The Budget Charms of Edinburgh Though just five hours from London, Scotland's intoxicating capital is a world apart-a timeless town of free museums, cheap inns, and a festival of festivals Budget Travel Friday, Dec 20, 2002, 7:00 PM Budget Travel LLC, 2016
 

 

The Budget Charms of Edinburgh

Though just five hours from London, Scotland's intoxicating capital is a world apart-a timeless town of free museums, cheap inns, and a festival of festivals

They say Edinburgh's stalwart castle, which the city wears like a crown, was constructed over an extinct volcano. They say ancient subterranean streets burrow beneath the feet of its bagpipers. They say that by night, Edinburgh is the most haunted place on Earth. It's all true. As the rest of Europe chokes itself with chrome, highways, and spiraling prices, the Scottish cling defiantly to old-fashioned customs and cost. The sprawl of London may be just five hours south by rail, but it's literally another country.

You will love Edinburgh. I have yet to meet a tourist who didn't. In the bonny capital of Scotland, foot-buffed cobbles, obstinate gabled buildings, and cascades of meandering stairways assemble in the misty rain like set pieces from some forgotten literary dream, turning Edinburgh (pronounced "Edinburrah") into the otherworld most Americans expect of Europe.

History, Scot-free

A generation ago, economic gloom and a dearth of affordable lodging made visits troublesome. Things have changed. These days, Edinburgh hosts for a month each year the most vital arts festivals in the English-speaking world (see box on next page), and although amenities have caught up to meet the influx, the city retains its timeless quality. Adding to local pride, in 1998 Scotland finally regained legislative independence-residents won't let you forget it, or that the Queen Mum herself was Scottish-and its banner, a field of blue with a white cross, now flaps alongside the Union Jack. Edinburgh is now a European capital worthy of the name.

Today, in addition to statue-studded, gravestone-gray lanes, it's stocked with fine, free museums providing a tapestry of Scotland's peculiar culture and history. Queen of them all is the Museum of Scotland (Chambers St., 0131/247-4422; when calling from the U.S., precede numbers with 011-44 and drop the first zero). Purpose-built in 1998, this enormous facility turns up countless treasures dating back to the ancient past. Of the many free museums on the magical Royal Mile, my favorite is the whimsical Museum of Childhood (42 High St., 0131/529-4142). Founded by eccentric Patrick Murray (who didn't even like children), exhibits of old toys come with brittle captions: A bottle of castor oil is described as "Vintage 1900, and a fine fruity year it was. We don't see the like nowadays." Huntly House (142 Canongate, 0131/529-4143) preserves a collection of random antiques from forgotten Edinburgh. Its sister attraction, The People's Story (163 Canongate, 0131/529-4057), peers into daily life's past hardships. The charming Writer's Museum in Lady Stair's Close, off the Mile (0131/529-4901), annotates the lives of locals Robert Louis Stevenson (who set Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde here) and Sir Walter Scott (the 200-foot Gothic spire on Princes Street is also in honor of the Ivanhoe writer-a city after my heart!). With its thistle-shaped steeple presiding over the Market Cross on the Royal Mile, the High Kirk of St. Giles (0131/225-9442) dates to 1120, was once John Knox's pulpit, and is the spiritual center of Scotland (patriots show spirit by spitting on the stone heart on the sidewalk outside). Its highlight is the intricate wood-and-glass Thistle Chapel. In New Town, free attractions include the National Gallery of Scotland, astride Princes Street Gardens (which, believe it or not, were once a lake). It's not huge, but it includes some Titians, Raphaels, Cezannes, and Rembrandts (The Mound, 0131/624-6200). There's also the conservative Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (75 Belford Rd., 0131/624-6200), including Braque, Picasso, Matisse, and Lichtenstein, and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (1 Queen St., 0131/624-6200), which I find dull-except for the likeness of native son Sean Connery-but others don't. Heather and heliotropes meet at the spacious Royal Botanic Garden (one mile north of Princes St., 0131/552-7171, rbge.org.uk). All ten of those attractions are free.

You need spring for only two, maybe three, paid attractions. At the foot of the Mile (site of the new Scottish Parliament), the Palace of Holyroodhouse (£6.50/$10, 0131/556-7371), surprisingly modest beside its ruined cathedral, is the Queen's official residence in Scotland (if the flag's up, she's in). And, of course, Edinburgh Castle (£8/$12.50, 0131/225-9846), the city's nucleus, with its stupendous views, rambling ramparts, and superlative free audio tour, is justifiably the city's top attraction. After visiting these two royal strongholds, you'll never again confuse a castle for a palace, or Scotland for England. Two miles northeast, at the port of Leith, hail Britannia, for 44 years the royal globe-trotting yacht. Her last voyage was for Hong Kong's hand-over in 1997; she's now a rewarding museum, proving Her Majesty doesn't actually sleep in a queen-size bed (£8/$12.50, 0131/555-5566); take bus 34 or 22 from Princes Street to Ocean Terminal (80p/$1.25).

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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