First up: if you're here to read about the Royal Mile and Edinburgh Castle, you've come to the wrong place. This is the story of a girl who had to leave the EU for a bit (hello, visa regulations) and took it as an opportunity to eat carrot cake and practice yoga in a city she could get around on by foot. Oh and speak English.
The words ‘United’ and ‘Kingdom’ are rarely used one after the other by me when planning travel.
‘London’ I usually associate with ‘too busy’; and ‘England’ with ‘not really my thing’.
Having lived and worked previously in Ireland, I wanted to go somewhere new. My fiance had lived in Edinburgh for three years and loved it. So it was a prime opportunity to sticky beak (I mean, 'get to know'...), the city he'd held so close to his heart.
It was conveniently also the cheapest non-Schengen destination outside continental Europe. Sofia and Dubrovnik were serious contenders, but really I just wanted to visit a Sainsbury's Local, sit in cafes that served almond milk capuccinos and overshare useless and boring details of my life with waitstaff or checkout staff who couldn't be rude enough to walk away. To travel somewhere easy.
So here it is: the perfect three-to-five day guide to Edinburgh for cake and brunch-loving yogis on a budget. (I reckon that market is bigger than you might expect, by the way).
Where to stay:
Hands-down, The Baxter. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the kind of place that ends up being booked out way in advance in future. I guess it’s best described as a luxury hostel, if such a place were to exist. The price bracket is just higher than your ordinary hostel, which means anyone looking to do things seriously on the cheap won’t stay there (hello, early 20-something backpackers). What that means is the crowd is a bit older, more mature, yes, a little more serious (except the French group who arrived on the Friday night and put on aperitivo for everyone…winner) and there are plenty of foreign professionals working in London who duck up for a few days, people waiting on rent agreements to come through, or EU nationals looking for work and staying there temporarily (though expect that to change with Brexit).
I was lucky enough that there was availability to extend my three-night stay to seven. Wifi, cosy corners to work or read, thoughtful furnishings, comfy ehough beds, earplugs provided, lockers, good bathrooms with plenty of hanging space…AND scrambled eggs for breakfast, which worked well because it meant I'd quite often skip lunch and have a snack (cake) in the afternoon, then dinner. The staff actually started apologising on the mornings there was no brown bread available. The kitchen features a chandelier too. Very fancy indeed.
Just don't make the mistake of thinking you can jump like a ninja off the third tier of a bunk bed at midnight when you realise you've left some crucial item in your suitcase. You'll crash into a drunk German guy called Felix, probably (I did, anyway).
When to go:
Festival and New Year are the busiest times of the year. By all means go then, but be prepared for crowds. January and February can be miserable (actually, all year has the potential to be miserable…this is Scotland) and rain in summer is normal. Visa timing meant I visited in mid-October and I was lucky enough to score several days of sunshine and a temperature no lower than seven degrees at any time, but there was plenty of chatter about how unusual this was. It’s normally colder and more variable (think Melbourne: four seasons in one day).
Where to eat:
After five months drinking espresso and eating focaccia, I was somewhat excited at the prospect of organic poached eggs, avocado and big hunks of toast. I wasn't disappointed.
Lovecrumbs - West Port (CAKE)
A kitschy vibe, big shared wooden tables, populated by a mix of uni students and mums and daughters having tea and cake, this was exactly the kind of thing I was looking for: somewhere to hide away with a book, tap away at a laptop, devour cake and not be bothered by anyone or anything. I especially loved the piano and the neon light decor - and the free wifi. It's also in a row of shops including a couple of lovely bookstores, if you're into that's your thing. Walk from the centre of town via Grassmarket and check out some of the beautiful vintage stores too.
The Fat Pony - West Port (WINE, OLIVES, ALL THE GOOD STUFF)
If you don't mind trekking further into West Port past a couple of strip clubs with dodgy-looking characters hanging around outside (to be honest it's really only another five minutes past Lovecrumbs), you'll get to The Fat Pony. The waitstaff are wonderful and it's a good place for a pre-dinner glass of red with some olives or hommus: or stay for the modern shared plate menu.
The Pantry - Stockbridge (BREAKFAST/BRUNCH)
The Pantry has a couple of locations as well as a sister cafe now (see their website - linked above - for more) but I went to the Stockbridge joint on Sunday for a late brunch. By late I mean around 2pm, after having visited Dean Village. My main gripe with breakfast in Perth is that it usually finished around 11am, so to have a menu divided into a select few breakfast items, lunch from 12pm and an all-day menu too made my little egg-loving heart sing. It's a reasonably small, but very snappy (and award-winning) contemporary menu. I felt totally comfy as a solo diner tucked in a corner near the window.
Finnegan's Wake - Old Town (FRIDAY NIGHT BEERS)
To be honest I never would have walked in had it not been for my fiance, who worked there during his time in Edinburgh. The place worked its way into his DNA so I couldn't not visit. 'It's a sports bar!' he tells me. 'It's called Finnegan's Wake, it has to be an Irish Bar,' I say. 'No but there's live sport there,' he says. I turn up around 9pm on Friday night and there is in fact live sport on screens all over the bar. There's also live music. And it is Irish-themed too. Enough to make your head spin, in theory. Except the vibe is pretty chilled, as are the clientele. It's a classic big pub: noisy, busy but relaxed and with lots of spots to pull up a perch, a good Friday-night catch-up-with-mates joint.
Hula Juice Bar - 0ld Town (HANGOVER CURE/HEALTHY LUNCH)
Populated mostly by activewear-clad students (American as well as Scottish) the couple of times I visited, think poke bowls, vegan fare, matcha lattes, smoothies, and healthy excuses for dessert. If you're overdosed on burgers and beers, this is the place to go to for atonement.
Machina Espresso - Tollcross or city centre (COFFEE)
Here's the thing. Italians have a reputation for good coffee. But I know and you know that they're not the only ones who do it (coffee...) well. Aussies and increasingly the British are way, way up there, especially if espresso isn't the only thing you drink (*ahem*). Machina was literally the first place I went after my first morning of scrambled eggs and instant coffee at the hostel. Also after apologising to Felix the German, who seemed unperturbed anyway. Another recommendation from my fiance - I went to Nicolson Street near the University of Edinburgh, realising afterwards they have more than one spot in town and that he had lived hear the Tollcross shop. The coffee was good, the staff were delightful and the food looked great too; although given the hectic eating and drinking agenda I'd set myself I had to leave trying their brownies for another visit. It was my go-to coffee place for the week I was there.
Where to workout:
After many moons without either teaching or attending a group fitness class, I was chomping at the bit to get to Tribe. It didn't disappoint: super friendly staff, great teachers, and all the little things that make great studios even better: a liberal sprinkling of motivational quotes, twinkling lights on the ceiling of the New Town studio, Malin + Goetz toiletries and hairdryers make all the difference. I tried barre and vinyasa at New Town and Mat Pilates at Leith Walk.
What else to do?
Stockbridge Markets - Sunday only. There are actually four markets in this group: Grassmarket, Leith, Potterow and Stockbridge itself. On the way to Dean Village, which I also visited that day, these cozy markets were ripe with delicious homemade, street and artisan food (yep, all three: the Spanish and Italian influences are strong here and the paella queue went around the block). Even though my heritage is actually mostly English (shhhhh, yeah, alongside the Croatian and Italian), I was secretly pleased when the paella man assumed I was Spanish. Less pleased when I had to answer him in English. My late beautiful paternal grandmother had a wild theory about being part Spanish due to the 3rd Armada invasion in the 1500s, but she was a wild and somewhat speculative lady so I don't know whether the theory would stand up to any rigorous investigation. Anyway the paella is ace and cheap, at five quid, so fill up in the afternoon and you won't need dinner.
After coffee at Machina, one of the most famous landmarks in the city was the next stop on my first day. Visible from nearly all points in Edinburgh and easy to get to by car, bike or on foot, there are a few different routes you can take to the top, all of them pretty self explanatory. Once up there it can get both really windy, and really cold, so again, go prepared. I was sweating in the first ten minutes uphill, got rained on halfway up, then was putting my fur-hooded jacket on by the time I reached the top. Once there, you can wander on any of several trails to take you to the bottom - any of which offers beautiful views of the city.
No trip to Edinburgh would really be right without a wander in the fresh air on the green grass. And falling on your backside a couple of times in the mud. I had seen a lot of fuss in the mountain biking community about the Pentlands, so wanted to check it out myself. It was incredibly easy to get to: a bus from right outside Princes Street Gardens (you are required to have the correct change on board to buy your bus ticket) and Google Map directions got me right to the start of a trail, which I explored for a couple of hours. If you're super keen and want to do more, have a look at the link: there are plenty of available trails. Just make sure you take wet weather gear and something dry to travel home in.
If you want to know more about Edinburgh Castle look here. I also spent half a day in Stirling but because it rained nearly the entire time (it had to happen at least one day!) I didn't get to see as much as I would have liked.
I truly loved my time in Edinburgh: and for all the banter it wasn't just the yoga or the cake: it was a city with a relaxed but buzzing soul; a place with a huge Spanish and Italian influence (not surprising, given around nine per cent of EU nationals in Edinburgh are Spanish and around seven per cent Italian); a city that is comfortable in its own skin and has a sense of humour - maybe that's because of the weather (or the whiskey?) and a city that you can do on foot, which I love.
I've travelled all kinds of different ways: business, economy, private car, hotel suite and standing room only on the train. But going back to basics in a hostel, bus travel, walking the city streets and getting to know people and places slowly - there's always something special about it. Until next time, when I'll make sure there's time for the Isle of Skye and the highlands, bye Scotland.