A Weekend in Edinburgh and a stay at Fountain Court Apartments
Anyone who has visited Edinburgh will be well aware that it is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Chances are you’ll find yourself falling under its spell without even knowing it. That moment when you realise that you’ve spent half a day stalking Edinburgh Castle, trying obsessively to find ever-better angles to photograph Castlehill. That break in the buildings when Arthur’s Seat creeps through and stops you dead in your tracks. Or when the last of the day’s light glows red from the Firth of Forth to the city’s north. They all add up to the thunderbolt – Michael Corleone style. There’s a long list of things to love about our capital.
The Must Sees along the Royal Mile
The king of the castles. Historians could spend half a day scouring the nooks and crannies of this colossus atop Castlehill. Built on volcanic rock, few cities can lay claim to a more awesome backdrop. Having been everything from a royal residence to a fearsome prison for Scotland’s enemies, the castle has been the centrepiece of the city since the 12th Century.
Within the massive complex you can find the National War Museum, a journey through Scotland’s turbulent military history. You can learn about the Lang Siege of the castle from 1571-3 when the castle governor held the fortress in the name of the ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots. And, of course, you can meet the brutiest of brutes, Mons Meg the medieval cannon.
St Giles Cathedral
You’ll be on the Royal Mile several times during any visit to Edinburgh and of all the attractions furiously working to grab your attention, St Giles is as strong a force as any of them. The enchantingly powerful Gothic relic seen today dates back largely to the 15th Century. It is worth seeing both during the day and after dark when it takes on more sinister mood. Get an icy winter’s night and take a wander around the spooky perimeter and you’ll appreciate this side to Edinburgh’s reputation. It’s the starting point for several of the city’s ghost tours….and with good reason.
Here’s a little known fact. Guided tours of the Cathedral, including access to the roof and bell tower, are available to visitors. Booking is a little disorganised but enquire of the staff and book a slot with one of their very knowledgeable guides in small groups. Tours cost £6 and last around half an hour. The views from up top and over the city centre are worth that alone! There’s also the chance to get into the ancient and atmospheric bell tower. Only the sound of the wind screaming through the old timbers and the faint call of the omnipresent bagpipes (it’s still the Royal Mile, folks) keep you company.
Real Mary King’s Close
Edinburgh’s Old Town is spook central. Ghost tours, fearsome back alleys and numerous grave yards make the area legendary in this department. Top of the to-do list here should be a visit to this subterranean mystery. A dimly lit journey back to 16th and 17th Century Edinburgh, here is a little bit of insight into the hideous conditions of city life. Plague, squalor and ghosts all come together in this underground street maze. It is located under the City Chambers so no photography is allowed unfortunately.
Now well established as one of Edinburgh’s top tourist attractions, the guided tours provide just the right amount of spooks and education for visitors.
Scotch Whisky Experience
Once upon a time I had it in my head that this might be a hideously touristy little trap and was delighted to be proved very wrong. Just down from the castle, the Experience is a fantastically done introduction to whisky. It will appeal to complete novices as well as hardened drinkers, such as yours truly. Including being whisked around in a mobile whisky barrel, getting the low-down from a well-informed hologram and an education in the sights, sounds and smells to look out for….all the bases are engagingly covered.
The highlight is the momentarily heart-stopping journey into the heart of the world’s largest whisky collection. A whopping 3384 bottles make up the eternally enviable Diageo Claive Vidiz Whisky Collection. So this is it then. This is what heaven looks like.
The tour ends with a discussion on the various things to look out for around Scotland’s diverse whisky landscapes. Complimented by an all-important dram from your region of choice naturally. For those that don’t have time to head out of town to visit one of our great distilleries, this is truly an excellent alternative. If you do, consider my guides for Islay and Speyside (the two main whisky regions) respectively.
Now that we’ve got the Royal Mile’s classics ticked off, here’s a few more to add to your list. Depending on your interests, pick and choose from this lot to fit around your itinerary.
Seeing the penguins and the pandas at Edinburgh Zoo
The pandas have taken interest in the zoo to a new level. Joining us in 2011 from China, adorable Tian Tian and Yang Guang are the only Giant Pandas in the UK. Take note: pandas sleep A LOT, so don’t expect them to be doing a huge amount when you visit. Fertility is also an ever-important issue and at certain times of Tian Tian’s cycle she needs to be left in peace. So she may not be receiving visitors at your time of visiting. Best to enquire in advance and check the website for updates. You can keep up to date on the cool live webcam too.
Getting up close to the penguin colony is riotously funny. Be sure to be around at 14.15 daily at the penguin pools, when the penguin parade sees them troop out of their play area and take a stroll amongst the visitors.
Zoos can be controversial places and don’t sit well with a lot of folk. I understand the arguments here and I’ve seen some disgraceful treatment of animals in other parts of the world. Edinburgh Zoo is a conservation zoo and does treat their animals with maximum care and affection. I absolutely would not promote it if I didn’t feel that were the case.
Royal Yacht Britannia
The royal family like to get around and this was their mode of transport for much of their international cruising in the 1900s. A truly vast vessel, the self-guided audio tour can easily consume a couple of hours and takes you past the royal bedrooms, dining areas, kitchens and even the infirmary. Astonishingly, they liked to have their Rolls-Royce close to hand and it has its own dedicated parking space on the deck. It’s an up-close-and-personal look at their lifestyles and a truly unique visitor attraction. Now retired, the ship is a permanent resident at Ocean Terminal in Leith.
Edinburgh could become a bit heavy going for kids if you’re not careful. With culture-vulture adults leading the scramble, some lighter entertainment may be called for. Another one on the Royal Mile, this is several floors worth of optical illusions and mind-challenging puzzles. The vortex tunnel is a particular highlight, good luck trying to look cool when this starts moving! It’s a very hands-on journey and nothing gets kids going more than mum and dad being made to look daft. Expect laughs.
Be sure to get up to the roof level for another of the great vantage points over the city and towards the New Town.
Hidden away up one of the many alleys and closes seeping from the Royal Mile you’ll find this curious little place. A cute and rather bizarre Harry Potter-look to the exterior, its snug collections include tributes and manuscripts to Robert Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott. It’s a very personal look at three of Scotland’s best loved literary contributors. It also provides temporary respite from the Mile’s madness in peak season.
The Royal Botanic Gardens
A whopping space of urban tranquillity, the gardens are superb for kids, picnics and plain old drifting. The ‘Royal’ element comes in with the magnificent Victorian greenhouses. They play host to an array of exotic plant life that shoots up endlessly into the sky, Jack and the Beanstalk style. I can still remember school trips here when wee me (kilt and all) would have stared in awe at the jungle-like denseness of greenery on offer. Just kidding about the kilt part.
Glasgow’s Botanics in the heart of the West End is amongst my favourite places in the world. On a smaller scale, there is that same explosion for the senses. Great bursts of heat and smells – there are no better places for chill-out time.
Not seen enough? Check out my suggestions for top free things to do in Edinburgh. Looking at some great outdoorsy activities as well as more cultural necessities, you’ll soon be seeing that Edinburgh is not likely to be a city that you’ll ever get bored in.
Where to Stay in Edinburgh
My most recent visit to the capital saw me embracing the industry surge towards high quality self-catering apartments. Fountain Court Apartments boast 230 apartments across 8 Edinburgh city centre locations. On this occasion, I was based at their logistically perfect Royal Gardens in the New Town. With a range of fantastic accommodation available delivering stunning views over to the Firth of Forth and Fife, it doesn’t get better for a city break base. Opposite the beautiful National Portrait Gallery, I darted about seeing all of the above over a weekend with ease. Whether taking on the city on foot or utilising nearby train, tram or bus links it could not be more convenient. Urban serenity can even be found within a few steps thanks to the apartment’s inclusive access to private Queen Street Gardens next door.
I’m a foodie with no love for the overly corporate hotel chains so having the option to fall out to Leith’s burgeoning worldwide dining options or to cook in was invaluable. Top of the picks on this trip was the excellent Fisher’s Restaurant. Fish and seafood specialists – clue’s in the name – the range and quality of the menu was top drawer. Leith is now bursting with great restaurants of all shapes and sizes and I’ll be back for closer scrutiny.
While I was invited to stay at Fountain Court’s Royal Gardens as a guest my endorsement of them as a first class place to stay is based entirely on them delivering an excellent product.
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