-minute climb through Holyrood Park to mountaintop peak Arthur’s Seat. Once deep in the craggy moors of the park, the city will feel so far away, you’ll think you’ve apparated. It’s only once you’re at the top, when you glimpse the magnificent vistas of the castle and Royal Mile, that you’ll realize you’re still in the center of Edinburgh.

After all this hard work, you’ll definitely deserve a hot toddie or steaming mug of butterbeer (especially since, given the climate, you’ll probably have soggy socks). For cozy pubs, it’s hard to beat The World’s End on the Royal Mile, but if you’re feeling festive, make a beeline for Sandy Bell’s Bar, a teeny, dusty little curio of a pub where famous folk musicians come to jam–sometimes even at your table. (If, despite all the slogging, you’re in the mood for something sexy, edgy cocktail lounge The Villager is worth checking out.)

Loving the party and wish you could make last forever with the flick of a wand? Check in at Hotel Missoni, a head-spinningly mod hotel run by crazy-print couture house Missoni, where the stylish bar scene runs long past the witching hour. Pleasantly boozed and ready for bed? Make for The Scotsman–the atmospheric panelled rooms of this turreted stone building will have you believing you’ve woken up in the Gryffindor Tower. (And if you wake up sore, head straight for the swanky spa, where they can certainly work magic on any aches and pains.)

Of course, before you pack your bags and dust off your broomstick for your Edinburgh adventures, have a think about when you’re scooting over. If you go now (in the summer) the sun will magically shine almost until midnight, and, during August, the Edinburgh Festival will bring in the kind of hoopla and crazy characters you would expect to see at a wizarding convention. On the other hand, if you go in the fall or winter, the days will be short, but the dusky streets will be deliciously eerie and the pubs oh-so-cozy. Either way, it sure beats just going to the movies….

Hotel Missoni
1 George IV Bridge
(44) 013-1220-6666

The Scotsman
20 North Bridge
(44) 013-1556-5565

The World’s End
4 High St. (Royal Mile)
(44) 013-1556-3628

World's End on Urbanspoon

Sandy Bell’s Bar
25 Forrest Rd.
(44) 013-1225-2751

The Villager
49-50 George IV Bridge
(44) 013-1226-2781

Villager on Urbanspoon

Hotel Missoni Bar (See Hotel Missoni listing above)

The Witchery by the Castle
352 Castle Hill, Royal Mile
(44) 013-1225-5613

The Witchery By the Castle on Urbanspoon

The Baked Potato Shop
56 Cockburn St.
(44) 013-1225-7572

Baked Potato Shop on Urbanspoon

The Elephant House
21 George IV Bridge
(44) 013-1220-5355

The Elephant House on Urbanspoon

The White Hart
34 Grassmarket
(44) 013-1226-2806

The White Hart on Urbanspoon

Royal Mile Whiskies
379 High St. (Royal Mile)
(44) 013-1225-3383

Kinross Cashmere
2 St. Giles St. (Royal Mile)
(44) 013-1225-5178

Edinburgh Fudge Kitchen
30 High St. (Royal Mile)
(44) 013-1558-1517

Holyrood Palace
East end of Royal Mile
(44) 013-1556-5100

St. Giles Cathedral
Royal Mile
(44) 013-1225-4363

Edinburgh Castle
Castle Hill, Royal Mile
(44) 013-1225-9846

Holyrood Park (including Arthur’s Seat)
East end of Royal Mile

The Scotsman (see The Scotsman hotel listing above)

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