Thoqsi Khar — The Mosque on the Mountaintop
The camel neck track, the resting places, and the Khankah at the top. | Photo: Gohar Balti, Gohar Balti | Skardu

Thoqsi Khar — The Mosque on the Mountaintop

I recently had the most incredible adventure in the mountains of Baltistan, Pakistan, and I just can’t wait to share it with you. The journey took me to an ancient gem, the Thoqsi Khar Khankah Mualla, or simply Thoqsi Khar; a mosque that’s stood proudly for over seven centuries at an astounding altitude of around 9000 feet.

To truly appreciate the significance of this place, let’s delve into its history. The name Thoqsi Khar originated from Thieqsi Khar, which translates to ‘Upper Fort.’ Over time, the name naturally evolved into ‘Thoqsi Khar’ according to the local historian I spoke with, Mazahir Ali Mahir.  

Mazahir further told me that when the Islamic preacher Hazrat Amir Kabir Syed Ali Hamdani arrived in the city of Khaplu to spread Islam, he invited the local ruler, Raja Boa Mahdi, to embrace the religion; an invitation which the Raja accepted. At the very top of a mountain’s peak, the foundation of a mosque was laid by him in the year 782 AH (1327-1328 AD), and Mir Shamsuddin Iraqi, an Iraqi preacher who came to Khaplu, then oversaw the mosque’s construction. 

Thoqsi Khar
Aerial view of the Khankah. In the background, you can see Garbonchon Village and the Khaplu Naddi; you can also see the profusion of both fruitful and fruitless trees. | Photo: Gohar Balti,

Now, let’s get back to the journey. To start, we made our way from Khaplu City, and what a way to begin! 

When we reached the city, it was raining and we worried that we would not be able to enjoy clear views, with everything in the mountains hidden under a layer of cloud and swirling mist. But fortunately, the rain stopped, the skies were clear within three hours, and we resumed our adventure. 

The trip to the Khankah was like a passage into a magical land, surrounded by towering mountains, expansive grazing fields, glistening streams, and charming villages. This was just the beginning of a trek that promised not only the beauty of the mosque but also a deep dive into the stunning landscape.

We purchased some drinks and snacks from a local shop to enjoy at the top of the mountain. Buying supplies from a vendor in the city is essential; you won’t find any shops on the way (and it’s a 3-4 hour trek from Khaplu City). 

Join me on the journey — I’ll divide the track we followed into three parts…

Taking a break at a resting point with Garbonchon Village and Khaplu Broq in the background. | Khalid Ismail

Part 1: Khaplu City to Garbonchon Village

The initial leg took us from Khaplu City to Garbonchon Village. You can take a car to the village, but I recommend hiking. Why? Because walking allows you to connect with the locals — especially the kids peeking out from behind gates — and discover their culture and way of life. It’s a unique experience that sets the tone for what’s to come. The most picturesque part of this leg is travelling by the side of a glacial stream with crystal clear water.

During this section of the trek, I talked to local people, who told me about the Khankah’s history and the many folk tales associated with it. 

At the second resting spot with Masherbrum Peak and Khaplu City in the distance. | Khalid Ismail

Part 2: From Garbonchon to Chongchorong  

The second part of the trek was a visual treat. As we made our way up the mountainside, I passed apricot, apple, walnut, and blueberry trees laden with delicious fruit. And here’s the best part: you can pluck and eat them, and even take some with you. Just remember, respect the trees, don’t be too greedy, pick with care, and avoid breaking branches. This part of the trail was nothing short of a dream, winding under the shade of these fruitful boughs with the chirping of birds as the perfect music to accompany us. The striking thing is how the people are so welcoming, kind, and generous — to guide you to this bounty, offering up these fruits for free.

With such an abundance of fruitful trees, locals gather their crops and naturally dry what’s harvested for use during winter, when the temperature falls below -20°C and the entire area becomes blanketed in snow.

There are many fruitless trees as well. Upon asking a local, they told me that they used their wood to cook food as there is no gas in the region. Additionally, they mentioned that the wood from these trees is used in constructing doors and windows for buildings, as well as for roofing houses.

As we continued hiking, we lost the track and asked directions of a young boy who was enjoying apricots there. He guided us the right way and was even willing to accompany us as far as the Khankah if we wished; but we thanked him and moved on. 

At the start of the section, there’s a glacial stream called Khaplu Naddi. We took a break, dipped our feet in the crystal-clear water, soaked up the serenity, and readied ourselves for the next stage of the adventure. 

This leg of the journey concluded at a location known as Chongchorong. At the end of this track, there is a canal flowing with fresh glacial water, formed by carving its way through the rugged mountain’s chest. This canal is truly remarkable. We paused at this waterway, rested, refilled our water bottles, and engaged in a conversation with local residents. 

Nearing the final stage of the trek: the camel neck track, the resting places, and the Khankah at the top. | Gohar Balti,

Part 3: Walking on the Edge

This final leg is an adrenaline-pumping experience. The track runs along the edge of the mountain “bulge” that hosts the Thoqsi Khar Mosque. It resembles the front portion of a camel, with the Khankah situated atop the camel’s head. To access it, you need to traverse from the camel’s hip, hike along its neck, and eventually reach the crown of its head. 

It’s like walking on the edge of a sword, with breathtaking drops on either side. Don’t worry, though; there are safety grilles in place to keep trekkers out of harm’s way.

Taking in the magnificent view, with Garbonchon Village, Khaplu Stream, and Khaplu Broq in the background. | Khalid Ismail

The views in this section are nothing short of mesmerising. To your left, you’ll see Garbonchon Village and Khaplu Broq’s lush fertile pastureland, with a view of the glacial stream cascading down. On your right, Khaplu City and Hanjoor Valley stretch before your eyes, creating a visual feast that soothes the soul.

There are resting places after almost every 200-300 metres. So, if you are tired, you can sit on these benches and enjoy the surroundings while taking pictures. 

Finally, at the end of this thrilling trek, the encounter with the Thoqsi Khar Khankah Mosque, a 700-year-old marvel. Constructed from stones and wood, the mosque’s architectural details, including its doors, windows, and wooden pillars and roof, are a testament to the craftsmanship of a bygone era. Here, we offered our prayers and soaked ourselves in the spiritual atmosphere.

The walkway around the outside of the Khankah, with its wooden grills, pillars, and roof. | Khalid Ismail
At the viewpoint, looking out over a panorama of Khaplu City, the Shyok River and Masherbrum Peak. | Gohar Balti,

After visiting the Khankah, we headed toward the viewpoint, sat there and enjoyed our brought-along refreshments. From here, we gazed upon Khaplu City, the Shyok River, and the imposing Masherbrum Peak K1 (at 7,821 metres, the 22nd highest mountain in the world and the 9th highest in Pakistan). Here, you’ll be surrounded by mighty snow-capped mountains from all sides, creating a feeling of being on the top of the world.

At this altitude, the fresh mountain air is invigorating. Feel the breeze on your face and bask in the awe-inspiring surroundings. Arms outstretched, strike a Titanic pose facing the majestic Masherbrum Peak and capture memories that will last a lifetime.

And as the sun dips below the majestic peaks of the surrounding mountains, despite all the wonders we’ve already witnessed, the magic truly begins. The pristine mountain air and the absence of urban light pollution create a celestial spectacle that will leave you in awe. This offers a perfect place for star gazing; it will truly take your breath away. Under this starry canopy, you’ll feel like you’re perched on the edge of the universe itself. The clear mountain skies offer an unforgettable experience and a perfect moment to conclude your trek.

So if you’re looking for an adventure, pack your bags, lace up your hiking boots, and get ready to explore this hidden gem in the heart of Pakistan’s mountainous terrain. Thoqsi Khar Khankah is more than just a mosque; it’s a journey that immerses you in Baltistan’s beauty, history, and culture. It challenges your spirit, rewards your senses, and leaves an indelible mark on your soul. 

The Khankah emerging from the mountaintop mists. | Gohar Balti,

Khalid Ismail


Khalid Ismail is a freelance writer and travel blogger hailing from Skardu, Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan. He embarked on his freelancing journey in 2019 and actively collaborates with clients on Fiverr and through direct partnerships. Khalid also specializes in crafting SEO-optimised articles related to solar energy systems, SaaS, Science and Technology, and other niches. His work has found its way into numerous online publications, showcasing his expertise in these domains. In addition to his passion for writing, he possesses a deep appreciation for photography, which complements his travel blog content. You can reach out to him on Facebook.

Time to Read:  7 Minutes
Traveller: Khalid Ismail
14 November 2023
Travellers' Tales - In this Moment

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Tranquil Escapes, Wildlife Wonders, and Nature’s Grandeur in Rusinga Island, Kenya
The island is a joy for visitors looking to spot animals in their natural habitat. | Photo: Brian McMahon

Tranquil Escapes, Wildlife Wonders, and Nature’s Grandeur in Rusinga Island, Kenya

Set like a jewel amidst the blue waters of Lake Victoria, Rusinga Island beckons with unforgettable experiences. In a place seemingly untouched by time, visitors can encounter the graceful dance of giraffes against a fiery African sunset or set sail in a traditional dhow. Every footstep leads to a discovery, leaving responsible travellers with a deeper connection to the beauty of Western Kenya and their own adventurous spirit.

~ This guide is a collaboration between local expert Eric Obwanga and frequent visitor Susan Onyango ~

Rusinga Island

Upon Arrival

After a visitor arrives on my island, I always recommend going straight to Mbita Town — also known as Mbita Point — connected by a short causeway to Rusinga Island. It provides a good glimpse into the local way of life and serves as a convenient introduction to exploring the area’s wonders.

The best time to be here is during the dry season, from January to March. That’s when the weather is pleasantly warm and the gentle breeze makes it ideal for outdoor activities and wildlife sightings.

I tell first-time travellers to take a boat ride along the shores of vast Lake Victoria, one of the African Great Lakes and the continent’s largest (not to mention the biggest tropical lake in the world). This allows visitors to witness the local fishermen skilfully casting their nets, showcasing the island’s vibrant fishing community. I also tell them to avoid venturing into the deeper waters without a guide to ensure their safety.

People from here know better than to disturb the nesting sites of the island’s diverse bird species, including pelicans, fish eagles, flamingos, herons and egrets. Instead, they would rather observe these magnificent creatures from a distance, appreciating their graceful flights and melodious songs.

The best museum to start your journey and get a good sense of the island is Tom Mboya Mausoleum. With its collection of photographs and other memorabilia related to Mboya, a son of Rusinga Island and a major political leader in Kenya, it tells of his life and legacy. Ancient artefacts and insightful exhibits also also provide a deeper understanding of the indigenous communities and their own contributions to the island’s identity.

Parents should take their kids to Ruma National Park, a short distance from Rusinga Island because children can experience the thrill of a safari and witness incredible wildlife up close. The last surviving group of roan antelope in Kenya can be seen here, with their swept-back horns. Other species include impala, the Rothschild’s giraffe, and leopards (if you’re lucky enough to spot one). In discovering a tapestry of landscapes ranging from riverine woodland to towering cliffs, families can create lasting memories. 

Food From The Heart

Among the dishes we are most proud of, omena (Lake Victoria sardines) is an absolute must. I like to go to the lakeside restaurants to really enjoy these small, silvery freshwater fish that are packed with nutrients and flavour.

When we get together to celebrate special occasions, the traditional beer called busaa is what people here drink. I like to gather my friends and go to a spot where locals brew this fermented alcoholic beverage to share a round. It’s worth mentioning that it can be potent, especially for visitors not accustomed to it.

When I eat completely local, I will go to Rusinga Annex Guest House. I know the food here is prepared using fresh, locally sourced ingredients providing an authentic taste of the island. Another favourite restaurant is the New Parkland Hotel in Mbita with its breathtaking views of Lake Victoria and fusion of local and international cuisines.

The part of town where locals come for traditional food is Mbita Market. Here, a colourful food scene unfolds with local vendors offering a variety of dishes and produce, reflecting Rusinga Island’s culture.

Rusinga Island

Shopping Locally

My island is known for making exquisite handcrafted sisal products. The skilled artisans weave beautiful baskets, mats and other intricate designs using natural fibres sourced locally. 

The best fresh food market on Rusinga Island is Mbita Market. And it’s also good for buying everyday items like traditional clothing and handmade jewellery — this is where I take visitors to find real, local souvenirs. The products are authentic representations of the island’s rich heritage, ranging from carved wooden sculptures to paintings depicting local scenes.

We know to avoid purchasing souvenirs from street vendors because these items may not be well-made or accurately reflect the island’s culture.

Getting Deeper Into Rusinga Island

A great book to learn more about my island is  Rusinga Island: Lake Victoria, Kenya by Linda Okatch Mungayaka with its images depicting people’s lives and livelihoods here. For fictional stories set both nearby and in other parts of Kenya, try the novels of locally born-and-raised author Okang’a Ooko.

My island is a place people are attracted to because of its untouched natural beauty, vibrant culture, and warm hospitality.

To really celebrate my island at its best, come during the annual Rusinga Cultural Festival, held in December. Visitors have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the festivities, savour local delicacies and witness captivating performances during this celebration of the Abasuba people and their culture, language and artefacts.

Most people think of my island as a place to relax and unwind, but this is a destination to embark on active, adventurous exploration, from kayaking along Lake Victoria to hiking and discovering hidden gems. It is also extraordinarily important for its rich fossil beds. The 1948 discovery here of our ancient primate relatives — over 18 million years old — made newspaper headlines worldwide and inspired ongoing visits from local and international scientists seeking a better understanding of the origins of humanity.

This is also one of the best places in the world to experience the joyful rhythms of traditional Luo music and dance. Locals are proud of that because it’s a platform to pass down traditions to future generations. 

Getting Around Rusinga Island

One thing you should know about getting around my island is that its compact size (43 square kilometres) and scenic landscapes make it ideal for exploring on foot.

The best way to travel on my island to have as little impact as possible is to hire a local guide who is knowledgeable about the island’s ecology and culture. They can show you the hidden trails and also introduce you to local communities.

Luckily this method of travelling also allows me to form a deeper connection with the community. 

Outside The Town

To get away and into the outdoors, I like to embark on a hiking adventure up Rusinga Hill, hitting the trail that takes me through dense forests and past waterfalls. 

For a day trip just beyond my island, I like to visit Mfangano Island. I take a short boat ride across the lake to reach it and spend the day exploring its hidden coves, interacting with the local fishing communities. The island is also known for its ancient rock art, possibly 2,000 years old and thought to have been created by early forager-hunters. The Abasuba Community Peace Museum was founded to help promote tourism, protect and manage the rock art sites.

Many people will head to popular Ruma National Park, but locals know to go to the nearby Bird Islands for a truly tranquil and engaging wildlife experience.

I especially enjoy the view of my island from Gembe Hills. From this vantage point, I can appreciate the blend of nature and community, truly understanding the island’s sense of pride.

Connecting With Locals

When I want to have fun and celebrate being out on my island, I attend community festivities. Whether it’s a lively music festival, a traditional dance performance or a cultural event, I immerse myself in the joyful atmosphere. 

To hang out with my friends and go to a real insider spot, I go to Rusinga Island Lodge where I and other islanders gather for live music and mouth-watering dishes. Ingredients are locally sourced; in fact, wherever possible, they’re home-grown in the Lodge’s extensive organic vegetable garden or picked from their own fruit trees.

The best resource for finding out what’s going on around town (events) is the Rusinga Island Community Facebook group

When I want to enjoy my island without spending much (or any) money, I take a leisurely stroll along the shores of Lake Victoria, basking in the beauty of the sunset and the serenity of the surroundings.

Jubilee Garden is my first choice for music because it hosts live performances by local musicians. I can’t help but be moved by the passion and talent of the artists. And when I feel like dancing, I go to Club Pier Rusinga for the lively nightlife and the rhythmic tunes.

Finding Solitude In Rusinga Island

When I want to go somewhere to sit and relax on my incredible island, I go to the enchanting nature reserves. I find solace in the shade of ancient trees and in the company of wildlife.

The place that makes me proudest of my island is the Akonya CBO (Community Based Organisation). This community-driven initiative plays a crucial role in empowering the local community and preserving the island’s cultural heritage, working with local projects to uplift living standards.

When The Seasons Change, This Island Shines

The dry season (December to March) is the best time to bird watch, go fishing and hiking. This is when I always recommend visitors explore the shimmering waters of Lake Victoria because it’s the time when wildlife is often more visible along the lake’s edges. 

The rainy season (April to November) here is magical when you witness the amazing transformation of the landscape. This is excellent for exploring the waterfalls; the increased rainfall during this season results in beautiful falls dramatically cascading down the island’s landscapes.

Susan Onyango

Local Expert

Susan Onyango is a young African woman hailing from Kenya. A travel enthusiast and a responsible tourism ambassador passionate about tourism in East Africa, Susan has an academic background in Mass Communication with a major in Public Relations. For over a year now, she has been working in the tourism industry in Kenya. Her most recent professional engagements have been with Ecotourism Kenya, Tierranjani Africa and Kenya Utalii College

Eric Obwanga

Local Expert

Eric Obwanga is a passionate advocate for eco-tourism and cultural exploration. Over the past few years, he has lived and worked on Rusinga Island, building connections with the community and gaining a deep understanding of its traditions, challenges and aspirations. He is passionate about collaborating with local writers on more destination guides, workshops, and initiatives that empower travellers to make a positive impact while experiencing the world. Eric firmly believes that "Travel is not just about the places we visit, but the connections we forge and the stories we share." You can connect with him on Instagram.

Time to Read:  8 Minutes
Local Expert(s): Susan Onyango and Eric Obwanga
9 November 2023
Destination Guide

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When Mercury Plunges to Sub-Zero, Harissa Keeps Kashmir Warm
Snow-covered Srinagar in the depths of winter; Kashmir, India. | Photo: Imad Clicks

When Mercury Plunges to Sub-Zero, Harissa Keeps Kashmir Warm

The snow-clad valley of Kashmir looks ethereal as my flight touches down at Srinagar Airport. Just outside the arrivals terminal, the cluster of cherry trees that usually greet me in spring with pearl-pink blossoms have now draped themselves in a thick white cloak, suitable for the middle of January. This is my fourth visit to Kashmir, but the first time I am here during chillai kalan — the bleak and harsh winter when the temperature of this Himalayan region plunges below freezing.

The valley of Kashmir, in the far north of India, sports a vibrant look with a riot of colours throughout the seasons. The ripe fields of mustard turn yellow in spring, the flowering gardens and orchards don a multihued cloak in summer and the stately chinar trees sparkle with a golden glow in autumn. But come winter, Kashmir is bereft of colour. I have come to witness the picturesque wonderland blanketed in pristine white snow; and also to savour the centuries-old culinary legacy of harissa — the winter-only delicacy that has helped the Kashmiris withstand the freezing cold. 

The spiritual intonations of a prayer from the ancient wooden mosque reverberate through the icy cold air as our car manoeuvres deserted snow-blanketed streets. It is 5 in the morning and as Sajjad, my Kashmiri driver-cum-guide navigates the warren of narrow alleys and the bridges over River Jhelum, I feel chilled to the bones. The mercury has dipped to 8 degrees below freezing. We are in the old part of Srinagar now, a neighbourhood that the locals call “downtown”.

I spot a group of men attired in long grey coats queued up before an unassuming little shop. Sajjad says that they are waiting for harissa — the slow cooked lamb-and-rice combo. The relentless snowfall slackens when I get out of the car and Sajjad leads me to the shop. I stand in the queue. Sajjad tells me that harissa originates from the Arabic ‘harasa’ which means ‘to crush’.

He further informs me that harissa perhaps had arrived in the valley because of the strong Central Asian influence, becoming immensely popular during Afghan rule in Kashmir from the mid-18th to the early 19th century. Sajjad then recalls how he used to save his pocket money back in his college days for a shared harissa meal with his friends. 

“It is not just a food, it is an integral part of our life and culture,” Sajjad smiles. “Is it spicy?” I ask him. The young man laughs out loud at my apprehension. ‘“Not at all,” he assures me.

Winter in Kashmir
A plate of harissa is always garnished with hot edible oil. While the rich dish wards off the bitter cold of Kashmir, it is inadvisable to have it on a daily basis due to its heavy calorie content. | Sugato Mukherjee

There comes a rumbling sound. The steel shutter of the shop rolls up slowly. We follow the crowd into the dimly lit interior, where a few rustic wooden tables and chairs are laid out.

The archaic eatery is filled with a smoky, meaty smell. On an upraised platform near the door, a bearded middle-aged man inspects a pot with great care. “He is Zahoor Ahmed, the owner,” Sajjad informs me as we manage to find a place and wait for our turn. I look around the otherwise ordinary breakfast joint which has survived more than a hundred winters and has perfectly retained its old-world charm.

On the raised floor, copper-bottomed pots, small steel plates and round breads are stacked conscientiously. I notice how people from all walks of life arrive at this place, cordially greet each other, get their lunch boxes of varying sizes filled up with portions of harissa, and walk out into the snow. 

I watch with amazement as Zahoor Ahmed pours flaming oil on harissa as a sizzling garnish. It reminds me of a masterful juggler reaching the finale of his tricks with a fire display. ”It indicates that the platter is ready,” Sajjad explains.

Contrary to the reddish, garlic-based harissa paste I had tried in Morocco, this appears thick and sticky — a light brown pulp with a tinge of green. The platter is accompanied by a couple of succulent kebabs and is served with Kashmiri flatbread, tchot. I take a spoonful of harissa and relish the mouth-watering, sumptuous intricacy of flavours with my eyes closed. I can clearly distinguish the tastes of meat, rice and mild spices. 

Preparation entails a meticulous removal of bones and gristle from the best portions of mutton. The process starts immediately after the day’s stock is sold off. | Sugato Mukherjee

“It is an arduous process,” Sajjad tells me as he dips the bread into the aromatic paste. 

“Finest cuts of lamb meat are close-chopped and cooked slowly in huge earthen pots in a wood-fired oven,” he continues. He further explains how diligently meat is deboned and meticulously marinated with rice, fennel seeds, green cardamom, black cardamom, cloves and Kashmiri shallots to bring out the optimum flavour. 

“Why earthen pots?” I ask Zahoor Ahmed, as he joins our conversation, with a nod and a smile.

“It retains the nutritious elements and taste of the spices. You won’t get the authentic taste if you cook in a pressure cooker,” Ahmed says. Indeed, for this culinary craft, the utensil has a role to play along with the skill and patience of the harissa-maker.

The early morning light filters into Ahmed’s outlet, which gets busier as more patrons arrive at the small eatery. I thank Ahmed and tell him that I wish to come again to taste the harissa phuher (the brown crust scraped from the base of the earthen pot). “You are always welcome. But make sure to come by 9.30; the day’s stock gets sold by then.” He politely shows me to the door, where a lengthy queue is waiting patiently outside in the snow.

Bandita Mukherjee


A Kolkata-based teacher, Bandita is an avid traveller. While she is thrilled to hike unknown terrain, explore cities steeped in history and understand the culinary scene of every new place she travels to, the nuanced textures of her native India are what she finds most exciting as a compulsive traveller. When she is not teaching or on the go, she can be found making plans for her next trip, with a mug of fresh Darjeeling tea and her pet cat curled up by her side.

    Time to Read:  4 Minutes
    Traveller: Bandita Mukherjee
    7 November 2023
    Travellers' Tales - Food and Drink

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    Ancient Castles, Elaborate Cathedrals and Cultural Celebrations in Edinburgh, Scotland
    Historic Edinburgh Castle stands on Castle Rock, which has been occupied by humans since at least the Iron Age.

    Ancient Castles, Elaborate Cathedrals and Cultural Celebrations in Edinburgh, Scotland

    Edinburgh is nestled between the Firth of Forth and the Pentland Hills. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site and City of Literature, it has a lot to offer travellers. Despite being steeped in history, it has a modern vibe and draws millions of visitors each year due to its plentiful and diverse festivals. Local expert Louise Slyth shares her tips on how to get the most from a visit to Scotland’s capital city. 


    Upon Arrival

    After a visitor arrives in my city, I recommend going straight to The Royal Mile, which is home to Edinburgh Castle at one end, and The Palace of Holyroodhouse at the other. Between them, you’ll find charming cobbled streets, a cathedral, and myriad museums. It’s the best place to immerse yourself in the history of the city and get your bearings. 

    The best time to be here depends on your goals and budget. In August, Edinburgh hosts the annual Festival Fringe (the largest arts festival in the world) so the atmosphere is buzzy and busy. In December we have the famous Hogmanay celebrations. These are great times to see Edinburgh at its best, but accommodation prices will reflect that. The summer months will be kinder if you are planning to do lots of walking and exploring, but as long as you dress appropriately, Edinburgh really is a year-round destination. 

    I tell first-time travellers to soak up castle vibes by walking through Princes Street Gardens. Then visit The Johnnie Walker Experience either for a tour or just to enjoy a drink with unparalleled views of Edinburgh Castle. You need to book ahead, but it’s worth it. 

    I also tell them to avoid eating at chain restaurants. Edinburgh has a thriving dining scene; head to Leith to sample great seafood, or Bruntsfield for cute bistros. 

    The best museum to start your journey and get a good sense of this city is The National Museum of Scotland, which is a short stroll from the Royal Mile. With thousands of exhibits, it has plenty to keep both adults and children entertained for a couple of hours. I’d also recommend Surgeons’ Hall Museums — these award-winning museums spotlight Edinburgh’s contribution to modern medicine. The perfect blend of fascinating and creepy! The pathology museum houses one of the world’s largest collections of pathological anatomy. 

    Parents should take their kids to The Royal Botanic Garden (known to locals as “The Botanics”) which offers plenty of space to run around, educational exhibits, and a selection of lovely cafés. On rainy days, Camera Obscura will keep little ones amused, with five floors of interactive exhibits including a mirror maze and vortex tunnel. It also has a rooftop terrace which is a great spot to take photos. 

    Food from the Heart

    Among the dishes my city is most proud of is surprisingly NOT haggis! Instead, Edinburgh has a lot of great steak restaurants and locally sourced venison is also very popular (and worth trying!).

    I send visitors to try it at Wedgwood restaurant as it’s a very classy experience and they (sometimes) do serve crispy Haggis Bon Bons, so you can tick off two Scottish culinary bucket-list items in one place.

    When we get together to celebrate, we generally head to the pub. In Edinburgh you are spoiled for choice; whether you’re looking for traditional watering holes, craft beer specialists or glamourous cocktail bars, Edinburgh has it all. Those seeking an upmarket night out need look no further than George Street, where you can find glitzy clubs and cocktail bars. 

    When I eat completely local, I’m likely to head to Stockbridge. Whether you are looking for a Full Scottish, cosy pub fare, fine dining, a great burger, Thai, Mexican, or even South American, Stockbridge has everything a foodie could desire (including a weekly farmer’s market). You could spend a fortnight in one square mile and eat in a different place every night! 

    It’s impossible to choose a favourite, but some standouts in that neighbourhood include Sabor Criollo, a Latin American favourite that serves authentic food in a cosy basement and The Bailie Bar, a Stockbridge institution (and my favourite place for fish and chips).

    Shopping Locally

    My city is known for making… 

    Whisky! (Note there is no ‘e’ in Scottish whisky). Most of the large whisky producers are based in the Highlands, but there are plenty of excellent places in Edinburgh to taste it, including The Scotch Whisky Experience (also on the Royal Mile). 2023 welcomes whisky production back into the city, with Port of Leith Distillery, the UK’s first vertical distillery, re-igniting the whisky trade that was previously prevalent in the Leith area. 

    The best outdoor food market is the award-winning Edinburgh Farmer’s Market, open 9am–2pm on Saturdays. You can stock up on seasonal fruit and veg, meats, cheeses and chutneys, while taking in views of Edinburgh Castle. 

    Another notable market is The Pitt — not just a market, but a home to live music, street food and craft beers. 

    I always take visitors to Galerie Mirages in Stockbridge, a family-run local business that deals directly with local traders in countries like Indonesia, Laos, Burma and Morocco. I love their ethical practices, but I love their gorgeous jewellery and homeware even more! They are tucked down an alley, so you’d almost miss the shop if you weren’t looking for it, but it has a bit of a cult following for those in the know. 

    And we know to avoid cheap tartan anything, Scottish flags and plastic Highland cows. 

    Getting Deeper Into Edinburgh

    A great book to learn more about my city is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark, or for a more modern and gritty view of the city, any of the Inspector Rebus novels by Ian Rankin. 

    Most people know about St Giles’ Cathedral in the high street, but I’d recommend visiting Rosslyn Chapel, 7 miles out of the city centre. It was made famous by The Da Vinci Code, so you now need to book in advance, but it’s a beautiful building with a fascinating history and well worth a visit. 

    My city is a place people are attracted to because of its history, culture, good food and ease of getting around.

    Most people think of my city as the home of our many festivals, but it’s also a great destination for a short break, a base for day trips to places like Glasgow or St Andrews, or to use as a jumping-off point for longer excursions to the Highlands.

    This is one of the best places in the world to learn about history. Edinburgh has a fascinating history, and for an immersive experience you can join a walking tour or visit Mary King’s Close for gruesome tales about grave robbers, plagues, intrigue and murders.

    Getting Around Edinburgh

    One thing you should know about getting around my city is that the city centre is compact enough to cover on foot. If the hills get too much there are regular buses. 

    The best way to travel in my city to have as little impact as possible is on foot, but we have those hills, so you’ll want to wear flat shoes! 

    If you are venturing further afield, Edinburgh is also well served by both bus and tram, and there are regular trains to other major cities.

    Luckily these methods of transportation also allow me to take in the amazing scenery!

    Outside The City

    To get away and into the outdoors, head for the hills! The Pentland Hills have several great walking trails (and are a bus or short taxi ride away). You can reward yourself afterwards with a meal in the cosy Flotterstone Inn, where walkers and well-behaved dogs are welcomed with open fires and hearty home cooking. 

    For a day trip just beyond my city, I recommend the East Neuk of Fife. Just 50 miles away, it’s home to a series of charming fishing villages linked by a coastal path. Ideal for bracing walks, spectacular scenery and fabulous fish and chips!

    Many people will head north to visit Dalmeny House, a stately home overlooking the Firth of Forth, but I prefer to head south to Abbotsford Estate, the home of Sir Walter Scott, nestled in the Borders countryside and easily accessible by train. 

    The best view of my city is from Calton Hill where you can take in the amazing cityscape including the imposing Balmoral Hotel. 

    Connecting with Locals

    When I want to have fun and celebrate being out in my city, I indulge in a Champagne afternoon tea with the girls. There are many Edinburgh venues offering this special treat, but my favourites are The Balmoral Hotel for effortless elegance, or Colonnades at The Signet Library for a truly unique experience. 

    To hang out with my friends and go to a real insider spot, we head to Whighams wine bar, which hosts live jazz on Sunday evenings and serves great food into the bargain. 

    The best resource for finding out what’s going on around town is the What’s On Edinburgh website where you can find all the upcoming events and attractions. 

    When I want to enjoy my city without spending much (or any) money, I take a stroll along the Water of Leith Walkway which runs all the way from Balerno to Leith (about 18 miles). Thankfully you can join the walkway anywhere along the route, so you can take things at your own pace. 

    Sandy Bell’s is my first choice for music because it’s an Edinburgh institution, with live music every night that’s “unique and unpredictable”. The bar has hosted many famous names over the years including Barbara Dickson, Billy Connolly and Dougie McLean. 

    And when I feel like dancing, I go to Ghillie-Dhu for some traditional Scottish reels or one of the glamourous clubs on George Street.  

    Finding Solitude in Edinburgh

    When I want to go somewhere to relax in my city, I head to Arthur’s Seat, for walks with panoramic views, or The Botanics, where it’s always possible to find a quiet meditative corner.

    What makes me proudest of my city is our connection to learning and literature. Our universities are world-renowned, The Edinburgh International Book Festival is the world’s largest literary festival of its kind, and Edinburgh is the world’s first UNESCO City of Literature. Edinburgh gifted the world writers like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and latterly Ian Rankin and JK Rowling.

    When the Seasons Change, This City Shines

    Spring (March to May) is the best time to soak up the spring vibes when the daffodils start to emerge. It’s the ideal time of year to climb Arthur’s Seat (actually an ancient volcano) or stroll along Portobello Beach. In March, be challenged or dazzled at the Science Festival. You can immerse yourself in some traditional Scottish folk music at Tradfest, or experience a Celtic Fire festival at Beltane

    I always recommend visitors make the most of the summer happenings (June to August) because it’s festival season and the beer gardens are full and buzzing. Whether your tastes run to Jazz and Blues, Films, Books or Food, we have a festival to suit almost every taste (excuse the pun!). Then in August, it’s high-octane fun with the main event, Edinburgh International Festival, which runs the gamut from opera to comedy, theatre to dance. Don’t miss the chaos and creativity that is Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The fringe has been the launching point of many a comedian’s career, and you can still get free tickets to some shows. 

    In Autumn (September to November) things calm down a little. Autumn is a lovely time to visit, with orange leaves on the trees, conkers on the ground and cheaper hotel prices! Visitors will still find plenty to do; in September, many unique places allow visitors behind-the-scenes access as part of Doors Open Days and October hosts the Scottish International Storytelling Festival.

    The winter months (December to February) are a great time to have a long lunch or find a cosy pub and settle in. The weather can be a bit dismal, but there are plenty of festive treats to tempt visitors to brave the colder weather. Edinburgh’s Christmas runs from mid-November to early January. It’s held in the iconic Princes Street Gardens, with great views of the castle, and you can enjoy the market and funfair, or warm yourself up with some mulled wine or hot chocolate.

    It’s become more commercialised recently, but it’s still a fun activity for all the family and a great way to get some Christmas vibes going. Hogmanay is a world-famous celebration and people travel from all over the world to usher in the new year, Edinburgh-style. 

    Louise Slyth

    Local Expert

    Louise Slyth is a communications consultant and freelance writer. Born in Edinburgh, she has lived in Sydney and Barcelona, and now resides in Dublin with her husband. Her work has been featured in publications around the world, including HuffPost, Stylist, The Independent and The Ethel, to name but a few. When she’s not writing, she’s planning her next trip. You can connect with her on Instagram.

    Time to Read:  11 Minutes
    Local Expert: Louise Slyth
    2 November 2023
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