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Historic Edinburgh, capital of Scotland, has so much to offer that you can't possibly do it in a day. The city lies in a beautiful setting, sprawling over an extinct volcano, known as Arthur's Seat, and dominated by the grey, brooding hulk of the Medieval Edinburgh Castle -- the tourist hub of the Royal Mile, a street exactly one Scots mile long. (The outdated measurement is equivalent to 1,807 meters, longer than the standard 1,609-meter mile.)
Old Town, as this area is known, features a wonderful labyrinth of alleyways and cobbled streets filled with castles, museums and churches. After the 1707 Act of Union joined Scotland and England politically, many of Edinburgh's wealthier residents abandoned Edinburgh for London. The Georgian terraces -- individual terraces found on the front of Georgian-style row homes -- of nearby New Town were built in an effort to attract them back. Both Old Town and New Town are part of the city's UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Tourism staples include Scotch whisky (with opportunities to learn taste and buy) and golf at St. Andrew's Links, not too far from the city. Edinburgh is, perhaps, most well known for its annual Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the largest arts festival in the world, taking over the city for three weeks every summer. In addition to a wide array of performances, the city's iconic Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo takes place at the same time, with the castle as its backdrop.
Alongside this tradition, Edinburgh has an edgy, modern vibe, too. Galleries display cutting-edge art, while chic restaurants, day spas and hotels peddle sophistication. A hip pub culture and nightlife scene complete the picture. Meanwhile, on the doorstep is the Scottish countryside -- miles of rolling, heather-covered hills, craggy mountains and still-as-glass lochs (one has a resident monster you might have heard of).
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Other British Isles & Western Europe Cruise Ports:
Amsterdam • Antwerp • Basel • Belfast • Brugge (Bruges) • Brussels • Dover • Dublin • Dusseldorf • Edinburgh • Ghent • Harwich • Holyhead • Invergordon • Le Havre • Lisbon • Liverpool • London (Tilbury) • Newcastle (England) • Paris • Rotterdam • Rouen • Southampton • St. Peter Port (Guernsey) • Vigo
You're in the land of Scotch whisky, so skip the umbrella-topped cocktails and order up a wee dram. Ask for something "peaty" if you favor a smoky Scotch, or chat up a bartender to discover many brands that never make it to the U.S.
Cashmere and malt Scotch are ideal. Try Jenners on Princes Street, Ragamuffin on the Royal Mile, or Halibut and Herring on Bruntsfield Place for the soft stuff. For the hard stuff, consider Royal Mile Whiskies on High Street in Old Town. Serious Scotch connoisseurs might visit the Scotch Malt Whisky Society on Queen Street in New Town, where an entry fee lets you in to taste and buy upwards of 100 single-barrel malts that can't be found in stores.
English is spoken -- with a Scottish accent. This is fairly gentle in Edinburgh but much stronger in Glasgow, should you choose to take a daytrip there.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Currency is the pound Sterling. Scotland has its own bank notes, but they're interchangeable with English notes and have the same monetary value. For currency-conversion rates, check www.xe.com or www.oanda.com.
Old Town, New Town and the port area in Leith all contain plenty of ATMs.
If you are visiting from outside the European Union, you can get back some of the 17.5 percent VAT (value-added tax) you pay on certain goods. Not all shops participate, and there's a minimum purchase level. You need to have your passport and fill in a form at the time of purchase. Present the forms to customs officials at the final departure from the European Union, but keep in mind the agents probably will ask to see the goods. Visit www.globalrefund.com for more information.
Editor's Note: ATMs in Scotland require a PIN to be no more than four digits long, so plan ahead. Also, many display only numerals on the keypad. For pin codes that include letters, commit them to memory or jot down the translation to numbers.
Where You're Docked
Smaller ships (less than 700 feet) usually dock in Leith, while large ships stop at Rosyth or South Queensferry.
Leith is a historic port that's a 30-minute bus ride, a 15-minute taxi ride or one-hour walk from central Edinburgh. This is the closest and most convenient place to dock for sightseeing in Edinburgh.
Rosyth is on the other side of the Firth of Forth estuary, and has no direct public transportation, aside from taxis. For most ships, the port operates a free hop-on, hop-off service, which takes you to Dunfermline and North Queensferry. Or, you can opt to take a taxi to central Edinburgh (30 minutes). There's also a train from Dunfermline (35 minutes) or a bus (five-minute taxi ride to the stop; 40 minutes to central Edinburgh).
South Queensferry is a tender port, with good transportation connections. You'll be anchored with great views of the Forth Bridge. Once ashore at Hawes Pier, you can take a private shuttle service directly from the pier to the city center (30 minutes), or opt for a public bus (40 minutes), train (10-minute walk to the station before a 20-minute train ride) or taxi (30 minutes).
In Leith, the purpose-built cruise terminal offers tourist information, while the adjacent Ocean Terminal Shopping Centre has a taxi rank, bus stop with service to Edinburgh, ATM and a free Internet lounge, in addition to a variety of retailers, a large cinema, cafes and restaurants -- some with stunning views out across the Firth of Forth. The Royal Yacht Britannia, the Queen's retired floating palace, is moored on Leith's waterfront (entry via the shopping center) and is worth a visit.
At Rosyth, there's a shuttle to the terminal building (two minutes), where volunteers provide information. This port has no shops, although souvenirs are available. The terminal lounge has restrooms and free Wi-Fi, and taxis are available. There's no ATM, but you'll find them, as well as shopping, in Dunfermline (15 minutes on the free shuttle service).
South Queensferry doesn't have a terminal building, but the little town of South Queensferry is a few hundred yards from the pier. There, you'll find an ATM at Clydesdale Bank on High Street, as well as restaurants, shops and pubs. A welcome team at the pier can provide you with transport information, and a list of cafes with free Wi-Fi.
On Foot: Once in central Edinburg, you can walk anywhere. Old Town and New Town are separated by the easily traversed Princes Street Gardens.
By Taxi: Central Taxis offers 24/7 service, and cabs can be booked in advance (0131 229 2468). Another option is City Cabs (0131 228 1211). Edinburgh Taxi also accepts bookings for mini-buses and chauffeur-driven cars (0131 610 1234).
By Bus: Buses are easy to figure out, and they're trackable on smartphones. The Leith port terminal is also a terminal point for several bus routes. Drivers can make change for fares. It's also possible to purchase a day pass (available only from ticket machines at tram stops or from the tourism center) for unlimited combined travel on both buses and trams. For maps and timetables, check the Lothian Buses website.
By Tram: Trams travel on Princes Street and branch off in several directions from there. You need to buy a ticket from the machines, located at each stop, before boarding. It's also possible to purchase a day pass (available only at tram stops or from the tourism center) for unlimited combined travel on buses and trams. For information, check Edinburgh Trams.
By Car: Enterprise has a lot near the Leith port terminal (0131 555 0555). Other Edinburgh rental agencies include Thrifty (0131 337 1319) and Hertz (0843 309 3026). If you rent a car, remember that you need to drive on the left in Scotland.
Watch Out For
Rain. It rains a lot, which gives the city some of its allure -- the misty, cobbled alleyways, the gorgeous green gardens -- but you will get wet.
Speaking of cobblestones, you'll encounter plenty of them in Old Town, so good walking shoes are a must.
Be careful when crossing streets because the Scottish drive on the left-hand side of the road. It's easy to forget that you need to look in the opposite direction for oncoming traffic. Same goes for mass transit. You need to board on the opposite side of the street from what you may be used to.
Many streets change names from block to block, so don't let this mix you up.
In July and August, especially out of town, Scotland is plagued by small biting insects called midges, so take plenty of insect repellent.
Old Town: Dating to Medieval times (12th century), Edinburgh's Old Town is where most of the major historic monuments and attractions are located, with most anchored on, or just off, the Royal Mile, the main roadway. The Royal Mile is the historic thoroughfare that's marked at the top by Edinburgh Castle (the top attraction in Scotland) and at the bottom by the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the official royal residence in Scotland. Your best bet is to start your trip down the Royal Mile from the top (our listings run top to bottom); along the way, the Royal Mile has four different street names: Castlehill, Lawnmarket, High Street and Canongate. Here's a sprinkling of attractions and sights worth seeing:
Edinburgh Castle: At Edinburgh Castle, key attractions include St. Margaret's Chapel, the Stone of Destiny (where Scottish monarchs were crowned) and a display of the Scottish crown jewels. Listen for the 1 p.m. gun firing, a ritual since 1861 (daily, except Sundays). Guided tours are available. (Open 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily in the summer and until 5 p.m. in the winter)
Scotch Whisky Experience: At the Scotch Whisky Experience, tastings are available after a fun tour, involving a ride through the displays in a whisky barrel. (354 Castlehill; open from 10 a.m. daily, with timed tours)
St. Giles Cathedral: St. Giles Cathedral is the high "kirk" (church) of Scotland and dates to the Middle Ages. Inside are numerous memorials, stained-glass windows and art masterpieces. (Lawnmarket; open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, closes 5 p.m. daily in winter)
Palace of Holyroodhouse: The Palace of Holyroodhouse is the official Scottish residence of the British monarch. Try the fabulous tour of the chambers, historic apartments and state rooms, of Mary Queen of Scots. The palace gardens are gorgeous. (Open 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily in the summer, with last admission at 4:30 p.m., closes 4:30 p.m. in the winter, with last admission at 3:15 p.m., check for closures during royal visits in summertime)
National Museum of Scotland: In Old Town, but off the Royal Mile, the National Museum of Scotland is a treasure trove of archeological, cultural and scientific exhibits, including Dolly (stuffed and mounted, that is), the first cloned sheep
New Town: The moniker is misleading, but everything is relative; New Town actually dates to the 18th century -- it was originally built as an antidote to the fetid jumble of Old Town. New Town's wide streets and beautiful Georgian houses in Charlotte Square are worth a stroll. Queen Street is home to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, while George Street offers boutiques, bars and restaurants. Other attractions include the National Gallery of Scotland, the National Gallery of Modern Art and the Royal Scottish Academy.
Scottish National Portrait Gallery: The Scottish National Portrait Gallery is a five-minute walk from Princes Street. See the past and present face to face -- from Mary Queen of Scots to Sean Connery. Admission is free. (Queen Street; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily and until 7 p.m. Thursday, until 6 p.m. during August)
National Gallery of Scotland: The National Gallery of Scotland holds Scotland's greatest collection of Old Masters. It's one of Europe's finest art collections with works from the Renaissance period to the 19th century, including pieces by Raphael, Titian, El Greco, Velazquez, Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Gogh, Monet, Cezanne, Degas and Gauguin. On the lower level, see works by Scottish artists, including a quartet of stunning embroidered pieces. Admission is free. (Princes Street and the Mound; Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily and until 7 p.m. Thursday, until 6 p.m. in August)
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art: The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is set in parkland about a 15-minute walk from Princes Street and is home to the national collection of modern and contemporary art in two buildings, Modern One and Modern Two. Admission is free. (75 Belford Road; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily and until 6 p.m. in August)
Royal Scottish Academy: The Royal Scottish Academy plays host to Scotland's contemporary art scene via revolving exhibitions in William Henry Playfair's landmark building. (The Mound; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday)
Been There, Done That
Local Tours: Nibble your way around the city with Eat Walk Edinburgh, as knowledgeable guides weave in local history between bites of modern and traditional cuisine (yes, you'll get to try haggis!), as well as tastings of whisky and wine. Or opt for a literary pub tour that follows in the footsteps of Burns, Scott and Stevenson. For more of a workout, tour Edinburgh, from distilleries to castles, by bicycle via 2 Wheel Tours.
Real Mary King's Close Tour: The Real Mary King's Close tour takes you underground, to a warren of streets built in the 1600s. Once a busy center of commerce, over time, they were buried as Old Town grew upward. If you enjoy tales and character guides, you'll get a kick out of this experience.
Arthur's Seat: Bring a picnic lunch, and climb 800-foot-high Arthur's Seat (near Holyrood Palace), a one-time volcano with breathtaking views of Edinburgh and the sea. Footpaths to the summit start from Dunsapie Loch or the Palace of Holyrood, near St. Anthony's Chapel.
Explore the Port of Leith: This once-seedy port neighborhood is spruced up and boasts a shopping mall (Ocean Terminal), hip restaurants and ye olde pubs. The biggest attraction is the Royal Yacht Britannia, a former private vessel to the royal family. You can walk to Britannia from the dock in five minutes; tours start in the Ocean Terminal Shopping Centre. (Open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Friday, until 7 p.m. Saturday and 6 p.m. Sunday, restaurants, bars and cinema stay open until midnight).
Take the Train to Glasgow: It's a 45-minute ride; for train schedules, consult ScotRail. Glasgow presents a more modern and cosmopolitan face of Scotland than historic Edinburgh. There, you'll find trendy bars, tons of shopping -- from high-end department stores to chic boutiques -- great art and Victorian architecture.
Visit North Berwick: Another great "trip by train" is the seaside resort of North Berwick (24 miles east of Edinburgh and about an hour's ride), home of the Scottish Seabird Centre with its Big Brother-style cameras focused on the bird life activity on the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth.
Edinburgh is big enough and diverse enough to offer an assortment of restaurants and cuisines, from pub grub to a French wine bar and from traditional Scottish to Thai food.
If you're looking to try traditional, it doesn't get more Scottish than haggis -- sheep's heart, liver and lungs, minced with onion, oatmeal and spices, cooked in a sheep's stomach and often served with a shot of whisky (you might want to drink that first once you've seen this concoction). Also in the daunting category is black pudding (blood sausage with oatmeal); it's surprisingly tasty.
You'll also see familiar dishes with names that seem contrived just to baffle travelers. Mashed potatoes and turnips are called "tatties and neeps," for example. A typical meat, onion and potato stew goes by the name "stovies." Even oatmeal, a Scottish favorite, is known instead as "porridge."
If you enjoy wine and food pairings, you'll definitely find those at finer restaurants. But you can also have a meal paired with Scotches. (Just don't miss your ship!)
The Scots are justifiably famous for their shortbread cookies, so be on the lookout for locally baked versions. There are tea rooms, where you can have a "nice cuppa" along with baked goods that might include scones, shortbread and oat cakes. Or, for a traditional Scottish dessert, try cranachan (also known as atholl brose). It combines fresh raspberries, whipped cream, honey, toasted oats -- and sometimes a dram of whisky, too.
Along the Royal Mile: Fun pubs (that also serve bar food) include The Bow Bar (80 West Bow), Deacon Brodie's Tavern (435 Lawnmarket) and The Jinglin' Geordie (22 Fleshmarket Close). The Fruitmarket Gallery Cafe (45 Market Street; open 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday, noon to 4:30 p.m. Sunday) is good for casual fare in an art cafe attached to the Contemporary Scottish Art Gallery. Polo Fusion (503 Lawnmarket; open noon to 2 p.m. Monday to Saturday) offers international cuisine. And for fabulous Medieval atmosphere and seasonal Scottish produce, try The Witchery by the Castle (352 Castlehill; open noon to 5 p.m. daily).
In Leith: Check out The Central Bar (7 Leith Walk), Leith Oyster Bar (10 Burgess Street) and Port O'Leith Bar (58 Constitution Street).
In New Town: Cafes and bistros line Rose Street. Whisky fans might want to lunch in the elegant Georgian townhouse of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (28 Queen Street), where you can pair your meal with a whisky flight.
Staying in Touch
If you have your own device, many coffee houses, bars, restaurants and hotels offer free Wi-Fi. There's also an Internet lounge in the Ocean Terminal Shopping Centre. If you need a computer to connect, try an Internet cafe, such as Coffee Home Internet. (28 Crighton Place, Leith Walk, 1.5 miles from Ocean Terminal in Leith)
Best for First-Timers: The half-day "City of Edinburgh and Castle" tour is a terrific overview of the city. After scenic drives through Edinburgh's New Town and Old Town, you can tour the medieval castle set upon its rocky perch at the top of the Royal Mile. See the Scottish Crown Jewels and the apartments of Mary Queen of Scots.
Best for History Buffs: On the half-day "Stirling Castle and Bannockburn Heritage Centre" tour, you'll start by visiting the heritage center, located on the site where Robert the Bruce probably commanded his troops during the Wars of Scottish Independence in the early 1300s. After you take in the museum of Scottish history and the battlefields, you'll travel on to Stirling Castle, where Scottish kings and queens lived during the 15th and 16th centuries.
Best for Sports Aficionados: Take the half-day "St. Andrews" tour, and head out of town to the place where golf was invented. The tour includes time to explore the medieval town of St. Andrews, where Prince William went to university, and a chance to walk a portion of the legendary golf course. The classic movie "Chariots of Fire" was shot on the vast expanse of West Sands beach at St. Andrews, and a plaque commemorates the filming.
For More Information
On the Web: Edinburgh Tourism
Cruise Critic Message Boards: British Isles and Western Europe
IndependentTraveler.com: Europe Travel Guide
--Updated by Gayle Keck, Cruise Critic contributor