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Top tips for a less touristy Edinburgh trip

Top tips for a less touristy Edinburgh trip

I moved away from Edinburgh more than a year ago, but it will always remain one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen. Since moving to Cambridge, in the leadup to the Edinburgh festival season I’ve had a few people asking me for tips on what to do beyond the Royal Mile and Fringe madness, so this is taken from emails I’ve sent to them. There are so many more wonderful things to see and eat and drink in Edinburgh beyond what I have here, but these are a few of my favourites beyond the top attractions everyone knows about. I highly recommend the usual suspects too but once you’ve seen the Royal Mile, wandered New Town, and visited the museums and galleries, see if any of these more off the beaten path suggestions appeal.

Note I left Edinburgh in May 2022 so be sure to check that places are still open before taking my word for it.

Old Town

My off-the-beaten path Edinburgh tips generally involve getting out of the city centre, but a couple of quirky things I’d recommend if you’re in the Old Town:

  • Quickly ducking into the Scottish Poetry Library to see the mysterious little book sculptures (story here and map here)  
  • The Edinburgh College of Art has a beautiful collection of replica statues (aka fakes) in their cast museum
  • Roam around the various Closes off the Royal Mile, like Lady Stairs Close to the Writers Museum and other pockets of pretty quiet-ish places. The Devil’s Advocate is a decent restaurant/bar in Advocate’s Close (not so quiet but not completely obvious from the high street).


For nice walks that bypass roads, the Water of Leith walkway and the path network that used to be old railways (Warriston, Goldenacre, Chancelot Paths, etc.) go through many parts of the city north of the Old/New Towns while feeling like you’re in the middle of nowhere. Except for all the people, dogs, and bicycles. Along the Water of Leith look for the creepy statues in the water.

A fun way to explore some of the just-off-centre town can be hunting for the guerrilla mosaics, around Calton Hill, Canonmills and Broughton Street (Calton Hill is on the tourist trail and well worth visiting for great views and interesting/strange monuments).

Off the beaten path

  • The Shore in Leith – pretty water, good restaurants. The nearby Ocean Terminal is a semi-failed shopping centre where the old royal yacht is now a tourist attraction and I hate it … except there’s a great artist-run store called The Leith Collective that sells things from local artists and up-cyclers. The Scottish Design Exchange used to be there too but it’s now moved more centrally to George Street in the New Town – I haven’t been to the new location but I recommend both of them for more authentic souvenirs than what you’ll find along the Royal Mile.
  • Colinton Tunnel – an old railway tunnel that was turned into a community art project and I loved it so much. It’s in a pretty area in the south of the city that won’t have a lot of tourists.
  • Duddingston Loch / Duddingston Field – an amazingly rambling wilderness-y area with great views that’s quite central but doesn’t feel like it, with woods, gardens, wetlands and meadows. The Sheep Heid Inn is near here, a pub that does a good Sunday roast and is supposedly the oldest pub in Scotland. Duddingston is another nice area of the city that’s not touristy.
  • Hermitage of Braid – a large park connecting two of the “seven hills of Edinburgh” so there’s good hikes and views from here and far less travelled than the iconic Arthur’s Seat.
  • Cramond Beach – outside of Edinburgh but easily and quickly accessible by bus (#41 from city centre). From the beach at low tide you can walk across the causeway to the island, and there’s Roman ruins in the village too.
  • South Queensferry – again outside the city but easily accessible by bus (#43 from city centre). A pretty little town on the Firth, right under the three bridges, and some nice shops and restaurants. Scotts Bar and Restaurant is supposed to be good but you need a reservation. Queen’s Spice has delicious Indian food.
  • Jupiter Artland – it’s a giant sculpture gallery spread over some beautiful grounds outside the city and a lovely place to wander around. Bus-able but easier to drive.
  • Jupiter Artland is close to Dalmeny House where you can sometimes see their herd of highland cows wandering around. (Cramond/South Queensferry/Jupiter Artland/Dalmeny are all quite close to each other for a jam-packed day trip.)

Restaurant recommendations

  • Scran & Scallie – for a Scottish flavour this is the less-expensive casual restaurant from a well-known local chef who runs the crazy-expensive The Kitchin. S&S is in Stockbridge which is a great area to explore for shopping, the Sunday market, and restaurants without being as touristy as Old and New Towns.   
  • Prestonfield House – more for the area really, but they do a nice afternoon tea in this gorgeous old house that has peacocks and highland cows on the grounds, and it’s literally in the middle of the city but doesn’t feel like it at all. It’s kind of on the other side of Arthur’s Seat/Salisbury Crags from Holyrood Park.
  • Chaophraya – Thai, kinda fancy, New Town
  • Vietnam House Restaurant – a bit of a hole in the wall but delicious food, West End
  • The Basement – Mexican food, good cocktails, fun vibe, New Town/Broughton Street
  • Educated Flea – ok I love the name most but it’s good food and a cosy atmosphere, New Town/Broughton Street
  • Porto & Fi – a family run place and definitely off the beaten path but I used to live very close and loved their fish pie and other food. It’s right on the Firth of Forth, past the Leith Shore and into Newhaven, where there’s also a place that made some BBC list of best fish and chips (The Fishmarket at Pier Place), and the Old Chain Pier which has good food, friendly staff and incredible views.  
  • At the new St. James Quarter shopping centre in the New Town there are food trucks outside and on the top floor a fancy-ish food court called Bonnie & Wild that has local restaurants (seafood, Chinese, veggie Indian, burgers, pizza, pancakes, etc). I like it as a casual place for groups with varied tastes. And lots of choices of whisky.
  • Beyond food, Panda & Sons is a fun cocktail bar – it’s modelled after a speakeasy, looks like a barber shop outside and you get in downstairs and through a secret door in a bookcase.

Have more recommendations? Feel free to share!

AI-inspired adventures in Amsterdam

AI-inspired adventures in Amsterdam

I’m heading to Amsterdam next week for the first time, continuing my pandemic-interrupted mission to see more of Europe by living and working in the UK. I have a rough idea of what I’d like to explore, but even by my standards of not wanting to over-plan I haven’t done a lot of research or put a lot of thought into an itinerary. So I turned to my good friend ChatCGP. I’ve been experimenting with the Artificial Intelligence chatbot at work to see whether I can bow down to my robot overlords or retire in ignominy any time soon. (The answer: not yet, but AI can occasionally help with the dreaded curse of the blank page and get me started on a piece of writing, or propose creative ideas for icebreakers, for example.)

I love its realistic itinerary, plus the additional suggestions when I realised I hadn’t specified books/literature in my list of interests. There’s no way I’ll get to everything, especially once I build in time to wander and enjoy meals and sleep, and I might want an additional daytrip outside the city, but I have more confidence now that I won’t miss something obvious that I’d love to see. Here’s our conversation:

Can you offer suggestions for what to do in 4 days in Amsterdam? I like museums, exploring, science, space, culture.

Certainly! Amsterdam is a beautiful city with plenty of things to do, especially if you’re interested in museums, science, and culture. Here are some suggestions for what to do in four days:

Day 1:

  • Start the day by visiting the Rijksmuseum, one of the world’s most famous museums, which houses a large collection of Dutch art and history.
  • Afterward, head to the Van Gogh Museum, which is home to the largest collection of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings and drawings.
  • Take a stroll through Vondelpark, a beautiful park in the heart of the city that’s perfect for relaxing and people-watching.
  • End your day by visiting the Anne Frank House, a museum dedicated to the life and legacy of Anne Frank and her family.

Day 2:

  • Visit the NEMO Science Museum, which is designed to be interactive and hands-on and is perfect for people of all ages who love science.
  • Take a boat tour through Amsterdam’s famous canals, which offer stunning views of the city’s architecture and history.
  • Visit the Royal Palace of Amsterdam, which is located in Dam Square and is open to the public for tours.
  • End your day by visiting the Amsterdam Museum, which offers a comprehensive look at the city’s history and culture.

Day 3:

  • Start the day by visiting the Tropenmuseum, which showcases the art and culture of non-western societies.
  • Explore the Jordaan neighborhood, which is full of charming streets, cafes, and shops.
  • Visit the Hermitage Amsterdam, which is an offshoot of the famous Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia and houses a collection of artwork and artifacts from around the world.
  • End your day by visiting the EYE Film Museum, which offers a look at the history of cinema and features a variety of film screenings.

Day 4:

  • Take a day trip to the nearby city of Haarlem, which is known for its stunning architecture and rich cultural history.
  • Visit the Frans Hals Museum, which showcases the work of the famous Dutch painter Frans Hals.
  • Explore the city’s many historic churches, such as the Grote Kerk and the Sint-Bavokerk.
  • End your day by visiting the Teylers Museum, which is the oldest museum in the Netherlands and features a collection of art, science, and natural history exhibits.

I hope these suggestions help you plan your trip to Amsterdam and that you have a great time exploring this beautiful city!

That’s amazing, thank you! Any additional suggestions for my interest in books and literature too?

Absolutely! Amsterdam has a rich literary history, and there are plenty of places to explore if you’re interested in books and literature. Here are some additional suggestions:

  • Visit the Amsterdam Athenaeum, which is one of the city’s oldest and most famous bookstores. It has a large selection of books in English and Dutch, and is a great place to browse and find something new to read.
  • Take a walking tour of Amsterdam’s literary landmarks, such as the houses of famous writers like Anne Frank, Multatuli, and Harry Mulisch.
  • Visit the Dutch National Opera & Ballet, which is housed in a beautiful building that dates back to 1986. The company regularly puts on operas, ballets, and other performances.
  • Explore the OBA Central Library, which is one of the largest public libraries in Europe and has a huge collection of books in various languages. The library also regularly hosts literary events and workshops.
  • Visit the Multatuli Museum, which is dedicated to the life and work of the famous Dutch writer Eduard Douwes Dekker, who wrote under the pen name Multatuli. The museum houses a collection of his manuscripts, letters, and other personal items.
  • End your day by visiting the Begijnhof, a historic courtyard surrounded by buildings dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. It’s a peaceful and serene place to relax and read a book.

I hope these additional suggestions give you some ideas for exploring Amsterdam’s literary scene. Enjoy your trip!

Thanks ChatGPT, you’re the best. Until you take my job and then you’re the worst. (No, I didn’t say that.)

Home in a time of coronavirus

Home in a time of coronavirus

I contributed a monologue to the storytelling podcast What You Call Home, for their isolation series exploring how expats and others are coping with the coronavirus situation. Listen to me speaking it here. This is my text:

I’m Diane, a Canadian living in Edinburgh, Scotland. I’ve been here about a year and a half which is enough time for it to begin to feel like home. Whatever that means. I’ve never had a family home to return to, and I’ve lived in various parts of Canada, and in Mexico City. I think sometimes I put myself in situations where I don’t belong because that makes it normal that I don’t feel like I belong.

Part of what I love about my life here in Edinburgh is how history, art and culture slap you in the face at every turn. There are so many festivals, theatre, books, arts, science, everything.

I can be wandering in my neighbourhood and come across a building from the 1600s. The building I live in right now is older than the Canadian province I grew up in, where a building from the 1930s is super old. 

I love that there’s a castle overlooking Edinburgh’s city centre.

On Princes Street, the main street in the New Town – and by New Town they mean from the 1700s – there’s a giant monument to a writer. It’s for Walter Scott, but I’ll take what I can get.

There’s a writers museum, a poetry museum. The National Museum, the National Library. I’ve seen an original Gutenberg Bible and the stuffed remains of Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal.

Most museums are free, so they’re something you can dip in and out of on a whim when it’s raining, for example. It rains a lot here, which makes me feel at home after living in rainy Vancouver for 15 years.

And now, with the coronavirus lockdown, all that feels very distant. My reasons for moving here feel very distant. I’ve joked to friends that I didn’t move halfway around the world to be in a different living room. I try to get out for a walk once a day for our allowed exercise – I call it the government mandated exercise. I’m lucky that I live by the water and by a beautiful system of trails, and away from the busier city centre. But some days going out has felt like too much effort.

I do shower and get dressed every morning, because it makes me feel human, and wakes me up after a fitful night’s sleep. But makeup is a relic of the past, and I don’t put my contact lenses in anymore unless I’m dressing up for a fancy video call.  

In the early days I also joked that as an introvert with a lot of solitary hobbies, I’ve been preparing for social distancing my entire life. But I like doing stuff outside my home. I like going for dinner and drinks with friends. I do like people.

I like living alone, and I’m used to living alone. But I’ve had a friend from London staying with me for the past few weeks, who arrived hours before the UK lockdown was announced. It’s an adjustment to share my space, but it’s also nice to have someone other than the cats to share the daily anxieties.

That feeling that we’re all in this together is one comfort I find in this situation. Friends from around the world have been checking in on me and vice versa. I’ve done more video calls in the last month than the last 18 months since I moved combined. Some people I hadn’t heard from in a while reached out because I’m away from home. But this is home now.

Part of the reason I moved to the United Kingdom was to be closer to travel in Europe. I started gathering the paperwork I’d need for my visa when I worked on the Olympics in London. I was jealous of my coworkers talking about going to Paris for the weekend, Rome for a few days. In Canada I could fly for 6 hours and still be in Canada.

Being closer to the rest of Europe has meant having a front row seat to areas that have been hardest hit – besides hearing about it from the news, I have friends in Spain and know people here from Italy with friends and family in overwhelmed hospitals.

I was supposed to be in Spain in a couple of weeks but of course that’s been cancelled. As has a conference I was going to, a writing course I was taking, some theatre productions I had tickets to. Seeing all the cancellations roll in, and seeing my calendar transform into endless open days, made those early days of social distancing hit home.

It also made me realize how important crafting this life in my new home has been to me. My calendar had been full of the kind of activities that inspire me and give me joy.  

With all this time at home, I can focus more on the homebound activities that inspire me and give me joy. I could.

There are so many courses and activities online especially now. One of my favourite Vancouver musicians, Dan Mangan, has been doing Zoom concerts every Saturday evening from his basement, and that gives shape to my week. I’m watching the National Theatre productions that go live on Thursdays. I signed up for a writing course just for fun, and a digital marketing course for some professional development. But my concentration has been shot, so I’m finding it hard to be productive.

I’m baking and cooking a lot, because it feels satisfying to make something productive. I’ve become a cliché, making my own sourdough starter, though I haven’t actually got to the stage of baking bread yet.

I am still working, so that’s where my main productivity efforts go. And it is an effort, not always successful one.

I’m lucky that I’m self-employed and mostly worked from home anyway. I used to go into an office once a week to do the communications for a small charity that supports people with disabilities. Now the in-person activities have been suspended, of course, and we’re all working from home. That work, finding information and resources for some of our most vulnerable people, keeps me from worrying about my own privileged situation.

I have clients in healthcare and financial services who have special communications needs now, so I’m hopeful I won’t lose too much business. I know other freelancers whose work dried up overnight, so working keeps me grateful too.

I was contracted to work on the Olympics and Paralympics this summer, but the postponement means a chunk of my income for this year is gone. We’ve been given contracts for next year’s postponed dates already, but my rent and bills are still due this year. I’m still hopeful I can replace that income, though, and it’s too early to worry about it yet.

As countries roll out their funding for employees and freelancers affected by these events, it drives home that I’m not really home. I’m not eligible for UK support, even though I pay taxes here, because that’s a condition of my visa – no public funds. I’m not eligible for Canadian support because I’m not a resident. I am eligible for public healthcare from the NHS, but I’m hoping not to need that anytime soon.

I knew all that coming here, though, and I came prepared. I’ll be ok for a while. But it’s still unnerving, to know that I’m on my own with no real social safety net.

I’m trying not to worry about things I can’t control – which feels like most things, at the moment. I try to limit my news intake to what I need to know to be effective at my job and to be a good socially distanced citizen. I try not to think too far into the future. Netflix is my drug of choice to stop my brain from spiralling into the worst case scenarios.

It’s at night, when I should be putting my phone away and trying to sleep, that I start doing things like researching the Black Death and the Great Depression. I laugh at myself for that — I mean, talk about worst case scenarios — but it’s been comforting. I think about the terrors and the rationing of World War II. Even before coronavirus, the war experience has felt closer to me here in the UK. And then when the shops were cleared of toilet paper and limits were placed on shopping quantities, it felt even closer.

It might sound strange, that those thoughts have been comforting to me. But they force me to think about what we’ve overcome. What’s history. We’ll get through this, too. Some day this too will be history.

My Olympic life

My Olympic life

Today marks 10 years since the opening ceremony for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. And 10 years since I was running through the stadium carrying boxes of embargoed papers destined for the rights-holding broadcasters. Olympic rule: there’s always transportation issues.

I started working for the host broadcaster 2 1/2 years before that, and have worked since then for about a month around each Games time: London, Sochi, Rio, Pyeongchang and, soon, Tokyo. That’s been 12 1/2 years of dividing my life into two-year intervals, though 12 1/2 isn’t one of those time periods we generally celebrate. Did I meet that person before or after Sochi 2014? I know I went to the Amazon in 2016 because that immediately followed Rio 2016. Pyeongchang 2018 marked my transition to full-time freelance.

The hours are long, the days off are non-existent. I’ve had some of the worst moments of my life and some of my best. The Olympics have led to friendships, headaches, work opportunities, tears, cultural experiences, endless colds, travel adventures.

I’m forever grateful for Vancouver 2010 and forever looking forward to the next adventure.

Out of place

Out of place

The move to Edinburgh is the most obvious sign of the changes I’ve made in my life over the past few years. I read the book Designing Your Life after I was already well into the process – job quit, bags packed – and it felt like an affirmation.

In retrospect I could see the “prototyping” I’d done before coming to the decision to transition to self-employment and live in the UK. I wasn’t simply looking for a new job and a new home: I was attempting to build the lifestyle I wanted. I’d started the process before my brother died, so the fact that I was ready to pick it up again was a relief.

That lifestyle includes freelance work that often allows me to work where I want when I want, with the flexibility to travel mid-week, take courses or visit a museum during the day, and be more purposeful about where I put my attention.

That lifestyle is possible because of who I am and the resulting choices I’ve made along the way, too. I’m not particularly unconventional by many standards – no punk phases in my past – but I often feel out of place. I don’t have an easy answer to “where are you from?” It depends on the context. Not wanting marriage or children, being an atheist – these things separate me from the mainstream to some degree.

That feeling of being out of place – of knowing my loneliest times occur when I’m surrounded by people – is what propels me to embrace solitude, but also to seek new places.

What do I want, here in Edinburgh, starting over in so many ways but bringing more knowledge of myself than ever? I’m answering that question all the time. I’m nesting in my new home, traveling to new locales, learning new things, indulging in old comforts.

But designing the lifestyle I want is also a matter of immense luck.

This was my second Christmas here, and I’ve been able to rethink what Christmas means to me, too, away from expectation and duty. I’m not going to get all Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus or post-ghost Ebenezer on you. But one of the ways I’ve added meaning to the season has been volunteering with Crisis.

They offer services to homeless people year-round, and work on strategies to end homelessness altogether. Over Christmas and New Year they put on a multi-day event where they take over a community centre and offer food, clothing, showers, personal services like hairdressing and massage, activities, entertainment, and a safe and warm place to hang out. The idea is to provide a festive Christmas season for those who want it, and also to connect those who are receptive with ongoing support.

My role seems insignificant: I was a general volunteer assigned to the recreation area, tasked with sitting at the tables and engaging with the guests in games and conversation. What’s the worst that could happen, I lose at Trivial Pursuit? Almost finish a jigsaw puzzle that turns out is missing a few pieces? (Turns out I’d’ve been lucky to get close to finishing the damn puzzles.)

Of course it’s not that simple. Last year before my first shift I was anxious. What if I was terrible at it? I’m not great at small talk, and not used to working with people experiencing homelessness. We were trained well and told that if we felt we couldn’t manage, we should ask to leave, no hard feelings. The important thing was not just our own mental health, but for the guests to be surrounded by people who weren’t judging them. I didn’t think I’d need that out, and would have been horrified if I had, but knowing it was there was what made it easier to walk through the doors of the community centre that first day.

I wasn’t terrible, but that’s because it wasn’t hard. I observed and hope to emulate people who were much better at small talk than I am, but the experience didn’t feel altruistic. We were just people hanging out, in a place designed for companionship among those who wanted it, and solitude for those who didn’t.

A few guests thanked me, saying it was so nice to have a place where they were welcome. Not just tolerated, but welcome. Imagine having that feeling so rarely? I never feel so out of place that I can’t sit in a coffee shop or wander in a shop or find a park bench without fear of being asked to leave.

Some told me their stories, some wore their stories in their mannerisms, some just wanted to play Trivial Pursuit or good-naturedly mock my attempts to finish a jigsaw puzzle. The stories were about mental illness and addiction, or injury and illness, or precarious employment, or family breakdown, or all or none of the above.  

I thought of my mom’s mental illness and alcoholism and how lucky we were that she and her kids were looked after by others. I thought of coming home from school to be told to pack our things and head to a hotel, and then a friend’s home, and then other temporary accommodation, and how lucky we were that there were places to take us in. I thought of how it’s a luxury to feel out of place when I have a place, and how quickly luck can change.