How to visit Edinburgh without leaving home
Weather can be a bummer in Edinburgh. The so-called “Windy City” can huff and puff and blow your brolly inside out, and even on the sunniest afternoon there’s a routine shower waiting in ambush.
A trip to the Scottish capital, it’s fair to say, is often characterised by cumulonimbus rolling in. Here, weather retains a certain independence of mind.
It’s not the same, of course, but if the coronavirus lockdown has got you down, consider a virtual tour of the city instead.
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You’ll brighten your days at home, feel inspired to visit once life returns to something like normal and be able to do it all without getting wet once. Because for a while, at least, this is your ultimate Edinburgh “day out”.
What to do
First, you’ll want to see the big sights, albeit virtually. On the plus side there are no queues to buy a ticket and you don’t need to elbow past others to chew over the exhibits. Little perks, but silver linings all the same.
Tour the National Museum of Scotland
You hear the words National Museum of Scotland and your mind conjures certain images: claymores and kilts, Outlander and assembled fragments from the times of Rob Roy and William Wallace.
There’s plenty of that kind of history to ogle inside Scotland’s most memorable museum, but with some 20,000-odd objects to discover – from Egyptian sarcophagi to cloned domestic sheep – the galleries are devoted to Scottish history and influence on a far wider scale. All together, it paints a picture of a modern, thriving, and, at times, ingenious country beyond the bagpipes cliche.
Time travel at Edinburgh Castle
On a clear day, you can see Edinburgh Castle from as far away as Fife across the Firth of Forth. In days like these, it’s a quantum leap from the streets of Edinburgh right to your front room.
Google does the best job of showcasing the city’s landmark castle on its virtual tour, taking you on an interactive walkabout from Castle Rock into the inner courtyards of the Royal Palace, the Great Hall and St Margaret’s Chapel, Edinburgh’s oldest building.
Not to be outdone, Visit Scotland has an augmented reality app Portal AP, which lets you step into the castle too.
Discover Royal Yacht Britannia
First impressions can be poor at the former royal yacht of Her Majesty the Queen.
The boat, in service from 1954 until 1997, promises five levels of state rooms and is a sweet reminder of the days when the royals took to sea. But it’s located outside Ocean Terminal, an ugly shopping mall surrounded by dockyards and the Port of Leith. Not that you’ll see any of that online – out of context, the yacht brims with razzmatazz and a virtual snoop around feels likes walking into an episode of The Crown (just without all the Princess Margaret sex scenes).
Hike Arthur’s Seat
Fancy a virtual ramble up Edinburgh’s extinct volcano? There’s nothing fancy about Visit Scotland’s tour of the 251m crag, but it’s weirdly revelatory – and instead of taking you up to an hour, it fast-tracks you to the top in a matter of minutes.
Meet Edinburgh Zoo’s resident
So laudably conservation-minded is this zoo that it was the world’s first to house and breed penguins. One of whom, Sir Nils Olav, is so important he’s the colonel-in-chief of the Norwegian King’s Guard.
Unlike elsewhere in the UK, there are also koalas and pandas, both of which can be seen on live video feeds of the enclosures. The safari-style webcams also capture the tigers and rockhoppers, with plenty of tail-twitching magic at play. It’s safari, but not as you know it.
Let Edinburgh entertain you
Intimate yet unforgettable, The Stand has built a formidable reputation for more than 25 years. The comedy club has given a foot up to the likes of Kevin Bridges and Frankie Boyle, and is now lauded as one of the best laughter factories in the world.
You can’t come to it right now, but the show can come to you, because the venue is streaming live shows every Saturday (the first of which attracted more than 100,000 online viewers). Expect heavyweights like Mark Watson, Mark Nelson and Omid Djalili.
Ogle the Forth Rail Bridge
Trainspotters take note: no Edinburgh highlights tour is complete without a visit to the greatest railway bridge ever built. Experience it on live streaming here, then puzzle over the 53,000 tonnes of steel used during its construction.
Join a virtual tour
Normally there’s no point in listing a place you can’t visit, but if you’re desperate to see more of Edinburgh, join an Invisible Cities virtual tour. The online price includes videos, photos and audio, plus a virtual Zoom meeting with a guide.
Rarely do haggis spaghetti and crepes with clootie dumpling appear on the same menu. If you’re up to the job, however, both can crop up in your kitchen if you take inspiration from Edinburgh’s most gifted chefs.
The recipe books of curly-haired enthusiast Tom Kitchin offer a masterclass in Scottish cookery. In particular, Kitchin Suppers is a tour of his Edinburgh kitchen, showcasing the one-pan wonders he cooks for his family. Traditionally, for example, his smoked salmon frittata comes loaded with cheddar and dill (his Swedish wife Michaela’s influence, no doubt).
Chef patron Neil Forbes of Cafe St Honore, meanwhile, is continuing his tradition of uploading recipes online. One of the latest, brose (uncooked porridge) with cockles and mussels, delivers that perfect Edinburgh foodie hit: an outrageously-comforting dish, accompanied by a whiff of the sea.
You’ll have plenty of time on your hands, so another recommended all-rounder is Visit Scotland’s ebook The Scottish Recipe Collection. Cue tummy-tingling dishes from the likes of Edinburgh-based Mark Greenaway of Grazing By Mark Greenaway and Tony Singh, who now cooks at home at The Supper Club.
Setting the scene
To better understand Edinburgh, switch on your stereo and TV.
This is the city of the Bay City Rollers (for a time, the world’s most successful boy band), Idlewild and Young Fathers, as well as the defunct The Rezillos, The Fire Engines and Josef K. All of whom have a story worth telling.
Two essential songs to stream while dreaming of Leith are Streets of Edinburgh and Sunshine on Leith by The Proclaimers. Like the band itself, both are inherently celebratory yet maudlin.
If you want to get geeky, you can trawl through a collection of movies filmed here. From Avengers: Endgame to Chariots of Fire to Mary Queen of Scots to Sunshine on Leith, all brim with local personality. The mood might take you to Danny Boyle’s classic Trainspotting, but the 2017 sequel captures the capital in a far more dazzling light.
Turns out, there’s something more spirit-lifting than all of that. The Illusionist, from Oscar-nominated, Edinburgh-based animator Sylvain Chomet, is the ultimate sustained love letter to the city and is eminently watchable. Spot The Cameo cinema and Arthur’s Seat, as well as pastel-splattered Broughton Street, Princes Street, Jenners department store and the New Town.
Bring it home
The age of ordering products from our favourite cities is upon us – so go with it.
Start with a tote or clutch from Melville Street-based Strathberry (Meghan Markle’s a fan). Order a bottle of Edinburgh Gin, or join its weekly movie nights (Wednesday, 8pm). How about sodding the stuck-at-home diet by building a box of tablet and fudge from The Fudge Kitchen? Locals swear by the slabs of sea salted caramel and maple walnut.
Queen Victoria once commented that Edinburgh is “fairy-like and what you would only imagine as a thing to dream of, or to see in a picture.” That sentence, read at home while living under lockdown, now really takes on a whole new meaning.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder. And that’s a message Visit Scotland, the country’s national tourism body, has run with in the first few weeks of the lockdown. It’s been pulling heartstrings with its evocative, if melancholic video tribute to the country, encouraging previous visitors to think back to the places within Scotland that live on in the memory.
The call is to share moments using the hashtag #VisitScotland, while Edinburgh’s tourist office is providing inspiration of a different sort on Twitter (@edinburgh) and Instagram (@thisisedinburgh). Among the spookily-empty shots of gothic streets are invites to join quizzes, virtual guided tours and submit photos of the day.
Social media can only skim the surface of Edinburgh, particularly when it comes to the city’s Unesco-worthy scientific and literary credentials. The answer is to visit the online collection of the 17th-century Surgeons’ Hall Museum, where you can connect the dots between Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, Ian Rankin and John Rebus, and grave-robbing body snatchers Burke and Hare.
Stories help define Edinburgh and this is a city bursting to life with them. Even if some hide in the unlikeliest of places.
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