Edinburgh: City of Forts and Festivals

Photo of Eralda Agalliu
13 October 2016

Renowned as a city of literature, Edinburgh’s beautiful aesthetics of old and new have inspired countless of travellers and locals alike. Emma Sothern guides us through the cultural riches of Edinburgh, finding old favourites and hidden gems amongst the cobble stoned streets of the Scottish capital.

I’ve lived in Edinburgh for nearly two years and am constantly finding new ways to fall in love with the city. And I’m not alone in my passion for Edinburgh, which, after London, is the most popular tourist destination in the UK. The reason behind this popularity? Well, one explanation might be its sheer beauty – from the imposing Reformation-era buildings of the Old Town to the Neo-classical sandstone structures of the New Town, Edinburgh is a city unlike any other.
Even the term ‘city’ seems inappropriate when describing this unique location. True, it is a centre of commerce, it is home to Parliament, it has all the shops, museums, bars and restaurants that one could hope for and the traffic can be a nightmare – yet so many other characteristics of cities are lost here. Firstly, it is extremely small: you can walk anywhere, as long as you don’t mind a few hills. Secondly, it is in no way oppressive. The scores of winding alleyways (or ‘closes’) are counterbalanced by the lush expanse of Princes St Gardens and also by the pockets of greenery scattered throughout the area. Furthermore, the picturesque Arthur’s Seat (rising 521m above Holyrood park) provides a country retreat in the heart of the city and is a popular destination for tourists and locals alike.
A final distinction between Edinburgh and other cities is the fact that it remains relatively untouched by modernity, as both the Old and New Towns are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It is a city of contrasts, as these two areas could not be more different, yet somehow the contrast works and the more contemporary New Town does not detract from the splendour of the medievally-planned Old Town. The name ‘New Town’ is somewhat misleading – it actually remains from the 18th century, when it was constructed as a solution to over-crowding in the Old Town.

The New Town, with its listed buildings complete with imposing pillars and wrought-iron gates, is perhaps the smartest area in Edinburgh. Personally, however, I prefer the charming and jumbled nature of the Old Town. Even after two years here, I often discover new closes to venture down and only recently took a tour in the creepy underground Mary King’s Close. These tiny alleyways wind off the Royal Mile – the main street of the Old Town and home to souvenir shops, whiskey specialists and an assortment of weird and wonderful street performers. The Mile stretches up from the Palace of Holyrood (the Queen’s ‘holiday home’ when visiting the city) to the formidable Edinburgh Castle, perched upon the crag of an extinct volcano. The castle is most splendid when seen from Princes Street at night, when floodlights illuminate its imposing shadow amongst the skyline of the Old Town.
Although its appearance makes Edinburgh an attractive destination, it is not just a pretty face. Another reason why it holds a special place in peoples’ hearts is the diversity of its cultural offerings. The city has strong literary associations and was declared the first UNESCO ‘City of Literature’ in 2004. It is a favourite location of publishing houses, after London and Oxford, and has been home to writers such as R.L. Stevenson, Alexander McCall Smith, R. M. Ballyantyne and Sir Walter Scott (commemorated by the Victorian Gothic ‘Scott Monument’ that overlooks Princes St Gardens). More contemporary novelists include Irvine Welsh (although the Leith presented in his Trainspotting is a far cry from the renovated, cosmopolitan Leith of today) and J.K. Rowling, who began writing her Harry Potter series in the Elephant Café, now as famous for its hot chocolate as it is for its former patron.
The city has also been the setting for many novels; for example, Muriel Spark’s Miss Jean Brodie was in her Prime living in the affluent area of Morningside and Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus carries out his investigations from his home in Marchmont. The eerie atmosphere of the city is reminiscent of Dickensian London and the ever-present rain adds to the gothic feeling that makes it a popular setting for crime fiction (aside from Rankin, it also inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). Another reason why the city inspires the novels of crime writers may be its sinister history; for example, serial killers Burke and Hare were said to scout for victims in the Edinburgh Vaults, stashing their bodies in its chambers. The Grassmarket area, now a popular drinking spot for tourists, was also formerly the setting for public hangings.

But it’s not all doom and gloom here. Edinburgh is a favourite destination of comedians and has boosted the careers of many a performers during the Fringe Festival. The Fringe is the largest performing arts festival in the world and is one of several festivals, including the International Festival, the Military Tattoo Festival, the International Book Festival and the International Film Festival that make up the renowned Edinburgh Festival. Thanks to this collection of festivals, the month of August sees the city double in population; the normally brief trip down the Royal Mile can take an hour due to the crowds and night owls revel in the later licensing hours of bars – some staying open until 5am.
The festival and the chaos create an excitement of pure exhaustion in which living in the city at this time entails. However, the buzz of Edinburgh does not fade as the August festivities come to a close. The list of things to do in Edinburgh is endless and the city does not fall asleep as the last fireworks of the Festival fade away. A recent experience I had is testament to this fact. Recently, I brought a Belgian friend of mine to Calton Hill, in doing so stumbling upon the Hindu festival of Dussehra in full swing. We watched, mesmerised, as three effigies were set alight to represent the triumph of good over evil, after which a spectacular firework display took place. My friend was delighted and commented that she could not have had a better send-off from a city that she too, had fallen in love with. This is typical of Edinburgh. It constantly reminds you how lucky you are to be here but just in case you forget, it reveals something amazing that causes you to fall in love all over again.

By Emma Sothern

Image courtesy: 1: Christian Bickel/ WikiCommons, 2: Tilmandralle/ WikiCommons, 3: Andrew Kingsford-Smith/ Grinsford

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