By Rick Steves
On one of my earlier visits to Edinburgh Castle, I stood shoulder to shoulder with the tall mustachioed guard, our noses pressed against the glass gazing at Scotland's Crown Jewels. He said, "Ours are older than England's."
I asked, "How can that be?"
He explained, "Cromwell destroyed England's jewels. But we Scots are good at hiding things. These are Scottish-made: diamonds, gems, and Scottish gold. The last time that crown was worn was in 1651…the coronation of Charles II.
"Young man, do you know about our Stone of Scone?" he asked, leading me to the plain and strong stone the size of a car tire next to the jewels. "Twelve hundred years ago, this was the coronation stone of Scotland's kings. The English stole it. For 700 years it sat under the coronation chair at Westminster Abbey. But we got it back. It was November 15, 1996. A glorious day for Scotland. You should have seen the fanfare."
Edinburgh Castle kindles Scottish pride. Statues of King Robert the Bruce (1274–1329) and Sir William Wallace ("Braveheart," 1270–1305) guard the castle gate. Wallace (famous thanks to Mel Gibson) fought long and hard against English domination before being executed in London — his body cut to pieces and paraded through the far corners of jolly olde England. Bruce beat the English at Bannockburn in 1314. Bruce and Wallace still defend the spirit of Scotland.
Head to the castle's balcony for a grand view of Edinburgh's Royal Mile. It leads through the old-time city of Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter Scott, and Robert Burns to Holyroodhouse Palace. Medieval skyscrapers hide the peaceful courtyards of what was once the most crowded city in the world.
If you're here at the right time, you too might be jolted out of your reverie by the explosive sound of cannon fire — it happens every day for the one o'clock salute. Hanging over the balcony, I looked past the smoking guns to the pet cemetery and its sweet little line of tombstones for the soldiers' doggies (casualties of yesterday's one o'clock volley?). Across the valley is the grand, Georgian side of town.
Georgian Edinburgh shines with broad boulevards, straight streets, and elegant mansions decked out in colonnades, pediments, and sphinxes in the proud Neoclassical style of 200 years ago.
Evening walking tours are an entertaining and cheap night out. The theatrical and creatively staged Witchery Tours is the most established of the ghost tours.
Scottish folk evenings are touristy but fun. These dinner shows, generally for tour groups intent on photographing old cultural clichés, are held in huge halls of expensive hotels. (Prices are bloated to include 20 percent commissions.) Your "traditional" meal is followed by a full slate of swirling kilts, blaring bagpipes, and Scottish folk dancing with an "old-time music hall"-type emcee.
Interested in off-beat Edinburgh? Scream down one of Europe's biggest water slides at the Royal Commonwealth Swimming Pool, on Dalkeith Road (near many of the B&Bs I recommend in my guidebooks). This immense pool is open to the public, with a well-equipped fitness center, sauna, and a coffee shop overlooking the pool.
Try snowless brush skiing at the Midlothian Snowsports Centre in Hillend. While you're actually skiing over what seems like a million toothbrushes, it feels like snow skiing on a slushy day. Beware: Local doctors are used to treating an ailment called "Hillend Thumb" — thumbs dislocated when people fall and get tangled in the brush.
One of Europe's great cultural events, Edinburgh's annual festival turns the city into a carnival of the arts. There are enough music, dance, art, drama, and multicultural events to make even the most jaded traveler drool with excitement. Every day is jammed with formal and spontaneous fun. A number of festivals — official, fringe, book, film, and jazz and blues — rage simultaneously for about three weeks each August, with the Military Tattoo starting a week earlier. Many city sights run on extended hours, and those that normally close on Sunday open in the afternoon. It's a glorious time to be in Edinburgh.
The official festival is the original, more formal, and most likely to get booked up first. Major events sell out well in advance. The less-formal Fringe Festival features "on the edge" comedy and theater. Tickets are usually available at the door, but popular shows can sell out.
The Military Tattoo is a massing of the bands, drums, and bagpipes with groups from all over the former British Empire. Displaying military finesse with a stirring lone-piper finale, this grand spectacle fills the castle esplanade nightly except Sunday, normally from a week before the festival starts until a week before it finishes. If nothing else, it is a really big show. The last day comes with a big national television special.
If you do manage to hit Edinburgh during the festival, book a room far in advance and extend your stay by a day or two. While some Fringe tickets and a few Tattoo tickets might be available the day of the show, you may want to book a couple of official events several months in advance.