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10 reasons to visit… Edinburgh

I’m just about to go back to Edinburgh for my final year of university after having spent some time away from the city. I am determined to tick all of the touristy attractions off the list that make the ‘burgh a worthwhile destination, because it’s so true that when you live somewhere you don’t necessarily take advantage of the opportunities for adventure around you. Here are 10 must-sees that I have managed to experience – I wonder how much the list will have changed by this time next year!

1. Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Each year, around August time, a transformation takes over the city: almost every shop, every bar, every open space is descended on by the Fringe Festival: the biggest arts festival in the world. The first time I went I genuinely couldn’t believe the change that had come over the place I’d been living in for almost a year. There are people everywhere showcasing what they do and love best, whether that is interpretive dance or black comedy, street performance or orchestral ensembles. Some shows are free, others need to be booked far in advance, but I encourage you to go for something off the wall – with so much on offer, a disastrous morning performance can be forgotten with an incredible afternoon show!

2. The Royal Mile

This stretch of road runs from the iconic Scottish battlement that is Edinburgh Castle, to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the official residence of the British monarch in Scotland. Both of these are highly recommended as places to visit, although I’ve not been to the Castle yet, as part of a university superstition. The Mile itself is flanked by terraces and shops, as well as street vendors and tours offering to show the horrible histories of the Windy City. There are also some great secret passages and alleyways that lead down to Princes Street via the Princes Street Gardens.

Royal Mile, Edinburgh

3. The National Museum of Scotland

Taking up almost the entirety of Chambers Street, including a controversial extension that holds the Museum of Scotland exhibits, The National Museum has a huge collection of artefacts from across the centuries. Although there are some temporary exhibitions that you have to pay for, you are free to roam around the majority of the museum. My personal favourite is the animal installation that spans three floors.

4. The Grassmarket/the Cowgate

Edinburgh is built on many different levels, and you can be forgiven for getting lost and confused with the topography of the city. Just down from the Royal Mile, the Grassmarket and the Cowgate are ideal locations for a good bite to eat and a drink (or two). There are quirky shops to be found cheek by jowl with hostels and cafés, as well as a few clubs if that’s what you’re looking for.

5. Arthur’s Seat

It’s not a hike, but an energetic walk, and the spectacular view from Arthur’s Seat to the hills, across the sea and out over to Fife is a definite must. It’s a perfect opportunity to take in the whole city, and get to grips with the wind!

Edinburgh below Arthur's Seat

6 – 8. Stockbridge

(6) Stockbridge Market on a Sunday is adorable: local produce, friendly people and all sorts of delectable goodies. There are also some lovely cafés in the area.

(7) If you’re in Stockbridge anyway, take a walk along the Water of Leith, which leads from Pentland Hills to the Forth of Firth at Leith. I’m not suggesting you tackle all 24 miles, but it makes for a different view of the city and a retreat from the hustle and bustle of the centre.

(8) The Royal Botanical Garden was founded in the 17th century, and continues to educate and explore to world-renowned status. It comprises four gardens and boasts an impressive collection of plants.

9. The Zoo

Now I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but they’ve got pandas. As well as these adorable, rare creatures, the zoo boasts the UK’s only koalas and an impressive ‘Discovery & Learning’ program for kids. If you can organise your trip for the right time, the Penguin Parade is a site for sore eyes, and other talks throughout the day are fascinating. The zoo is easily reachable by bus from Waverly Train station.

Yang Guang the giant panda at Edinburgh Zoo

10. The Meadows

The University of Edinburgh area around Bristo Square and George Square backs onto The Meadows and further over to Bruntsfield Links. It’s a lovely spot for a little picnic or afternoon nap, and there’s sure to be people BBQ-ing too. Due to it being a student hub, you could also try out some of the lunchbox-sized lunch venues that won’t break the bank.

Have you visited Edinburgh? Share your own suggestions and tips in the comments for anyone planning a trip.


PS Because this is a language blog, we felt we should add a footnote – English is the official language of Scotland, although it sounds a little different from the ‘Queen’s English’ spoken in much of England, particularly the south. Scotland also has two regional languages: Scottish Gaelic and Scots. You can learn Scottish Gaelic now with uTalk; watch this space for Scots!



10 reasons to visit… Luxembourg

Having just returned from a short trip to Luxembourg, I thought I’d continue with our ’10 reasons to visit’ series by giving you a few reasons why you should consider a trip to this central European country.

Luxembourg may be small, but it’s certainly worth a visit, and here’s why:

1. Great links with the rest of Europe

Luxembourg is just a short, hour-long flight from London, with several airlines and airports serving Lux airport. Our return flights were only £60 with BA. Or you could easily fly or drive from most big cities in Europe. Luxembourg also uses the Euro, which is convenient for other European visitors.

Luxembourg city

2. It’s quick and easy to visit France/Germany/Belgium

Ok… so my second reason to visit a place probably shouldn’t be that it’s easy to leave it again, but hear me out! I spent five days with a friend who lives in Luxembourg city, and during that time we hopped on the train over to the border to Trier in Germany and Nancy in France for just 10 euros a time. Luxembourg’s central location and small size means it’s easy to get two or three countries for your money by taking a short drive or train ride to one of the nearby cities, and fit as much as possible into your trip.

3. Linguistic diversity

Of course, my next reason has to be language-related! This small country has THREE official languages: Luxembourgish, which is spoken as a mother tongue by almost all residents; French, which is commonly used in restaurants, shops and cafes, and German which is frequently heard in the media. English is also widely spoken. So while you’re there, you can easily practise your French or German, as well as maybe picking up a few phrases of the local language. It was definitely a good opportunity for me to use a bit of French when ordering food and drinks. (By the way, EuroTalk offer all three official languages.)

4. Food and drink

Luxembourgish cuisine is very similar to German/Austrian, with plenty of meat and potato-based dishes. I came across plenty of my favourite German dishes such as Kaesspaetzle (an egg based dish which is a little like pasta or dumplings, with plenty of cheese!), Schnitzel (breaded pork fillets) and Rosti (Swiss-style potato cakes), not to mention Apfelstrudel and cheap beer. But if heavier dishes are not to your taste, there are plenty of French and Italian influenced restaurants in the city as well.

5. Amazing architecture

Luxembourg City used to be a fortress city which was completely surrounded by high stone walls. Those walls are still there, and you can climb to the top and walk around them for an incredible view of the city. The architecture is also beautiful, with many typical cone-shaped roofs and an architectural style that mixes French and German traditions. Planning and building laws in Luxembourg are also much looser than in many other European countries, meaning almost all the houses are built in different styles and colours.

Luxembourg old town

6. Museums and culture

We visited the Luxembourg City History Museum, which is only 3 euro entry, but worth every cent. The museum covers every aspect of Luxembourgish life, from exhibits on the city’s architecture, with models of the city during different periods of its existence, to an entire floor dedicated to shopping and consumer culture, a basement level which is cut into the rock that the city is built on, and loads of fascinating information about the city’s occupation by the Nazis during the WW2 era. It also has great views over the city, especially from the glass lift. The museum is a proper maze and you can get lost in there for hours and find out about all sorts of aspects of Luxembourg City.

7. Landscape and cityscape

Interestingly, the city is built around a huge canyon (for want of a better word!). You must therefore either take one of the city’s many bridges to get to the other side, or you can walk down into the canyon and explore the park, which has a small river and beautiful views. Many people go running or cycling down there, and it’s a great place to chill out or take a walk.

8. Nature is close at hand

The city is full of green spaces, including parks and the river, and you’re never more than short walk from a green area to chill out and relax. However, a short trip outside the city and you’ll be in the midst of the country’s miles and miles of relatively unspoiled countryside. Luxembourg is great for cycling, hiking and fishing or boating. There are also 400 square kilometres of nature parks, many lakes and rivers and miles of cycle routes and hiking trails. As a bonus, the city is also very bike-friendly. You can rent a bike from the Veloh scheme, and there are bike lanes everywhere so you can cycle safely.

Luxembourg bicycle zone

9. Shopping!

Unfortunately, Luxembourg isn’t the cheapest place to go on holiday. Wages there are high and the city’s livelihood is largely based on banking. As a result, food prices, for example, are relatively high. However, Luxembourg City and some of the surrounding cities are great places to shop, especially if you’re interested in high-end boutiques and designer labels. If you’re looking for flea markets or bargain hunting then it’s probably not the place for you, but there are several quaint little artisan chocolate, cheese and wine shops, as well as a wide range of designer stores which are worth a look, even if you’re only window shopping.

10. Visit the only remaining grand duchy

Luxembourg is not only one of the smallest sovereign nations in Europe, it’s also the world’s only remaining grand duchy, meaning it’s headed by a grand duke rather than a king/queen or president. You can see the grand duke’s palace in the centre of the city, and his son was recently married in a huge public ceremony which was watched by most of the nation. You can also see the country’s main legislative building, the Chamber of Deputies, right in the city centre.




Turku – Europe’s Culture Capital 2011


Kökär in the Turku archipelago, one of a series of settings for the Lights Concert Series, part of the Turku 2011 programme. Photo: Esko Keski-Oja

Since 1985, the Council of the European Union has annually chosen a European Capital of Culture, to “highlight the richness and diversity of European cultures”, and to “bring people from different European countries into contact with each other’s culture”. My Finnish hometown of Turku, nestled in the midst of the picturesque archipelago of some 10,000 islands in the Baltic Sea is, along with the beautiful medieval town of Tallinn in Estonia, the European Capital of Culture for 2011.

And what an exciting year it has already been for Turku. Commencing with a spectacular opening ceremony, involving flying dance troupes, hundreds of lantern-bearing school children and a 350-strong choir parading the cobbled streets of Finland’s oldest town, Turku’s 2011 cultural calendar has embraced thousands of individual events, performances and productions.

Opening ceremony of Turku's Culture Capital

The opening ceremony of the Turku’s Culture Capital year. Photo: Lauri Paasio.

Festive spirit at the opening celebrations.

Festive spirit at the opening celebrations. Photo: Samuli Saarinen










The individual events have ranged from the beautifully ethereal exhibition 876 Shades of Darkness, contemplating the long dark nights of the Finnish soul, to the alfresco performances of the Opera d’Alvilda in Abo, an Italian opera written in 1692, being performed in the grounds of the imposing Turku Castle.

Alvilda in Abo

Opera d'Alvilda in Abo. Photo: Kari Vainio

Historically Turku has embraced culture in all its forms, whether it be through a vibrant music scene centred around two annual music festivals occupying the town centre and nearby island of Ruissalo, or the numerous art and archaeological museums and impressive number of amateur theatres (I counted 13).


Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina by Turun Kaupunginteatteri. Photo: Robert Seger



This tradition of theatrical performance in Turku is embodied in the rather bulky 60s concrete façade of the much-loved municipal theatre. Offering productions of both homespun and international favourites, the theatre’s Anna Karenina has been extremely well received this year, earning accolades like the prestigious Thalia award for the 2011 Best Theatrical Performance.


Every summer, the spirits of the medieval possess the cobbled streets of Turku’s old town with the Medieval Market fair that habitually attracts around 100,000 visits over four days. Re-enacting everyday street life as as it might have been lived in the alleyways and squares of medieval Turku, this entertaining and informative fair arrives every year, complete with rope twisting competitions, fearful knights and mischievous jesters (see here for a photo album – click on the links on the left to view more pictures).

Tanssiva torni

Tanssiva torni – The dancing tower by Aurinkobaletti. Photo: Kari Vainio

At the sympathetically restored and historic quayside, an old waterside factory now houses productions by the internationally acclaimed modern dance group Aurinkobaletti.

Next door, the prestigious (and always oversubscribed by aspiring undergraduates) Turku Academy of Art overlooks the symbolic heart of the city, the river Aura. The adjacent city ferry “Föri” takes passengers on a cultural voyage across the river: its distinctive yellow deck has acted as the setting for more than one art performance in the 90 seconds it takes to cross the river.


The 2011 European Capital of Culture award has stimulated Turku’s cultural heritage in new and novel ways, as the variety and sheer volume of productions and performances are acting to bring a new flavour, as well as a renewed vigour, to an already rich cultural landscape.

Turku street busker

A Turku street busker visited by a fan. Photo: Perttu Saksa

We must not forget that Turku and Tallinn will pass the mantle of the European Capital of Culture to the towns of Guimarães and Maribor in 2012, and all Turku residents would urge their fellow Europeans to embrace the fascinating cultures of these towns with the same enthusiasm and interest that have been visited upon Turku and Tallinn over the past year. The spirit of the occasion, and the genuine, absolute honour the locals express on being bestowed the award, will stay with Turku for a long time to come.