Edinburgh,the Athens of the north, is defined by politeness and civility. People line up properly for buses and speak nicely to each other. Mark Swallow paid a visit
Even the pigeons in Edinburgh use the steps. A little self-consciously but with great deliberation they bounce on grubby claws up and down the city's steps. And so, like the rest of us, they make their way between the many levels - for Edinburgh is a city of stairways and not even a pair of wings exempts you.

Whatever aerobics you get up to in your home town, you will find Edinburgh an exercise class of a city. Even those famous half-dozen buttocks in the National Gallery of Scotland seem to have toned up since Canova's Three Graces were added to Edinburgh's charms.

Take a volcanic mountain with a haughty profile, crown it with a fantasy castle and stud its spine with nine-storey townhouses in granite: this is the Royal Mile of the Old Town which runs down to Holyrood House, where the Queen sometimes stays.

You must climb this mountain on flights of steps, which either cut straight up or lead you in wynds and vennels through courts and murky doorways onto the Mile. "Worlds End Close" reads one apocalyptic lintel. Another beckons you into the house of the beautiful Elizabeth, Dowager Countess of Stair. The facade of Lady Stair's House is topped, like so many in the Old Town, by a step-patterned gable on which pigeons delightedly practise their pedestrian techniques.

This 17th-century tangle of steps now links the Burns, Scott and Stevenson rooms, comprising the Writers' Museum.

Run up the Scott Monument and you add 287 steps to your total - but do so before the crowds because its crow's nest only fits four people in addition to Sir Walter's carved characters.

Below is a panorama of city, mountains and sea. The stone Friar Tuck and Madge Wildfire have had the best views of Edinburgh since they were winched up here in 1846.

From the summit of the mountain even the glass roofs of Waverley Station look like a flight of stairs which, when raised, would take you straight up to another superb view - and a well-earned rest - on the massive rock of Arthur's Seat.

Look down on Princes Street Gardens, an ancient loch bed that is now a lunch-time sunbed for a thousand shop assistants. Its proud parkie lives in the most perfect example of inner-city cottage architecture, sheltering in the eye of the storm of his municipal planting.

But Scott and hound, in marble under the canopy of the Monument, are looking away from all this and up to the New Town, and a perfect Georgian flight with whole streets on each step. In 1767 it was decided that Edinburgh's citizens, after centuries of wynding and vennelling, must breathe and the result was a whole new town utterly different from the old except for the inclines.

If obtaining filming permission in San Francisco ever gets difficult, movie-makers could arrange a bonnet-bouncing car chase down Hanover Street, as long as the local drivers loosen up and offer the necessary antagonism.

Politeness and gentility is so evident in the city centre that you almost suspect a tourist board initiative has decreed: "Workers must wear blue overalls. People must queue for buses in straight lines and speak nicely to each other." And they do.

All museum doors are opened by men in pressed tartan trews. Even in the Modern Art Gallery the doorman sincerely suggests you leave your coat on an unguarded hook by the exit. It is a step back in time.

Rather than trip you up, the donation boxes in the Royal Museum of Scotland have to be sought out. This is a Crystal Palace of a museum with, yes, untold steps connecting the floors. We should be grateful that one Hong Kong businessman's wife made it to the airy top floor: the Ivy Wu Gallery is devoted to the art of China, Japan and Korea, a fabulous contrast to the display of British animals on the ground floor which still features stuffed sewer rats cavorting among used condoms.

The Georgian House surely takes the shortbread for gentility. While much of the Robert Adam-designed home in Charlotte Square is firmly closed, with signs telling you not to bother nicking the mantelpieces (they've gone already), the ladies of the National Trust for Scotland present the exquisite interior of No 7 with polite fervour.

This is upstairs downstairs at its best, with a perfectly equipped Georgian kitchen and an immaculate drawing-room. A video features the ghost of old man Lamont, the first owner, bemoaning the number of tourists traipsing through "my lady's bedchamber", but there is a welcome in every room from the guides.

Their manner does, however, harden to Old Town granite whenever the alarm goes off, which happens frequently since the "wee ones" will keep touching the pistol-handled cutlery on the dining-room table. And, no mattter how exhausted you are, don't even think of trying to sit on one of the chairs.

Rest assured, for all the steps, Edinburgh is also the most "well-benched" city in Britain. You can always find somewhere to sit before taking on the next level. But bear in mind you may have to share your bench with a knackered pigeon.


Information The main tourist office is at 3 Princes St, Tel: 0131 557 1700 (expect a tediously long wait to reach the top of the queue). The National Trust for Scotland can be reached on 0131 226 5922.

Where to stay

Booking agencies include the Edinburgh Central Reservations Department Tel: 0131 557 9677 (at the same address as the tourist office), who charge pounds 3 to make a booking to suit your budget. Some noteworthy upmarket hotels include The Old Waverly Hotel, (0131 556 4648), at 43 Princes St, which is central, grand and commands excellent views. The Prestonfield House Hotel on Priestfield Rd (0131 6683346) is an amazing unmodernized seventeenth century mansion right under Arthur's Seat, with only five rooms. Cheaper guesthouses and hostels are also plentiful.

Where to eat

High class Scottish food means smoked salmon, venison and haggis with whisky. The Atrium on Cambridge St, where the tables are made of railway sleepers, is often said to be the best place for Scottish food in town. Another popular place among Scottish foodies is Kelly's on West Richmond St. De Niros on Nicolson Street is an atmospheric, cheap italian restaurant; Phoenicia on West Nicolson Street also offers interesting Mediterranean flavours. For self-service vegetarian food, try the popular Edinburgh institution Henderson's at 94 Hanover Street.


tNational Gallery of Scotland: The Mound, Tel: 0131 556 8921

tWriters' Museum: Lawnmarket, Tel: 0131 5294901

tScottish National Gallery of Modern Art: Belford Road, Tel: 0131 556 5298921

tThe Royal Museum of Scotland: Chambers Street, Tel: 0131 2257534

tThe Georgian House: 7 Charlotte Square.