I walk out my door on a cloudy morning to see the Union Canal across the street. The sky is grey, as it usually is in the morning, but like most days, it will clear up and be sunny by about 2 p.m. There are mallard ducks, swans, seagulls and magpies milling around as people walk, run or ride by on bikes.
What shall I do with my lovely day off?
The first thing I usually do on such a day is head north-east on the canal and pass my favorite painting in all the city that deserves a shout out in this article. It is titled “The Cananimals” and it is one of many children’s paintings that decorate the fence on the side of the canal. This display aims to spread the word about the toll that litterbugs take on the environment.
Mostly I appreciate the work for the cheeky pun used to showcase the canal’s variety of wildlife that appear in the piece. There are some semi-aquatic birds such as ducks and a swan, as well as what I assume to be a rabbit and a precious little rat swimming around. In the bottom left hand corner, there’s see an otter, which is apparent because he is labeled for clarification. The work speaks volumes to passersby as to why they shouldn’t litter near the canal: because the ‘cananimals’ call it home.
It makes me happy and optimistic about as I walk on my way to the Royal Mile, which is Edinburgh’s most popular and central tourist attraction. It starts at Edinburgh Castle and ends at Arthur’s Seat.
Edinburgh Castle was built in the 12th century during the reign of David I and is still functioning today for guests to stay in and for people to explore. The parts that are open for tourists to visit are redone in a more modern way and serve as little museums. There is a museum of war and the progression of the military in Scotland, as well as exhibits where you can see the crown jewels and other royal accessories.
Because it is the main castle in the city, tourists flock to it and are happy to pay the £20 per head to get some cliché pictures with cannons and the Edinburgh skyline. This does mean however, that there are always a lot of people there, so be ready to fight for a picture of just your group in the photo, or to select times when the crowds are smaller.
Unless you are really interested in the history and specifically the military history of the area, there are better and less crowded options not too far away.
If you want to explore and see what a functioning castle would look like and imagine yourself living in a historically preserved place, I recommend Stirling Castle, which is about an hour outside of Edinburgh.
Many of the structures have been renovated, but only with historical accuracy in mind. You can walk around in the a beautiful garden and see a gorgeous view of the countryside of Stirling for all your picture taking needs, and you can see a lot more of it.
Part of it was turned into a museum where you can learn about the timeline of the castle and all of its residents dating back to construction.
You get to walk through royal chambers where there are some people dressed up who will tell you all about the tapestries and royal treasures within. Because it is farther off the beaten path, the crowds are a little bit smaller and you get to see a bigger percentage of the castle than at Edinburgh. I would highly recommend Stirling more than Edinburgh Castle and thought it was the best experience for what I paid, which was about the same.
Getting back to the royal mile. Once you have gone into Edinburgh Castle, you proceed down high street, where the streets are packed with people trying to get their hands on the very best souvenirs.
Shops range from your standard cheap keychains and sweatshirts with Edinburgh scrawled all over them, to tartan shops where you can buy the same colors that your ancestors may or may not have worn (if you have any Scottish roots), to stores with high-end cashmere and tweed.
A variety of tours are offered around this area as well, including sightseeing, haunted tours and Harry Potter themed tours.
I went on an hour-long walking haunted tour and was very satisfied with my experience. I am a skeptic of the paranormal myself, and don’t believe I had any kind of interaction with a spirit, but it was fun to hear the stories of people who lived in the city when it was a struggle for survival.
Our guide, a charismatic and fairly hostile “off duty drag queen,” was precisely the kind of person I would want to have leading me through the vaults of the underground city. He addressed us all as his “little chickens” but had a very cynical view of the world around him. I got the sense he really didn’t like the city. As he passed street corners where atrocities had happened, he would wave a hand toward the area and say casually, “And over there, in (insert specific date I don’t remember here), three women were hanged between that lamp post and that window due to accusations of witchcraft. How do you feel about the beautiful city of Edinburgh now, ladies?”
No special effects involved, so it was like telling ghost stories around the campfire. You know, if that campfire were in fact a circle of stones laid by a group of wiccans hundreds of years ago to summon a demon 45 feet underground.
The tour was an hour long and for £14, I was pretty satisfied with my experience.
The Harry Potter tours are supposedly a lot of fun to go on if you’re a fan of the franchise. You take a walk down Victoria Street, which is one of the streets used as inspiration for Diagon Alley and take a trip to the graveyards to see the stones that inspired J. K. Rowling’s famous characters’ names. There are also little details scattered through the city that bring you into the fantasy world.
As you go down the street you have more food options where you can either get something to nibble on, or get a sit-down meal. If you venture two blocks or so down to the Grass Market, where an entire side of a street dedicated to pubs and restaurants. On the lower end, across the street is a place called Mary’s Milk Bar, which serves delicious Scottish-style ice cream.
A side note here: ice cream here is more like gelato. It is thicker and richer, and there are all kinds of unique flavors that shops will experiment with.
After a quick meal, you can walk it all off with a trip up Calton Hill. Just a seven or eight-minute walk to the top, with some steps but mostly paved walkways, as well as one of the best views in the city. You can see the ocean, the city, and the magnificence of Arthur’s seat.
Anyone looking for a slightly longer hike would definitely enjoy the trip to the top of Arthur’s seat, A.K.A the conclusion of the Royal Mile.
The hike takes about 20 minutes to two hours depending on what path you take and your experience level. If you want a serious climb, some paths that go pretty much straight up. If you want a leisurely stroll, there’s a path for that too.
There are several peaks to the inactive volcano that is Arthur’s seat, many of which give you an idea and appreciation for the highest part, if you don’t want to scale the whole thing.
It is honestly daunting enough just to walk by, as it is surrounded by meadows that are just above sea level and then this (seemingly) behemoth of a landmark juts out at 251 meters (823.49 feet). It’s truly humbling. It’s not even that big. It just seems that way because you can stand at the base of it and stare straight up at the top.
One of my favorite places in the city is just nearby Arthur’s Seat and just a little off the beaten path. If you go all the way around the base of Arthur’s Seat, you will find a trail up to a little stony cliff with the remains of an old castle sitting on the edge. All that’s standing is the bottom part of the front wall, which overlooks a small pond filled with swans and ducks. From there is a path leading down to the pond, where you walk through a cute little forested path around the pond and then end up back where you started.
The whole loop is about two miles and definitely a good compromise between any hikers and couch potatoes in your traveling group.
Another sneaky side note here: if you go during the week around 7 p.m, there will be hardly anyone there, so you have the best chance to take photos with the sunset without being interrupted, or you can just sit and soak it all in without pesky tourists buzzing around.
I realize that publishing this in the paper is not the best idea, because now you’re all going to go there right at 7:00, but I trust you all to stagger any future trips, so it’s not spoiled.
You will need a few days to explore this whole area, but it is well worth the trip and the biggest bang for your buck as far as what Edinburgh has to offer.