The marketing machine would have you believe that for one month of the year, when all the festivals hit in August, Edinburgh is the most important city in the world.
In cultural terms, the marketing machine is correct. Nowhere else brings together the programme that the International Festival, the Fringe, the Tattoo, the Book Festival and others collectively offer, and nowhere else draws international audiences on such a massive scale. The sense of event is palpable, the excitement infectious, the celebration an antidote to the concerns of day-to-day life in the 21st century.
This upside implies a downside, of course, that for the other months of the year, the city simply isn’t quite as thrilling. Yes, it has its castles and its galleries, its acclaimed restaurants and its museums, its medieval fabric and its Georgian neo-classicism, but it can’t claim to be on a par with the likes of London, New York or Paris. Its population and location lead to suggestions that the city’s more obvious peers are, perhaps, Copenhagen or Dublin, Helsinki or Oslo. Yet Edinburgh has a more resonant reputation than comparable northern capitals; internationally, it’s held in regard for more than just August.
Perhaps Sir Walter Scott pulled off this trick nearly 200 years ago, spinning the very idea of Scotland from a matrix of noble clansmen, stark mountains and enduring romance. Even though Edinburgh is resolutely urban, visitors can still see 12th-century ruins or rugged topology in the city centre, a fix of Caledonian mythos without travelling to the Highlands. The legacy of the Scottish Enlightenment also underpins its status, and not just statues
of men such as David Hume or Adam Smith. For a period in the 18th century, Edinburgh was the world’s intellectual proving ground, helping form a framework for the very nature of academic and intellectual enquiry that has followed ever since. The New Town is a living monument to the ambition and self-conscious rationality of that age.
It’s narratives such as these, historical fact or literary fiction, that are the city’s real strength. Tales twisting round its cobbled streets and sandstone façades elevate and engage, capturing the attention of visitors. Away from the incandescence of August, the city’s stories are well told whatever the month. And the pages keep turning.
Neatly linking Edinburgh Castle with the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Royal Mile is the first port of call for most first-time sightseers. But there’s plenty of interest beyond its confines: to the north and north-west, the elegant New Town and genteel Stockbridge; to the east, the dominant hulk of Arthur’s Seat; and the coastal town of Leith, undergoing rapid change in the 21st century.
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Edinburgh’s eating options have long been impressive and they’re still improving today, with Michelin-starred high-end venues at one extreme and a bright array of budget cafés at the other. The pubs and bars, too, are many and varied, historic pubs supplemented by sleek style bars. Edinburgh also has plenty of shopping and hotel choices.
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Arts & entertainment
Most of the highlights of Edinburgh’s cultural scene are crammed into a single month: August, when an array of arts festivals draws thousands to the city from far and wide. But outside the chaos of summer, there’s plenty here that appeals, from the improving local art scene to the cluster of bring-an-instrument folk sessions held in tiny Old Town pubs.
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Escapes & excursions
It’s less than an hour from Edinburgh by train, but Glasgow is a very different city to its near-neighbour: bigger, brasher and arguably a little livelier.
There are also rural highlights within easy reach of Edinburgh.
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