Scotland: Past the castle

By Graham Reid

The view from Edinburgh Castle over the city to King Arthur's Seat. Photo / Supplied
The view from Edinburgh Castle over the city to King Arthur's Seat. Photo / Supplied

Edinburgh, the capital of beautiful Scotland, holds a particular place in the affections of New Zealanders. The atmosphere and friendliness appeal to us, which makes it rather more than "the Dunedin of the North" as a friend of mine joked recently. Today you are as likely to be seduced by the fine dining as by the history written into ancient stones.

Edinburgh is full of obvious delights, such as the castle, but there many other things to enjoy. Here are some suggestions.

The Scottish Parliament

When devolution began 10 years ago, it was controversially decided Scotland needed a new parliament building (some said there were at least two already established buildings available).

The new building - across from The Palace of Holyroodhouse at the bottom of the Royal Mile - was originally costed at about $98 million but when it opened in 2004, three years late, it had come in at 10 times that.

It's certainly "unusual" from the outside and the money seems to have been spent on the interior. Well worth a look when you are at Holyroodhouse, as you will be.

Where: The Scottish Parliament Building; the Holyrood end of Canongate (the Royal Mile).

Surgeons' Hall Museum

Perhaps your idea of fun isn't medical oddities, old instruments, history and pathology, but here are exhibits on surgery and sport, anatomy, the relationship between Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle and famed surgeon Joseph Bell (on whom the writer based his deductive detective), and much more.

Don't be put off by the unpromising doorway and the unwelcoming stairway, this museum is something to see.

Where: Surgeons' Hall Museum; Hill Square on Hill Place, off Nicholson St. A 10-minute walk from the Royal Mile.

The Sheep Heid Inn

In Duddingston, just a few minutes around the back of Arthur's Seat, is this landmark.

An inn has been on the site since the 14th century but as you see it today the Sheep Heid is a dark, comfortable and cosy old bar with vintage photos, old books, a warm hearth, lots of different beers and a good menu.

Mary Queen of Scots used to pop in for a refreshment when she was travelling between royal palaces, and every Scottish writer of note has imbibed here.

Atmospheric, friendly, a garden bar out the back and history in the walls. One of Edinburgh's quiet treasures.

Where: The Sheep Heid Inn; 43-45 The Causeway, Duddingston

Leith

A couple of decades ago people would have laughed if you had tipped this port area to be of any interest.

But along the waterways now are new apartments, top-end restaurants (among them The Kitchin run by Michelin-star chef Tom Kitchin), comfortable bars and cool galleries. Sitting here on a sunny afternoon, you could be forgiven for thinking you were somewhere exotically European. Get an outdoor table for late afternoon drinks then take your pick of a restaurant or walk across the old bridges. Take a camera, the folks at home won't believe this is Scotland.

Where: Commercial Quay, Leith

Eat Italian

Edinburgh has long had an Italian population and it has created some of the most interesting (and value-for-money) eating options in the city.

For a slightly kitsch experience, head for Ciao Roma, five minutes from the Castle.

It is big, welcoming, caters for students and the theatre crowd (the Festival Theatre is nearby) and _ under the watchful eye of reproduction Caravaggios and imitation classical statuary - enjoy some of the finest and best-priced Italian food outside of the old country.

Where: Ciao Roma, 64 South Bridge.

Cafe Royal Oyster Bar

You must see this glistening Victorian bar-cum-restaurant. The marble bar takes up the length of one room, the brass work is shining, and if you could afford it you'd eat here. But you can at least have a look before settling in to the equally elegant public bar next door. Try the Cullen skink (soup) for lunch, wash it down with an ale, and admire the stained glass. It's another world just a short walk from Princes St.

Where: Cafe Royal Oyster Bar, 17A West Register St, off Andrew St at the Princes St end.

Rosslyn Chapel

It doesn't matter if you haven't read The Da Vinci Code or seen the movie in which this extraordinary church plays a vital role, the place is more stunning than you could imagine. Just 12km south of the city, parts of Rosslyn Chapel date back more than 500 years and its sculptured interior is breathtaking in its detail and diversity. Where: Rosslyn Chapel; the B7006 off the A701.

The Museum of Edinburgh The Royal Mile has more than its share of museums, but this one stands out. Inside 16th- and 17th-century houses, the museum traces the growth of the city through art and photography, artefacts and anecdotes. There is also the 17th-century National Covenant on display (the story is told if its significance is unfamiliar to you). Sounds a bit worthy? Not at all, a place to spend time to understand the city's history _ then maybe you can check out the Writers Museum and The People's Story on the other side of the road. But before that you might need to rest up, so read on ...

Where: The Museum of Edinburgh; Huntly House, 142 Canongate, halfway down the Royal Mile on the right.

Dunbar Close

If you are on the Royal Mile, worn out from museums and the Castle, this little close leads to a quiet park away from the madding crowd. It is so small that when others enter and see you they will probably respect your privacy (they may think you are from one of the surrounding houses) and you'll be left alone to gear yourself up for more that the city offers.

Where: Dunbar Close; the lower end of the Royal Mile on the left as you go down.

Lauriston Castle

Less a castle than a "villa" (albeit one with dozens of rooms, a large library, cellars, servants quarters and so on), this beautiful home in expansive gardens with a view over the Firth of Forth is just 10km from central Edinburgh. This was a typical upper-middle-class home and its final residents early last century (the Reids, no relation unfortunately) gifted it to the nation.

They were well travelled so there is an internationalism and elegance at work in the furnishings, decor and design: Italian marble tabletops; Chinese vases; French and German furnishings; Flemish paintings; Turkish carpets... Opulent but not over the top. A glimpse into another age and very different Edinburgh.

Where: Lauriston Castle; 2a Cramond Rd South.

And there are some starters for you. On the way to these places you'll doubtless make discoveries of your own. Edinburgh is like that.

And we didn't even mention going through the Castle, the Kirk of the Greyfriars with the National Museum nearby, the Whisky Heritage Centre...

If you go

Cathay Pacific has daily flights from Auckland to London with connections to Edinburgh. Special 2010 Earlybird airfares are available starting from $2099 plus taxes of $225 for departures through June 30. Sales until December 15. For information or bookings visit www.cathaypacific.co.nz.

* Graham Reid travelled to Britain with assistance from Cathay Pacific and www.visitbritain.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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