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Explore Historic Edinburgh’s Modern Edge

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Eschew the castle crowds in Scotland’s capital for experiential tours, emerging neighborhoods, and a taste of the thriving culinary scene.

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The clout of Edinburgh’s striking castle and Royal Mile (a series of streets running through its historic heart) draws millions of visitors to the Scottish capital every year. But if you spend all your time rushing around the central landmarks, you’ll bypass the chance to gain deeper insight into Scottish culture and contemporary life. Here’s a look at what you could be missing.

There’s no better way to explore the special relationship Scotland has with the single malt than a one-hour visit to the Scotch Whisky Experience. Become an instant expert by learning about the distillation process and the aromas to watch out for, before sampling a dram inside the world’s largest collection of scotch. Optional upgrades include extra whiskies to compare and contrast, a master class from a champion distiller, or a Scottish tasting menu. 

Photo by Flickr/Jun
It’s the ideal warm-up for an evening exploring the city’s famous closes and wynds—the intimate, steep alleyways of Edinburgh’s old town. Rather than wander aimlessly, join the evening Ghosts and Ghouls walk from Mercat Tours. A cloaked guide regales guests with tales of witchcraft and torture on the way down to the candlelit Blair Street Underground Vaults. The two-hour haunting yet entertaining experience sends chills the spine; guests who stay the distance are rewarded with, what else, a wee dram of scotch to send the chills away.

While in the mood for history, take some time to pay respects to Greyfriars Bobby, the city’s most famous dog. The story goes that during the 19th century, night watchman John Gray and his diminutive Skye Terrier named Bobby were the best of friends, so much so that the dog refused to leave his side even after he died. Bobby’s fame quickly spread, and crowds flocked to Greyfriars churchyard to see the faithful dog. Today, a statue of Bobby sits at the corner of Edinburgh's Candlemaker Row and George IV Bridge.

As one of the most iconic British films of the 1990s, Trainspotting left a cultural stamp on the suburb of Leith that may never be shaken despite the area’s recent transformation. Tim Bell, author of the upcoming book A Trainspotter’s Guide, holds private tours of locations featured in the book and film. You’ll get an insight into the junk affliction that gripped Edinburgh in the 1980s and the subsequent impact the book, film, and play had on Leith, Edinburgh, and British drug policy.

These days, Leith’s buzzing port district is packed with both traditional pubs and modern bistros, the best known of which is The Kitchin, a Michelin-starred restaurant from popular British TV chef Tom Kitchin. The docks are also home to the Royal Yacht Britannia, the former yacht of Queen Elizabeth II, on which guests can follow in the footsteps of royalty by taking afternoon tea on the lavish floating residence.
Grassmarket district. Photo by Flickr/Lauren Friedman
The tenements of Bruntsfield feature a string of independent coffee shops and delicatessens amid the odd antique shop and thrift store. Closer to the city, boutiques stocking cashmere sweaters and tweed jackets and an internationally influenced line-up of eateries define the Grassmarket district.

Edinburgh enjoys a richly deserved reputation for its restaurants, many of which showcase meat and game in rich sauces with traditional accompaniments. Yet for a taste of modern Britain, head to the Mosque Kitchen, a curry restaurant originally reserved for those attending the local mosque but now open to the public. Expect buffet-style servings and great-value prices that pull in the local student population in big numbers.

Getting to know the hidden side of the Scottish capital is now more affordable than ever. Norwegian—which has been named the world’s best low-cost, long-haul carrier—offers flights starting at $99 one way from Connecticut/Bradley, Providence/TF Green, and New York/Stewart international airports. If you’re leaving from New York City, take advantage of the Stewart Airport Express, a super-easy bus transfer between midtown Manhattan and Stewart International Airport, timed to your Norwegian flight. Book now at norwegian.com

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