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Edinburgh vs London | Cultural Attractions In The UK's Capitals
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Edinburgh vs London | Cultural Attractions In The UK's Capitals

Picture of Melanie and Alyssa Erspamer
Updated: 9 February 2017
London, one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, bursting with life and activity; Edinburgh, a small and gorgeous gem packed with history and culture. Both these cities are UK capitals, and both have a wealth of attractions to offer, from historical sites to delicious restaurants to lovely parks perfect for a stroll. Discover the similarities – and differences – in the cultural attractions of these two cities.

Theatre

Edinburgh: The Lyceum

Edinburgh is a city renowned around the world for its theatre, largely due to the Fringe festival. During this three-week stint in August, tourists from all the corners of the globe come to sample theatre of all kind, including a host of more edgy, independent, and alternative plays. That kind of innovative theatre is continued throughout the year at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. The flashy Festival Theatre in the centre of town, on the other hand, boasts more high-end, fresh-out-of-London productions. Some of the best theatre, however, is at the Lyceum. This beautiful acting house keeps its prices low to support affordable theatre. It also regularly showcases original and highly entertaining plays. The Lyceum is a great taste of what Edinburgh theatre has to offer.

Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh, 15-30 Grindlay St., Edinburgh, Scotland, UK, Box Office: +44 (0)131 248 4848

London: Leicester Square

When it comes to theatres, the West End is the Broadway of London. Always buzzing with visitors, restaurants, street artists, and night life, it provides the perfect backdrop to any theatre production. The TKTS (tickets) stand, whose profits go to the Society of London theatre, is in the middle of the square and is ideal for good deals the day of a play. Leicester Square is dotted with other such ticket booths as well, providing a chance to compare prices and shows. There are a huge number of theatres in this square, each with its own shows to offer, ranging from more idiosyncratic ones, like 30 Million Minutes, to international blockbusters, such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Leicester Square, London, England, UK

Shopping

Edinburgh: Princes Street

Although Edinburgh is small, it has all the shopping you need – and then some. For an enjoyable afternoon of strolling and purchasing, head to the centre of the city, Princes Street. This famous street dividing Old Town from New Town boasts almost all of the major retailers and a stunning view of both the Castle and the clustered Old Town. Several major hotels, including the Balmoral, are on Princes Street, adding to the pleasant atmosphere of bustle and life. Parallel to it runs George Street, where one can find more high-end shops, and not far into Old Town lies the Grassmarket, home to even more vintage gems.

Princes Street, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK

London: Oxford Circus

This street is lined from head to toe with stores for you to browse; whether they are trendier options, shops catered to tourists, or huge chains such as H&M, Uniqlo, Top Shop, and Primark – all of them are waiting with attractive deals and even more attractive products. You can be sure that Oxford Street will always be full of life, requiring you to wade through the throngs of people, tourists and locals alike, to reach your retail destination. Everyone around you will be carrying shopping bags of their own, ensuring a colourful stream of consumerism at its purest.

Oxford Circus, London, England, UK

Restaurant

Edinburgh: The Balmoral

The flashy, gorgeous Balmoral Hotel can be savoured without purchasing one of the extremely expensive rooms. After all, this iconic building is not only a seat of luxury but a seat of fine dining as well. Number One restaurant, which has held a Michelin star for 13 years, is Edinburgh’s number one culinary experience. Its menu is simple yet delicious, with main courses such as roast veal sweetbreads, Inverurie hogget, and leek and hazelnut ravioli. It should not be missed. The prices are very high – £70 for three courses per person – so fortunately the Balmoral has another restaurant called Hadrian’s Brasserie, which is much more affordable, and just as delicious. It also makes excellent haggis, allowing for the quintessential Scottish culinary experience at 1 Princes Street.

Balmoral Hotel, 1 Princes St, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK, +44 (0)131 556 2414

London: Belgo Centraal

Inspired by a Belgian monastery, this restaurant will give you the idea that Belgian monks had it good. Upon entering the restaurant there is a bar immediately to the right where you can order delicacies such as raspberry or strawberry beer. After all, Belgians claim to be the front-runners in the making of beer, and this restaurant aims to prove that that position is merited. The actual restaurant is downstairs and the kitchens are behind a glass wall so that you can peek at the large number of cooks running the show. The lighting is dark and the waiters wear outfits reminiscent of monks—the setting of this restaurant in itself is a sight to see, but the food claims centre stage. The main must-try dish is the moules frittes, or mussels with various sauces accompanied by golden fries. These can be complemented with various Belgian appetisers, desserts, and, of course, beers. To complete the experience, Belgo is located in Covent Garden, one of the most fun areas in London.

Belgo Centraal, 50 Earlham St, London, England, UK, +44 (0)20 7813 2233

View

Edinburgh: Arthur’s Seat

The beautiful Arthur’s Seat is a hill rising from the ground right near the centre of the city, giving all residents in Edinburgh a taste of the country. True to the Scottish countryside, Arthur’s Seat has hardly any trees and is only a short, half-an-hour walk to the top. It is also an absolutely lovely nature walk, where you can feel miles away from the city until you reach the crest, where there is a stunning view of Edinburgh. If you face the centre, you can see almost the whole city spread out, its buildings crowded together, the distant hills visible in the background. The city is so nearby in fact, that major landmarks are easily identified. On the other side there is the sight of the sea, and the area of Portobello. Arthur’s Seat boasts the highest point in Edinburgh, and from it there are the most gorgeous views of country, city, and ocean.

Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK

London: Primrose Hill

One of the highest points in London is located in beautiful Regent’s Park in central London. The sprawling and regal park is a sight to see in itself, even before you make your way up the side of the hill to gaze at the London skyline. London is full of various kinds of architecture, but the centre has its share of tall buildings, which emerge impressively from the all-too-frequent fog. The view is unexpected and breath-taking in a city where the general size and scope is too often invisible. The houses that line the hill are also some of the prettiest ones in London, and if you stick around long enough you might catch celebrities like Jude Law coming out the front door.

Primrose Hill, London, England, UK

Historical Site

Edinburgh: The Castle

The Edinburgh Castle, clearly visible from the moment of arrival to the city, is one of the most iconic and striking parts of Edinburgh. Occupying the entirety of a hill that springs up smack in the centre of Old Town, the huge Castle is welcoming, beautiful, and even quasi-sublime on grey days. It never fails to capture the eye on a walk along Princes Street. Inside, the Castle is set up as a museum with guides and posters that give a true lesson in medieval Scottish history and a complete understanding of the Castle. Its tight windows offer stunning views of New Town. There are several restaurants and cafés inside as well. Unfortunately, the Castle is quite expensive, at £16.50 per person. Fortunately, though, it can be enjoyed from the outside, walking beneath it. If you truly want to experience this marvellous Scottish castle, either pay up, or go on St. Andrew’s Day (November 30th), when it’s free.

Edinburgh Castle, Castlehill, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK, +44 (0)131 225 9846

London: The Tower

The Tower of London has become infamous due to its long history, dating back around 1000 years, of holding prisoners and torturing them. But it is no longer dangerous—on the contrary, it has become a favourite and entertaining site to visit. The actors inside and outside the Tower, including yeoman warders who conduct tours of the place, help animate and bring the dark history of this landmark to life. You can spend hours inside viewing the various attractions, such as the crown jewels and the fortress, or taking a walk along the long wall. There are several restaurants and cafés inside, as well as talks and debates throughout the year.

Tower of London, London, England, UK, +44 (0)20 3166 6000

Park

Edinburgh: The Meadows

‘The Meadows’ connotes openness and beauty even just in name. A visit to Edinburgh’s lovely park will confirm this. The Meadows is an expanse of green surrounded by the University of Edinburgh on one side, the largely residential Marchmont on another, and the Lauriston area on the other. During the lighter months, The Meadows is packed with students and others having barbecues or tossing a ball. It is also the popular practice site of various groups, such as balancing acrobats and even fire jugglers on certain nights. From February to June, much of the Meadows is abloom with flowers of all kinds, the trees flanking Middle Meadow Walk becoming a vivid pink. Various delicious food stalls can also be found at the edges of this gorgeous park. In any season, The Meadows presents a lovely opportunity for a walk, and an escape into nature in the midst of Edinburgh.

The Meadows, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK

London: Hampstead Heath

Though Hyde Park gets all the hype in London, Hampstead Heath is actually the biggest park in the city. Unlike the more manicured Regents and Hyde Parks, Hampstead Heath seems more like an untamed forest, and in fact used to be part of Middlesex forest. This sudden explosion of nature is a welcome contrast and break to the business and pollution of the city of London. When you need a pause from the crazy streets, it is comforting to know that you do not need to head out of London into the surrounding countryside. Hampstead Heath provides an easily accessible natural experience, perfect for walks, picnics, and the like. There is also a lot of wildlife that cannot be found in many places around London, including a wide variety of birds and ducks, various snakes, foxes, and more. In addition, Hampstead Heath has swimming ponds that are especially appealing in the summer.

Hampstead Heath, London, England, UK

Gem

Edinburgh: The Forest Café

The Forest Café is located in Lauriston, which, combined with its neighbouring Old Town zones, comprises one of Edinburgh’s loveliest and artsiest areas, boasting several theatres, adorable book stores, and art shops. Though the Forest Café is not too big, it manages to do so much: be a volunteer-run vegetarian café, a free arts space, and a venue for up-and-coming musicians. It also hosts numerous eclectic and creative events, such as Seed Swaps, poetry recitals, and language teaching, and in August, it is an award-winning venue for the Fringe. Its purposes as a cooperative space include increasing access to art and building cultural understanding. The food, which includes heavenly cheesy beans on toasts, various wraps, and cheap drinks, is delicious, while the décor is all due to creative artists, which have given the Café a nice alternative feel.

The Forest Café, 141 Lauriston Place, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK, +44 (0)131 229 4922

London: The Tea Rooms, Brick Lane

Anyone visiting or living in London will have heard of Brick Lane, as it is a favourite artsy spot in the city. But once on Brick Lane, you are surrounded by such a wide selection of potential activities that you would be hard-put to know what exactly to choose. This mix of antique shop and flea market is tucked away in a building on a side road, and it is most definitely worth the visit. It features a series of specialist stalls and mini-shops of varying vintage and unique items. These include a record store, a hand-made jewellery and accessory stall, a tea-themed store, a small vintage shop, and more. Be ready to haggle, and then truly original pieces can be acquired at reasonable prices, many below £20. In the back there is even a small café where shoppers can take a break from all the prowling.

The Old Truman Brewery, 91 Brick Lane, London, England, UK, +44 (0)20 7770 6028