Scotland’s capital looked exceptional in the sunshine last weekend; everyone seemed to be outside experiencing Edinburgh’s autumn glow. The chimney tops and turrets of the Old Town were silhouetted against the bright blue sky, overlooking streets where relaxed cafe customers enjoyed al-fresco dining. Amongst all this, I was gallivanting around the Grassmarket, the vibrant, colourful quarter of the city’s Old Town.
Sitting inside the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Grassmarket is home to quite a storied history. In medieval times this valley – in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle – was used as a marketplace for farmers, but is most famous (or infamous) for being the location of the city’s gallows until public executions ended in 1784.
Today, the area is home to a myriad mix of pubs, restaurants, cafes and quirky shops. To experience it all, it is best to start at the top of Victoria Street and stroll down the curved road to the open square of the Grassmarket at the end.
Independent shops, all brightly painted, are a big draw here. You can ‘Feed your mind and feast your eyes’ at the Old Town Bookshop, a shop so narrow and stuffed with books of every shape and size that you almost struggle to move. I.J. Mellis offers sublime smelling speciality cheeses, and Oink, home to the hog roast sandwich, is a must for meat-eaters. Vegetarians, however, would be wise to avert their eyes from the window, where the hog of the day has pride of place.
A few doors down you can admire – and invest in – affordable art at the Red Door Gallery. The boutique gallery is “a melting pot of… artwork, indie prints, artist’s books, accessories, jewellery, homewares and artist cards.” I was particularly taken by a tote bag emblazoned with the phrase ‘Coffee is good for the brain’, and the arty postcards portraying famous cityscapes, Edinburgh included. Black Box Boutique has similar options for sale, with the added option of intricate jewellery that’s designed in-house.
Even mustier than the Old Town Bookshop is Armstrongs Vintage Emporium, a mecca for vintage fashion lovers. Founded in 1840, the Emporium has attracted attention from fans across the country for years. Kilts and cute handbags, wigs and waistcoats, jukeboxes and jazz dresses: there is a bit of every decade in this second-hand treasure trove.
The pubs are popular too, each with their own claim to historical fame: the smallest, the oldest, the most haunted. Hogmanay here is hectic, when revellers crowd to catch a glimpse of the fireworks over the Castle at the far end of the Grassmarket, before piling into the pubs for a dram of whisky to welcome in the New Year.
In Edinburgh there are plenty of opulent accommodation options, but for something a little different, the Grassmarket is a good base for exploring the Old Town. The Grassmarket Flat, at the West Bow, is a stylish self-catering studio decked out with tweed and personal touches, making it the perfect place for a couple to spend a long weekend away. The Mussel and Steak Bar, the restaurant on the bottom floor of the building, is well worth a visit too (the chunky chips fried in dripping are an excellent accompaniment to a bucket of mussels).
Last weekend I enjoyed an autumn amble, but whatever the time of day (or year) you visit, the Grassmarket – an area colourful in history, architecture, and atmosphere – is great for a wander.