Edinburgh's charms tower over Scotland

Edinburgh Castle dominates the Scottish capital's skyline. (Frank Greco/Special to QMI Agency)

Edinburgh Castle dominates the Scottish capital's skyline. (Frank Greco/Special to QMI Agency)

DAVE JOHNSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:32 PM ET

When visiting Scotland’s capital, the one thing you notice right away, says Frank Greco, star of The Travel Guy TV show, is Edinburgh Castle.

Edinburgh Castle towers over the city and is perched on top of Castle Rock that overlooks both the Old and New Town. It can be seen from miles around and is Scotland’s most visited paid tourist attraction.

The name Edinburgh means Fort of the Rock Face, says Greco, who spent time there on a recent trip.

He says the town is built on a series of hills, and though not the largest city in Scotland, it is viewed as the most historic.

A little known fact about Edinburgh Castle, Greco says, is that it has Canadian ties.

“Back in 1624 the then King James VI (who later became James I of England) wanted to establish a Scottish colony in Canada to be called Nova Scotia (New Scotland). The new land was divided and offered for sale to Scottish landlords, but they didn’t actually have to travel to Canada to comply with the King’s conditions. All they needed to do was visit the castle to receive a handful of earth from the King’s representative for them to own a piece of Nova Scotia.”

Touring inside the castle is a must-do when there, he says, adding it’s an awe-inspiring experience. Some of the highlights inside the castle walls include, the Crown Room where the nation’s treasures are kept, the Great Hall for the display of arms and armour, and the dog cemetery.

“The dog cemetery is a small garden that has been used since the 1840s as a burial place for officers’ pet dogs, and mascots. The garden is out of bounds to visitors and can only be viewed from above.”

But before he even visited the castle, Greco had to learn how properly pronounce the city’s name.

“I was taught that I should pronounce it Ed-in-burrrr-ah, rolling the r’s. Once I got this right, I was ready to explore the city, which is divided into the Old and New Town.”

Below the castle, on the southeast side in the Old Town, is the Grassmarket Square. There are stairs leading from the square up to the Edinburgh Castle and Greco says it is a great workout climbing the stairs. The Grassmarket area has numerous pubs, restaurants, eclectic shops, live music and a place rich in history.

“Once a medieval marketplace for horses and cattle, and because of the large crowds that were drawn here, it was also the place where public executions were held. Remnants of the past are still evident in the Grassmarket Square as some of the pubs keep the checkered past alive with names like The Last Drop, which commemorates the last hanging in the square. The gallows were located directly opposite the pub. There’s even a pub named after a woman who was hanged and was declared legally dead. As the body was being taken for burial, she woke-up, and in accordance to Scottish law was pronounced a free woman. So a pub was named after her, Maggie Dickson’s Pub.”

Besides Edinburgh Castle and Grassmarket Square, another area tourists must visit is the Royal Mile at the centre of the Old Town and running east from the castle.

“Collectively known as High Street it is made up of four conjoined streets that connect together stretching slightly over a mile long. This street connects the castle at one end to Holyroodhouse at the other end. Holyroodhouse is a royal palace used by Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, The Duke of Edinburgh each year for official functions.”

Greco says in peak tourist times of the day the Royal Mile is packed. Tourists gather to see the various government buildings, churches, shops, restaurants, historic buildings, and explore the tiny cobbled ‘closes’ or alleys off to each side.

“One of the most popular is Mary King’s Close and it provides a view of what life was like in the 16th through to 19th centuries. The homes found in this particular close were built at times seven or more stories below street level without any natural light. Walking through the buildings and various adjoining rooms with the guided tour makes one understand the difficult living conditions and why the devastating plagues occurred.

One can’t help but be amazed at the labyrinth of small one-room homes that housed families of eight or more, living next to a butchery, a livestock holding area or even a mortician.

The alleyways were very narrow and one could get lost very easily because there are no street names to guide you.”

On the northern side of the castle are many great sites of the New Town, he says, with high-end residences, great trendy shops and malls and one building that towers over all others (except the castle), the Scott Monument, which was completed in 1844.

“Standing more than 60 metres in height it honours the famous Scottish author Sir Walter Scott. It is a dark Victorian Gothic monument that looks like a cathedral. The tower is the largest monument to a writer in the world.”

There are 287 steps and four levels to get the top of the Scott Monument, where one can enjoy breathtaking views of Edinburgh and the surrounding countryside at each level.

Getting to the top level can be a claustrophobic experience and a tight squeeze once you are out on the open-air observation deck. Inside the monument one will learn more of Sir Walter Scott.

As always, when travelling, Greco takes time to enjoy food at local restaurants and Edinburgh provides every type of cuisine possible. He says there are two memorable venues that should be experienced because of the character, service, city views and fantastic food.

One of those is Kyloe Restaurant and Grill, which has a reputation as being Edinburgh’s first gourmet steak restaurant.

“The name itself is an old Scottish word that means highland beef cattle. One can’t miss this restaurant, just look for the beef cattle sticking out of the front of the building, the rest of the cow’s back end is on the inside while another is positioned at the main entry showing customers its various cuts. Inside many of the booths are covered in a cowhide.”

Located in Edinburgh’s west end, this gourmet steak restaurant has an innovative grill menu accentuated with seasonal produce, shellfish, lamb, sea bass and other delights from the area.

“I always have a hard time selecting my cut of meat, but at Kyloe the server brought all the cuts available to my table and explained my options. Rump, sirloin, rib eye and fillet … I must admit that the server had me at sirloin and I blanked out as she mentioned the rest. Best of all, Kyloe is very moderately priced.”

The other restaurant is the Tower Restaurant, located on the rooftop of the National Museum of Scotland, which prides itself on the spectacular views of Edinburgh Castle and city skyline.

“This restaurant has become a regular stop for visitors and locals as well as many celebrities that visit Edinburgh. Served is seasonal Scottish produce that features Angus beef, crustaceans, seafood and game. The staff will tell you the produce is impeccably sourced and simply prepared.”

Greco says no matter what you go to Edinburgh for, the food or the history, it’s a great city to visit and makes a great getaway even if it’s for a day or two if you’re in Scotland.


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