Exploring Edinburgh

ROCK ROYALTY: Among many attractions at Edinburgh Castle are cannons, a war museum and a whiskey store.
ROCK ROYALTY: Among many attractions at Edinburgh Castle are cannons, a war museum and a whiskey store.

What can you do in the Scottish capital beyond sitting in a pub, wearing a kilt, eating haggis, drinking whisky and discussing devolution?

Walk up Arthur's Seat

Holyrood Park is 105 hectares of craggy hills, complete with lochs and glens and cliffs, that perches just to the east of the city centre - a wee bit of Scottish highland that someone forgot to turn into city.

QUIRKY ATTRACTIONS: In the Camera Obscura.
QUIRKY ATTRACTIONS: In the Camera Obscura.

The highest point in the park, which in the 12th century was the hunting grounds of the royal house, is Arthur's Seat - the peak of an extinct volcano.

Its chief virtue is that it's also the highest point in Edinburgh, so you get spanking good views back over the old city, and of the sea to the north and east.

If you're too puffed to get to the top, the views aren't bad even from halfway up, and if you take the right route you may stumble across the ruins of St Anthony's chapel, which was built in the 15th century or earlier.

Visit the castle on the rock

Face it, if you're a tourist in this city, you were going to visit Edinburgh Castle regardless, so it doesn't need much extra plugging from me.

The views are amazing, the stone crags and buildings overwhelming, and if you like coming away educated, grab an audio or a flesh-and-blood guide, who'll help you unpeel the layers of history that have accreted on this rock since it was carved from volcanic rock by a glacier about 100,000 years ago.

Even if you're moving fast, there's easily half a day's browsing to be done, whether you're into the grandeur of the Great Hall or the curious intimacy of the tiny, small-windowed room where in 1566 Mary Queen Scots gave birth to James, who would go on to be King James VI of Scotland and James I of England.

There are cannons and a chapel and a war museum, but also a teashop and a whisky store to sustain you. Come at the right time of day and you might catch an actor in period costume demonstrating torture and execution methods or similar, and scaring the haggis out of passing children. £9.60/£12.80 (NZ$18.60/$24.90); edinburghcastle.gov.uk

Visit the Museum of Childhood At 42 High Street, Royal Mile

Speaking of scaring children, long before Barbie, there were Victorian dolls with heads made of wax, with eyes that stared in a way that was, frankly, a bit creepy. A few dozen of these proto-Chuckies, along with 50,000-odd other children's toys from the 18th century to the modern day, are stuffed into the Museum of Childhood.

It's a quirky little museum halfway up the Royal Mile, that shortbread-and-kilt-shop-infested cobbled street that runs along the spine of the old city, leading up to Edinburgh Castle at its westernmost end.

Not all the toys are offputting - there are jolly rocking horses and impressively detailed dolls' houses and comics and My Little Ponies - and even a few Barbies.

There are chirpy paper dolls and lots of model cars, planes and trains, which someone has taken the time to carefully array within glassed-off displays, complete with airports and carparks and a bobby at the intersection directing traffic. Fun for kids; even more fun for adults who've got a nostalgic thing going for toy soldiers and whipping tops. Free admission. edinburghmuseums.org.uk/Venues/Museum-of-Childhood

Go cross-eyed

If you liked the dolls, odds are you'll also enjoy Camera Obscura, another quirky attraction a little further up the Royal Mile. Up the top is the actual camera obscura, where the magic of mirrors and lenses projects a realtime 360-degree view of the city on to a tabletop in the centre of the room, allowing you to do weird stuff such as persuade the wee people and cars below to take a detour over your hand as they move across the table.

On the other four floors are all manner of crazy optical adventures - a mirror maze; mirrors that make you fat and thin and wobbly; holograms and plasma balls and kaleidoscopes. There's also one of those rooms where perspective tricks turn you into a dwarf or a giant, or cut off your head. Dizzying but fun, especially with kids. £9.50/£12.95. camera-obscura.co.uk

Make like the Queen of England

Between 1954 and 1997, the Royal Yacht Britannia steamed 2 million kilometres, was a holiday home to generations of royals, and witnessed visits from Dwight E Eisenhower, Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill. N

ow, though, it's docked permanently in Edinburgh's Port of Leith, where for a modest fee you can indulge in some thoroughly enjoyable prying. There is decadent luxury to salute or deride (the Rolls Royce on the deck; the grand piano in the grandly furnished sitting room).

There's history on the walls (a portrait of Admiral Nelson; family snaps of young Diana with her boys). And there's a whiff of sex and claustrophobia. Four royal honeymoons were taken aboard this vessel, and the bed is still there.

You're not allowed to test the springs, but you can still marvel at how small it is, and wonder how it might have felt to be Princess Diana, joining that family at St Paul's, and then the next day slipping into this tiny bed, with the knowledge that it had already been put to similar use by two of her aunts. There's also a tearoom. £7.75/£12.75; royalyachtbritannia.co.uk

Go to a pub, or two or three

Scotland is, for the time being, still part of the United Kingdom, and it's a scientific fact that wherever you might be in the UK you are never more than a short stumble from a pub, which is liable to be at least a few centuries old. In Edinburgh, however, the density of hostelry reaches heroic proportions.

A good place to start a pub crawl, if you wish to avoid the near-vertical hills that bedevil much of the city, is down on the Grassmarket, which runs parallel to the Royal Mile, but a bit to the south.

If, for argument's sake, you started your crawl at the Beehive Inn and ended at Biddy Mulligans, stopping at every pub inbetween, you'd have walked all of 130 metres, and also visited the Beehive, the White Hart Inn (bits of which were built in 1516), the Last Drop and Maggie Dickson's, and that's only one side of the road. It would be reasonable, while inside, to try a whisky.

This is Scotland not England, so closing time is generally a civilised 1am.

Find out where some of that whisky came from

These days there's only one distillery in the city, and it's not open to the public, so you'll need to take a daytrip to one of the half-dozen further out of town.

The only one I've visited is the Glengoyne Distillery, 90km to the west, which is a cluster of suitably old and quaint buildings in the middle of nowhere.

The tour is slick and touristy, but that's not always a bad thing. You sip a Glengoyne and watch an introductory DVD, then a kilt-wearing guide rattles on about oak sherry casks and the pros and cons of peat, and the unique water from the waterfall over yonder, before showing you around the factory.

There, malted barley and water bubble away to become a kind of brackish unhopped beer, which is then passed through three giant copper contraptions straight out of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory.

It's a pretty good mix: great scenery, daytime drinking and a scientific education: who knew that if you get the timing wrong when collecting the distillery's vapours, you end up with a toxic liquid best suited to removing nail varnish? Basic tour is £7.50, with costs rising steadily with extras such as whisky tastings and blending lessons. crglengoyne.com


Trafalgar has two dedicated Scotland guided holidays in 2014, the 7-day Best of Scotland priced from $2175 per person twin share, and 13-day Scottish Highlands, Islands & Cities priced from $3975 per person twin share.

Departure dates are available from now until October. Scotland features in several Trafalgar Britain and Ireland holidays. Freephone 0800 TRAFALGAR, visit trafalgar.com or ask your travel agent.

The writer travelled to Scotland courtesy of Trafalgar with assistance from Emirates.

Sunday Star Times