We were on vacation in Edinburgh, Scotland last month, and it was a blast. Being there really brought home the fact that Edinburgh is truly Britain’s second city of culture. There’s so much history, art, music, and, oh yeah, whisky, that we barely scratched the surface after five days, yet we did so many fun things while we were there. Here are few highlights from a week of imposing castles, cobblestone streets, cozy pubs, and lots of beer.
I was there with my wife, Jenn, to celebrate her birthday. We picked Edinburgh somewhat randomly: neither of us had ever been, and we like fun towns with good nightlife. So after an uneventful flight on KLM, we were ensconced in the back of one of those uniquely British taxis speeding into Edinburgh proper. The weather was cool and wet, and we were ready to be Scottish for a week.
There are many nice hotels in Edinburgh, and we stayed in one of them: The Sheraton Grand Hotel & Spa, Edinburgh
. It recently emerged from a major renovation, and it’s as spiffy as they come. We could have stayed in a cute B&B in some poorly-plumbed 17th century building in the old town, but we figured we’d be so deeply immersed in history while sightseeing that we’d be glad for the modernity when it came time for bathing and sleeping.
And modern it is. The Sheraton Grand’s lobby, restaurant, and common areas are posh, elegant, and seemingly designed for discerning business travelers, the kind of well-dressed people you see in in-flight magazines carrying briefcases and chuckling over some classy joke. Dark wood walls, polished chrome, and a massive old black-and-white photo mural of Edinburgh Castle create a welcoming atmosphere for guests arriving from the four corners of the earth. It’s dignified.
The guest rooms, on the other hand, are party-ready. You’ll find all the amenities present in any high-end hotel, of course: plush bathrobes, well-stocked mini-bar, writing desk, sitting area, etc. There’s a TV, and do I really need to mention that it’s a high-definition flat-screen TV? Of course it is. What contemporary hotel has old-fashioned tube TVs these days? In any case, we used our TV to watch a funny British show called Balls of Steel
Room 529, which I could easily remember thanks to an old Eddie Murphy skit about Chinese food, was a lot of fun. Not only did it have a view of the castle (see above), it had a couple of amenities that we fooled around with for longer than we should have. The lights, for example. There’s regular white light, of course, for dressing, reading, and double checking your dinner reservation. But there’s also colored light, for those nights that call for a backdrop of pink, blue, red, violet, or green. You cycle through all the colors until you find the one that suits your mood. Even the bathroom had its Technicolor dream coat. And with the interior lights on, the bathroom became a lamp of its own, since it’s essentially a frosted glass box located within the guest room itself. Turn on the blue light in the bathroom, and the whole room glows blue. Everything else in the room was of high quality too—nice big bed, more pillows than any human could reasonably need—but it’s time to go see the city.
We asked the front desk agent to recommend a casual pub for beers and a bite. The suggestion: The Red Squirrel
on Lothian Road, pretty much across the street from the Sheraton Grand. It’s a laidback, modern pub filled with well-dressed workers from nearby office buildings. Jenn and I shared a cutting board of assorted cheeses and charcuterie along with a pair of locally-brewed beers, and we liked it.
About Those Beers
I know that beer is enjoyed all around the world, but I expected Scotland to be Scotch-land, with everybody sitting next to roaring fires sipping some ancient single malt while swapping stories of the latest fox hunt. But Edinburgh’s like New York in that they’re crazy for craft beers these days. There are many great beers brewed within a couple of hours of town, and the Red Squirrel had a couple dozen of them on draft, including a few cask ales. Most other bars we visited (particularly BrewDog on Cowgate) had an impressive selection of great, delicious, innovative, and just plain weird beers.
Did I mention that we were exhausted from our overnight flight? We were, so much so that when we kipped down after hitting some bar I can’t remember on the Royal Mile, we slept for damn near 11 hours, which made us 15 minutes late for Jenn’s massage appointment at the hotel’s One Spa
. Even though it was her birthday, they wouldn’t budge on that, saying, not unreasonably, that if they gave her extra time at the end, it wouldn’t be fair to the other clients lined up that day, as if we cared about them. But in any case Jenn had her abbreviated spa treatment and reported that it was very good and that the spa was lovely. While she was getting kneaded and prodded and pampered, I took a stroll down the street to buy some provisions (beer, seltzer, “biscuits,” “crisps”) from the local shop. I went to a discount store called Pound Stretcher, as well as the grocery store Sainsbury’s, and dropped a few quid on essentials. I always enjoy going to the local grocery store whenever I travel somewhere. It feels like a more accurate picture of what life is like there than some tourist site.
I don’t love clothes shopping, even for myself, but it was Jenn’s birthday, so we wandered over to Princes Street and into a shop called House of Fraser
, where she found a leather jacket and a dress that she loved. Later that week I ran out of clean clothes, so instead of incurring laundry charges, I bought a shirt from H&M. I wanted to get something from TopShop, but apparently F/W 2012 is all about tacky sweaters, and I can’t get into the Huckstable look.
More Spa Time
Jenn may have had a proper massage, but we both had passes to visit the Hydropool
and Thermal Suite
on the top floor, which we did after shopping. The Thermal Suite is a collection of about a dozen different saunas (hamman, rock sauna, bio sauna, etc.), showers, and steam rooms, and you put on your bathing suit and guide yourself through them all, in order. And so we did, availing ourselves of everything except the part where you’re supposed to rub crushed ice on your body. In the process, I discovered that I really don’t like aromatherapy. What’s the point? It reminds me of incense in church, which reminds me of church. But everything else was great. The best part of the Thermal Suite experience comes last: the Hydropool. The Hydropool is a big rooftop swimming pool/hot tub where you sit back and relax on subaquatic chaise lounges while mineral water bubbles around you and you look up at the clouds and think about how nice this all is and you should do things like this more often and if only you had one of these things to use every night you’d be the mellowest person. Stress doesn’t have a chance against the Hydropool. Anxiety drowns like a wharf rat, leaving you relaxed and happy. You’d be daft to stay at the Sheraton Grand and not take a dip.
More Beer, Not Much Food
It was Monday, and, strangely, most fancy restaurants in Edinburgh were closed, so we decided to save Jenn’s official birthday dinner for Tuesday night and keep it casual with beers and snacks. The beers were easy. We found our way to BrewDog
, a "post-punk apocalyptic motherfu*ker of a craft brewery," which came at the recommendation of the beer guy at The Ploughman
back home in Brooklyn. BrewDog is a paradise for beer geeks, and I had a pint of Never Mind the Anabolics
. After that we moved on to a much older pub, the White Hart
(above), a 16th Century (!) pub located on the Grassmarket, where public hangings once took place. We had waited too long to order food (kitchens close mighty early in these parts) so we enjoyed a packet of chips, er, crisps with our beers before heading back to the hotel and ordering room service. A man and woman were having a heart-to-heart talk at the bar while we were there. As we left, the woman was in tears.
Experiencing The Scotch Whisky Experience
Part of the reason we chose Edinburgh was because we like drinking Scotch. It’s delicious, complex, and has an interesting backstory. That meant we had to visit the Scotch Whisky Experience
, an educational/entertaining tribute to the “water of life” located next to the castle. It starts with a hokey little ride where you sit in a barrel and go through a series of exhibits as a gregarious man with a mustache and top hat describes the miraculous process that turns water into whisky. (He really pronounces the H in whisky, like hhhwhisky
.) After the short ride is over, you go into a classroom where a guide explains the different whisky regions and the characteristics of each type. Based on what you’ve heard, you tell him what region you’re interested in tasting (you can also say you like blended whisky) and he’ll pour you a dram. You get to keep your tasting glass as a souvenir.
The next part is simply the coolest. You get to walk through the world’s largest collection of Scotch whisky, 3,500 different bottles and counting. The whole room is bathed in a golden glow. You sip your whisky there and think about how much you like whisky. After a few minutes they shoo you out into a bar located at the top of the building. Since we had golden tickets, we were each entitled to a flight of four whiskies, one from each major whisky-producing region, and let’s see if I can name them from memory: Lowland, Highland, Islay, and Speyside. Yup. Since there are so many different distilleries in each area, they serve a different brand every day. No playing favorites here. We sat at the bar, gazed out over the slate-gray rooftops of Edinburgh, and sipped our way up and down the country. That’s my kind of tourism.
Comfortably numb but far from sloppy, we dropped a not insignificant amount of cash on admission to Edinburgh Castle
, which looks out over the city from Castle Hill. There’s not nearly enough space to go into detail here, and I couldn’t outdo the history books, website, or Wikipedia entry. What I can say is that the highest parts are the oldest parts, the part that looks like a chapel is actually a memorial to war heroes, we enjoyed looking at the Scottish Crown Jewels, and there’s a great view of the city from up there. And everybody makes a joke about crawling into the cannon.
Stepping Into The Kitchin
For Jenn’s birthday dinner, I made a reservation at The Kitchin
, possibly the nicest restaurant in Edinburgh (some say the nicest in the British Isles), although technically it’s located in Leith, a.k.a Trainspotting
territory. We arrived a few minutes before our reservation and enjoyed cocktails in the lounge. We were soon ushered to our table, which afforded a nice view of the elegant dining room and its collection of well-heeled diners. Kitchin is big on using locally-sourced ingredients, and our tasting menu – the Chef’s Land & Sea Surprise—was full of them: jellied chicken consommé, tartare of St. Abbs Head mackerel with Newhaven crab cream, razor clams from Arisaig, pigs head with Orkney scallops, North Sea hake, Burnside Farm rabbit, and Blacketyside Farm strawberries with Highland crowdie mousse. The wine was divine, the service impeccable, and, while it was hardly cheap, it somehow wasn’t as expensive as I had feared. It’s a meal we’ll remember for many years. Happy birthday baby! We made it back to the hotel just in time to catch Balls of Steel
Visiting the Nearest Distillery
Most Scotch Whisky distilleries are several hours north of Edinburgh, but Glenkinchie
, a lowland malt, is just over an hour away. I made arrangements to visit. If you want to visit Glenkinchie, which is located in the village of Pencaitland, there are a few things you absolutely need to know, so read this next part carefully.
First of all, Bus #113 only comes once an hour, so before you go, check the bus schedule, especially since it will be cold and raining while you’re at the bus stop. It just will.
Second, the bus driver will tell you that there’s another bus at Pentcaitland that takes you to the distillery. There isn’t. You have to take a taxi from where the bus drops you off. It’s barely two miles down the road, but the taxi company will charge you eight pounds for the ride, which is about $350 American (my estimate). It’s best to identify who else on the bus is also going to the distillery and split the cost with them.
Third, the guy who works at the Spar gas station by where the bus drops you off is a total dick, even if you buy something from his store. The way I see it, you can hate out-of-towners, or you can take their money, but not both. You sure don’t want to ask him to call a taxi for you (“I charge you five pounds!”), nor do you want to ask him to make change for the pay phone. Instead, bring enough change with you and use the pay phone across the road. The phone number for the taxi is posted on the wall outside the store.
But okay, fine, you’re two hours later than you had hoped, but you made it to the Glenkinchie distillery. You start off in a large exhibit area that gives you the basics of lowland malt production. There’s an impressively-detailed model of a distillery in an adjacent room. The tour itself is fun, taking you through the inner workings of the distillery, where the grain is mashed and boiled and the resulting liquid is distilled and all the magic happens. There’s a tasting room at the end, of course. As for the whisky, I enjoyed Glenkinchie very much. It’s a fine pour. To open up the flavors of your Scotch, it’s customary to add a little bit of water, but only a little bit. For that reason, they had eyedroppers at the bar, so you wouldn’t overdo it. Now I need a special eyedropper for home drinking.
Miss the Bus and Go to the Winton Arms
After we left the Glenkinchie distillery, the taxi driver took his time, and we just missed our bus back to Edinburgh. The driver suggested we wait for the next bus at the Winton Arms pub. Jamie’s place. It was a few minutes after 3:00 in the afternoon. Let me tell you, the Winton Arms is one of the best bars I’ve ever visited, and one that really drives home the idea that Scottish people—certain petrol station proprietors notwithstanding—are the salt of the earth. We walked in to find Jamie tending to about five older guys at the bar. We were greeted warmly and took our seats.
Thing is, we’d just run out of British currency (eight-quid taxi rides will do that) so I asked Jamie, naively, if he takes credit cards. He does not. But in the time it took to count out all the coins and pocket lint in my possession, Jamie had already poured us a round on the house. Ringo down at the end of the bar offered round two. We spent the most enjoyable hour in their company, with Jamie (pictured at right) telling us how he has a team of guys who participate in the Highland Games, a Scottish Olympics of sorts that includes games with roots in Scottish history. Their sport is tug of war. He also told us that despite Glenkinchie being down the road, most local drinkers order the cheap stuff, and the kids these days are all into vodka drinks. Crusty old guys downing single malt Scotch? Not so much. It was with reluctance, deep appreciation, and exchanged email addresses that we finally left and took the double-decker back to Edinburgh. If you visit Glenkinchie, make a point to miss the bus and spend an hour at the Winton Arms. And if you do, can you give Jamie five quid for our beers?
Sit on it, Arthur
One of the main things to do in Edinburgh if you’re fit is to climb the hill, er, massive mountain next to town called Arthur’s Seat. From its summit you’ll enjoy views that stretch from the castle to the ocean and beyond. We did it, and it wasn’t an especially grueling climb, but it does take a while, and the grass is always wet, so my super-slick two-year-old Doc Martens were a problem. I slipped several times going up, and fell smack on my bum once on the way down. But it was worth it for the amazing vistas. Watch your step close to the edge.
After climbing Arthur’s Seat, we went shopping on Princes Street, then ducked into yet another pub, the Kensington Arms on Rose Street, for haddock and chips and mushy peas, and a couple of beers. If you’re looking for a good bar street in Edinburgh, you needn’t limit yourself to the Royal Mile, Cowgate, or the Grassmarket. Rose Street seems like a strip where real (if somewhat affluent) Edinburghers go for a night out. Like so many Edinburgh bars, the Kensington Arms has a great beer selection. Jenn ordered a barrel-aged Innis & Gunn, while, on the recommendation of a guy named Albert who was sitting next to us, I had a pint of Alechemy
Five Sisters Cask Ale, which was great. Albert said the Alechemy brewery was recently launched by a couple of friends from university who wanted to get into brewing, which is the kind of thing that happens in the States all the time these days.
Since we were in Edinburgh at the tail end of the Edinburgh International Festival, I thought it appropriate to take in a performance of some kind. And that’s how we found ourselves in Usher Hall for a performance of the Philharmonia Orchestra
, led by Esa-Pekka Salonen and supported by a comely young violist named Joscelyn Fox. Usher hall is an impressive concert hall, with multiple balconies and a massive pipe organ, so it was worth it just to see the place. When the orchestra really got into Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony – “The Romantic Symphony”—it was truly magical.
Still More Beers
After the concert, we popped into the Shakespeare Pub next door. The Shakespeare is a cozy, if upscale, pub with “fruit machines” on the walls and plenty of couches and lounge chairs to sit on. We commented on how pubs in Edinburgh, like pubs in Dublin
, are more welcoming to people of all ages and personal styles. People hang out as if they’re in no hurry, either to get drunk or to get going. All in its time. I drank my Guinness and most of Jenn’s beer, since she was sleepy. That’s what good husbands do.
And that was our trip, five days in the Scottish capital. It was time to head home. There was plenty we didn’t see, from the Camera Obscura to the underground tour, but we felt like we’d gotten the gist of the place and would love to come back another time. If you go, bring warm clothes, lots of money, and an affinity for great beer and whisky. And bring me too.