Edinburgh is a gorgeous city — as the nearly 4 million tourists who visit every year can attest. That’s a lot of tourists for a city of half a million people. The residents of Edinburgh, like those who live in other tourist hot spots, are beginning to wonder if all this attention isn’t ruining their city. Ironically, an overtouristed city isn’t a whole lot of fun for tourists either.
So what’s a tourist weary of other tourists to do? One easy solution is to visit during off-peak times of the year. Tabatha Southey, who writes for Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper, suggested that the best time to visit Edinburgh is January. The weather sucks no matter when you go, so January’s not much worse than July. And tourists usually are more interested in tropical beaches than drafty castles just after New Years.
Another strategy is to seek out the city’s hidden treasures. Most of the tourists to Edinburgh tramp the Royal Mile that runs between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace. The Mile itself is a predictable strip of stores offering cashmere sweaters, fake Scottish/Viking souvenirs and “rare” (read: exorbitantly priced) bottles of Scotch. Tourists stagger from one end to the other like zombies.
Edinburgh Castle looks alluring from the city’s streets, especially if you live in a modern city where ancient buildings aren’t an everyday occurrence.
But I advise you to resist temptation. Especially if you’re claustrophobic. For £15 pp you and several hundred other bewildered tourists will be jostled and stuffed into tiny, empty rooms. The highlight of your trip will be lining up to view the crown jewels and the Stone of Scone — not a badly preserved pastry, but the stone upon which Scottish royals were seated for their coronation ceremony. (You can wring another few moments out of the experience by debating with your travel companion whether they’re real or replicas).
The most common question we overheard at the Castle was a plaintive, “Do you have anything belonging to Bonnie Prince Charlie?” No, they don’t. BPC didn’t live here. Nor did Mary Queen of Scots. Edinburgh Castle was a garrison. Now it is home to a number of regimental museums, filled with dusty random stuff donated by men who served in the regiments.
Diorama of the WWII Allied landing at Salerno
(And you thought I was exaggerating)
The ambitiously-named Museum of War commences with the union of England and Scotland in 1707, yet somehow manages to circumvent that awkward skirmish that resulted in the decimation of the Highland clans.
If you want to see what Mary, Charlie and other Scottish celebrities looked like, go to the National Portrait Gallery. We got this hint from a tipsy gentleman who struck up conversation with us in a neighbourhood pub. Like other government-run museums in Scotland, the Portrait Gallery is free. Unlike the Castle, it is empty of tourists. Take an hour or more to peruse the two rooms on the top floor that are dedicated to the most famous Scottish royals. You will find portraits not just of them, but of other players of the day too. The thoughtful commentary accompanying each portrait provides context. It took us 90 minutes to view just these two collections. Out of time because we had to catch a train, we dashed around the portraits of the Scots who invented the modern world. And that was just one of the gallery’s three floors.
If the Portrait Gallery piques your curiosity about Scottish history, your next stop should be the National Museum. This tip came from our friend Stu who lived in Edinburgh a few decades ago. Also free, also immense. The history of Scotland unfolds over sections of seven floors. In three hours, we managed to cover the period from the Romans to the Industrial Revolution. We easily could have spent another several hours there, just catching up on Scottish history. You will find plenty of artifacts related to Mary
A copy of Mary Queen of Scot’s sarcophagus (the original is in Westminster Abbey)
A Scot’s battle dress worn at Culloden (where the English definitively won in 1745)
As well as several of the Isle of Lewis chess pieces, which are believed to have been made in Norway in the 13th century.
Another tourist hot spot is Arthur’s Seat — an extinct volcano located at the Holyrood end of the Royal Mile. You do get a great view of the city from here. You also get a great view of the other tourists taking cellphone snaps.
Bill Bryson once (rather grumpily, if accurately) observed that if you get 600 yards away from the car park, you’ll find yourself alone on any walking path. The same can be said of tourist hot spots.
Our final tip came from a man who was walking his adorable dog up to Arthur’s Seat. We’re big dog fans, so we struck up conversation. He told us that returning down the path from Arthur’s Seat, you can turn left and head back to the Royal Mile along with everyone else. Or you can turn right and follow the road down the other side of the hill. From here you have a few options. We descended into a city neighbourhood that is home to a park called The Meadows. Here you’ll find the residents of Edinburgh making music, walking their dogs and watching their kids play on swing sets. This route also takes you near the University of Edinburgh.
If you have any interest in medicine, a visit to the University’s School of Medicine is well worth your time. Professors at the School in the 19th century practically invented medicine. Plaques that line the ornate entrance way read as a who’s who of the men who loaned their names to various diseases (Addison’s, Bell’s Palsy, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma), won Nobel prizes, and pioneered now common-place practices like blood transfusions and anesthesia. A must for knowledge junkies.
Entrance to the University of Edinburgh’s School of Medicine
An alternative walk that skips Arthur’s Seat altogether follows the Leith River between Dean’s Village and the National Gallery of Modern Art. The path takes you past attractive 19th century stone houses and bridges
to the two buildings that comprise the Gallery of Modern Art. Another free museum, with largely empty rooms. Unlike many galleries of modern art, this one has its tongue firmly planted in its cheek. When we visited, school children’s art was displayed in the main hallway. And some of the best pieces were to be found outside, in the extensive and beautiful grounds.
Finally, for those of you who love to shop, Edinburgh is home to several excellent boutiques. For instance, Orkney jewellery designer Sheila Fleet has an off-the-beaten-path shop here. As does Strathberry, the handbag designer favoured by Meghan Markle aka the Duchess of Sussex. It’s fun to look — even if you’re not royalty.
Strathberry Tote made famous by the Duchess