25 things to do in Edinburgh before you die

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We’ve listed our top 25 things to do in Edinburgh before you die, and now we’re expanding our horizons to Glasgow. Tell us your essential Glasgow experiences and check back on the site next week to see if yours made the cut.

1 Open water swimming (any done outside the confines of a pool) is enjoying something of a revival.

Musselburgh lagoons, Portobello Beach, and the reservoirs at Threipmuir near Balerno, and Clubbiedean and Glencorse in the Pentland Hills are all good places to get your wild water fix. The latter is the most picturesque, nestled in a

glen at the end of a woodland walk.

For inspiration and updates from other enthusiasts see wildswim.com and outdoorswimmingsociety.com

2 Head to The Meadows with an air rifle and take aim at anyone playing bongos, in homage to one of our favourite fictional Edinburgh residents, Sick Boy (or avoid criminal charges by just taking a picnic and a bottle of wine and scowling at them disdainfully) – gorgeous in spring when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom, but best in summer when it’s warm enough to lose a whole day there.

3 The Penguin Parade at Edinburgh Zoo is a much-loved institution, and if you’re in need of a smile, one that takes some beating – there’s something about the little tuxedo-ed participants that never fails to raise one. The penguins take their stroll every day at 2.15pm, although as the zoo points out, their participation is on a strictly voluntary basis, and no penguin is forced to promenade.


4 Take a twilight ride on the Ferris wheel at the Christmas Market in Princes Street Gardens, ice skate under the stars with the icy blue-lit castle and the trees bedecked in fairy lights above you, then warm up with Glühwein, egg nog and freshly-fried doughnuts. www.edinburghschristmas.com

5 The Fringe is what most people mean when they think of the Edinburgh festival(s), and it is still the one to focus on for a quick cultural fix and the widest and weirdest variety of entertainment. Make a day of it; see your first show at 9am and pack them in, breaking only for food and ludicrously expensive but essential pints in each of the venues’ beer gardens, right up till Late ‘n’ Live at Gilded Balloon which starts at 1am and finishes at 5am. 3-27 August 2012, www.edfringe.com

6 The Festival finale fireworks display is the largest annual live music pyrotechnic display in the world, and watched by 250,000 people in the city every year – that’s half the residents. Make sure you’re one of them – whether you watch them from Princes Street, Arthur’s Seat, Calton Hill, Inverleith Park or your bedroom window with Radio Forth, which broadcasts the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s accompaniment, on in the background. The sight of four tonnes of explosives setting off 100,000 fireworks is not to be missed. www.eif.co.uk

7 Float on your back under the stars in the Sheraton’s One Spa rooftop pool. The outdoor Hydropool is a thermal pool with body jets pumping out mineral-rich water to make the experience, if possible, even more relaxing – go in the evening for the best view in town: the night sky. www.onespa.com

8 Do away with the fabled “You’ll have had your tea” notion by taking your mum to afternoon tea in the Palm Court at The Balmoral, an icon of Edinburgh gentility if ever there was one. Mini chocolate scones with Devon clotted cream, Bollinger, Scotch beef and red onion marmalade finger sandwiches – she’ll forgive you a lot after those.


9 Dive off the top board at the Commonwealth, a vertigo-inducing 10 metres – then you can say you’ve done it, and need never do it again. The Commy is due to reopen in spring 2012 and about time too; we’ve missed this local institution, built for the 1970 Commonwealth Games and soon to play host to the diving events of the 2014 event, and one of only four 50m pools in Scotland.


10 The National Galleries of Scotland, comprising the Scottish National Gallery, the Portrait Gallery, and the Gallery of Modern Art, are a treasure trove of pieces you probably didn’t even realise call Edinburgh home – The Three Graces anyone? From Paolozzi to Picasso, Andy Warhol to Annie Leibovitz and Lichtenstein’s In the Car, surrealists Magritte, Duchamp and Dalí to Velázquez, Boticelli and Da Vinci, you’ll find them all right here, for free, every day. The Portrait Gallery reopens on Thursday, 1 December.


11 Climb Arthur’s Seat in time to watch the sun rise over the best view of the most beautiful city in the world (not biased at all), and take all the fixings for an Edinburgh Gin martini for breakfast. Best pick up some viennoiserie from the Manna House on Easter Road en route to go with it.

12 Spend a day strolling at Portobello beach, taking in the slot machines and a game of bingo along the way, then top it all off with a fish supper in the sea air, slathered in salt ‘n’ sauce, as anyone in their right mind (ie resident in Edinburgh) knows it should be.

13 Valvonna and Crolla’s is great any day of the year, being the closest you’ll get to Rome without leaving the city, but head along on Christmas Eve for a flirty Buon Natale from the effervescent and enthusiastic staff, and to stock up on epicurean treats for Santa, Rudolf, and to see yourself through the next few days.

14 Take a helicopter ride over the city and get a whole new perspective on the winding closes of the Old Town and the stately geometry of the New Town – 2,000ft of air between you and them will do that. The 15-minute trip takes you over the Castle, the Royal Mile, Holyrood Palace and the Scottish Parliament, before flying north to Calton Hill, Leith Docks and the Royal Yacht Britannia, and then on to the Pentland Hills and the Forth Rail Bridge, popping over Tynecastle, Easter Road and Murrayfield along the way, all for £69.


15 Go underground and visit the city under the city at Mary King’s Close, and the Vaults under South Bridge, where Edinburgh’s reputation as one of the most haunted cities in the world becomes understandable. Paranormal studies on the Vaults (heart-stoppingly close to Burke and Hare territory and fabled as a stash for their grisly wares) have shown high levels of poltergeist activity and there have been reports of punching, bruising, scratching, hair-pulling and ankle-grabbing from the tour. www.partner.viator.com

16 The first Edinburgh derby was played on Christmas Day 1875 on The Meadows, with Hearts beating Hibs 1-0, and it’s still being played today, making the fierce rivalry between our two hometown clubs one of the longest-

running in football history. Get yourself a pie, a mug of Bovril, stake your allegiance and get involved, whether that’s from the stands or the close quarters of every local pub within a mile radius of Tynecastle or Easter Road.

17 Portobello is home to the one of the few remaining original Victorian Turkish baths in the UK. The benefits of Turkish baths come from stimulating the body with exposure to varying temperatures in quick succession, and the beautifully tiled hammam has the requisite tepidarium (warm), calidarium (hot), laconium (hottest) and frigidarium (cold), plus icy plunge pool.


18 Breakfast karaoke at Priscilla’s on Leith Walk is a must for those seeking sustenance at 5am but with no intentions of hitting the sack afterwards. Think of the toasties on offer as more of a mid-session snack to help you keep going, than a very late supper to see you off to bed, because you’ll be washing them down with £1 “Gaygerbombs” from the Sound as a Pound drinks menu, and the bar staff’s idea of an early-morning soundtrack isn’t exactly a lullaby. Priscilla’s is open Saturday mornings 5am-12pm.


19 The Botanics is one of the most peaceful and calming spots in the city, perfect for putting your head to rights. Forget the world outside in the steamy tropics of the glasshouses – the elegant Victorian Palm House dates from 1834, while the 1967 glasshouses were hailed for their controversial cutting-edge design. Highlights include the rare Amorphophallus titanum – yes, the one that smells like dead bodies. Gifted to the Gardens in 2003, a bud finally emerged in 2011 and since then has been making up for lost time growing at a rate of 10cm a day, with its own webcam to prove it.


20 The dramatic panoramas on offer in Edinburgh should be a pretty good incentive to get your running shoes on, but the “exhilaration” of scaling cobbled precipices at speed is perhaps more easily appreciated when at someone else’s behest – namely Al Donald, who offers guided running round the city. Bespoke routes can be created, incorporating your favourite sights and areas, or go off-road on one of Donald’s scenic scampers, as far afield as the Firth of Forth (don’t worry, he’ll give you a lift there).


21 Count the stars at the Royal Observatory on Blackford Hill. Guided tours of the night sky from its distinctive copper domes in both summer and winter, point out planets, constellations and nebulae and pass round meteorites to handle. There’s also a tour of the historic Victorian telescope dome, which still houses one of the largest telescopes in Scotland. www.roe.ac.uk

22 See the Calcutta Cup on home turf. The world’s oldest international rugby fixture is still the one that gets both England and Scotland baying for blood. Give Flower of Scotland your lustiest efforts and then follow the crowd through the streets into town for celebrations/commiserations (delete as appropriate). The match is played at Murrayfield on even years, so make sure not to miss it in 2012. The match will open the Six Nations on 4 February. www.scottishrugby.org

23 Go to Midnight Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral at Palmerston Place on Christmas Eve. Whatever you believe, it’s beautiful. www.cathedral.net

24 Take your wallet on a wander down Victoria Street, the prettiest in the city with its curving candy-coloured row of eclectic shops. Stop off at Oink hog roast shop with its daily spit-roasted pig on proud display in the window; IJ Mellis, Scotland’s definitive cheesemonger and the maker of a mighty fine ficelle to go with it; Odd One Out for hipper than thou street wear and edgy Scottish designers’ wares; and Aha Ha Ha joke shop, a local institution thanks in part to the giant joke nose and specs over the door, before heading across the Grassmarket to Armstrongs, the vintage behemoth that has set the standard in Scotland since 1840.

25 The Beltane Fire Festival takes place every year on Calton Hill to mark the arrival of spring, with its origins in the pre-Christian Scottish festival of the same name, which is derived for a Gaelic-Celtic word meaning “sacred fire”. Back then, everyone in the community would put out their fires and a new, symbolic sacred fire would be lit by the village head from which the inhabitants would relight their home fires before dancing clockwise around them to ensure good things ahead for their families. 30 April, 2012, tickets available from 1 March, 2012, www.beltane.org