I'm the first to admit that Edinburgh's New Town has never featured highly on my previous stays in the city. Like most other tourists that visit Scotland's Capital, I'm guilty of spending too much time wandering the cobbled streets and narrow closes of the Old Town and rarely venturing far beyond the famous Royal Mile. However, the centre of Edinburgh is very much a tale of two distinct architectural halves, separated by the greenery of Princes Street Gardens.
The medieval Old Town was never the most pleasant of places to stay and the smell caused by the insanitary conditions led to it gaining the nickname 'Auld Reekie'. By the mid-1700s, overcrowding and deteriorating living standards prompted the City of Edinburgh to hold a competition in 1766 to design a new residential suburb for the wealthier inhabitants of the Capital. The winning bid came from 21 year old James Craig and his grid-iron design inspired the ordered layout of Edinburgh's New Town that still exists today.
On my most recent visit to the city I decided to give the Old Town a complete miss and uncover some of the hidden gems that lie around the grand Georgian setting of the New Town and here are 9 of the great things I discovered...
1. Get a bird's eye view from The Nelson Monument
Calton Hill sits to the east of Edinburgh's New Town and is a popular spot for those seeking out panoramic views over the city. Littered with historic buildings, including the unmissable Greek style columns of the 'National Monument' which was intended as a replica of the Parthenon in Athens but never completed due to funds running dry, Calton Hill is a must visit in Edinburgh.
For even better views over the city, head to the highest point on the hill at the top of The Nelson Monument. For £5 you can climb the 143 steps to the viewing platform and enjoy possibly the finest 360 degree vista of Edinburgh and its most iconic landmarks.
The Nelson Monument was completed in 1816 to commemorate Admiral Lord Nelson and his victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. Designed to resemble an upturned telescope, in 1852 a time ball was installed to drop at one o'clock each day, providing a visual signal for ships which was critical for navigation at that time. Due to good old Scottish weather, the ball could not always be seen and in 1861 it was decided to also fire a cannon from Edinburgh Castle ramparts at one o'clock to coincide with the ball drop and provide an added audible signal. Both traditions still take place today. There is also a small exhibition on the ground floor explaining more about Nelson, the monument and the Battle of Trafalgar.
2. Spot familiar faces at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Edinburgh is home to a mind boggling amount of museums and galleries, which means it can be difficult to know which ones are worth including in your visit. I've been to most of Edinburgh's attractions over the years and for me, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is one of the best and the good news is that it's free to visit. Situated on Queen Street within Edinburgh New Town, it is hard to miss the sprawling red sandstone neo-gothic style building.
When the gallery was first opened to the public in 1889, it was the first purpose-built portrait gallery in the world. Today it is home to a collection of over 30,00 images featuring those whose lives and achievements have helped shape Scotland and the wider world. The building itself is a work of art and you can't help being mesmerised as you enter the Great Hall decorated with murals and a ceiling covered with 30 intricate panels depicting the constellations of the zodiac.
Expect to spend way more time exploring the many rooms here than you might have originally anticipated!
3. Grab an ethical lunch at Social Bite
Lunch in Edinburgh New Town can involve anything from traditional pub grub to chain restaurants and upmarket brasseries. However, I encourage you to opt for a more ethical choice by eating at Social Bite on Rose Street. Not only will you find a choice of delicious and healthy options made from local produce, you will be supporting a social business that, among many other things, gives 100% of their profits to good causes, has 1 in 4 formerly homeless employees and runs an initiative that feeds the local homeless community.
Visited by George Clooney in 2015, it is rumoured that Leonardo DiCaprio is also planning to stop by during his visit to Scotland later this year, even Hollywood celebrities are queuing up to endorse this brilliant project.
'Good food for a Good Cause' is the Social Bite slogan, and with so many homeless in Scotland you can't really argue with that.
4. Play detective at The Oxford Bar
The Oxford Bar is part historic Edinburgh pub, part literary attraction, thanks to the author Ian Rankin who regularly features 'The Ox' in his Inspector Rebus novels. Fans of the fictional detective will be familiar with the pub on Young Street as a favourite haunt of both Rebus and his real life creator.
The Oxford Bar is also a destination for those seeking real ale and conversation in Edinburgh, a tradition that dates back to the 19th Century when it first attracted Scottish writers and artists. Today you can expect to find an eclectic mix of patrons participating in a good debate and generally putting the world to rights. You might also spy the occasional author scribbling notes on a beer mat for future story-lines or a Rebus fan sipping on a pint of Deuchars in honour of the legendary Edinburgh crime solver.
5. Step back in time at The Georgian House
As you walk around the streets of Edinburgh's New Town, you can't help but wonder what life was like for those who originally inhabited the grand Georgian buildings and if you want a glimpse behind the scenes of a typical Edinburgh New Town House of the time, you need to head to The Georgian House at No.7 Charlotte Square.
Now run by the National Trust for Scotland, it was originally built in 1796 for John Lamont, the 18th Chief of the Clan Lamont. Rooms have been restored with period furnishings and a short film describes the extravagant lifestyle that the Lamont family and similar wealthy citizens of Edinburgh New Town enjoyed. Keeping up appearances in Georgian Edinburgh was a costly affair and the Lamont family eventually had to sell their house in 1815 due to mounting debts.
The Georgian House is a fascinating insight into New Town life in the late 18th and early 19th Century. If you do visit, have a look next door at No. 6 Charlotte Square as you pass. This is Bute House, the official residence of the First Minister of Scotland.
6. Discover a secret at Panda & Sons
Panda & Sons on Queen Street in Edinburgh New Town gives very little away about what really lies behind the faux Barbershop sign. If you're looking for a short, back and sides you will be disappointed. The vintage hairdryer over a single tartan seat is actually a lamp and the lack of hairstylists or indeed customers only adds to the mystery. A flight of steps leads down to the basement and at the bottom you are met with a bookcase and a dead end. Like all good speakeasies, only those in the know are privvy to what really lies behind the literature filled shelves. Panda & Sons is a classy, quirky bar with a specialist cocktail menu and although it is a little pricey, discovering it is a load of fun!
7. Take a break at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh sits on the edge of the New Town and is the perfect place to escape the hustle and bustle. With over 70 acres of landscaped grounds, it offers a tranquil oasis among the city. With almost 17,000 different species of plants from all over the world there is plenty to see as you stroll among the greenery. A number of glasshouses and historic buildings provide shelter on a rainy day and a restaurant, cafe and coffee shop offer a range of refreshment stops.
It is free to visit the gardens although there is a charge to visit the glasshouse.
8. Sea food and eat it at Fishers in the City
Scotland frustratingly doesn't always get the best reputation as a foodie destination. However, please take my word for it, Scotland has an abundance of fantastic local produce and being surrounded by water means that fresh and tasty seafood is one of the things we do very well.
Fishers in the City is situated in Thistle Street in Edinburgh New Town and their menu is packed with dishes using a variety of Scottish seafood in imaginative ways. I visited recently for dinner with Mr Adventures Around Scotland and we enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere and tasty food that has helped earn it a very respectable 4.5 stars out of 5 on TripAdvisor.
Mr Adventures Around Scotland opted for fried panko squid & Scottish scampi with wasabi mayonnaise followed by steak, chips, sauteed spinach and wild mushroom, accompanied by a peppercorn sauce. By the fact he wolfed both courses down without a crumb left on the plate spoke for itself and in case I was in any doubt he assured me that it was all excellent.
I decided on mango and passionfruit stone bass ceviche with chargrilled sweetcorn salsa followed by a bowl of steamed Shetland mussels with a Thistly Cross Cider, shallot and pancetta sauce. My first dish was tangy and fresh and when I saw the size of my bowl of mussels I was glad I had chosen a light starter. I knew I should have been worried when the server brought 3 empty bowls for my shells and when my main course arrived I soon understood why! Even though the mussels were fairly small I still needed some assistance from Mr Adventures Around Scotland to finish them off which meant no room for dessert sadly.
If you're a seafood lover or just want to try some local Scottish produce then Fishers in the City is a great New Town choice.
9. Stay over at the Fountain Court Apartments
Fountain Court have a number of serviced apartments throughout Edinburgh and have just been awarded the prestigious title of ‘Scotland’s Leading Serviced Apartments’ in the 2016 World Travel Awards. They kindly invited me to experience their Braid Apartments located on Thistle Street in the heart of Edinburgh New Town. The location was ideal with all the New Town attractions on the doorstep and Princes Street only a 5 minute walk away.
I stayed in one of the studio apartments which had a spacious open plan layout with a well equipped kitchen, dining table, sitting area, bedroom and a separate bathroom with a walk in shower. It was an ideal size for 2 and it was great to have the option to self cater as eating out every night can add up!
Our top floor view over the rooftops and across the Firth of Forth towards Fife was quite special and at night we could see the lights dancing over the water in the distance.
The apartments come with many standard features such as a fridge, dishwasher, washing machine, cooking equipment, ironing facilities, WiFi and TV with access to satellite and Freeview channels and Sky Sports. As our apartment did get a little hot, I was also glad of the air conditioning unit.
Whenever I needed a little break from exploring the New Town it was nice to be able to pop back to our little 'home from home' as it was so centrally positioned. Overall I found it a well equipped and comfortable base, ideally situated for exploring some of Edinburgh's best attractions and hidden gems.
I was kindly invited to experience a stay at the Fountain Court Apartments and I received a complimentary meal at Fishers in the City, all other activities mentioned were organised and paid for by me. As always all opinions are my own and based on my personal experiences :-)
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