The meat of this post talks about unusual things to do in Edinburgh, including practical tips and advice to help you have a great trip to Scotland. But there’s also a travelogue about my first visit to Scotland and meeting up with an old friend: science.
As everyone’s busy these days, I’ll lead with unusual things to do in Edinburgh and then delve into my reflective piece at the end.
Dubbing itself the world’s favourite Festival City, 2017 sees Edinburgh celebrate 70 years of festival merry-making. The good news? No matter what time of year you arrive, there’s likely to be something going on.
I was in town for the Edinburg Science Festival, which kicks off the festival season, and it does so with all power of a carthorse on caffeine.
Over 270 events take place in over 29 venues across the city, aimed at the young, the old and everyone in between.
Think snot-splat making factories, blood bars, microscopic snowflakes, upcycling workshops, thought-provoking theatrical performances on the subjects of clones and up to date research presented by leading scientists at Old College, University of Edinburgh.
Here’s a taster:
— Lonely Planet (@lonelyplanet) April 15, 2017
Possibly the most successful author since God wrote the Bible, J.K. Rowling sat and scribbled the outline for the Harry Potter series on the napkin in an Edinburgh café and the rest, as they say, was history.
Today, legends abound as to which café this took place in (though, thankfully, not which napkin) as everyone tries to recreate her flash of genius.
Queues form at the Elephant Café, while others claim the The Spoon Cafe was the REAL spot where the magic took place.
Still more wonder whether their local haunt provided inspiration for some of the characters and even those with no connection display plaques to proudly state the fact.
Whatever the element of truth, a stimulating cup of coffee in one of Edinburgh’s cosy cafes makes a nice way to past the time, regardless.
All I knew of haggis was a hearty, chunky affair provided by a French-Scotsman I knew on Burns night. And very tasty it was too.
But if you’d prefer a taste of champagne or prosecco with your haggis, then dine out at the Cannonball Restaurant & Bar, all decked out in tartan and overlooking the castle.
The springtime menu includes Scottish oysters, wild rabbit loin, smoked salmon and of course a selection of whisky to follow.
Turns out the Scots have been quite busy over the years, inventing things left, right and centre. Furthering the art of medicine and the fuelling the science of travel.
Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone would be one. James Watt and the steam engine would be another.
Then there’s the bloke who came up with the idea of a PIN number, the obstetrician who introduced chloroform in childbirth (bring it back! Now!) and the genius who came up with flushing toilets and wipe-clean ceramic tiles. Cleaner hotel bathrooms for everyone.
And how did I find out about all these? Through a pop up time capsule, you can see more about below:
— Lonely Planet (@lonelyplanet) April 16, 2017
But many more are visible at the National Museum of Scotland, where hot air balloons blaze up to the sky and Egyptian artefacts sit next to dinosaur bones in a line and light-filled atrium. (Although please note, dear reader, I am not trying to imply that the Scots invented ancient Egypt and hot air balloons. Just, you know, that they are interesting things to see.)
Don’t be put off by the strange sounding name and its spot on the tourist-treading Royal Mile: the Real Mary King’s Close offers more than just cheesy souvenirs.
To understand the name, we need to deconstruct it a bit. The steep streets that lead downhill from the Royal Mile go by the name of Closes, and one was named after a person called Mary King.
When Edinburgh built the Chamber of Commerce in the 17th century, she simply built over many of these, filling in the gaps with rubble (the width of the closes barely reached as far as my armspan.)
This trapped everyday 17th century life underground – until now. Today, costumed actors conduct tours through this shadowy world as part of a slick performance of social history.They tell the real stories behind the people who used to live here, offering a fascinating glimpse into how tough life really used to be.
And providing the opportunity for a an infra-red photo:
Tourist? Whadya mean, tourist!
Indulge in a bit of voodoo mystic fun at the Black Medicine Coffee Company on Drummond Street. And when I mean voodoo, I mean Gunpowder Green Tea, cheesecake milkshakes and something called a Pink Flamingo. Delish.
Step into the weather worn stones of Old College and the rest of the University of Edinburgh, not just to take a snap of the building but to learn something brand new as well. Check out the latest listings of public lectures and let this city of ideas and imagination feed into a part of your mind.
Disclosure – I visited Edinburgh as a guest of Edinburgh Festivals while on assignment for Lonely Planet. As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like over here on the lab. That’s just the way things work over here. However, if you’d like to see what I produced for them, check out some of the links above – and check back in a few weeks for more published material. Cheers!
Hello science my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again.
There it stood on the wall, etched in shades of grey. No, not those shades of grey but speckles of grey instead. Patches here, a splatter there. The shadows that build up across canvas to reveal the true life shape of a molecule so small we had to split the atom in order to see it.
Next to that, the rungs of a twisted ladder blazed in unmistakable scarlets and greens: fluorescent markers on the helix of DNA.
It’s amazing how one sight, one sound, one smell can unlock memories so powerful that the present vanishes, the past replacing it.
Those reds and greens weren’t just red and green. They were the red and green of my A level and university days. Summers spent with paper thick between my fingers, the smell of cut grass, hums of bees, scrapes of chairs in exam halls and first tastes of summer beer.
Those speckles of grey didn’t just represent hydrogen, helium, beryllium and all the rest but the rush of freedom and youth, that first time behind the wheel of a car, first nights up til dawn, first loves.
It was a welcome reunion with a long lost friend.
It was also, it should be pointed out, my first real visit to Scotland.
Quite why Edinburgh’s honeyed streets and steep steps had stayed strangers for so long, I wasn’t quite sure. Part of it was relative proximity, I’m sure, the thought that the city herself would stumble across my path sooner or later through the tumbling nature of life itself.
A conference, perhaps. A wedding maybe.
But part, too, was the desire to travel far and wide early on, to search for extreme differences before paying closer attention to home.
While single and healthy it made sense to take risks, to bear discomfort. With the responsibility for someone else and aching or ailing bones, it did not.
So here we were.
Me with a long-yearned for baby in one arm; Edinburgh with us in her heart.
Surrounded by the sound of science.
Abigail King is an award-winning writer and author who swapped a successful career as a hospital doctor for a life on the road. With over 60 countries under her belt, she's worked for Lonely Planet, the BBC, National Geographic Traveller and more. She is passionate about sustainable tourism and was invited to speak on the subject at the EU-China High Level summit at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.Here she writes about food, travel and history and she invites you to pull up a chair and relax. Let's travel more and think more. Welcome!
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