The Budget Charms of Edinburgh

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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).

Eschew the traps of the Edinburgh Dungeon, Our Dynamic Earth, and the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre. You'll pay £25/$39 too much and learn little. Instead, take a ghost walk. Edinburgh pioneered the tours that many cities duplicate so dismally. At nightfall, companies solicit courageous walkers at the Tron Church and the Market Cross, both on the Mile. The ghoulish route through Mary King's Close will thrill even skeptics. On it, you explore the underground city-derelict homes, streets, and vaults-in which hundreds were sealed alive and burnt as a plague-control measure. Poltergeist chasers deem Edinburgh's crypts to be among the world's most haunted places (£6/$9.30, Mercat Tours, 0131/557-6464, mercattours.com).

Around midnight, once you're good and spooked, the Caledonian brewery west of town sighs with the fragrance of hops, giving Edinburgh-once nicknamed "Auld Reekie," or "Old Stinky"-a distinctive, nostalgic odor, like fresh loaves on the hearth, to inhabit the crannies of your memory.

Sleeping on the Rock

One major development is a crop of cheap hotels, all spotless with private bathrooms, which finally make it affordable to sleep in the dreamy warren of Old Town. The Ibis (6 Hunter Sq., 0131/240-7000, ibishotel.com), near the luminous Tron Church, brags bright, well-kept rooms with satellite TV, and the upper floors have heart-swelling views over the rooftops. Per room, the rate is £60/$94 double and £50/$78 single (£70/$108 during Festival), plus £4.95/$7.75 for an optional continental breakfast. I also favor the three-star Jurys Inn (43 Jeffrey St., 0131/200-3300, jurysdoyle.com), a Dublin-based chain. It's an eyesore, but it's steps off the Royal Mile overlooking the monuments on Calton Hill. Nothing fancy-186 business-class rooms sleeping up to four-but spacious for Old Town. Doubles are normally £72-£82/$113-$129 but winter discounts regularly halve rates. Premier Lodge (94-96 Grassmarket, 0870/700-1370, premierlodge.com) is £50/$77 per double year-round. Rooms are small but serviceable, with showers. It's by Victoria Street's galleries (my pick: Rolling Stone at No. 42, which deals in arresting Polish-theater posters), bookstores, and-be warned-pubs. Travelodge Central (33 Saint Mary's St., 0870/905-6343, travelodge.co.uk), off the Mile, is also unsightly, with an aloof staff, but it's popular; satellite TV and a paper are part of the deal, £50/$77 per double weekdays and £70/$108 per double weekends/Festival. It grants free parking-rare for Edinburgh.

If you're really scrimping, the 280-bed Castle Rock Hostel (15 Johnston Ter., 0131/225-9666, scotlands-top-hostels.com, £11-£13/$17-$21 dorm bed), on a bluff beneath the Castle and overlooking the university district, has huge rooms, terrific amenities, and a view. A splurge but one epitomizing Edinburgh's wicked charm is the Bank Hotel (1 South Bridge, 0131/622-6800, festival-inns.co.uk). It's a converted money temple at the perfect location, with nine rooms meticulously dressed to evoke a famous Scot-in the "James Young Simpson" (pioneer of anesthesia), you doze among anatomy charts and medical equipment. It's £110/$171 per double (£90/$139 single, but rates are negotiable), with giant bathrooms, a full Scottish breakfast, and a respectable yuppie pub downstairs. And if you'd rather have a flat, one of the best renters is MacKays (mackays-scotland.co.uk), which rents spacious apartments in town starting at £200/$308 a week.

Beyond haggis

In New Town, sample Victorian elegance at Cafe Royal Circle Bar (19 West Register St.), with its glazed tiles, ornate terra-cotta, and hearty hot beef with horseradish and gravy (£3.95/$6.15), or wonderfully ripe Stilton cheese with strawberries (£4.25/$6.60). The central bar dispenses local ales (£1.80/$2.80 or so), fulfilling a vital role; once, Old Town had at least a brewery a block, and even today, the Scottish £10 note depicts a whisky distillery. Tippoo Sahib (129A Rose St.) scores with a two-for-one Indian dinner special, subtle chicken kurma (£7.50/$11.60), mango-and-spice pathia chicken (£7.50/$11.60), and garlic nan (£2.50/$3.90) that could swaddle a baby. Wok Wok, a stylish chain, serves noodles with a kick (£5-£7/$7.75-$10.85, 137 George St.), but my new favorite is The Lost Sock Diner (11 East London St.), on the eastern edge of New Town. If it smells of soap, it's because it adjoins a laundromat; folks nosh as they wash. Concoctions include baked avocado (£4/$6.20), parsnip chips (£1.50/$2.30), and creamy scrambled egg with salmon and dill on a savory waffle (£4/$6.20).

Traditional Scottish fare, like the famous haggis, is unusual-as we do, modern Scots eat deep-fried junk or corporate cuisine. For dessert, or "pudding," don't order a Deep Fried Mars Bar (sadly, they exist) from a chippie; visit Casey's of Edinburgh (52 St. Mary's St.), a tiny, old-time sweet shop that makes Willy Wonka look like a rookie. Behold towers of hand-labeled jars full of Rhubarb Rock, Soor Plooms, Berwick Cockles, Raspberry Fizzies, and the gemstonelike Parma Violets. Just 56p/87¢ buys enough candy to give even the British instant sugar shock. I asked the elderly woman behind the glass counter how she controlled herself among such temptations. "Actually," she admitted, "I don't eat sweeties." And a good thing for her, too.

Glimpsing Glasgow Some Americans try to "do" Scotland with 12-hour day trips to Loch Ness-not a good plan. Glasgow, 50 miles west of Edinburgh, isn't just a better springboard, it's worth a day or two itself. ScotRail's 50-minute Edinburgh-Glasgow shuttle departs every 15 minutes; from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. it's £7.50/$11.60 round trip (at Waverley Station, scotrail.co.uk). From Glasgow, it's easy to reach much of Scotland (info: visitscotland.com), including the espresso waters of Loch Lomond, the glory hikes of the Highlands, and the pastel Isle of Skye. But if you're like me, you'll want to hurry back to bonny Edinburgh as often as possible. I admit it: I have fallen in love. I'm plaid to the bone.

Senior Editor Jason Cochran, whose forebears fled Scotland for Georgia, visits Edinburgh often; he lost count at ten visits.

Going tartan

My most recent trips to Edinburgh were handled by go-today.com, which charges $499 for six-night air/hotel packages from New York, $649 from Chicago, and $679 from San Francisco and Los Angeles, November 1 to February 28, per person, double. Prices are around $150 higher in March.

No North American carrier flies direct to Edinburgh's small airport, but Glasgow is nearby; Continental (800/525-0280, continental.com) flies there from New York and Air Canada (888/247-2262) flies from Toronto; British Airways (800/247-9297, britishairways.com) can bring you from many U.S. cities via London.

Maximize your trip by flying to London and reaching Scotland by other means: by overnight coach from Victoria Station to St. Andrews Square, New Town, for £35/$55 round trip (gobycoach.com), or by five-hour train from King's Cross to Waverley stations for £35/$54 round-trip advance purchase (gner.co.uk).

The festival of festivals

When people say they're off to the summer "Edinburgh Festival," they really mean to August's six simultaneous festivals.

Edinburgh is packed then, so book hotels far ahead (six months isn't too early). But unless there's a show you must see, don't buy tickets in advance. Do what everyone does: Read the local paper to catch the buzz, then head to the ticket offices.

The Fringe is the queen of the August festivals, hosting nearly 1,500 shows and comics and some 20,000 performances in three weeks. The cheapest are £3/$4.65, and since curtains begin rising in the morning, it's easy to get carried away (box office: 180 Royal Mile, 0131/226-0026, edfringe.com). You can have a complete Fringe experience without paying a pence. With the city awash in art, performers give away tickets just to build word of mouth. Stroll up the Royal Mile-among the fire-eaters, jugglers, and musicians-and fend off the invitations. Not all shows are good, but most are creative and interesting. The original International Festival (0131/473-2001, eif.co.uk) mounts highbrow dance, opera, and theater. Prices range from £5/$7.75 for matinees to £30/$46 for opera. Buy these ahead; they aren't discounted much, so don't hope for freebies unless a show's unpopular (read: terrible). Another one to buy ahead is the Military Tattoo (box office: 33-34 Market St., 0131/225-1188, edinburgh-tattoo.co.uk). As the sun goes down each August evening, torches flare like flags and hundreds of bekilted bagpipers paint the summer breeze plaid. The £25/$39 tickets are too much; the lateral £9/$14 seats are adequate. Other concurrent festivals (with few discounts) include the 12-day International Film Festival (0131/229-2550, edfilmfest.org.uk); past premieres include Velvet Goldmine starring local boy Ewan McGregor. The 17-day International Book Festival (about £7/$11 per event, 0131/624-5050, edbookfest.co.uk) regularly attracts 100,000 to New Town's Charlotte Square and focuses on author talks, particularly by Scottish writers. The 10-day Jazz & Blues Festival (jazzmusic.co.uk) is the U.K.'s oldest and is held starting in late July. The Scotsman, a local paper, summarizes all attractions at edinburghfestivals.co.uk.

Plan ahead for Hogmanay, the New Year's party attracting some 100,000. Tickets are mandatory; hotels tend to supply them to guests (hogmanay.net).

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