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A weekend exploring Edinburgh and beyond – history, culture and quirky cafes

Spectacularly perched on a series of extinct volcanoes and rocky crags, Scotland’s capital city is a justifiably proud and noble city. Instantly visually striking, friendly, lively – there’s a thriving tight-knit local scene of music, art and theatre – and sublimely elegant in equal measures, there’s not a city in the world quite like it. That’s not forgetting to mention its rich and varied – and often macabre – famous history which is still strongly evident as you wander along its network of granite grey medieval alleyways and labyrinthine of cobbled streets.

Edinburgh is a city I know I’ll never tire of and it’s a place each time I visit I always discover something new. On this weekend I was there to find out more about Edinburgh’s 101 objects. Like a treasure hunt of sorts, the project is designed to help both locals and visitors immerse themselves in the city’s colourful past in a vivid and fun series of the city’s most treasured and historical objects, brought together to celebrate Scotland’s Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology.

For a morning and a little of the afternoon, Edinburgh served as an improbably handsome stage as I roamed through its regal streets on the hunt for one awe-inducing object after another, each one telling the story of the capital’s past. Starting at the Scotsman Steps (which runs along the side of what used to be the headquarters of The Scotsman newspaper) which is now a permanent work of art with each one of 104 steps made from a different colour marble (courtesy of artist Martin Creed) and ending at the grave of Adam Smith, father of modern economics and author of The Wealth of Nations, one of the most influential books ever written.

Over the hours I ticked off a pretty worthy 10 objects in an activity I grew increasingly more interested in with the discovery of each new find. I loved how the objects theatrically told the story of Edinburgh, so much that it completely renewed my interest in the history of the intriguing city. My favourite objects of the hunt? The Heart of Midlothian, a heart-shaped mosaic built into the pavement which marks the site of Edinburgh’s old Tolbooth (a once dreaded spot of torture and death yikes!), the colourful and very worthy winner of the Fringe Schools Poster Competition (aged only six) and the exquisite and mysterious series of 10 highly detailed miniature paper sculptures made from books and left in Scottish Poetry Library by a talented anonymous gifter.

History and culture aside, I’m also always in awe of Edinburgh’s creative and unique outlook on life. A perfect example of this is the incredibly kitsch but equally fantastic Frankenstein cafe a place where I stopped for lunch to fill up on hearty American style diner food and gaze at retro horror movie memorabilia – a little random yes but perfectly in keeping with Edinburgh’s wonderful idiosyncratic ways.

Juxtaposed to the city’s penchant for dark kitsch (and I’m also including Auld Reekie’s Ghost tours in this – anyone who has visited Edinburgh will more than likely recognise the name!) is its fondness for the tasteful and cutting edge and there’s no better place to discover this than the restaurants, bars and hotels located in and around upmarket George Street. On one evening I dined at Chaophraya a sleek and modern Thai restaurant which enjoyed an enviable position on a rooftop conservatory – delectably combing divine food with equally as divine city views.

Another highlight of my Edinburgh weekend was the Pickering’s Gin Distillery tour. The two men behind Pickering’s Gin have done extremely well for themselves, they based their gin on an original Bombay recipe – a kept secret since 1947 – and turned a hand-crafted venture into a multi-award winning enterprise even bagging themselves a Fortnum and Mason deal. Summerhall an atmospheric and characterful multi-arts complex is worth a visit anyway, but the fabulous tour makes it even more worthwhile to veer a little away from the city centre. 

I loved the affable enthusiasm of distillery guide, the genuine vintage decor, the intriguing story of how it all began, their two giant copper gins distilling barrels named after their beloved grandparents Emily and Gertrude, seeing the ancient dog and cat crates reused as storage space for the distillery (Summerhall was originally a small animal hospital) and of course the ample supply of free gin…

Exploring beyond Edinburgh

Edinburgh is undoubtedly beautiful, but Scotland is also home to some of the most beautiful countryside in the world and it often seems a little criminal to not explore a little further afield too, especially because it’s so accessible by train. So one of my days was dedicated (courtesy of a ScotRail Edinburgh Days Out pass £18) to exploring some of the pretty coastal towns located less than a 30-minute train ride from the Scottish capital.

My first stop was North Berwick an easy-on-the-eye seaside town which offers an ample supply of fresh salty sea air, long wide sandy beaches, a cute collection of quirky independent shops and of course, plenty of seafood restaurants. It has the feel of a beach holiday town albeit a very tasteful one, eschewing kiss-me-quick hats and sticks of rock for Vegan Oreo cookie ice-creams and designer kitchenware stores. 

One of the town’s main highlights is the popular Scottish Seabird Centre, home to zoom cameras and telescopes offering close-up views of the coastal feathered wildlife (including guillemots, razorbills, cormorants, puffins and numerous gulls) and also a three island speedboat safari in a 12-seated Rigid Inflatable Boat which zips around the Lamb, Craigleith and the Bass Rock enabling you to view the world’s largest colony of Northern gannets.

Next up was possibly Scotland’s oldest standing castle. Aberdour Castle was built in the 1100s and went on to serve generations of three noble families. It was also the setting for a few key Outlander scenes – a popular new TV series set in Scotland which (so I was told on a few occasions) can be thanked for bringing quite a bit of new tourism to the area. 

My last stop was to be my favourite. Dalmeny was the train station stop, but it was only a fairly short walk to the picturesque small seaside town of South Queensferry and the spectacular views over the Firth of Forth. A place where lively local-filled pubs sit side by side by trendy seafront hotels and restaurants. I dined in Orocco Pier which overlooks the sea and the impressively striking Forth Bridge. Afterwards, I took a stroll along the seafront and watched as the fishing boats glowed and gleamed in the early evening light. A perfect ending to my weekend exploring Edinburgh and beyond. 

Where to stay

I spent my long weekend at the newly opened Adagio City Aparthotel a joint venture launched by Accor Hotels and Pierre & Vacances, which has the feel and the high standards of a major hotel but also offers rooms with cooking facilities which makes it perfect for longer stays and families. My hotel room/apartment was modern, clean and very spacious with four rooms with fabulous views of the city (opt for the top floor if possible – it’s worth it I promise)! The hotel also serves breakfast and but arguably its biggest plus point is its fabulous location right in the heart of Royal Mile historic area, a place where you can really immerse yourself into the history and culture of the city.

All words and photos by Becky, this post was brought in partnership with ScotRail and Edinburgh101 but as usual, all my opinions are my own – it’s hard not to love Edinburgh! 

Born in England, with a few family roots from Bavaria, and a heart in Scandinavia I’ve always been a bit of a restless soul. My first true adventure began as a six month voyage around South East Asia as a fresh faced backpacker and ever since I’ve lived a semi nomadic existence, clocking up over 40 countries on trips and living in Dublin, South East Asia and Australia. I’m a lover of US Road Trips, deserted beaches bathed in warm glow of a sunset, Cuban mojitos, easy-on-the-eye travel destinations far away from the tourist crowds and all things Scandinavian – from cloudberry liquors to Scandi Noirs. When not wandering the world, you’ll find me walking my rescue dog in leafy South West London, strolling around the Brighton Laines on random day trips, hunting for photogenic landscapes or daydreaming about returning to my all time favourite places in the world; Havana, Copenhagen, Italy, Thailand and the frozen landscapes of a wintry Iceland. Follow Becky on Twitter and Google+.

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