The Royal Scots Grey memorial statue in West Princes Street Gardens with the Old Parliament building in the background has become part of my everyday strolls around the city
Food & Drink Features

Strolling and dining off the tourist path in Edinburgh

Scotland’s capital city is filled with well-preserved monuments and tenements, quirky nooks, affable residents, and a thriving restaurant scene highlighting what is distinctly Scottish
Marilen Fontanilla | Jul 10 2019

An unexpected trip to Scotland’s capital allowed me the opportunity to rediscover Edinburgh’s hidden charms, where Georgian and neo-classic structures blend seamlessly with modern buildings. Edinburgh goes by a number of affectionate nicknames. Auld Reekie references the omnipresent clouds of smoke seen rising from the chimneys in the Old Town, while Athens of the North, dreamed up during the Scottish enlightenment, can be attributed to the neo-classic architecture and Greek Revival buildings erected over time.

Edinburgh Castle juts out majestically from its perch on Castle Rock, the jewel in this charming city’s turreted skyline

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I was overjoyed at the chance to once again be in the midst of this cosmopolitan city that boasts of both the modern and the medieval, a dramatic backdrop that never fails to take my breath away.

As this was my second visit, I was determined to go beyond the requisite visits to tourist spots like Edinburgh Castle, the Royal Mile, and St. Giles Cathedral (which I still ended up visiting, by the way, but only when my timetable permitted).

Edinburgh’s alleys weave between tall buildings along the Royal Mile and often provide one-of-a-kind perspectives that capture the Old Town’s special character

Walking the city

My more flexible schedule allowed me to plan out walking itineraries through rocky hills juxtaposed against the sea, and buildings and monuments on sheer cliffs. And while I did map out these itineraries ahead of time, I kept them more flexible with only the end destination planned out. I discovered on previous trips to Melbourne and Sydney the joy of letting the walk shape the journey I would take, which allowed for a different travel experience to unfold.

One afternoon was devoted to delving into the city through the writers influenced by its beauty and history. It was a thrill meandering along the streets which inspired the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson, J.K. Rowling, Iain Banks, Dame Muriel Sparks, J.M. Barrie, Irvine Welsh, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Sir Walter Scott. If you don't already know, Edinburgh was named UNESCO City of Literature in 2004.

The Writer’s Museum at the top of Lady Stair’s Close is an homage to the literary greats who drew inspiration from the city
Paving stones on Makar’s Court bring to life the literary glory of Edinburgh’s writers and poets
The tavern’s namesake, William Brodie Deacon, served as the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The character’s two faces are reflected on the signage where by day, he is a respected citizen and by night, transforms into a licentious gambler and thief

Harry Potter can never be separated from Edinburgh. The book, from the imagination of J.K. Rowling, was based on the Scottish capital's various streets and buildings. “Edinburgh is very much home for me and is the place where Harry evolved over seven books and many, many hours of writing in its cafés,” she said in one awars ceremony.

Victoria Street’s cascading cobblestones, colorfully-hued buildings, and quaint shops is Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley in the flesh. It was not difficult envisioning Ollivander’s just around the corner
In the middle of Victoria Street’s colorful shopfront lies I.J. Mellis cheesemongers, offering a wide range of artisanal cheese, including some Scottish varieties like Auld Lochnagar, Isle of Mull Cheddar, and Orkney Grimbister
Greyfriar’s Kirkyard may be famous for the faithful Greyfriar Bobby but its gravestones also contain the names of some famous Harry Potter characters, including McGonnagal, Moody, and Riddle. Right beside it is George Heriot’s School, which uncannily seems to be what Hogwarts School of Wizardry would look like in real life

One of the most beautiful spots I discovered was the charming Dean Village, a quiet residential quarter hidden from the bustling tourist spots but within manageable walking distance from the city center. The various lanes and bridges connect over the powerful Water of Leith river, providing a calming and soothing presence that makes time stand still as you bask in the sunshine and the lush greenery.

Dean Village is a scenic must-stop in Edinburgh, with amazing views of iconic and historic buildings nestled just a few minutes away from the bustling city center

The summit of Calton Hill may be a challenging climb for some, but the stunning panoramic views of the city and equally eye-catching monuments make it a trek worth making.

From Calton Hill, the National Monument of Scotland, reminiscent of the Parthenon, may be one of the reasons for Edinburgh’s nickname of Athens of the North. Together with the Nelson Monument and City Observatory, the buildings are an impressive visual display of Scotland’s history

Dining like a local

The rugged beauty of Edinburgh parallels its thriving food scene which covers the dining spectrum from cozy pubs to Michelin-starred fine dining restaurants, serving up Scottish fare anchored on premium meats, seafood, and produce grown in Scotland’s green pastures and cool waters. Scottish chefs have created wonderful seasonal menus for locals and visitors keen to savor something uniquely local, each one a distinct experience to be relished and enjoyed.

 

Café Saint Honoré

Hidden in one of Edinburgh’s quieter streets, Café Saint Honoré prides itself on a seasonal menu sourced from the fantastic produce of local farmers, fishmongers, growers, and foragers. Combining classic techniques with contemporary twists and fine Scottish ingredients, the result is a delightful dining experience that subtly presents its ethical, organic, and sustainable ethos.

Café Saint Honoré offers classic set menus which allow diners to sample creative dishes at a more affordable price range. This starter combines pickled mackerel, fennel salad, toasted buckwheat drizzled with an award-winning artisanal crème fraiche
A lovely French touch with this simply divine crème brûlée accompanied by homemade shortbread

Chef Director Neil Forbes emphasizes the philosophy of the restaurant as “good, honest ingredients cooked simply.” A member of the Slow Food Chef Alliance, the chic bistro delivers accomplished and refined dishes in a relaxing French atmosphere.

Café Saint Honoré is reminiscent of a Parisian bistro, tucked away in a cobbled path in the New Town section of the city

Oink Hog Roast

Sourced from pigs fed naturally and raised in Berwickshire along the Scottish border, Oink Hog Roast has been carving its own way into locals’ palates since it opened its first store in 2008. Essentially a pulled pork sandwich, the beauty of its concept lies in the one hog a day limit. Once the hog is gone, the store closes. Passers-by can see the hog slowly diminishing as hungry diners tempt them even further while they feast on the freshly prepared sandwiches. Not to worry though, as Oink has three stores in the city center to choose from.

Diners have options for the roll (white or brown), stuffing (haggis or sage and onion), as well as the sauce that complements the juicy strips of meat within. I chose the homemade chili jam for a piquant counterpoint but there are also options for apple, homemade mustard mayo, homemade BBQ, and homemade chili cheese. And don’t forget to ask for a crisp, for that wonderful crunchy bite which makes all the difference

 

Angels with Bagpipes

For heavenly meals infused with Scottish spirit, one can’t go wrong when dining at Angels with Bagpipes. Located at the Royal Mile in close proximity to St. Giles Cathedral, the restaurant’s surprisingly spacious abode is a welcome respite after a long day.

We opted for the tasting menu, although the caveat is that everyone in the table has to order the same. The four-course menu captured the essence of Scotland with a contemporary touch on classic cuisines, paying homage to the ingredients through its flavors, textures, and presentation.
The first course of goat’s cheese panna cotta played with textures and flavors from the creamy sorrel purée, tart bramble, and sublime beetroot jelly
Perfectly pan-roasted breast of duck with confit duck leg ragout, lovage emulsion with asparagus, nasturtium and hispi cabbage

 

The Witchery by the Castle

It is the sense of history which draws you to The Witchery by the Castle, named after the hundreds of women burned at the stake at Castlehill during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We opted for The Secret Garden dining room, a topiary and urn-filled terrace that is an idyllic haven to relax and enjoy the quirky charm of this historic location.

An atmospheric setting greets guests with splendid painted ceilings, tapestry-hung walls, painted doors and panels, quaint upholstery and antique church candlesticks completing the ambiance

The extensive menu is akin to a travelogue, listing Scotland’s bountiful produce from Belhaven crabs, Isle of Mull scallops, Scottish langoustines, to Isle of Wright heritage tomatoes and Cairngorm venison. Whatever one chooses, it will certainly be a well-executed dish at par with the dramatic interiors.

Ballotine of rabbit wrapped in pancetta with herb mousse, ragout of leg and buttered tagliatelle
Prepare to be bewitched and entranced with this rich langoustine and crab omelette smothered with sauce Americaine

Edinburgh will always be a city that draws me back, with layers waiting to be discovered with every visit. The late Anthony Bourdain’s thoughts about travel echoed in my mind as I left Auld Reekie behind and perhaps a part of me remains there still. “Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world, you change things slightly, you leave marks behind however small. And in return, life—and travel—leaves marks on you.”

 

Café St. Honoré, 34 North West Thistle Street Lane, Edinburgh, [email protected]

Oink Hog Roast, www.oinkhogroast.co.uk

Angels with Bagpipes, 343 High Street, The Royal Mile, Edinburgh, [email protected]

The Witchery by The Castle, Castlehill, The Royal Mile, Edinburgh, [email protected]

 

Photos by Marilen Fontanilla

Angels with Bagpipes interior and exterior photos courtesy of Angels with Bagpipes