My kind of place: Edinburgh – The National
The best of the summer arts festivals in Scotland's capital
The biggest arts festival in the world takes place every August in Edinburgh. The Edinburgh Festival, as it is known, is actually a collection of different festivals of comedy, music, dance, books and (often experimental) theatre. Since it started more than 60 years ago, the grand and dignified International Festival has had a boisterous and anarchic rival - the Fringe (August 5 to August 29). What began as eight theatre groups performing ad hoc - and uninvited - at the International Festival has grown into the main event with nearly 2,500 shows in 259 venues last year. Much of the Fringe’s atmosphere and success is because it allows anyone who has a show - and can find a venue to perform it in - to join the programme. The results of the liberal approach range from tedious to spectacular.
A comfortable bed
The city can become very busy during August and accommodation can often be difficult to find. Tired of the hustle and bustle and eager to profit from the descending hordes, some Edinburgh residents move out of the city in August and rent out their apartments during their absence. These dwellings are often central and provide spacious alternatives to hotels. Various websites offer apartments in different price ranges, although you may struggle to find a place at such late notice. Let in Edinburgh (www.letinedinburgh.co.uk; 00 44 31 510 0201), for example, has a basement flat in a Georgian townhouse close to the city centre for £720 (Dh4,311) for four people for four nights from August 22.
The Witchery by the Castle, Castlehill, The Royal Mile (www.thewitchery.com; 00 44 131 225 5613) is one of Edinburgh’s most famous restaurants, but its eight luxury suites are slightly less well known. Exuberantly decorated with ornate fabrics and furnished with four-poster beds, these Gothic lodgings, with names such as “Sempill”, “Heriot” and “the Inner Sanctum” are atmospheric and fun places to stay. Suites cost from £350 (Dh2,096) per night and includebiscuits, newspapers and a breakfast hamper.
Find your feet
From the top of Calton Hill, a monument-strewn and often unpeopled outcrop above the city, the view of the castle and Princes Street is illuminating. The city is built on a series of deep gorges and hills, and from this vantage point the higgledy-piggledy ups and downs that its builders have had to overcome and the gradients that walkers and cyclists face every day become dramatically apparent. The many changes in height have led to a series of steep staircases being built around the city. If you are feeling energetic, try scaling Jacob’s Ladder from Carlton Road or Playfair Steps from Princes Street. The Dean Gallery (www.nationalgalleries.org; 00 44 131 624 6200) has an excellent collection of Dada and Surrealist art, featuring works by Dalí, Miró and Picasso. The reconstruction of the studio of the Scottish sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi, a pop art pioneer who designed the mosaics in Tottenham Court Road Underground station in London and created huge robots made of bronze, is a treat.
Meet the locals
Besides the big events - the festival in August and Hogmanay at new year - and big, overcrowded sights - the castle and Holyrood Palace - Edinburgh is a city of subtle and often sophisticated charm. Ann Street is one of the city’s finest Georgian streets. Stroll down this cobbled thoroughfare lined with trees and expensive cars and you will see why it has a reputation as Edinburgh’s “golden post code”. Meanwhile, a few kilometres from the city centre, the once polluted and rundown shores of the Water of Leith have been cleaned up and are now home to no less than three Michelin-starred restaurants.
Book a table
The Kitchin (78 Commercial Quay, Leith; 00 44 131 555 1755; www.thekitchin.com) is a Michelin-starred restaurants in Leith, Edinburgh’s revivified dockland area. Since it opened in 2006, the restaurant has won a raft of awards for its excellent food and attentive service in a relaxed atmosphere. The three-course, set lunch (£25; Dh150) is great value and is a good way to experience a selection of fresh and unfussy food.
Sweet Melindas (11 Roseneath Street; 00 44 131 2297953; www.sweetmelindas.co.uk) is a delightful little restaurant specialising in seafood dishes. It is close to many of the festival’s venues as well as Eddie’s Seafood Market, a famous supplier of seafood to many of the city’s best restaurants. A two-course dinner (£22.5; Dh135) includes a choice of mains such as gurnard, sole, and roast Icelandic wolf fish with Savoy cabbage, cured meat and sautéed potatoes. The desserts are also excellent.
One of the best places to escape from lacklustre uniformity of the highstreet chains of Princes Street is Stockbridge. This relaxed neighbourhood, which is within walking distance of the city centre, has a wide range of independent shops, cafes and restaurants. There are lots of delicatessens and cheesemongers as well as beauty and cosmetics shops, such as Dolly Leo Apothecary (www.dollyleo.com; 00 44 131 315 2035). The area is also home to a wide range of art galleries, artist studios and fine art dealers, which gives the place a mock-bohemian atmosphere.
What to avoid
Steer clear of Princes Street on a Saturday afternoon unless you like being jabbed in the ribs and caught in hideous scrums. Edinburgh’s principal shopping street is simply not worth the effort.
Three years late and at an estimated cost of £414.4m (Dh2.5bn), the Scottish parliament (www.scottish.parliament.uk; 00 44 131 348 5000) is to some a remarkable building and to others an incredible waste of money. It is certainly worth visiting to make up your own mind. The architect Enric Miralles has taken cues from a wide range of Scottish people, places and things, from the designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh to the worn hulls of upturned fishing boats, to create a unique and interesting structure.
Published in The National on 29 July 2011.