Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital city, enjoys an almost fairytale setting and is split into the Old Town and the New Town which is surrounded by mountains, sea, and a stark craggy landscape. Voted the UK’s safest city in 2014 and appearing on the shortlist every year since, Edinburgh is also a center of culture, education, art and tourism which attracts over 4 million visitors every year. This guide will cover things to do in Edinburgh; must-see and quirky attractions, as well as recommend places to eat and sleep in one of my favorite cities in the world.
EDINBURGH’S MAIN ATTRACTIONS
There is so much to see and do here but if you only have a short time, these are the “Big Five”:
You can’t miss it. It appears straight from the pages of an epic fantasy novel, was built at the very top of Castle Rock and is a striking part of the skyline. A former royal residence, military barracks, and prison; the castle is also home to other attractions like the Scottish Crown Jewels, St Margaret’s Chapel (the oldest building in Edinburgh) and the enormous 15th-century siege gun “Mons Meg”. It’s a steep walk up (though there is access for wheelchair users, just check the website to make arrangements) and the view alone is worth the climb.
The Royal Mile
The Royal Mile is the street connecting Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace and contains several other places to visit, like St Giles Cathedral, Camera Obscura, and the Writers’ Museum. It has a friendly, upbeat atmosphere and contains many souvenir shops, restaurants, trinket stalls and street performers. Each side street has its own historical story which you can hear by joining a guided tour (most meet outside the Starbucks) and it is one of the best places to start exploring the city due to its close proximity to so many other attractions.
There are two main places with panoramic views of Edinburgh city and the surrounding sea and countryside; Calton Hill and Holyrood Park. Calton Hill is full of striking monuments; the most famous being the Dugald Stewart Monument and National Monument of Scotland, both of which are Grecian inspired. It is also home to the City Observatory which in addition to offering views of Edinburgh city and Leith, is a popular but surprisingly quiet picnic spot on warm days. Visit in the spring to see the flowering gorse, which is bright yellow and smells of coconut. Holyrood Park is a windswept National Park perfect for hiking which contains a nearby palace and Abbey. It is open all year round and you can explore the area or hike to the top of the extinct volcano “Arthur’s Seat” which takes about half an hour from the nearby road. On clear days, the view extends to Fife in the distance, but the weather can be extreme so dress accordingly.
The Scott Monument
This imposing smoke-blackened tower is covered in intricate carvings, has 96 statues depicting people and animals and shelters a marble statue of the author Sir Walter Scott. It is the largest monument to a writer in the world and you can climb it! There is a tiny museum on the first of four levels and the steps (all 287 of them) get narrower the further up you go. Many people do not realize you can climb it and for £5, seeing some of the statues more closely is very worthwhile.
A center of culture, Edinburgh is rightfully famous for its museums and galleries, many of which also serve good food. I recommend the Scottish National Gallery on Princes Street (artists include Botticelli, Titian, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Leonardo Da Vinci and Francis Bacon), the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (past exhibitions have included work by MC Escher, Damian Hirst, and Andy Warhol) and the National Museum of Scotland (the building alone is fascinating, and houses attractions like the Millennium Clock, Royal jewellery, dinosaur bones, fashion exhibitions and ghoulish artefacts left by Scottish body snatchers.)
EDINBURGH’S BEST FOOD AND DRINK OPTIONS
There are certain Scottish foods you just have to try; like haggis, Cullen skink (smoked haddock soup), black pudding and tablet. Other foods the Scots insist are best when from Scotland are salmon and whiskey. And some are part national in-joke, part rite of passage, like a deep-fried Mars bar (originally from Glasgow but easy to find in Edinburgh) and Irn-Bru (which outsells Coca-Cola!).
The Doric Tavern, Scran and Scallie, Ghillie Dhu, and Amber Restaurant (which also specializes in Scotch whiskey) are excellent places to eat a traditional Scottish meal.
Hendersons of Edinburgh serves vegan versions.
For a snack or cheaper option, the Grassmarket is full of food for everybody.
Oink serves hearty hog roast sandwiches.
Hula Juice Cafe serves snacks, meals, cakes, and milkshakes and while the menu does contain meat most things are vegetarian and vegan-friendly.
Marys Milk Bar is THE gelato place. The unusual and seasonal flavors are homemade every day and you can have a gelato and a hot chocolate for around £5.
GETTING AROUND EDINBURGH
If you are reasonably fit, Edinburgh city is quite easy to walk around but it is hilly and steep in places. Luckily, you can give tired legs a rest on the very frequent buses and trams. Most go from in front of Waverley station where trains also go to Glasgow, Aberdeen, and London multiple times per day.
A city day ticket with the award-winning Lothian Buses and Edinburgh Trams costs just £4 for an adult and the NightBus service runs all night through a little less frequently than in the daytime. While the landscape is by nature hard on wheelchair users, the official Scots tour buses can accommodate wheelchairs and many of the main attractions (Castle, Botanical Gardens, Whisky Tasting Experience, National Gallery etc) are wheelchair-friendly though I advise calling ahead to double check for individual cases.
PLACES TO STAY IN EDINBURGH
Edinburgh is very popular with students and young tourists so there are plenty of cheap but good quality hostels to choose from. Prices begin at £9.90 for a dormitory room booked with hostelworld.com.
Edinburgh Castle View, Rock House, Premier Inn Leith and Holiday Inn Express are just a few of many hotels under £70 per room per night. The average price on Airbnb is £72 per night but beds are available from £8 all the way up to £2000 for a full residence.
For a luxury stay, The Witchery offers several suites from £345 per suite per night including champagne and the Balmoral offers rooms from about £200 per room per night with a complimentary snack and drink.
As it is a relatively small city, even a place in the suburbs will not be too far away from the attractions. For example, Belford Hostel is situated inside an old church near Haymarket Station and is just a 15-minute walk to the city center.
DON’T MISS OUT ON EDINBRURGH’S…
Edinburgh is the home of Harry Potter!
If you’re a fan of the books or films, you must visit the Elephant House Cafe where JK Rowling wrote many of the books. It has an artistic fan tribute in the toilets and excellent cakes. There are plenty of other spots you can see Rowling’s magic like Tom Riddle’s grave in Greyfriars churchyard or you can take a Harry Potter tour. - Quirky sculptures like the statue of Greyfriars Bobby, in memory of a very dedicated dog. Visit Greyfriars church to hear the story. St Giles Cathedral contains a sculpture of an angel playing the bagpipes-. Why not? It’s Scotland! - The New Town is full of independent stores, trendy coffee, cake spots and seafood restaurants on the Leith Waterfront. A walk through the suburbs reveals some interesting and beautiful spots to sit which are perfect for people-watching.
Edinburgh has a dark history.
Executions, grave robbings, and ghostly goings-on are revealed on one of the many ghost tours around the city. Your guide will take you through the winding back streets and most haunted spots. If you are very lucky you will get to see the vaults under the city itself.
There are parties and festivals for almost every season!
May brings the Beltane fire festival on Carlton Hill, the world’s largest arts festival “Edinburgh Fringe” lasts for almost all of August (which also has the added attraction of the world-famous Military Tattoo), and December brings Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve).
SCOTTISH THINGS TO KNOW
Book your accommodation WELL in advance if you are planning to attend a festival. Places sell out very quickly and prices rise dramatically, especially in August.
Edinburgh is a LGBT+ friendly city. The scene is very vibrant and friendly and leaflets are available.
Haggis is not an animal! Many Scots will try to convince you that the wild haggis is a hairy mountain-dwelling creature, but it is in fact made from minced sheep and grains!
While Scotland is usually considered cold and grey, summer can be hot so if you are coming in summer, pack at least one warm weather outfit just in case.
While ‘aye’ does mean ‘yes’, no (sober) Scot actually says “och aye the noo”!
If somebody says what sounds like “I’m just here for the crack”, don’t panic! They’re here for the craic which means fun.
The castle cannon goes off at 1pm every day except Sunday.
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Faith Roswell spends most of her time exploring abandoned buildings, attending unusual festivals, finding the sights they don’t include on the guided tours and writing about them from her canal boat home in England.
Her blog “Life Out There” shares her adventures across the world and gives candid advice for both new and experienced travelers and adventurers. Graduating university with a writing degree, Faith has been a freelance writer (and accidental model) ever since. She can tell you which airports are the best to sleep in, how to get halfway across the globe for the price of a London sandwich and why the banana cozy is the eighth wonder of the world. When she’s at home, she can be found reading- especially science fiction and psychology, singing terribly to 70s rock music, doting on her tiny cat ‘Mog’ and daydreaming.