Edinburgh — Scotland’s grand old lady — best known for its glowering castle and black-smudged stone buildings, is fast trading in “staid and stodgy” for “hip and happening.” For evidence, just pop into 21st Century Kilts on the Royal Mile, the famous thoroughfare linking Edinburgh Castle to the palace of Holyrood House, to get an idea.
There, heir to Scotland’s leading kilt-making family, Howie R. Nicholsby, is eager to persuade men that kilts are functional, everyday wear and that there is more to life than traditional plaid. Today’s kilts boast luxe materials — silk, leather, army camouflage and tweeds — and modern conveniences, such as button-on pockets for cell phones and water bottles. “I wear a kilt full time — on airplanes, in the supermarket, at the pub,” Nicholsby said. “Kilts are comfortable, liberating, and,” he added, “they happen to be considered sexy.”
The Scottish Tourist Board uses images of Nicholsby and his kilt-wearing friends as part of its campaign to project a youthful, funkier image of Scotland.
Nightlife abounds, making Edinburgh an attractive destination for younger clients. Among the top nightclubs are Hotel Le Monde’s Shanghai and Tigerlily hotel’s Lulu, both chic and spacious venues for drinking and dancing. Another is Cabaret Voltaire, a key player in the city’s thriving live music scene, housed in one of the subterranean caverns underpinning Old Town’s Cowgate district. Nightclub doors throughout the city open at 10 p.m. with the partying continuing until 3 a.m. every day of the week. Thanks to a no-smoking law which came into effect this year, “Auld Reekie,” as the city is affectionately nicknamed for its coal-burning, smoky haze has become even less “reekie,” so clients can enjoy fresh air even when out at night.
New Town’s George Street, where both the Tigerlily and Le Monde are located, and its surrounding neighborhood, have emerged as the place to see, be seen, drink, dance and shop. Trendy boutiques, specializing in local and international designer fashions, line the streets. Britain’s Harvey Nichols department store recently opened in St. Andrews Square, giving credence to Edinburgh’s growing reputation for high style and taste.
The old port district, Leith, has transformed from down-and-out to downright trendy while still operating as a busy harbor. Some 40 cruise lines sail into Edinburgh each year, docking at the city’s new Ocean Terminal where the ex-royal yacht Britannia is now permanently moored as a visitor attraction. Along the port’s quays, you’ll find the city’s contemporary art scene well represented, as well as its culinary gems, which include Michelin-starred The Kitchin and Restaurant Martin Wishart.
In Edinburgh, chefs embrace fresh, seasonal, local products. A stone’s throw from the castle on Victoria Street, The Grain Store proudly displays its Slow Food membership. Iglu, in New Town, describes itself as a “bar and ethical eatery,” and presents a Scottish bistro menu brimming with seafood and game. Scotland’s oldest delicatessen and wine merchant, Valvona & Crolla, located across the road from Harvey Nichols, schedules wine tastings and cookery demonstrations throughout the year. Foodies won’t want to miss the weekly farmers’ market, held each Saturday on Castle Terrace directly below Edinburgh Castle. On blustery mornings, shoppers warm up with hearty helpings of hot porridge doused in whiskey.
Each year, the city hosts the Edinburgh International Festival, which presents the world’s best in opera, theater, music and dance performances. Dates for 2008 are Aug. 8-31. An alternative to the classical International Festival is the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, one of the largest art festivals in the world.
Even though much of Edinburgh has changed, some things, like its undeniable charms, remain the same. Corner pubs still welcome patrons. The city’s oldest surviving pub house, The Sheep Heid Inn, located on the edge of Duddingston loch, keeps to its original 1360 formula. The clock atop the venerable Balmoral Hotel still runs three minutes fast to keep Waverly Station train riders on time. Familiar Scotch tunes played by bagpipers in full regalia are readily heard along Princess Street and the Royal Mile.
And if you’re wondering what those pipers are wearing beneath their kilts, Nicholsby offers this explanation: “Shoes and socks, of course!”