Edinburgh is one of the most romantic cities in the world.
I hear your doubtful indrawn breath. Even The Outlander, the popular romance about the Scottish Highlands, is not a thing in Asia—yet. Speaking of Scotland, the images popping in your head are whisky and kilts, more warriors than lovers. Even the Disney princess doesn’t need romance in Scotland.
Ah, ladies, lend me your ears. What’s the romance you seek in travel if not immersing yourself in an unreal surrounding with a glimmer of a hope of real love. In Edinburgh, you walk into the page of a history book. What is Harry Potter if not the fantasy of an English woman, J.K. Rowling, getting on a train (probably at King’s Cross station) and settling into the magical world of Edinburgh. Then there are the citizen of Edinburgh, part of its reputation as well, erecting the highest monument in the middle of the city for their beloved poet, Walter Scott, not for a general or a banker. In summer, from the Fringe to the International Book Festival, the city bursts with cultural life.
If you’re intrigued, visit Edinburgh in any season but summer: then you can actually hear the rugged yet sensual Scottish accent on the street, while the gray sky stirs your dormant emotions and nudges you to sip a hot toddy and to write. This is the romance destination for a sophisticated lady.
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Saturday Lunch: Go Find yourself a pub.
The first meal shapes the culinary image of the city, so better be local, better go to a pub. In Britain, it’s generally the best bet to have real lunch and feel the mood of town. Have haggis balls with mashed potato or fish and chips. The food is not as pretty as in Rome, but sure tastes good. Get a local beer or ginger ale on the side. You can pick a pub on Rose Street in New Town, or go to the Grassmarket in the Old Town. If you want to make it a destination, trust the locals and check the Scotsman’s list of traditional Edinburgh pubs.
Afternoon: “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anything more beautiful.”
Edinburgh has a good bus system, but I suggest you walk mindlessly—this doesn’t work for every city. Don’t do it in Seoul. The whole city center is classified as a UNESCO world heritage, with the Old Town looking like the Diagon Alley of Harry Potter, and the New Town sparkling with Georgian townhouses. If you start from New Town, walk along the middle of George Street to absorb the wealthy air of the cream-colored buildings, then head to Princes Street, the main street of the city facing the Old town. Take in the panoramic view of the old buildings stretching to majestic Edinburgh Castle in the East.
If you’re not a fan of medieval castles and military glory, no need to go inside the castle. The city has better views, free of charge, of the castle and the city both. Along the street, you’ll see the three-story Waterstones bookstore. If you’re a fanatic book lover like me, you’ll feel a physical pleasure as you enter (Told you the city is romantic). Get a book from the obligatory ‘by Scottish writers’ or ‘about Scotland’ sections and have a read in the second-floor cafe. It truly has one of the best views of the castle. If you don’t know which book to choose, I suggest 44 Scotland Street or Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith, or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark.
If you start from the Old Town, make your next destination the smaller attractions, like the Museum of Childhood, the Writer’s Museum, or John Knox House next to the Scottish Storytelling Center. You’ll walk along, or pass by, the famous Royal Mile, but feel less touristy. Then follow Victoria Street to Grassmarket and enjoy the small shops, including the growing chain of Harry Potter shops. I tried to mock its capitalism but fell in love with all the wands and Hogwarts notebooks.
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From the Grassmarket, head to the romantically named Candlemaker Row to find more quirky shops, like Avizandum (it’s a law bookshop, skip it unless you’re in the industry) and Transreal Fiction (it’s a fantasy bookshop, visit it even if you’ve never read the genre). Then follow the George IV Bridge north and check whether the famous Elephant House, where Ms. Rowling wrote Harry Potter, is full or not. It has cute elephant-theme decorations and good coffee (and again, a great view of the castle). But you’ll feel too self-aware to relax if it’s more than half-full, since it’s usually full of fellow Asian tourists these days.
Continue north, all the way along the bridge, and you’ll see the Scottish National Gallery. Don’t miss it. The size is unintimidating, but the quality is world class. Then roam around the Princes Street Gardens and nibble on some fudge or a scone you bought along the way.
Dinner: Sunset on Leith
Do you know that Edinburgh has a seaside? It does, although I wouldn’t recommend a stroll along the cold North Sea for the weekend traveler. The port town, a 10 minutes bus ride away from the city center, is Leith. It’s the Brooklyn of Edinburgh, the newly appreciated neighborhood buzzing with diverse hipsters, small creative hubs like Mcnaughtan’s Bookshop and Typewronger Books. If the name’s too strange for you yet, check the best promotional video of Edinburgh that Scotland Tourism Board didn’t make: Sunshine on Leith (a 2013 musical). So, how about dinner in Leith?
It’s not a rebellious idea after all. The best restaurant in Edinburgh is The Kitchin, the Michelin-starred eatery in Leith. My personal suggestion, however, is a little seafood restaurant called The Light House. Elegant and cosy, with an evening view of the New Haven lighthouse, it’s the romantic dinner in a faraway land you’ve dreamt about, including food so-posh-but-homey like it was made by a royal grandmother. If you prefer the company of people, go to the Loch Fyne Seafood & Grill Restaurant or The Fishmarket near the lighthouse.
Evening: The night is dark and full of good whisky.
It’d be a shame not having a good ole’ whisky for a nightcap in Edinburgh. For a solo female traveler, I say go posh or go classic. Don’t look for a hidden ‘local favorite’ recommended by one local person you chatted with. Don’t try to hop bars and conquer brands. The goal is to feel the ambiance, enjoy the fine selection of single malt whiskies, and let the experts decide what’s good for you.
If you want to avoid tourists, visit the grand bars in the most luxurious hotels in town, or sleek bars in New Town like Usquabae or Kaleidoscope. If you want to be part of a cohort, go to the most touristy streets of Old Town and visit the time-proven establishments. You can head to The Scotch Whisky Experience and go straight to its Amber Restaurant & Whisky Bar (skip the tour program in the afternoon). They offer whisky and food pairing and are ready to teach you. Whisky Rooms is also near the Royal Mile and provides a great view of New Town. You can also head to the Grassmarket and find The Bow Bar. Famous bars are used to travelers and ready to give you tried and tested recommendation.
If alcohol is not your thing, no matter how fine it is, how about an evening walking tour? Being the city of history and storytellers, Edinburgh has no shortage of interesting tour programs. Try the ghost tour or history tour in the evening. Mercat Tours have reliable programs.
Where to sleep: Modern or history, choose your era.
Locals complain about too many hotels in town and I may agree, seeing the price not going down. At least the choice is abundant, especially if you avoid the summer.
If you want just a basic room in a good location, Motel One has the great location and local-ish design (cute, not depressing like some budget hotel chains). If you want more boutique experience, I’d suggest the Grassmarket Hotel in Old Town or Tigerlily in New Town. Both have a contemporary fun & edgy design, but blend well into their iconic neighborhoods.
If you want to splurge, my money would go to The Scotsman Hotel, not The Balmoral where Ms. Rowling completed the Harry Potter series. The former house of the Scotsman newspaper, The Scotsman Hotel has rooms named ‘Writer Room’ and ‘Editor Room’. The entrance is next to the cultural heritage that are the Scotsman Steps, witch each step in a different color of marble. If a European luxury hotel boasts the ‘charm of a bygone era’ in Asia, I wince at the image of colonial marble houses. In the case of The Scotsman Hotel, the charm is in the bygone era of a newspaper when the reporters worked in the literal heart of the city. And there’s something irresistibly romantic about it.
If you want to feel more at home, serviced apartments in New Town or Leith are a surprisingly good option. You get more space for the price in Leith, and places like The City Suites or Grand Harbour Apartments come with a harbor view—letting you enjoy the steely North Sea in warmth and comfort. If you are planning to stay in Edinburgh for a week or a month in the future, staying in Leith and going to the city center by bus (again, 10 minutes only), or on foot along the Leith Walk in the morning, will make you feel like a local, especially of the young and hip kind.
Breakfast: Scone. And tea. And some cake.
Have tea with a scone. Or cake. If you’re a solo traveler, the afternoon tea set may be too much for one. Save the ladylike experience for a crisp morning. If you stayed in Edinburgh center, try the cosy Eteaket Tea Room in New Town, or the opulent Grand Café at The Scotsman Hotel in Old Town. If you stayed in Leith, walk along the scenic Water of Leith and find Mimi’s Bakehouse.
If you cannot get a table in a famous tearoom, just a Patisserie Valerie franchise will do. The key is to experience warm tea and pastry in this wet and windy northern town. You can have a scone with jam all over the world, but it’s best tasted in Edinburgh.
Morning: Ocean or mountain, to yearn the city more.
Unless you feel the itch to see your favorite spot one last time, skip the city center. If you stayed in Leith, don’t forget to visit the Royal Yacht Britannia as early as possible in the morning. It’s a former royal yacht of the British monarch, and now permanently berthed there. It’s like touring a life-size dollhouse (doll ship?). Have that aforementioned tea and scone at the Royal Deck Tea Room. It’s possibly the least tacky ‘royal’ experience you’ll have in Britain, and actually quite romantic.
Or go find nature. The buildings and sky of Edinburgh may seem monotonous but the lush greenery makes the city come alive. Go north to see the Royal Botanic Garden or go south to try Holyrood Park. The top of the park is Arthur’s Seat, a ‘possible’ location of Camelot. You don’t need to climb all the way up to see its beauty. There you’ll feel the heartache of not having another week to see more of the Scottish mountains.
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Last of all, if you need to do some final shopping, head to Jenners on Princes Street. It’s Edinburgh’s counterpart to London’s Harrods, with a selection of everything Scottish, from miniature single malt whiskies to shortbread to tartan-patterned wallets. Otherwise, a little shop called Treasure Trove is not far from there, filled with handiworks from knitwear to handmade toys.
From there, it’s a quick bus or taxi ride back to Edinburgh’s quirky little airport, to ponder what it would be like to spend a few more weeks or months in this romantic, windy gem.
This article is sponsored by The City Suites. It is editorially independent.