Edinburgh’s Main Street

History, Shopping and the Sound of Bagpipes Mingle along Edinburgh’s Main Street

Last month Edinburgh was named by Conde Nast Traveler magazine as the best tourist city in all of Britain—even surpassing London. That may be debatable, but there is no disputing the fact that Edinburgh has managed to segue from its tumultuous political history and medieval rat-filled streets to a modern, exuberant city.


Scotland’s biggest overseas tourist market is Americans, probably because so many of us have Scottish roots. About 4.5 million Americans claim Scottish heritage, nearly equal to the current population of Scotland itself.
About 352,000 Americans visited Scotland last year, a number expected to fall this year due to tough economic times.
Still, I saw plenty of us roaming Edinburgh Castle—Scotland’s top tourist destination.
From the castle, you can see far out past Edinburgh’s orderly new town (built in the 1700s) to the Firth of Forth, which leads to the North Sea.
Unsteady or elderly people take tour buses or taxis up to the castle. I walked, and it wasn’t bad at all. From the flat Grassmarket area (look up, and there’s the castle towering above), just walk up a flight of steps called Granny Green’s, then another 187 steps on Castle Wynd street. You’re there.
Most tourists have only a day or two in Edinburgh, so it is important to get to the good stuff quickly. That’s easy—most of it is along the straight Royal Mile that descends from the castle. Sections of it are called Castlehill, Lawnmarket, High Street and Canongate, but it’s all the same street. It’s lined with shops, tiny lanes (wynds), little museums, historical buildings and churches. There is more than you can do in a day, just on this one street, but here is what I did:
Tartan Weaving Mill and Exhibition: Just outside Edinburgh Castle. The layout is gawky, but this museum/store/tourist trap shows how tartan is made on looms. And it’s a good place to buy quality tartans, silver, cashmere, kilts.
Scotch Whisky Heritage Center: It has a 90-minute tour, but most visitors concentrate on its shop, which stocks enough whisky to euthanize the city (and is sold in sturdy boxes able to travel safely in checked luggage).
Souvenir shopping: Until overwhelmed by too much tweed, tartan and questionable cashmere.
St. Giles Cathedral: Stately mother kirk of the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) dating from the 14th century. To impress my Presbyterian minister back home, I also made a quick stop at founder John Knox’s house down the street, but absorbed no profound theological lessons. (Speaking of which, Scotland’s churches may be pretty, but few Scots attend. A 2008 government survey found 40 percent are not religious.)
Bagpipe listening: As I slipped in the door of Bagpipes Galore, a customer was testing out new pipes and the clerk was adjusting the instrument. Trust me—you have never heard the bagpipe until you’ve heard it blast your eardrums in an 8-by-8-foot room.
Palace of Holyroodhouse: Famed as the site of the murder of Mary Queen of Scots’ secretary in 1565, it’s also Queen Elizabeth II’s elegant home when she’s in Edinburgh.
Parliament bashing: At the bottom of the street, I saw the Scottish Parliament. Right away, I agreed with the critics that it is indeed a 2004 clod of a building that looks like a blocky apartment with scrap wood tacked onto its edges.
Still, it’s pretty inside. And it is a symbol of a resurgent Scotland, which endures, and which will endure long after this masculine building collapses like matchsticks but St. Margaret’s Chapel remains.
If You Go
Lodging: Apex International Hotel, good location on Grassmarket. Ask for a quiet room in the back. From about $140 per night, www.apexhotels.co.uk.
Balmoral Hotel. Fancy historical hotel. From about $340 per night, but check Expedia for occasional special rates, www.thebalmoralhotel.com.
Dining: Recommended breakfast: Cafe Jacques on Grassmarket (www.grassmarket.net). Dinner: Wildfire Scottish Steak and Seafood Bistro (www.wildfirerestaurant.co.uk)
Royal Mile Attractions:
Edinburgh Castle (www.edinburghcastle.gov.uk)
Tartan Weaving Mill (www.geoffreykilts.co.uk)
Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre: (www.whisky-heritage.co.uk)
Parliament (www.scottish.parliament.uk)
Palace of Holyroodhouse (www.royalcollection.org.uk)
John Knox House (www.scottishstorytellingcentre.co.uk/)
Giles Cathedral (www.stgilescathedral.org.uk).
For more information visit Royal Mile info at www.edinburgh-royalmile.com or Scottish Tourist Board at www.visitscotland.com.
See It In Scotland:
Haggis: Scottish dish tastes and looks like dark meat oatmeal. It’s actually not as bad as, say, blood pudding. Secret of its delicious taste? Sheep guts (heart, liver, lung).
Scottish money: It’s the same pound sterling denomination as in England, but it’s printed with different pictures.
Scottish brogue: Not hard to understand unless you’re talking to footballers or find yourself in Glasgow. Most fun word for beginning Scots speaker? Rubbish—say “Roubbbish” and roll the R.
Famous folk: You may spot actor Sean Connery or J.K. Rowling on the Edinburgh streets, but sadly it’s too late to bump into Mary Queen of Scots, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Burns or Robert Louis Stevenson.
Rain: Fortify yourself with whisky or tea. It rains a LOT. Keep an umbrella handy even if it the sky is crystal clear when you leave your hotel.