We had taken the Caledonian Sleeper up to Edinburgh because I had never slept on a train before.
I have still never slept on a train.
Granted, some of the blame must rest on my shoulders as James and I stayed up till 3am drinking wine in the dining car. And the train arrives just before 7am so… you know… there were mitigating circumstances.
But I expected to be floored. Here are the things people tell you about Edinburgh:
- “It’s amazing. Nowhere has made me feel more welcome or more at home.”
- “Edinburgh has such a wonderful nightlife.”
- “Edinburgh has great bars, great restaurants. It’s all great.”
- “Edinburgh is like London but cheaper and friendlier.”
And yes, maybe they are friendly… the Big Issue vendors certainly wanted to have a longer conversation with me than they do in London.
As for the nightlife? Well, we were there on Easter Monday and the next day so seeing as that’s a quiet time everywhere -and because I want to say some brutal things in the next few paragraphs- I’ll politely say I couldn’t possibly comment.
Bars and restaurants? Well, actually I can comment on them.
I live in what is currently the best city for food in the world. And I live there with a job that requires me to amaze sophisticated clients with my mad lunch skillz. Working for a site that posts a new review every 34 seconds.
Also… you know… great big fat drunk. So there’s that, too.
After our copy of Time Out Edinburgh disappointed us with the most tourist-trappy recommendation imaginable, I decided to embark on a grand professional experiment to see if I could Qype my way around Scotland.
What fascinates me about sites like ours is that -unlike in the case of travel books where the information is at least fifteen months old- review sites offer you what’s hot in real time. If a place suddenly gets bad, it’s rating goes down and it drops out of the top ten. Plus it’s all local knowledge, all the time. (Somebody buy some ads from me.)
So I could say -with some confidence- that we dined where the cool locals dined.
And it wasn’t London good. It certainly wasn’t Edinburgh cheap.
Trying too hard
Let me say that I like the regions. I count the days until I can somehow move back to Bristol. This isn’t some newly-discovered London-centrism. Great pains are taken to never quite become that person.
I’m from Newcastle, Australia. That pretty much qualifies me as a global expert in cities that are trying too hard.
They’ll open a “cool” restaurant which is like a version of one in a major city that they heard about on the radio and then dare you to say it isn’t as good. (Also it will cost the same.)
That about sums up my experience of “cool” Edinburgh dining.
It’s reminds me of Newcastle in that it wasn’t so much bad as it just wasn’t as good as they were daring you to say it was.
Down a rung
Upon realising this, we promptly dropped down a rung and just searched for “pubs” with decent ratings.
Whereupon we found (64 feet away from us at the time) This wonderful place. The Queen’s Arms. Where we had haggis pakora even though I know it’s totally a 2002 thing to try and “fuse” haggis with something else. Whatever, I thought it would be delicious and it was.
Also, even though it was still London-priced, the wine list was London-good so I was happy to pay.
After dinner at the second of a “collection of similarly-named restaurants” (I’m not going to say any more than that but locals will be able to work it out) we Qyped our way over to this great little cocktail bar in the basement of a laundromat. (Told you I did the cool, local thing.)
Here’s where I think my biggest gripe lies.
The dichotomy between the areas “you are generally recommended” to go out if you are a visitor to the city bear absolutely no relation to the places that locals will recommend for themselves. None.
Think that’s the same everywhere?
Everyone knows you go out in NoHo, Brick Lane, Notting Hill and Shoreditch in London. A DK guide will tell you that.
But no, they trap tourists along the Royal Mile where they have to schlepp past vaguely racist tartan stores to get between quite interesting Holyrood Palace and spectacularly boring Edinburgh Castle -neither of which are inclined to offer you any kind of English Heritage-style discount for visiting multiple places. (I’m a member of English Heritage so I looked.)
The whole thing, in the light of actual local knowledge, seemed mean-spirited and unfriendly.
Big cities tend to suck
On the third day we picked up our shithouse rental car and hit the Highlands. And Speyside. Then the western isles. And everywhere else the people were lovely.
It still wasn’t cheap and the food was often substandard but everyone we spoke to was friendly, the countryside itself was eye-meltingly beautiful… Definitely, definitely go to Scotland. Often. I will.
I just can’t see me rushing back to Edinburgh.