Three Perfect Days: Edinburgh
Story by Chris Wright | Photography by Rahel Weiss | Hemispheres, August 2014
The Scottish capital's long and sometimes troubled history, along with its dramatic physical environment, has given rise to one of the world's most glorious cities. But who knew it was so much fun?
“Edinburgh," wrote the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, “is a mad god's dream." The line says a lot about this city—its impossible clutter of architectural splendor, the dense concentration of beauty it represents.
This beauty is, at times, brooding and melancholy, reflecting the violent religious and political upheavals Edinburgh has endured throughout its history, along with the fires, the plagues and—less dramatically but more reliably—the inclement weather.
Indeed, the very effort to build an Athens on this craggy shoulder of Scotland, with the wind whipping in from the Firth of Forth and the hard volcanic rock below, seems the kind of thing a mad god might do. Mad or not, Edinburgh has always been a center of brilliance—of invention, art, literature and thought. Recently, this tradition has expressed itself in the city's food scene (it has five Michelin-starred restaurants, second only to London in the U.K.) and its renowned cultural events (the Fringe and International festivals happen in August).
As for the people—well, they can be as steely as you'd expect in this environment, imbued with amused cynicism and maintaining a tight grip on their sense of independence. That said, if you ask a local for directions, you could well spend the next 15 minutes engaged in casual conversation.
So, yes, Edinburgh is a sublimely beautiful city. The surprise is how warm and charming it can be, how open and energetic. How fun.
DAY ONE | Few places can do rain like Edinburgh. From the window of your room at The Balmoral Hotel, you look out at a sheer wall of medieval tenements, their edges blurred by hanging clouds, and beyond these the gorse-mottled bulk of Arthur's Seat. Anywhere else, a morning like this would seem drab and uninviting, but in this town it works.
That said, you're staying at the Balmoral. The hotel has been operating here for 112 years, and the indulgent, unfussy luxury it has perfected during that time is not easily abandoned, especially when it's raining outside. So you flop back onto the bed for a minute or two, taking stock of the room's mint-green walls, floral prints and ... you're gone.
Edinburgh Castle looming over the city
You snap out of it and head downstairs, passing through the elegant Palm Court tearoom and into modish Hadrian's Brasserie for breakfast, where you opt to go the whole hog (literally): sausage, bacon, black pudding, etc. From here, you waddle out onto busy Princes Street, where you get your first taste of the architectural onslaught you'll face over the next few days. A left turn takes you west, into the medieval shambles of Old Town; a right leads to the orderly avenues of New Town, which was built in the 18th and 19th centuries, its neoclassical buildings and parks intended to serve as a relief from the teeming, chaotic warren to the south.
Together, the districts comprise a UNESCO World Heritage site, and both warrant first-stop status, but you opt to take a right, partly because New Town is where you'll be having lunch, but also because your pork-themed breakfast is making itself felt, and the area looks slightly less hilly.
You do a bit of window-shopping on George Street, then head one block south to Rose, which is narrower, a little rowdier and features a fiddler diddley-deeing below the orange bunting. You people-watch for a while, then pop into the Auld Hundred Pub for a sneaky pint of Deuchars IPA. After this, you continue through New Town's cobblestoned streets and geometric alleys, recharging your appetite for what promises to be a significant lunch.
The understated dining room at Restaurant Mark Greenaway belies the fanciful artistry of its food. Your eight-course meal includes a Scotch broth that's brought to the table bubbling up in a coffee percolator, and a deconstructed Eton mess, the elements of which are so precisely ordered that the dish amounts to a wisecrack. Thankfully, ingenuity doesn't come at the expense of taste—the crab cannelloni with smoked cauliflower custard is particularly good.
A doorman at The Balmoral Hotel
Your next stop is Edinburgh Castle, which has loomed over this city for nine centuries and which, you're pretty sure, is subject to a law stating that all visitors must include it on their itinerary. The sun makes an appearance, highlighting the city's cheerier side. You stroll through blossomy Princes Street Gardens, with a quick detour to look at the old masters in the Scottish National Gallery, before tackling the ascent of Castle Rock.
Edinburgh Castle is actually many castles, a hodgepodge of castles, a collaborative effort among a succession of regimes. The views up here are stunning, but it's the cloak-and-dagger stories that grip you—like the 15th-century “Black Dinner," at which a bull's head was served on a plate, a clear signal that things would not end with a cheese platter (bloody death ensued). At one point, moving along a passageway, you hear children's voices behind a heavy door. You rattle the latch and groan, eliciting a scream and the scuffling of little feet. Heh.
By the time you leave the castle, the blood is thudding in your feet. You zigzag down to Grassmarket and The Last Drop pub, so named for the gallows that once stood outside. The ghosts of the executed, you are told, are likely to be standing beside you at the bar. “Buy 'em a drink!" slurs an old guy propped in the corner, smiling craggily.
Dinner is at the nearby Timberyard, a fashionable whitewashed eatery known for dishing up fresh local ingredients with a twist. Your meal includes oysters in buttermilk, raw venison with burnt oak oil, duck (heart, neck, breast) and a chocolate concoction served with spiced breadcrumbs. The food is delightful, and it gives you the spike of energy needed for your last stop of the night.
Weaponry at Edinburgh Castle
The Devil's Advocate, tucked away in an Old Town alleyway, is not an easy place to find in the dark. It's worth looking for, though. The bar has one of the city's more impressive whisky selections—more so given that its manager, Jack, is only 21 years old. You try a selection ranging from classics like Glendronach sherry cask to a rare peated BenRiach. “This," Jack says, raising his glass, “is a beautiful whisky."
It is a beautiful whisky. It's also a beautiful night. And it's a beautiful walk back to your beautiful hotel, your beautiful hotel room bathroom (which features a large, beautiful photograph of Sean Connery) and your exceptionally beautiful bed. Hic.
DAY TWO | You're feeling a bit ragged this morning when you set out to conquer the day. First, you pause to look up at the hotel, its Scottish baronial clock tower shadowing the train terminal (the clock set two minutes fast to fool tardy travelers), before strolling along Princes toward the enormous Scott Monument, whose jagged spires and buttresses call to mind a steampunk spaceship. From here, your eyes wander to the tumbling rooftops across the park.
Old Town appears to be growing out of the volcanic rock below. Its buildings—some 12 stories high, some much smaller—rise and fall with the undulations, creating, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge put it, an “alternation of height and depth." And everywhere you look there's a gargoyle, a column, a cupola, an oriel, a turret, a gable, a spire. As you gaze at the spectacle, a scruffy guy sidles up, presumably to ask for change. Instead, he says, “Building upon building upon building." Then he asks you for change.
The crab cannelloni at Restaurant Mark Greenaway
You're having breakfast nearby, at The Pantry. You decide on the foraged East Lothian mushrooms on toast, with pancetta and a poached egg, washed down with a cup of good coffee, all of which revive you greatly. A short cab ride takes you back to the Balmoral, where an aromatherapy massage in the hotel's lush spa completes your recovery.
Walking down the Royal Mile, Old Town's main strip, your eye is drawn to an inscription above an alleyway: “Heave awa' chaps, I'm no' dead yet!" Later, you hear the story of a building that collapsed in this spot in the 1860s, killing dozens, and of the boy who emerged from the rubble days after they'd stopped hoping for survivors, uttering that defiant phrase.
Not far from here, you find your guide from Mercat Tours, who's taking you on a “Ghostly Underground" tour (see sidebar, page 72). “Edinburgh is a city of culture," he says. “It is also a city of foul weather and fouler villains." With this, he leads you into the Blair Street Underground Vaults, a sprawl of dank 18th-century chambers that once housed the dregs of Edinburgh society. Today, this “ulcer of criminality and sin" is said to be haunted by tortured spirits. You don't see any, but it's fun looking.
You pause for lunch at Blackfriars, a blink-and-you'd-miss-it eatery off the Royal Mile. The décor is minimal and the food is similarly stripped down. You have cured sea trout with apple and fennel, followed by a heaping bowl of cider-cooked mussels in a cream sauce, served with fries and washed down with a pint of Williams Scottish lager. Perfect.
A sneaky pint at The Last Drop pub
Outside, the weather has turned again—but that's okay; it'll give you a chance to test your theory about Edinburgh looking better when it's wet. You stroll the Mile for a bit, ducking into the gift shops and a pub or two, then cab it to the base of Calton Hill, which rises 338 feet and is topped by two 19th-century landmarks—the acropolis-like National Monument and the towering Nelson Monument. The hill also has fantastic views of the city, and you try to bear this in mind as you trudge up it. At the top, you get lucky: The clouds part and you catch a glimpse of Edinburgh in all its glory, the rain-soaked rooftops and streets reflecting the sun's rays. Then the torrent resumes and you trudge down the other side, where you hope to find 21212, Paul Kitching's Michelin-starred restaurant.
The first thing you think as you step inside is “Roof!" This amenity, though, is soon overwhelmed by the décor—butterfly carpets, a circular leather couch, a classical fresco, a plexiglass chandelier. The menu here changes weekly, and the descriptions don't always make it easy to decipher what's in store (listed ingredients include “exotics" and “icky sticky"). “Chef doesn't write out the menus," a waitress tells you. “He draws pictures."
Kitching likes to play with flavors and textures—you can go from crunchy to squishy to smoky to sweet in the space of a mouthful. One of your many courses, the lamb curry (no rice), has chorizo, cubes of savory custard, currants, haggis chutney and a bunch of other stuff you can't identify, topped with razor-thin phyllo. It's a memorable meal, rounded off with one of the best cheese plates you've ever had.
You're set to check into Prestonfield House—a storied hotel located two miles away—but there's time for one more stop: Sandy Bells, a tiny folk pub on the edges of Old Town. You work your way to the bar, where an old guy tells you a long anecdote that, partly due to a trio of geezers twanging nearby and partly due to the man's impenetrable accent, is lost on you. Still, you're glad for the company. “Grill gamoor!" your new friend says as you leave. “A braglargh toosh!"
DAY THREE | James Thomson, the owner of Prestonfield House, is not known for his restrained approach to interior design. You wake up on a huge, silvery sleigh bed surrounded by riotous ornamentation—gilt mirrors, oil paintings, leopard-print carpets, zebra-print cushions. There's a candlestick shaped like a stork standing on the back of a tortoise with the head of a lion. There's also a nice-looking bottle of champagne, courtesy of the management.
Beyond your window is a cultivated garden patrolled by peacocks, and a field with longhorn cattle. After a soak in the deep tub, you go in search of breakfast. If anything, the design is even busier in the hotel public spaces: red walls, bronze stags, black roses, colonial statues, a couch made out of antlers. You take a window seat in Rhubarb, the hotel's restaurant, with Arthur's Seat so close you could touch it, and order poached duck eggs with Ayrshire gammon on a potato scone, a newspaper on your lap. That's your morning taken care of.
It's sunny again, so you decide to walk through Holyrood Park, skirting the yellow-green hillsides of Arthur's Seat and Salisbury Crags and ending up at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, where the Queen stays when she's in town (it was once the home of Mary, Queen of Scots). The palace, parts of which date back nine centuries, has so many rooms you lose count. The décor is only slightly less opulent than that of the hotel.
Now it's a quick walk to the Royal Mile, and then the National Museum of Scotland, the Romanesque Revival masterpiece that houses everything from dinosaur bones to 1960s kitchen appliances. The interior is dominated by a massive iron-and-glass atrium, and the curatorial style is wonderfully eccentric (an antelope skull beside a steam engine beside a suit of armor). You could spend an entire day exploring this place.
The neoclassical Scottish National Gallery holds an array of masterworks
But, things to do: Not far from here, up toward the castle, is The Witchery, the madly sumptuous hotel and restaurant owned (surprise) by James Thomson. You take a seat in the mock-medieval dining room and order the wild pigeon followed by a dozen fresh, plump Argyll oysters. “Have another dozen!" says the waitress when you tell her how lovely they were.
It's time for a closer look at the Mile and its endless network of side streets and alleys. In The Writers' Museum, on Lady Stair's Close, you spot a sign advising people to mind the 11th step, which is an inch or so higher than the others. The step was made that way on purpose, explains the clerk, to trip up potential intruders, but today it mainly trips up visitors. “No respect for the tourism industry," he says, rolling his eyes.
West Bow/Victoria Street, an arcing row of pink and green and blue facades, has some quirky little shops selling everything from squirting flowers (Aha Ha Ha) to local art (The Red Door Gallery) to a Robert Louis Stevenson first edition (The Old Town Bookshop). It's a welcome change from the parade of kilts and hipflasks up on the Mile.
The dominant structure on the Mile is St. Giles' Cathedral, with its massive crown spire. The oldest part of the building is said to date back to the ninth century, but, like so much of this city, it has been tinkered with over time, and is now a pastiche of crypts, Gothic arches and brilliant stained glass. As you enter, you encounter a stone angel who appears to be on the verge of tears. It is an exquisitely beautiful place, but not a cheery one.
The Witchery offers fresh seafood in a mock-medieval setting
Your next stop is on the other end of the mood scale: The Lucky Liquor Co., in New Town. When you arrive, the bartenders are plating cupcakes and cookies—a surprise treat for their customers later on. The bar is known for its inventive cocktail list—you go for the Bloody Mary, in which the tomato sediment has been removed by a centrifuge. The resulting concoction, clear and served in a cocktail glass, is outrageously good. You order another.
Dinner tonight is at Aizle, a “neo-bistro" on the city's Southside. In a town enamored of envelope-pushing food, this place may take the envelope. The conceit is that, rather than a menu, you are given an ingredients list, with the words: “Expect to find some of these ingredients in tonight's dishes." Your list includes Orkney beef, apples, bee pollen, blood oranges and Clash Farm pork. Other than this, you have no idea.
As gimmicky as this seems, there is logic to it—the lack of a formal menu is meant to allow the chef to work with the freshest produce as it becomes available. And the food is hard to fault: beef tartare with beet, torched mackerel with leek, hogget (sheep meat) with bulgur. You leave the small restaurant pleasantly surprised.
You're tired, but not ready to bring Edinburgh to an end. So you make a final stop at the oddly Rococo music club The Voodoo Rooms, where you catch a set by former Black Crowes guitarist Marc Ford. During one Neil Young–style solo, you close your eyes and feel a tap on your elbow. “Just making sure you're alive," says a smiling woman with pixie hair and a drink in either hand. You smile back and assure her that you are, yes, very much so.
Hemispheres executive editor Chris Wright is ashamed that he didn't hike to the top of Arthur's Seat, and is including that on a to-do list for when he goes back.
This article was from Rhapsody Magazine and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.
On March 19, 2020, United operated its first flight carrying cargo without passengers on board. While the passenger cabin was empty, its cargo hold was completely full, carrying more than 29,000 pounds of commodities from Chicago O'Hare International Airport (ORD) to Frankfurt Airport (FRA).
A year later, United Cargo has operated more than 11,000 cargo-only flights carrying more than 570 million pounds of freight. To support the COVID-19 pandemic recovery efforts, United Cargo has also transported more than 113 million pounds of medical and pharmaceutical products on both cargo-only and passenger flights as well as approximately 10 million COVID-19 vaccines, providing global communities access to the items they have needed most.
"At the beginning of the pandemic, we knew we were uniquely positioned to utilize our widebody aircraft and our network to keep commodities moving, so we quickly mobilized various departments throughout the airline to launch a cargo-only network of flights that would keep commodities moving," said United Cargo President Jan Krems. "Thanks to those efforts, United Cargo has delivered millions of items to countries all around the world. We would not have been successful without the steadfast support of our employees, industry partners and our customers."
Since last March, United Cargo has transported almost 850 million pounds of freight on cargo-only and passenger flights. The airline will continue to monitor market trends adjust its cargo-only flight schedules to help ensure we are meeting our customer's evolving shipping needs.
Whether you haven't flown with us for a while or just need a quick refresher before your spring trip, read this list of tips to know before your flight and arrive at the airport travel-ready:
1. Download the United app for contactless bag check, travel assistance and more
Before your flight, download the United app to view your flight status, check in, sign up for flight notifications, locate departure gates, access our free personal device entertainment when available and more. We've also updated our app with new features that can make your trip a little safer, including contactless bag check.
Don't forget to use Agent on Demand for help with any and all questions you may have before your flight. This new capability is available at all our U.S. hub airports and allows you to use your own mobile device to contact a customer service agent via phone, video or chat to help with day-of-travel questions while you're at the airport. Learn more about Agent on Demand here.
2. Check out the Travel-Ready Center
Our Travel-Ready Center makes it easy to get a personalized overview of everything you need to do in preparation for your flight. Just enter your confirmation number or MileagePlus® number and you'll find detailed information on all the documents, tests and more that you'll need for your trip.
3. Read and sign the Ready-to-Fly checklist
Before completing check-in, all United travelers will need to read our Ready-to-Fly checklist and confirm that they understand and agree to our policies. These include:
Acknowledging that you haven't had any symptoms of COVID-19 in the last 14 days
Agreeing that you will not fly if you have tested positive for COVID-19 within the last 21 days
Confirming that you will follow all policies regarding face masks, social distancing and other health and safety measures we've adopted
4. Arrive early; avoid the stress
Airports can be busy, especially during peak travel periods like spring break season. The TSA advises arriving at the airport two hours before your flight for domestic travel and three hours for international travel in anticipation of long security lines. This can help ease the stress when navigating busy check-in areas, security lines and crowded boarding gates.
5. Get familiar with CleanPlus
United CleanPlus℠ is our commitment to delivering industry-leading cleanliness as we put health and safety at the forefront of your experience. We've teamed up with Clorox to redefine our cleaning and disinfection procedures and Cleveland Clinic to advise us on enhancing our cleaning and disinfection protocols, like:
Disinfecting high-touch areas on board and in the terminal
Using electrostatic spraying, Ultraviolet C lighting wands and more advanced measures to clean aircraft cabins before boarding
Redesigning our mobile app to allow for touchless check-in and contactless payment, along with enhanced travel assistance features
Implementing high-efficiency (HEPA) filters on our aircraft that completely recirculate cabin air every 2-3 minutes and remove 99.97% of airborne particles, including viruses and bacteria
Studies show COVID-19 exposure risk is minimal when air filtration systems and masks are in use, so you can rest assured that the steps we've taken to keep you safe truly make a difference.
6. Wear your mask
Federal law requires all travelers to wear a face mask in the airport, including customer service counters, airport lounges, gates and baggage claim, and on board during their entire flight. Make sure you review the requirements for face masks, including what an acceptable face mask looks like.
7. Get ready for a safer boarding process
To make boarding even safer, we now have travelers board their aircraft from back to front. At the gate, just listen for your row number to be called – we'll ask a few rows at a time to board, starting with the last row of the plane. This helps everyone maintain a safe distance from each other during boarding without slowing things down. As you step onto the plane, flight attendants will hand each passenger a sanitizing towelette, which you can use to wipe down your seat to ensure it's extra clean.
8. Pack smart
Before packing your bags, check to see what exactly you can carry on and what you should plan to check. You can also copy your confirmation number into our Baggage Calculator tool to learn about the bag allowance included with your reservation, as well as the cost of checking any additional bags.
9. Check your flight status, important notices and weather
Check the United app regularly for the latest updates on weather conditions, flight status, gate numbers and seat assignments. You can also visit our Important Notices page to find essential information and updates about travel waivers, international travel, TSA and security, airports and United Club locations.
10. Relax and enjoy your flight
Once you're on board, it's time to sit back and enjoy your flight. Our flight attendants will be happy to help you with anything else you need.
This week, we were honored to become the first U.S. airline to join the UNICEF Humanitarian Airfreight Initiative to combat the COVID-19 pandemic by transporting the vaccine and other critically needed supplies to underserved areas of the globe.
"We are committed to helping the global community in any way we can, and we all must work together to do our part to bring this health and humanitarian crisis to an end," said Director of Cargo Specialty Products Manu Jacobs.
We will leverage our expertise to transport these critical pharmaceutical and healthcare shipments around the world safely, efficiently and expediently. We are proud to partner with the United Nations to support this global effort and provide equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.
Together, we are facing an unprecedented challenge. United Together, we rise to meet that challenge.
Calling all AvGeeks and travelers! Take your next video call from a United Polaris® seat, the cockpit or cruising altitude with United-themed backgrounds for use on Zoom and Microsoft Teams.
Newly added to our collection is a background encouraging our employees and customers to vote. Our mission is to connect people and unite the world — and one of the most important ways to do that is to engage in the democratic process. No matter which party you support, we know our democracy will be stronger if you make your voice heard and vote.
So for your next meeting or catch up with friends and family, download the app to either your computer or mobile device to get started.
To use on Zoom:
- Start here by downloading your favorite United image to your computer or mobile device. Just click "download" in the bottom left corner of the image.
- Next go to your Zoom app (you'll need to download the app to access backgrounds) and click on the arrow to the right of your video camera icon in the bottom of the screen.
- From here select, "choose virtual background" to upload your uniquely United photo.
To use on Microsoft Teams:
- Start by downloading your favorite United image to your computer. Just click "download" in the bottom left corner of the image.
- If you're using a PC, copy the image you want to use into this folder:
- C:\[insert your device user name here]\AppData\Microsoft\Teams\Backgrounds\Uploads
- If you're using a Mac copy the images to this folder on your computer:
- /users/<username>/Library/Application Support/Microsoft/Teams/Backgrounds/Uploads
- If you're using a PC, copy the image you want to use into this folder:
- Once you start a Teams meeting, click the "…" in the menu bar and select "Show background effects" and your image should be there
Watch our most popular videos
This is why we fly.
20 UCSF Health workers, who voluntarily set aside their own lives to help save lives, are on their way to New York City.
We are humbled by your selfless sacrifice.
In celebration and appreciation of all first responders and essential workers. 👏🏻👏🏼👏🏽👏🏾👏🏿
This is the story of Jason and Shantel. You see, Jason and Shantel love each other very much. They also love traveling and they love the classic Adam Sandler film, The Wedding Singer.
It all began when Jason reached out to United's social media team, hoping for assistance with his upcoming plan to propose. Some phone calls and one borrowed guitar later, the stage was set for Jason. Put all that together, mix in some helpful United employees and, voila, you have a truly memorable marriage proposal. Congratulations to this fun-loving and happy couple, and here's to many more years of making beautiful music together.
A big thank you to Chicago-based flight attendants Donna W., Marie M., Karen J. and Mark K. for making this proposal come to life.