Edinburgh Lets its Hair Down

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It is as frisky as it is traditional, with a hint of the supernatural. Everywhere you turn in Edinburgh, you’ll get told a story about ghosts or villains or some uniquely Scottish event that, along with its historic structures and winding streets, make this, hands down, one of the most fascinating cities we’ve visited. Everything about Edinburgh is a wee bit mischievous and a little naughty in the most delicious of ways.

That, and the tried-and-true fact that Scots are not just friendly, but downright endearing—the perfect hosts—make Edinburgh an immediate favorite.

all about spirits Edinburgh is divided between Old Town and New Town, both UNESCO World Heritage sites and both quirky and high-spirited, with more than a few surprises hidden around famous castles, chi-chi boutiques and many, many pubs. The city is in the midst ofHomecoming 2009, inspired by the 250th anniversary of the birth of national poet Robert Burns and which centers around five pillars: Burns, whisky, golf, ancestry, and great Scottish minds and innovation. It is a celebration mad with festivities, with everything from 360 additional live music sessions in pubs in Scotland, to Whisky Week in November and hundreds of other events in between.

Getting back to whisky, one of the city’s most popular attractions in the city is the Scotch Whisky Experience, which houses the world’s largest whisky collection right on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh’s oldest street. Its goal is to “spread the gospel of Scotch,” according to Operations Manager Lenka Whyles, yet this “whisky embassy” embraces visitors of all ages with child-friendly exhibits, tours and tutored tastings. Other places to enjoy local spirits are in Edinburgh’s many pubs, including Sandy Bells, known for its live folk music, and Deacon Brodie’s, named after the cabinet-maker-turned-thief who became the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.”

Just a block away from Sandy Bell’s is Hotel du Vin & Bistro, located in a building that used to be a mental asylum. Hotel du Vin has a bit of a modern-country feel with a fun hint of spooky, with afternoon tea and whisky tastings (there are 250 types here). It’s also home to more than 400 wine labels and one of only six specially designed wine-tasting tables. Each of its 47 guestrooms is named after a wine, all of which are available in the hotel (guests get 10 percent off a bottle of the wine of the room they’re staying in). The cozy hotel also has a cigar bothy on the courtyard, an adults-only dollhouse of sorts with a fireplace and leather chairs where you can smoke up and order a drink. At press time, rates based on current exchange rates start at $223 per night for a standard double room.

Another of the many pluses to Hotel du Vin is its location. It’s within walking distance to many places worth a visit, including Bedlam Theatre, which makes its home in a neo-gothic church. From here you can also walk to the landmark building of the National Museum of Scotland and its treasures of the country’s past and present. It’s currently undergoing a multimillion dollar renovation that will double the number of objects on display in 16 new galleries but much of it is still open, with a finish date of 2011.

Like so many other establishments in the city, the “bistro” part of Hotel du Vin is seeking to replace perceptions of old, stuffy Scotland, down to the food. There is now much more than the traditional “haggis, neeps and tatties,” with the local bounty from the sea alone now more prevalent in your options in the form of fresh lobster and langoustines, for instance (recommend The Grainstore on Victoria Street for another very fresh take on modern Scottish cuisine). There is, in fact, a very modern side to Scotland and to Edinburgh, but it’s precisely the funny dichotomies that make the city so deliciously wicked, even slightly irreverent.

Who knew, for instance, that someone with no apparent roots in this country would find more than a couple of “Muñozes” from the mid-1800s registered in the National Archives of Scotland? The ScotslandsPeople Centre allows people to research birth, census and other records for a small fee and save or print their findings. Throughout the year, an accompanying rolling exhibition will detail the genealogical results of famous Scots.