How’s this for a city that has everything: bustling Edinburgh has all the energy of big city life and a major tourist destination all rolled up in stunning cobblestone streets and a quaint European town, cheerfully wrapped around a stunning castle perched atop a volcanic crag in the center of downtown?
It doesn’t take long to see why Edinburgh has become a major European tourism hub; located within easy reach of Scotland’s many sites, Edinburgh offers anything and everything one could want in a city, including (of course) a robust gay nightlife. My partner and I arrived in town ready to tackle it all, but also hoping to find Edinburgh’s less raucous, more quirky side. We emerged from the Waverly Train Station amidst the bustling energy of the shopping crowds on hopping Princes Street, and decided to settle in before taking on the busy city. Since we only had a couple bags, we walked the short distance to our super-fab hotel, Tigerlily, which is located on fashionable George Street in the very heart of Edinburgh’s shopping and nightlife area.
CHECKING IN & HEADING OUT
Tigerlily is a new upscale hotel and nightlife destination, beautifully designed with gorgeous rooms offering every amenity you could hope for, from a stocked iPod to a rotating flat screen TV at the foot of your bed (turn it one way and watch from the big comfy chairs, turned the other way it rests at the foot of the mattress for perfect lazy viewing). Everything in the room is not only beautifully designed and well thought-out, it’s done so in a warm and welcoming manner. And it comes with the kind of bathroom that Manhattanites like us want to pack up and move in to.
But Tigerlily probably isn’t for everyone; while the room is the picture of serenity and comfort, one of the hottest parties in town is raging downstairs in the bar and restaurant areas. From the black-clad earpiece-wearing clipboard toters and security guards at the door to the deafening roar of the well-dressed international crowd inside, the scene has all the earmarks of the L.A. “it” spot of the moment. Checking in on a Friday evening turned out to be a challenge as it was difficult to hear the desk clerk over the din. If you’re into the hot party scene this is definitely the place to be; travelers with less patience may want to find a quieter alternative.
Almost all the gay nightlife is an easy walk from Tigerlily; we set off in search of the Blue Moon Café, which comes highly recommended from most gay travel sources. The café sits on Cambridge Street, surrounded by a number of nearby LGBT restaurant, bar, and club options. One of our favorite discoveries in Scotland was nearby Sala Cafebar, a wonderful and cozy hybrid of Scottish pub and Spanish café restaurant. The familiar tunes of Sarah McLachlan weave around the hum of the bustling lesbian crowd, which together with the friendly staff and terrific food, makes for a warm atmosphere and a perfectly relaxing evening. Explore the rich assortment of inventive tapas, including Guisantes Salteados (peas sautéed with onions, garlic, and bacon), Chorizo Frito al Vino (spicy Spanish sausage pan-fried in red wine), and Pollo al Ajillo (chicken breast cooked in white wine and garlic), all of which are even better than they sound. And don’t let scarfing down all those tapas prevent you from trying the amazing Paella de Carne, with chicken, chorizo, vegetables and saffron rice.
We were told to expect that Edinburgh’s Friday nights get a little messy; apparently everyone goes a little nuts at the end of the work week and ends up paying for it the rest of the weekend. Consequently Saturday nights in Edinburgh are kind of dead, so don’t hold out for a big Saturday night out. We wandered out on this beautiful Friday night in search of nightlife, which was already exploding into the streets and swarming around us until the bars started closing around midnight; few places stay open later. At one point a twenty-something local woman threw her arm around me, and waving the business end of a cigarette dangerously close to my face, insisted we go home together. She seemed pretty intent so I have no doubt some straight guy went home happy.
None of the gay bars we visited really struck a chord; some of the bars were too quiet – almost dead in fact, while the small clubs were far too loud and dancey and packed with the college set. Our favorite place was kind of bizarre and seemed like something that might get cooked up by a Scottish John Waters. Frenchies is a little hole in the wall, off an alley, and can be hard to find on account of conflicting information about its actual address.
Frenchies has no web site and no listed phone number, and is easily missed if you’re not looking carefully. This little joint has a small but extremely lively crowd of regulars who whoop and sway in the small space amongst a few tables and chairs, stopping only to occasionally remove someone’s article of clothes. We don’t know what the hell they were drinking but our first night there a guy sat down at our table who was too drunk to speak, though this didn’t stop him from pointing at photos in a local gay porn magazine and grunting his approval or disapproval of the various images and actions found within.
STUFF TO SEE
Wandering the streets of Edinburgh can be exhausting if you stick to the traditional tourist route and don’t have much patience for crowds. Throngs of international tourists form a living carpet leading up to Edinburgh Castle, the city’s glorious centerpiece perched on an extinct volcano in the center of town. The shops on High Street represent every type of tourist trap imaginable, and are a fun choice for families, especially those of Scottish descent who want to shop for their clan’s traditional kilts, caps, shot glasses, and bookmarks (yes, really). You can even don traditional highland garb, choose from a selection of swords, and pose for old-time photos.
One off-beat attraction that’s off the main tourist path, and located in the middle of Princes Street shopping is the gothic spire of Scott Monument. You can catch a glimpse of this darkly beautiful structure from much of downtown Edinburgh, though it’s not until you get close that one realizes that there are, seemingly improbably, people milling around the top of it. Several flights of very narrow and steep spiral staircases lead the more adventurous visitor to the stunning views from the top of this monument, though the climb can be a bit of a challenge, especially if someone’s coming down as you’re climbing up. Let’s just say that it’s a good chance to get intimately close to fun-seeking strangers, and that this experience is best avoided by anyone with claustrophobia or a fear of heights.
Farther off the beaten path lies the curious Calton Hill, which rises dramatically above the eastern end of Princes Street. It’s a pleasant walk to the top of this mound, whose monuments can be seen from most of the city. Most interesting is the National Monument, which was meant to be a replication of the Parthenon until funds ran out during its construction, which began in 1822 and left a curious megaplatform sporting a dozen colossal Doric columns stretching to the sky. There are a couple other sites perched on this hill, which offers a wonderful view of the city in all directions, and serves as a popular destination for locals looking for a nice afternoon stroll.
Edinburgh has so much to offer it takes more than a couple days to see and taste it all. Fortunately there’s plenty here for everyone so whether you want to spend time doing family things, or romantic downtime, or a little of both, this is the place to be. Pack a camera with a good-sized memory card because no matter where you are in Edinburgh it’s camera-worthy in every direction.