Capital adventures

As Scotland reopens after lockdown, head back to Edinburgh to discover how a city break has changed


Although Edinburgh’s world-famous festivals have been cancelled for the first time this summer, a visit to Scotland’s capital is no less tempting this year. Having visited shortly after the country’s lockdown was relaxed in July, it’s also wonderfully quiet, warmly welcoming and for a major city, has plenty of outdoor spaces and attractions where visitors can breathe fresh air.

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is a key example. Tucked behind residential streets, visitors wouldn’t guess that Edinburgh hides 70 acres of beautifully tended gardens just two miles from bustling Princes Street.

Celebrating its 350th birthday this year, the gardens are globally recognised for their conservation programmes and plant science work, but for tourists it’s a green-fingered visitor attraction, once you’ve got used to the new one-way systems that ensure social distancing.

Tickets are free, but must be booked.

Pass under a commanding 8m-high beech hedge to wander around the Queen Mother’s Memorial Garden and its bog myrtle labyrinth, or transport yourself to a Chinese Hillside featuring around 16,000 plants from Yunnan, and the Alpine House with its curious Tufa House where alpines grow on a soft rock face.

The gardens are equally renowned for their extensive rhododendron collection, started by early plant collectors and now boasting more than 650 species.

The glasshouses are currently closed, although it’s hoped they’ll reopen soon, with a nominal fee for entry: when the doors are flung open again, be sure to sniff the waft of amorphophallus titanum, the first recorded flowering in Scotland of the world’s biggest and smelliest flower.

For fauna rather than flora, the much-loved Edinburgh Zoo is another big hit. Again, booked tickets are required, one-way systems are in place, and masks are mandatory in indoor spaces.

Some narrow areas/walkways remain closed, such as the Lemur Walkway and Hippo House, but most of the animals can potentially be spotted in their outdoor enclosures, so the zoo still provides hours of entertainment and education.

You can walk into Wallaby Outback and Penguin Rock to find yourself metres from the inhabitants, as well as being able to see the UK’s only giant pandas.

The pair are in Scotland on a ten-year loan from China — the female is called Tian Tian, which translates as “Sweetie”, and the male is called Yang Guang, meaning “sunshine”.

The fact Edinburgh was chosen as their temporary home speaks volumes about the zoo’s conservation work too, as part of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.

Bigger beasts, such as Asiatic lions, Sumatran tiger, sun bears and greater one-horned rhinoceros, are a huge hit with all ages too, while the zoo is also home to a vast array of primates to monkey around with.

Highlights include brown capuchins, common squirrel monkeys, buff-cheeked gibbons, the tiny eastern pygmy marmosets, and the very punky cotton-top tamarins.

And while the annual Military Tattoo has been cancelled for this year, Edinburgh Castle remains one of the jewels in “Auld Reekie’s” crown, reopened from August with booked tickets.

The Great Hall, St Margaret’s Chapel, the Scottish National War Memorial, the One O’Clock Gun, Mons Meg (the mediaeval gun) and the external areas will all be accessible.

Initially, the Royal Palace, Honours of Scotland (Crown Jewels and the Stone of Destiny), Fight for the Castle exhibition, Regimental Museums, National War Museum, One O’Clock Gun exhibition, Queen Anne Tea Room, guided tours and gift shops remain closed.

For a brief escape from the city centre’s streets, head for the water with a South Queensferry sailing aboard the Maid of the Forth.

Cruising beneath the three bridges that span the Firth of Forth, you could spot seals basking on the rocks or puffins bobbing on the waves as well as circumnavigating Inchcolm Island, with the ruins of Inchcolm Abbey silhouetted against the skyline.

Or you could stretch the legs with a climb up Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano reaching over 800ft with sweeping views over the capital.

A far shorter walk is the brief hike up Calton Hill, with its rewarding mix of monuments at the summit, including the National Monument, the Nelson Monument, the Dugald Stewart Monument, the Political Martyrs’ Monument and the Democracy Cairn.

The Democracy Cairn features various stones from historical locations, such as a brick from Robert Burns’ residence and Robert the Bruce’s castle of Lochmaben.

It also includes a stone from Auschwitz to commemorate Jane Haining, a Scottish farmer’s daughter who arrived in Budapest in 1932 to work as a matron at the Scottish Jewish Mission School.

Haining was looking after orphaned girls and she declined several opportunities to return to the UK, remaining with her charges to protect and support them. Arrested by the Gestapo in 1944, she died in the camp, aged 47.

She has been honoured by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations and many books and articles have been written to remember her selflessness.

Elsewhere, other pieces of Edinburgh’s Jewish history include Scotland’s first synagogue, established in 1817 within a rented room at 22 North Richmond Street.

A Jewish walking tour explores some of the key areas of interest and the history of the city’s community — you can download an app to follow the route.

While Scotland’s capital may be quieter than usual without its international tourists, in terms of experiences and history it’s still buzzing — and this time you won’t have to fight the crowds. In fact, 2020 could be the very year to make the most of Edinburgh.

Rainy day options

If the weather doesn’t lend itself to strolling outside in Edinburgh, some of the city’s key indoor attractions are also open.

  • The Camera Obscura has reopened but tickets must be booked.
  • The National Museum of Scotland is to reopen on August 19, tickets are available to book from August 14.
  • The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is partly open — you can explore the sculptures in the grounds, and Landform, the lawn designed by Charles Jencks at Modern One. Gallery opening date tbc.
  • The Scottish Gallery is open for walk-in visits on Saturdays from 11am to 1pm, as well as by appointment only on Tuesday to Friday.
  • Dynamic Earth is currently closed, opening date tbc.


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