I had already been knocking around northern England for two months before Edinburgh got on my must-go list, mainly because I wanted to do some research in the Scottish National Archives. That my visit would coincide with Edinburgh's hugely popular summer festival season wasn't really on my radar until I tried booking lodging for a week in mid-August. Both the Edinburgh International Festival and Festival Fringe were in full swing, and what few rooms were available would break my budget beyond repair.
This was my third visit to Edinburgh. The first time, traveling on a shoestring, I stayed and shared the bathroom with a family of four. Next time, I had the good fortune to be one of a group that tucked in at the opulent George Hotel and wined and dined at Edinburgh's best. Nowadays, I cannot afford the best, but my aging priorities do insist at least on private bath; try that during festival season with a C$100 (£65) daily allowance to cover lodging, transport, food, and entertainment. The best I could do was £47 for en suite student digs at Queen Margaret University, about 10 kilometers from central Edinburgh.
Queen Margaret University is a fairly new campus (2007), with just a few buildings located on the marshy fringe of the town of Musselburgh, a 20-minute walk to the nearest convenience store and a good 40 minutes to town center. I had a tiny but clean, non-smoking room with shower and a share-kitchen down the hall, which I had all to myself during my 7-night stay. Laundry and wi-fi was available, and meals could be arranged at the cafeteria, though I heard that it only opened during summer if and when a conference group was in session.
The weather in August proved (dare I say) typically Scottish, so other than walking in drizzle or downpour with (to be fair) the occasional splash of sunshine, I didn't find much reason to hang around campus, or Musselburgh. Anyway, you don't go to Scotland and bother about the weather; you go to experience its tartan and bagpipe culture, to taste its haggis or whiskey, to commemorate its epic heroes and poets, or to link yourself to its ancient history as I was intent on doing in Edinburgh.
Fortunately, direct routes to Edinburgh were handy at Queen Margaret University. A couple of different bus services offered an hour-long tour of city outskirts before arriving downtown, so I opted for the six-minute train ride (£2.20 one-way or round trip) direct to Edinburgh Waverley station, the hub of everything. Arriving at Waverley put a kink in my notion that getting around Edinburgh would, as usual, be a breeze. Compared to the tourist-friendly rail station I remembered, chaos reigned in the midst of massive renovations, and I had some to-and-fro even finding the exit. Eventually, I made my way out to the street only to merge into a teeming throng of humanity wandering willy-nilly, like dazed herd animals, in a river of multi-colored tour buses making slow but determined headway. Half the world, it seemed to me, was in Edinburgh, presumably, looking for a bit of festival fun. I was unamused.
Gad! I have to get out of here, I thought, and instead of aiming, as intended, for the Tourist Information office I expected to be located just above Waverley station, I made for the steps leading down to the sunken Princes Street Gardens, a parkland valley that divides Edinburgh. New Town flanks the north side of the valley with Princes Street, the main thoroughfare, running parallel to the gardens. The tall spire of the Sir Walter Scott monument stands out as an obvious reference point to Princes Street. To the south, Old Town rises up the hillside to Edinburgh Castle, a great gray hulk set upon a rocky crag. Southeast of the Castle is Arthur's Seat, the highest point around.
Below the street level din, relative tranquility easily absorbed the sounds of thousands – families, friends, and singles all moseying along the paths lined with blooming flower beds and lush greenery. Band music drifted unobtrusively from a distant corner of the gardens. That storied medieval Castle exuded quiet dignity from above regardless of the countless battles and power intrigues its stone walls have witnessed ever since Bronze-age men first settled on the rock about 850 BC. These days, peace reigns, and the only military activity happening at the Castle would be performances scheduled during the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo with pipers and drummers from Scotland and abroad strutting their stuff before adoring audiences.
At the west end of Princes Street Gardens, at the base of the iconic St John's Episcopal Church (Princes Street and Lothian), I came upon a funky craft fair. I spent some time browsing the eclectic selection of artisan wares and then stopped for a hearty and delicious bowl of soup (£6) at Henderson's, a well-known vegetarian restaurant situated beneath the church. Festive sights and sounds permeated the atmosphere there without the frenzied feel of the street hubbub. This was more like the Edinburgh I had in memory, and I began to relax and enjoy.
St John's was open to visitors, so I spent a few moments admiring its grand vaulted ceilings and glorious stained-glass windows before wandering onto an outdoor terrace. There I found a superb view overlooking churchyard gardens, the adjacent St Cuthbert's Parish Church, and beyond to Edinburgh Castle. Located right in the heart of Edinburgh's summer hoopla, St John's is a lovely place to take a serenity break day or night during its Festival of Spirituality and Peace.
Getting myself back on track after lunch, I braved the crowds on Princes Street aiming toward Waverley rail station and the Tourist information office I had avoided earlier in the day. I needed a map or, at least, instructions to find the Scottish National Archives. Granted, only family historians like myself would prefer poring over dusty old documents to Fringe revels, but genealogy research was my purpose, festival or no festival. And, frankly, with my busy research schedule, not to mention my meager budget, I had no idea of participating in the hundreds of ticketed events that kept Edinburgh abuzz to the wee hours.
Despite my attraction to old records, I did spend a part of each day walking, rain or shine, and many free happenings helped me feel part of the show. It was never long before one Fringe entertainment or another would appear before my eyes: a clown, a juggler, a ceilidh band, and any number of odd-ball performers gathered crowds at public venues such as the plaza outside the neo-classical National Gallery. This was especially so along the Royal Mile, so-named for the tourist-centered streets that run from Holyrood Palace to the Castle. Occasionally, I'd be drawn in by enticing sounds wafting out to the street from a bar or pub, and I knew that a solo traveler of any age or sex need never feel intimidated about going in alone to sit for awhile nursing a pint.
By the way, I should mention the other summer festivals going on annually in Edinburgh. There's the International Book Festival also in August, the Film Festival in June, the Edinburgh Jazz Festival in July, and the Edinburgh Mela (world music) in September. Truthfully, if I were to visit Edinburgh again in summer, I'd probably save up enough money for a splurge vacation, and I'd make sure to be in a party mood. I'd pay the price to stay in town and take advantage of opportunities to see top-notch performances. Otherwise, I'd put Edinburgh aside for off-season when it's less expensive and less crowded. There are plenty of other places to go in Scotland. The highlands, they say, are wonderful in summer, and, for my money, you can't beat the Scottish Borders for charm – that I know because I went to Roxburghshire right after Edinburgh.
Edinburgh Waverley: The railway hub for local and long-distance train services. It is also the central orientation point for all Edinburgh sightseeing.
Schedules and fares: Nationalrail.co.uk
Inter-city Buses: Long distance bus connections to cities throughout England and Scotland operate from the terminal located on Elder Street, near St Andrews Square, about a 10-minute walk from Waverley Rail Station.
On Foot: The Edinburgh Festival Voluntary Guides Association. Just turn up and join a small friendly group for a stroll up the Royal Mile towards Edinburgh Castle or down the Royal Mile to The Palace of Holyroodhouse. Tours leave daily from the City Chambers (opposite St Giles Cathedral) every 10 minutes between 10:00 and 10:30am and 2:00 and 2:30pm during festival season.
Touring: First-timers will benefit from taking an orientation tour aboard one of the hop-on, hop-off bus services that depart frequently from Waverley railway station. It's a good way to get oriented to the city as well as give the feet a rest while getting to some of the outlying attractions.
Edinburgh Castle: A Royal fortress situated at the top of Castle Hill at the end of the Royal Mile houses the Scottish National War Memorial, Scottish Crown Jewels, and St Margaret's Chapel.
> Information: Edinburghcastle.gov.uk
Georgian House, 7 Charlotte Square, located two minutes' walk from the west end of Princes Street Gardens. Three floors furnished in 1790s style.
> Information, National Trust, Scotland: Nts.org.uk/Property/Georgian-House
Gladstone's Land, 477b Lawnmarket, situated at the top of the Royal Mile, Old Town. Typical 17th century tenement housing.
> Information, National Trust, Scotland: Nts.org.uk/Property/Gladstones-Land
National Galleries of Scotland: Scottish and international collections housed in three sites.
> Information: Nationalgalleries.org
National Museums of Scotland: Scotland's national treasures housed in various locations, including the National Museum of Scotland, the War Museum, Museum of Rural Life, Museum of Flight, and Museum of Costume.
> Information: Nms.ac.uk
Palace of Holyroodhouse, Canongate. The British sovereign's residence in Scotland.
> Information, Royal Collection Trust: Royalcollection.org.uk/visit/palaceofholyroodhouse
Princes Street Gardens: Central landmark park, separating old and new towns, steps from Waverley railway station, right at the heart of Edinburgh.
Royal Botanic Garden, Inverleith. Global selection of plants and gardens for scientific study, exhibitions, events.
> Information: Rbge.org.uk
Royal Yacht Britannia: The former floating home of Queen Elizabeth II is now berthed at Ocean Terminal Leith, and visitors may enjoy tea and cake on deck.
>> Information: Royalyachtbritannia.co.uk
Princes Street and George Street (one block north), house Edinburgh's finest department stores, sophisticated shops, and trendy boutiques. Shops along the Royal Mile carry authentic Scottish souvenirs and wares such as cashmere knits and tartans. The Grassmarket area behind the Castle is noted for a more bohemian style of shops.
>> From Rita Anya Nara: A great informative piece about Edinburgh. It's quite inspiring to stand atop Calton Hill and glimpse the sea – a wonderful solitary moment.