August marks the beginning of the Edinburgh Festivals; it’s what so many people know our fair city for and attracts visitors from near and far. Auld Reekie in August is like nowhere else, and while I would encourage visitors to experience the city at a less frantic pace too, the atmosphere is electric and there’s so much going on. If you’re local, this time of year can mean everyday tasks become that bit trickier: negotiating crowds on your commute, or trying to sleep over nightly fireworks! That said, I’m determined to make the most of it. At this time of year, publications in the South often unleash Edinburgh Guides, composed from comfy office chairs in London, and as I get a lot of emails/ tweets requesting my own tips I thought I’d add my twopence – I’m no tour guide, just a local who who likes nice cakes, art and getting out in nature and is lucky enough to call this beautiful city home. The phrase ‘hidden gem’ is hopelessly overused and often untrue – expect to queue for anywhere featured in well-known listicles – but hopefully there are some ideas here that are that wee bit different and will help reveal other sides to the city. For more specific recommendations, see my Edinburgh Guide category. In no particular order…
Get your caffeine fix somewhere unique:
Coffee from a boat? Afternoon tea in a Georgian parlour? We’re lucky in Edinburgh that we have such a fantastic indie cake, coffee and all-things-caffeinated scene; while queuing for some now-famous spots is worth it, if you want somewhere a little more off the beaten track there are plenty of places worth seeking out. The Counter specialises in coffee in small spaces, with converted police boxes at the Usher Hall, Morningside and Tollcross. Their latest venture is a narrow boat on the Union Canal, a short walk from Lothian Road. It’s a treat to drink great coffee al fresco: enjoy it on one of their deck chairs or go for a canal-side wander. I can vouch for the salted caramel brownie too! If tea’s more your thing, head to expert emporium Anteaques in Newington. It’s a quirky little tearoom (like sitting in someone’s front room) turned antiques shop. They’re open Thursday to Sunday and you have to book ahead, but this makes it all the more special. The lovely Cedric will talk you through the teas – violet petal is my favourite – accompanied by delicious bakes.
Celebrate Scottish design:
Scotland is blessed with a myriad of design talent and this month, Local Heroes brings together Scotland’s leading contemporary designers in an exhibition at Edinburgh Airport to celebrate Scotland’s Year of Innovation, Architecture and Design. The designers have been commissioned to explore the theme of travel, challenging the stereotypical notion of ‘tartan tat’ and offering design focused and contemporary souvenirs. I’m excited to check it out next week en route to Copenhagen as it features two of my favourite designers, Hilary Grant and Karen Mabon (I’ve written about Hilary’s beautiful knitwear here), but if you’re not passing through I believe each of the designers has the pieces on their websites. In addition, look out for open studios during August – I’m heading to Coburg House in Leith this weekend to check out some local favourites such as Emily Hogarth, whose beautiful paper-cuts and illustrations are so intricate; bold and delicate at the same time.
Find a Secret Garden:
We’re very lucky in Edinburgh with so many green spaces, but finding a spot on the grass in Princes St Gardens on a sunny day can be a less than peaceful experience! Instead, explore closes and find some secret spots around the city. I’m not giving away all my favourites (we all need some secrets!) but one of them is Dunbar’s Close Gardens (which I featured in my dungarees outfit post), off the Royal Mile towards the Canongate. The neatly manicured gardens have been laid out in 17th century style, harking back to a time when the area was one of the wealthiest parts of the city. The verdant spot is just minutes from tourist hustle and bustle and has fantastic views of the Edinburgh skyline. Another secret spot is the Archivists’ Garden behind General Register House on Princes Street, designed by David Mitchell who curated the Royal Botanical Gardens of Edinburgh. The courtyard is an oasis of calm filled with varieties of plant connected with Scottish myth as well as famous Scots, offering a unique, botanical take on Alba’s collective memory.
Visit an Alternative Museum:
Again, us locals are so lucky with the variety and quality of museums in the capital – perfect for sheltering from rainy days. The bigger museums and galleries are well worth checking out, particularly the revamped National Museum of Scotland. I particularly love some of the city’s alternative museums – the Museum of Childhood has been a longstanding favourite, its unrivalled selection of antique toys offering a unique slice of social history. If you like your history brought to life then the Georgian House, resplendent in its late 18th/ early 19th century architecture and design, is for you. The house has been restored top to bottom to show what a typical Edinburgh New Town House would have looked like and if you love your antiques then the period furniture, silver, glass and furniture is a dream. Located at 7 Charlotte Square, be sure to soak up the surroundings to appreciate Robert Adam’s vision of elegant urban architecture.
Find a peaceful vantage point:
Edinburgh is a hilly city and ascending of one of the city’s many vantage points is well worth the effort for panoramic views of the capital. Some of the more famous spots can get busy though, so it’s worth heading to quieter places so you can really appreciate the view. In town, the roof terrace of the aforementioned National Museum of Scotland has unrivalled views of the Old Town – try to visit first thing when it’s quietest! You can even take the lift most of the way up. If you want to get back to nature to experience your views, then Blackford Hill is my top tip: it offers maximum views for minimal effort, with great views of Edinburgh Castle and all the way across to Fife. It’s hardly a secret but I find it less busy than Arthur’s Seat where I passed busloads of tourists yesterday! Plus you can see Arthur’s Seat from Blackford Hill, and appreciate the whole panorama stretching out after a not-too-strenuous climb before a walk in the peaceful Hermitage of Braid.
Find a different viewpoint to see the fireworks:
Leading on from my last point, a good, quiet vantage point is invaluable when it comes to viewing the fireworks during the Festival. The Royal Military Tattoo has fireworks every night, and twice on Saturdays – you can see them from pretty much anywhere you can view the Castle. The opening and closing Festival fireworks are not to be missed but I’d forego paying for expensive tickets (now sold out for the opening I believe) and find a secret spot from which to view them. If you’re lucky you might have a friend with a Castle view (more common than you’d think!) or you can get out and about to see them. Talented Edinburgh pâtissier Mademoiselle Macaron (who I featured before here) is hosting a private party this Sunday for the opening event of the Edinburgh International Festival: you can view the show from the comfort of her cosy wee shop in the shadow of the castle, complete with French martinis and macarons. I can think of no better place to watch!
Go for a long walk in nature:
Nothing beats a restorative walk in nature, particularly if you’re feeling the Festival fatigue. As well as the many parks, which tend to get busy and barbecue-filled at this time of year, there are some quieter natural spots. I love to walk along the Water of Leith past St Bernard’s Well, just a stone’s throw from Stockbridge, all the way through the Dean Village and up to the art galleries at Ravelstone. Not so much a ‘hidden gem’ if my last visit is anything to go by, but I couldn’t not mention the former grain milling area. The rush of the river and stunning architecture makes you feel like you’re in the continental countryside, not the centre of a city. There are also lovely wooded areas; I’d recommend the nearby Ravelston Woods near Blackhall in North Edinburgh – a short bus journey from the city centre – for a wander through the trees. This area is a Local Nature Reserve and ancient woodland renowned for its biodiversity and particularly dazzling in the Spring as the bluebells burst into bloom.
Explore places that aren’t what they say they are:
A castle that isn’t a castle? What’s a ‘land’? Sometimes the city can be a little confusing, but it’s worth checking out places that aren’t what they first seem. Lauriston Castle isn’t a Castle but a stately home, where entering is like stepping back in time – everything left just as it was in 1926, when it was left to the nation by its last owner Mrs Reid. The opulent interiors are the work of Mrs Reid’s husband, Mr W R Reid, owner of Morison & Co., one-time leading Edinburgh cabinet makers. The only way to view the house is by tour, which takes you from one sumptuously decorated room to another, telling the stories of previous inhabitants and the Reids’ fascinating collection of objects. The grounds are free to visit and are just as impressive with stunning views out to Cramond and beautiful botanicals. Another destination that seems confusing at first is Gladstone’s Land – not a country but a restored 17th century tenement. The house belonged to wealthy merchant and landlord Thomas Gledstanes, from a time when Edinburgh was one of the fastest-growing cities and the spot was one of the first ‘skyscrapers’ – a fascinating insight into past lifestyles.
Head to the Seaside:
Did you know Edinburgh has a beach? Of course you locals do, but when I’m asked for recommendations by visitors, they’re often surprised to hear the city has it’s own seaside, so I thought it was worth including here too! Porty has a unique feel – more like a village really. My top tip is to head to the newest branch of Twelve Triangles on the High Street, grab a doughnut to go (I can recommend rose custard) or perhaps their take on the traditional Scottish delicacy, macaroni pie, and head to the seafront to enjoy the views. Watch out for hungry seagulls! If you walk East along the promenade you will see the most beautiful terrace of pastel-coloured houses while you walk off your pastries.
And if all else fails… Get out of Town!
If it’s all getting a bit much, head out of town by bus or train to enjoy Edinburgh’s fantastic surrounds! So many places are accessible by public transport if you plan ahead and we’re spoilt by what’s on our doorstep. My favourite is the (now not-so-secret) Secret Herb Garden, a beautiful herb garden and eatery where you can enjoy delicious homemade treats in the glasshouses amid the scent of herbs and other botanicals. Just hop on a bus to Straiton, get off by Ikea and it’s a brief, scenic walk along a country road. Be sure to leave room for the herb-infused bakes, and I dare you to leave empty-handed! If you’re after an art fix I’ll be blogging in greater detail soon about the wonders of Jupiter Artland. In a nutshell, it’s a huge estate filled with pieces of contemporary art and sculptures, both big and small. The joy is exploring the extensive grounds (beautiful in itself) and stumbling across the artworks, from weeping girls to gigantic baskets – I won’t spoil all the surprises.
There are so many other places I could have mentioned, but I’ve kept it to ten broad headings for now! Those famous places and must-sees on your itinerary are still so worth a visit, but getting off the beaten track will yield a much more unique, multifarious depiction of our city than See You Jimmy hats on the Royal Mile. If you’re visiting, I hope you thoroughly enjoy my city; be sure to ask questions in the comments if you want to know more!
Where are your hidden gems where you live? Have you been to Edinburgh before?