Zo Sasaki was almost certainly among the billions around the world taking in at least some the televised pageantry honouring the late Queen Elizabeth – especially the scenes from Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh.
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The Tokyo native is no monarchist, but he loves Edinburgh so much that he planned his second visit for three decades. In all that time he was certain of one thing in particular: he would make the trip in the off-season.
Back in the mid-1980s, he and his wife, Mari, did a grand European tour in June for their honeymoon. “Almost perfect,” Mr. Sasaki told me a few years back as we ate ice cream on a gorgeous February day in Holyrood Park at the foot of Arthur’s Seat.
Edinburgh: Sweeping views, monuments and memorials
Yes, ice cream. There was even a lineup that day for the ice cream truck – in Edinburgh – in February.
“Such a beautiful city, lots to see,” the Tokyo resident said, “but last time Edinburgh Castle (was) way too crowded. Holyrood Palace? Closed. Queen Elizabeth (was) living there. Summer visit? I say wrong month.”
This time, the Sasakis visited both those landmarks anchoring the ends of the Royal Mile, which is central to the old town. Much to Mr. Sasaki’s surprise, even his climb to Arthur’s Seat, a small but special mountain (actually an extinct volcano overlooking Holyrood) was more pleasant in winter thanks to calm and sunny weather.
“Last time, rainy, windy, cold – in June!”
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Mr. Sasaki, a civil engineer, then told me something I’d never considered when planning my trip: Depending on location, February is the driest or second-least rainy month in Britain (something a little light Googling seems to confirm).
Now, with the cobblestoned medieval streets in the global spotlight and a surge in tourism expected, the off-season approach makes more sense than ever. Add in that the pound has taken a beating recently and flights and hotel rooms are cheaper in winter, and you might have a good alternative to your usual sun-and-sand vacation, even if you’ll need a decent jacket for chilly evenings.
Photo by Jennifer Bonauer/Unsplash
At Edinburgh Castle, on a sunny Sunday morning, our guide said “only” about 2,000 visitors were expected. It was 8C (46F). That’s about average for late February, and the daffodils and crocuses were in bloom (positively spring-like for this Canadian).
The turnout was still substantial – enough to make the thought of 10,000+ on days in peak season scary. “And there are big queues in summer for the Honours (crown jewels) and some of the more popular areas of the castle,” our guide added.
One of Europe’s most beautiful destinations
Seasonal popularity is a similar issue at Holyrood, which has long been closed to the public for a week each June for Queen Elizabeth’s annual visit – as the Sasakis once discovered. (There’s no word yet on whether King Charles will maintain that tradition).
Mr. Sasaki became clearly emotional as he spoke of Holyrood and the eeriness of its surrounding abbey ruins. The lure of a return hike up Arthur’s Seat was too strong to resist (though not for Mari, who returned to their room at the Balmoral Hotel for a nap).
“It’s so beautiful from the top,” Mr. Sasaki said. “Perfect.”
It should be pointed out that Mr. Sasaki would again rate his overall trip only an “almost perfect,” as some galleries have shorter hours in winter (and explaining that the black eye he was sporting came from the elbow of a woman who was taking off her jacket while passengers took their seats on the plane at Narita).
Edinburgh: Getting lost in the cobbled alleyways
My trip was almost perfect, too, having picked a comfortable and beautifully located hotel, the recently refurbished Hilton Carlton. It’s on the Royal Mile at Princes Street and a stone’s throw from Waverley, the main train station (handy since I’d arrived by rail from London, after a few lovely days in York).
I also saw very good bands just down the street at a gritty club called Whistle Binkies (live music seven nights a week).
Photo by Matthew Kalapuch/Unsplash
What might have made my visit perfect? More time.
Edinburgh’s not a big city (only about a half-million people), but it deserves at least a week of a curious tourist’s time. I also wish I’d known earlier than the evening before I had to leave, that – even in off-season – reservations are a must at Mother India, a curry restaurant that several people recommended.
Edinburgh quick tips
- There are lots of off-season specials on luxury accommodations, beginning in the autumn (prices rise, as you’d expect, during the Christmas-New Year’s period).
- I was more than comfortable at the well-situated Hilton Carlton, but my friends from Japan figured they had the best place in town with a deluxe ‘Castle View’ room at The Balmoral Hotel, a venerable landmark on the Edinburgh skyline. It’s handy to both the Old Town and New Town areas and it’s iconic clock tower is visible all over the town.
- If you’re looking for a thoroughly indulgent atmosphere with ‘theatric suites,’ The Witchery By The Castle has no peer.
- Another time-honoured gem, on the New Town side of the tracks is InterContinental’s Edinburgh The George, which has been built around five heritage-listed Georgian townhouses from the 1700s.
- If you’re looking for a boutique hotel experience, the Dunstane Houses comes highly recommended.
Food and drink
- I’m more of a halibut man in Canada, but the haddock and chips at The World’s End on the Royal Mile was a great meal both in quality and quantity; perfect with a local ale. The walls of the place date to the 16th century and it’s been in business so long it lists Charles Dickens among its famous visitors.
- Lots of places offer haggis, neeps and tatties: the traditional ground-lamb dish with turnips and potatoes, both mashed. Try it at the Whiski Bar, and, even if you think you don’t like scotch, try one or two. There are many styles; one might be just right for you.
- For a more in-depth exploration of Scotch, book a tour at the Scotch Whisky Experience at the top of the Royal Mile.
- Get the Johnnie Walker scotch tour.
- A restaurant you’ll want reservations for is Wedgwood The Restaurant, even if you’re visiting out of season. It offers lots of local Scottish-style fare, seasonal menu variations and some Asian-fusion influence.
- Among the craziest things I saw – two nights in a row, no less – were women (locals I believe) who chose high heels for an alcohol-fuelled night on the cobblestones. Don’t try it, even sober. This is a town for comfortable shoes and hiking. It’s hilly, but getting around on foot is the way to go here.
- With your comfortable shoes properly laced, you owe it to yourself to take in at least two of the many architectural walking tours: One in the Old Town, covering key buildings back to medieval times, and one in the New Town, a crucible of Georgian design and city planning, most of it built between the 1760s and 1850s. Check at your hotel front desk.
- Though it contains sloppy mistakes, Arthur Herman’s How The Scots Invented The Modern World is an excellent and entertaining primer that will allow you to appreciate Scotland’s huge contributions to the Age of Enlightenment luminaries
- Ian Rankin detective stories, Robbie Burns poetry and a little Walter Scott may help you set the mood.
- Films such as Trainspotting and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie might help to attune your ears.
- Camera Obscura is apparently the oldest purpose-built tourist attraction in Scotland, dating back to 1835 and in its current spot since 1853. It would have been high-tech originally, but its use of mirrors optical illusions and its incredible collection of mind-altering phenomena is clearly impressive and fun for people of all ages. No wonder I saw a group of youngsters smoking a joint before paying their admission fees.
Top image: Edinburgh Castle, Photo by Jorg Angeli, Unsplash