It’s hard to do a tour of Edinburgh bi bike without climbing some hills but the rewards are certainly worth every moment.
Starting from the west end of Princes Street and heading east, it’s not long before you’ll hit your first upward motion. Look to your right with Edinburgh Castle perched on top of a volcanic mound â€“ that’s right, you’re going up there. At the National Gallery bikes can swing right and onto the Mound â€“ a manmade pile of earth created from the excavations for Waverley Station. While the road is steep it’s mercifully short and, with a quick blast, you’re onto the cobbles of the Royal Mile. If you want more altitude head right to visit the castle, but otherwise strike downwards to the left.
This is legal territory. The High Court and the Court of Session (complete with Heart of Midlothian in the paving outside â€“ remember to spit) flank you as you start the descent â€“ something which would be fun and velocity endowed but for the cobbles, the traffic lights and the occasional tourist stepping out in front of you to get a picture of a tacky Scotland tourist shop. This is Edinburgh at its best and worst.
At the bottom of the hill, swing right at the roundabout and you’ll hit on the crowning glory of Scottish politics, the blot on the landscape otherwise known as The Scottish Parliament. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it building, and I’m firmly on the side of hating it, with its odd straw-like window coverings and strange hairdryer-shaped wall adornments.
But at least they’ve catered for cyclists with some rather ‘interesting’ bike parking.
While here, you can’t help but notice the rather more impressive lump of rock beside the Parliament. Arthur’s Seat is another relic of volcanic times and a road runs round it about halfway up. Guess where you’re going!
Aim towards Arthurâ€™s Seat and turn left at the roundabout to head through Holyrood Park. Towards the end of this road you’ll start doing battle with errant swans which will be your signal to turn right at their pond and point the front wheel upwards. If you’re feeling particularly speedsome you can try to get up here as quickly as possible to log a time in the Arthurâ€™s Seat Challenge (http://www.arthursseatchallenge.co.uk/). With an average incline of 1 in 15, and one section up to 1 in 9, and with more hills to come, you might be content to try and limit the pain here. Once clear of the climb, the views to the south are fantastic, especially over Dunsapie Loch, and the road round the back is strangely reminiscent of the start of the Italian Job.
The loop round the hill is completed with a nice, fast descent back down to the Parliament. This time go straight on at the roundabout by the front door and haul yourself up a short incline to a traffic-lit crossroads where you’re heading left. This road doesn’t really carry much traffic but for parked tour buses and you’ll pass the old Royal High School that many thought should have been the new Parliament site. A quick right turn at the mini-roundabout and you’re heading up a small road onto Calton Hill. This provides possibly the most eclectic collection of buildings you’ll come across in Edinburgh, from various towers to a pillar-bedecked mini-Parthenon (known as Edinburghâ€™s Disgrace). This is also where the best views to the north are to be had, stretching out over the Firth of Forth to Fife and Perthshire on a clear day. No better place to rest your weary limbs, and the promise of a couple of miles of downhill to come.
Head down the way you climbed and turn right at the mini-roundabout to head back towards the eastern end of Princes Street. At the traffic lights you’ll be turning right down Leith Street then straight on at a big roundabout down Leith Walk.
At the ‘Foot o’ the Walk’ keep straight on until heading left off Constitution Street and onto Bernard Street, striking upon the fashionable ‘Shore’ of Edinburgh. Nice restaurants and bars abound here â€“ from Michelin-starred (and accordingly pricey) Martin Wishart, to the inviting King’s Wark.
You could even, if you felt so inclined, take a detour to visit the Royal Yacht Britannia. If not, head left at the Water of Leith, up the cobbled street and cross the small bridge to join the footpath alongside the river.
This is the truly relaxed part of the ride. Following NCN route 75 away from the river, the leafy former railway line is a chance to spin easily and forget about everything. You donâ€™t even have to worry about turning off until you come out at a Tesco supermarket and have to work out where to go from there to get you back to the Water of Leith. Turning right away from Tesco, head right again at the lights, then left at the next set of lights (if you go straight on here you will come to the entrance to the Botanic Gardens on the left â€“ worth a visit but you won’t be able to cycle round). After pausing to get some French pastries at Circle Cafe, turn right down the road that sits on the bend of the main road and cruise down into the Colonies.
The aim here is to join up again with the Water of Leith, but don’t do this at the bridge crossing the river. The section of path there ends in a set of steel steps beside a Pizza Express (and I’m sure those sitting outside will be terribly amused watching you hauling your bike up).
Instead, keep going until the lights and turn left. Stockbridge is another area that would be easy to find somewhere to eat or drink. Once you’ve finished go over the bridge that crosses the river beside the Pizza Express and turn right, heading down into what looks like a dead-end but actually contains a doorway onto the Water of Leith path, which you’re now going to stick to for a few miles. Again this is a relaxed bit of the ride, following the brown Water of Leith signs, passing follies, waterfalls and Murrayfield stadium. The best view along the way is looking up as you go under Dean Bridge â€“ a massive stone structure that looks its best from this angle. You’ll also be passing close to the Dean Gallery and Modern Art Gallery, both worthy of a short detour when you see them signposted.
The Water of Leith path goes all the way out to Balerno (one of the places with the highest concentration of millionaires in the country, don’t you know) but you’ll be leaving the river long before that. After skirting some allotments and, mercifully, on the opposite side of the bank from Saughton Prison, you’ll arrive on the wooden boards of the Water of Leith visitor centre – with space round the back to sit and look up at the aquaduct carrying the Union Canal. Which is exactly where you’re headed.
Climbing the long flight of steps up to the canal is probably preferable to riding up any more hills and this being a lock-free canal you’ll be safe in the knowledge that your route back to the city is virtually flat. The terminus of the canal at Edinburgh Quay is a nice modern spot, attempting (but, since this is Edinburgh, failing) to create some sort of a Riviera feel.
Back on NCN route 75, you stick to this to take you to the Meadows where, once again, you’ll be afforded a view of Arthur’s Seat (safe in the knowledge that you’ve already been there).
Passing through the Meadows, route 75 meets route 1, shakes its hand, and passes you over, heading north once more. Here you will pass studentland, a strange theme park full of young people who complain of having no money but drink lots. You’ll also come to George IV Bridge which, like a few bridges in Edinburgh, doesn’t seem to be a bridge at all having been surrounded by buildings. Stag and Hen parties abound here of an evening but there are occasional gems of places to eat, like the Outsider and, if you head down to the Grassmarket just off the bridge, a sea of pubs awaits. Oh, and if you see people taking pictures of a dog statue that’ll be Greyfriars Bobby sitting in front of Greyfriars Church (what do you mean you don’t know the story?).
You’ll recognise the Royal Mile as you come to it for the second time, and if you couldn’t face the climb to the Castle first time round you can turn left to see it this time. If not, turn right past the courts again and take a road to the left just before you get to the next set of traffic lights (Cockburn Street). This steep, cobbled street spits you out at Waverley Station, sitting underneath North Bridge and up there, just over Waverley Bridge, that’s you back onto Princes Street.
The whole route is probably about 20 miles, but takes in most of the main sights of Edinburgh, rewards with some great views, and even passes you through miles of tranquil areas if you need to escape the city noise.
Itâ€™s got to be better than an open-top bus…