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'Fairytale' Edinburgh perfect for Christmas

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 07, 2013

  • Above: Looking over towards the city centre of Edinburgh from Holyrood Park, with Salisbury Crags. Below right: Getting up close and personal with sharks at Deep Sea World main PICTURE: P.TOMKINS/VisitScotland/SCOTTISH VIEWPOINT

  • Top: Phil Goodwin and his family stayed in a serviced apartment close to Grassmarket, a cobbled terrace of pubs and restaurants which sits in the shadow of the castle. Above: Christmas shoppers enjoy Edinburgh by night

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There are dozens if not scores of great reasons for paying a visit to Auld Reekie, the affectionate nickname given to the Scots capital in reference to the once smoke-filled city. The Athens of the North is a feast of historical and cultural wonders. Its old and new towns are rightly listed as World Heritage Sites by Unesco, making it a must-see for any self-respecting visitor to the British Isles. The well-worn trail to the Royal Mile and Princes Street, the castle, Holyrood, the Forth Bridge, a list that goes on and on – is so well-known that you could almost feel you know the place before you arrive.

To my shame, my only previous trip was a flying visit to see a Paul Weller gig, driving up by car from Newcastle, way back in my student days. When I tell you the Mod-father was with the Style Council at the time, you can understand it was some time ago.

Nightlife is one of the city's big draws and the celebrations for New Year – or Hogmanay – are part of the global party circuit. There are so many cosy pubs, tucked away down medieval alleyways, rows of bottles of whisky glowing golden above the bar, just begging you to come inside. Unfortunately, I now have a three-year-old son and, although I take advantage of the liberal attitude to children in licensed premises these days and drag him inside as often as I can, his boredom threshold is much lower than mine and usually just stretches to the time it takes to sink a pint. Me, of course, not young Jacob, who prefers a Fruit Shoot.

Once the obvious entertainment routes had been ruled out, and given that my wife was engaged in an academic conference during the day, alternative father-and-son entertainment was required. And thankfully, there is plenty of it, even in chilly November. First up was Deep Sea World, Scotland's national aquarium, which has a 112-metre glass tunnel running through the tanks which is billed as the longest moving walkway in Europe. Jake is currently a fanatic for all things shark and sea-life related so we rolled around the Underwater Safari about five times on the first visit. Towards the end of our second trip downstairs, just as I was trying to explain why a crab was eating a dead shark – you can't fault it for realism – I had lost count of how many more circuits we had done.

Visiting Deep Sea World gave us the chance to view the famous Forth Bridge. The attraction sits below the magnificent structure across the Firth on the Fife side in a quiet community not unlike Saltash, which is dominated by our famous Brunel bridge. And as the centre is reachable by rail, we ticked off another passion with a train journey.

Next up was Edinburgh Zoo, where Britain's only female giant panda, Tian Tian, arrived from China in 2011 in a £6 million loan, along with a male, Yang Guang. Neither of us had seen the much-loved bears in the flesh before so we queued up dutifully with a gang of students for the 30-minute experience. Tian Tian was asleep the whole time, perhaps the efforts of her failed pregnancy taking its toll, while Yang Guang did what pandas do best, namely sitting and stripping the leaves from armfuls of branches of bamboo, and chewing relentlessly. A keeper provided a fascinating running commentary on the lunch, which was only interrupted when the creature dangled its backside over the ledge and demonstrated the obvious laxative qualities of his leafy diet. The extraordinary revelation that pandas 'poo' 40 times a day offered an unexpected insight into how much of the staff's time is spent and generated great amusement with Jacob.

Back in town we rode the open top bus around the city, something I have never done in any city I have ever been but actually a fascinating way to get your bearings and pick out interesting places to follow up on foot.

We visited the museum of childhood, which to be honest offers precious little to entertain kids and probably appeals more to more elderly visitors with fond memories of die-cast toy cars spinning tops. I was also 'toddler taxed' on the way out with a £7 vintage single-decker bus, a new edition to our already extensive miniature fleet back at home.

The Camera Obscura attraction at the top of the High Street, however, was of a different class and I had to practically drag the lad out as they were closing. Four or five floors of illusions, weird mirrors, visual tricks – all hands on – make for a brilliant couple of hours entertainment. The vortex tunnel was the highlight – a nausea-inducing and disorientating stagger across a steel walkway surrounded by a spinning, circular wall. A great optical illusion which makes you appear as a severed head genuinely scared the boy almost as much as the unseen growling tiger snarling inside a packing crate.

The three of us flew with Flybe on the Thursday morning from Exeter. We live in the city so were able to mange the rare feat of walking to the bus station at 8.30am, catching an airport bus in time for a 10.15am flight and arriving in the city just before midday.

It really is just a short hop by air from Devon to Lothian and the journey offers a beautiful view of the Lake District from on the way. The twin-propeller Dash 8 which makes the daily trip doesn't seem to fly quite so high as jets and the detailed contours of recognisable peaks were clearly visible.

I have never seen the region from altitude before – it provided a welcome distraction from the flight and I could have stayed there longer.

Once on the ground we jumped on the airport express and were in the heart of the city within half and hour. The first thing that hits you when you step out and start touring around is the feeling of the city, which is dramatically different to anywhere else in the UK.

It is a grand place, windswept, and quite fairytale with that tall rock sat on a hill right at its centre. We climbed up the Royal Mile to the castle and across the esplanade made famous by the Military Tattoo, only to find its entrance guarded by two burning torches. Many of the streets in the old town are great, sweeping, winding, climbing affairs and the street lights are fixed to the buildings, rather than sat on lamp posts, making it feel dark and from another time, as if the entire place had been dressed for a period film. For the benefit of the handful of people like me who have never really seen the place, imagine Liverpool's inner-city Victorian grandeur with a dash of Lakeland town surrounded by brooding mountains. It's hard to put your finger on Edinburgh's charms, but they are powerful and many. I wished I could have stayed longer, wandered around much more and vowed to myself I would return.

We stayed in a serviced apartment just off the Grassmarket, a cobbled terrace of pubs and restaurants which sits in the shadow of the castle.

The Knight Residence was perfectly placed to explore both the neo-classical and Georgian beauty of Princes Street and the new town as well as the Medieval old town.

Having a flat with all mod cons made life easy, meaning we could shop for basics and not be forced to dine out three times a day. A decent library of DVDs bought us much-needed quiet time, with Toy Story 2 and Cars among the favourites.

We did eat out a few times, though nowhere remarkable, and nothing approaching the abundant Michelin quality that can be had – notably afternoon tea at the Sir Walter Scott tea room – and a couple of pub lunches. The cod and chips in the Fiddlers Arms at the Grassmarket was as good as anything I have had in Devon, the selection of ales was great and staff everywhere went out of their way to be helpful.

As we were leaving, workers were just putting the final touches to the Christmas market – I think they call it the German market – with its big wheel, right next to the Scott monument. I can imagine once the ice rink it in place the city will be wonderfully festive. If you have never been to Edinburgh you really should make the trip. It is well worth the effort.

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