I grew up in Fife, across the water from Edinburgh. As a student I’d take the milk-round bus for a couple of hours each morning to go clean hotel rooms in the Scottish capital, so I could head out straight after work to the Fringe Festival–the largest arts festival in the world.
You don’t need much money to get the full experience; I’d occasionally splurge to see big-name comedians like Eddie Izzard, but for the most part the action is on the streets. Buskers revamp everything from Celtic to medieval to rock songs; street artists chalk 20-by-20-ft works of art on the pavements; backpackers from Europe, Japan, Australia and all over the world descend upon the Royal Mile, charging up the atmosphere with their noise and laughter. The city feels alive.
This year I made it back as a tourist on a week-long trip through Scotland. I got off the Scotrail Caledonian Sleeper train from London Euston, at Waverley Station, just after 6 am–shortbread and fresh-brewed tea in hand, ready to make the most of 48 hours in my old stomping ground.
Twenty years on, I wanted to return to a few favourite dining spots and was curious to find the new places making their mark on the Scottish culinary scene. Here are my recommendations for festival goers and food lovers looking to fuel up for a jam-packed day out in Edinburgh–and maybe pick up some unique kitchen goodies to take home:
Tuck into fish and chips at Deacon Brodies a pub on the Royal Mile, named after the 18th-century town councillor who burgled houses and consorted with gamblers by night and inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s character Jekyll and Hyde. Pale gold and thick-cut fries with plump battered line-caught cod and a side of creamy coleslaw hit the spot, as you sit by the window, listening to a troupe of street musicians play sax, guitar, banjo and drums, while belting out Dire Straits and Beyonce hits in five-part harmonies.
Try the Squirrel Burger at Red Squirrel–a kitschy diner and bar on Lothian Road, near Festival Square. Fortunately the burgers are not actually made from bushy-tailed park rodents, they’re 100 percent juicy Scottish beef. The meat comes with beer mustard, Hereford hop, arugula and caramelized onion mayo. Fifty pence from its sale goes towards saving the red squirrel, whose population has been under threat since the non-native grey squirrels muscled in on their territory a few decades ago.
Savour free-range chicken, with sesame-seed-encrusted haggis at Field, on Nicholson Street. This cozy, candle-lit spot is new on Edinburgh’s dining scene, but has already generated enough buzz to be booked solid throughout August for an inspired local and seasonal festival menu. The space is stylish, yet fun, with its washrooms papered with pages from cookbooks and food magazines–including some by executive chef Gordon Craig–the giant oil portrait of a cow in the dining room and piggy figurines on the mantel.
Drink local microbrews at the Bothy Bar, a pop-up beer garden and hut for the Fringe Festival, run by the Scottish National Gallery and located just next door, opposite the half-price Fringe ticket booths. It’s a great place to soak up the sunshine and festival vibes as you decide which shows to catch and take advantage of free Wi-fi.
Stock up on rose-adorned aprons and tea towels, British-garden-bird-emblazoned tableware or retro-cowboy-covered lunch boxes at Cath Kidston. The London company’s Edinburgh store is tucked away on George Street, in the New Town, just south of Princes Street Gardens.
Or browse street stands on the Royal Mile, where independent vendors from across the UK sell vintage clothing, jewellery and one-of-a-kind kitchenware, such as these gorgeous hand-carved butter knives.
Take a tea break at Henderson’s at St John’s, to allow your legs stop shaking from the claustrophobia- and vertigo-inducing climb up the tiny spiral stairways of the nearby Scott Monument.
Sip artisan lemonade, Fair-trade tea or coffee, and comfort yourself with a moist slab of frosted house-made cake.
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Where to stay: The Sheraton Grand Hotel, right beside Festival Square. In the Club Lounge you can tuck into fresh fruit, charcuterie, pastries, yoghurt, eggs Benny and other house-made goodies, to kickstart the day. Come back after a day at the fest, between 5:30 and 7:30 pm, for pre-dinner drinks and hors d’oeuvres.
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Love Edinburgh? Please share your recommendations for where to eat and drink in the comments section below.