The Edinburgh hinterland is dotted with castles and country houses of varying interest, some mere empty shells, others converted into hotels catering for tourists' (supposed) appetite for tartan. Crichton Castle, however, is the real thing. Set high on a plateau in the Midlothian hills quite untouched by the 20th century, the courtyard contains an unexpected and startling delight that would not look out of place in Bologna or Florence: a seven-bay arcade below a diamond-faceted facade, inspired by the European wanderings of the castle's owner, the eccentric fifth Earl of Bothwell. Though now in ruins, its brief heyday long gone, the castle remains a highly evocative building.
Leith, Edinburgh's port, has over the last few years become increasingly bijou, full of pricey restaurants and swanky bars. The Marinette is away from the main drag, on a rundown street at the heart of the local red- light district. Inside, however, this is a cracking seafood restaurant: atmospheric without being gimmicky, the excellent food is confidently presented by a host who is friendly without being overpowering, and will, with little prompting, show off his collection of fish ties.
Having accepted a booking for eight o'clock on a Friday night, the manager of one of Edinburgh's most popular riverside pub restaurants rang back asking whether we could come a quarter-of-an-hour earlier. Assuming that he was hoping to squeeze in a few more diners, we were surprised on arrival to find the room completely empty. The only sound to come out of the kitchen area was the intermittent ting of the microwave, followed, after a decent pause, by a waitress bearing a white hot plate of mediocre reheated food. Only one other table was occupied the entire evening, which didn't last long anyway.
According to legend, the visitor to a middle-class Edinburgh home is likely to be greeted with the expression "You'll have had your tea already."
Not everyone in the city speaks in this way, however; when I worked in a city centre pub, one of the regulars, after downing several bottles of Grolsch, would finish his evening with multiple requests for "voddy for the body."
Most interesting hotel
The Parliament House Hotel is a well thought-out conversion of a Calton Hill town house and some offices, including one in which Irvine Welsh is said to have penned Trainspotting. The hotel opened in 1996, choosing its name on the basis of the widely expected arrival of a Scottish parliament on Calton Hill in the near future. On hearing that an alternative location had been chosen, the unchuffed owner remarked: "That's the last time I send Donald Dewar a Christmas card."
Edinburgh Zoo is proud of its huge number of penguins and the long- established penguin parade, during which the birds take a lunchtime stroll round the zoo, a pay-off being a fish lunch. The day I went, a crowd waited patiently in the hot sun, until half a dozen penguins, accompanied by three bored members of staff, did a token tour of the small triangle of grass next to their enclosure. Within minutes the penguins were back in the pool, rejoining their more laid- back companions who had worked out long ago that staying behind in the cool water would not lead to reduced rations.
What to see
Marinette, 52 Coburg Street (tel: 0131 555 0922).
Parliament House Hotel, 15 Calton Hill (tel: 0131 478 4000).
The Royal Botanic Garden entrances on Inverleith Row and Arboretum Place (daily May-Aug 10am-8pm; March, April, Sept and Oct 10am-6pm; Nov-Feb 10am-4pm; free).
Edinburgh Zoo: (April-Sept Mon-Sat 9am-6pm, Sun 9.30am-6pm; Oct and March Mon-Sat 9am-5pm, Sun 9.30am-5pm; Nov-Feb Mon-Sat 9am-4.30pm, Sun 9.30am-4.30pm; pounds 6) lies three miles west of Princes Street on an 80-acre site on the slopes of Corstorphine Hill (buses from town: 2, 26, 31, 36, 69, 85, 86).
The penguin parade is a daily event at 2pm from march to October.
Inchcolm: boat trip to Inchcolm leaving from South Queensferry. (July to mid-Sept daily; Easter, May and June Sat and Sun; (tel: 0131 331 4857); prices from pounds 6.50 to pounds 8.95, includes admission to the Abbey).
Julian Ward wrote'The Mini Rough Guide to Edinburgh'. Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter 'Rough News', published three times yearly. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free Rough Guide to the first three subscribers each week.