There is a great deal to see in Edinburgh, so if you have limited time available you will need to make choices. To help with that I will break down some of Edinburgh’s many attractions into categories.
The heart of Edinbugh is divided between the tangled three-dimentional maze of the Old Town (Scots: the Auld Toun, or Auld Reekie), which clusters around the Royal Mile, built on the volcanic tail left when the flow of the ice-age glaciers parted around the obdurate mass of the Castle Rock, and the elegant neo-classical grid of the New Town (no Scots version: the wealthy residents here spoke proper English!) to the north (top-left area of the map above; the New Town actually extends farther to the north and east, but the map shows its original design). The newness is relative (like The New World, or Newcastle-upon-Tyne, whose “Castle” was “New” in 1080!) – Edinburgh’s New Town is over 250 years old. Separating the two is a valley (a drained loch) now occupied by Princes Street Gardens and Waverley railway station, crossed by The Mound (constructed on the excavated rubble from the New Town’s foundations) and the Victorian spans of North Bridge and Waverley Bridge.
The obvious ones
- You can’t go to Edinburgh and not see the Castle… pretty much literally, as, glowering on its volcanic basalt (technically, dolerite) crag, it dominates the city centre. However an actual visit is almost mandatory and well worth while. The entrance is at the top of the Royal Mile, via the Esplanade. A Royal Castle since at least the 12th century, here you can see the Scottish Crown Jewels, the huge 20-inch bombard Mons Meg, St Margaret’s Chapel – the oldest building in Edinburgh, the famous One O’Clock Gun and much more besides. Opening hours are from 09:30-17:00 and tickets are £17 each for adults.
- Holyrood Palace – sitting at the bottom (east end) of the Royal Mile, the Palace of Holyroodhouse has been the official residence of the Monarch in Scotland since the 16th century (although, in truth, I suspect Her Majesty actually prefers her Balmoral Estate in the Highlands). Here you can see the State Apartments and the Throne Room, Mary Queen of Scots’ chambers, the Palace Gardens and the ruins of the 12th century Holyrood Abbey. Admission: £14 (or £23 for a “Royal Visit”).
- St Giles Cathrdral – Edinburgh’s cathedral church, or High Kirk, the present building of St Giles on the Royal Mile dates from the 14th century, although there has been a church on the site for around 900 years, so the home of the reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland was once an unreformed Catholic place of worship. Its famous “crown steeple” is a notable feature of the Old Town skyline. For the brave, rooftop tours are available: £6 per person – maximum 4; contact: email@example.com. In Parliament Square, just outside the main entrance to the kirk, you can find the “Heart of Midlothian” set into the cobbles, marking the site of the old Tollbooth Prison (demolished in 1817) where criminals were executed in days gone by.
- The Scott Monument – standing on the south side of Princes Street at the bottom of St David Street, like a gothic stone version of Alan Tracy’s Thunderbird 3, this iconic symbol of Edinburgh houses a small museum on the 1st floor and can be climbed to the top, via 287 slightly claustrophobic steps, for unique views over the city – not for the faint of heart! Admission: £5.90 per adult.
- The Camera Obscura – this piece of clever Victorian technology, housed in an old town house on the upper section of the Royal Mile, uses a periscope and mirror to cast images of the view from the top of the tower onto a viewing table below, so is a way to take in vistas over Edinburgh from that vantage, or you can climb to the viewing platform to see them directly. Five floors of other optical illusions are also featured. Adult admission: £15.50.
- The Royal Yacht Britannia – once the beloved private home-from-home of Her Majesty the Queen on the High Seas, Britannia now sits at dock alongside Ocean Terminal shopping mall in Leith, the Port of Edinburgh, about two miles north of the city centre. The tour takes in the five main decks, from the Bridge to the Engine Room, including the State Apartments, the Crew Quarters and the personal studies of Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh. Adult admission: £16.00, with audio guide.
Eating and drinking
- Pubs – I am not even going to attempt to list these, but suffice to say that anywhere you go in Edinburgh city centre you will rarely be more than a few steps from a watering hole. An eclectic list can be found at the start of this rather good blog article. A favourite event for University “freshers” (in my dissolute day, at least) was to “crawl” the Royal Mile, having a pint in every pub from the bottom to the top – few lasted the whole course from the Blue Blanket (now the Canon’s Gait) to the Ensign Ewart… an’ they’re a’ deid (as we say in Scotland). Rose Street in the New Town (just north of Princes Street) was another favourite for this kind of activity, and although it has become a more refined shopping street over the years, it still boasts many drinking establishments. English “bitter” drinkers may want to try “Heavy“, “70-shilling” or “80-shilling” (the latter two named for the historic excise duty payable on each barrel – even 90-shillling can be found in places), although IPA is also common. However a wide selection of international beers are available, while most pubs will allow you a free taste of the brews on offer before you order – it can’t hurt to ask! Spirits in Scotland used to be sold in 1/5 (or sometimes even 1/4) Gill measures, as compared to the more niggardly English 1/6 Gill, but standardisation at 25ml (or sometimes 35ml) has, alas, ended such practice (best order a “double“, just to be sure – you know you want to!). Most pubs also serve – often very good – food, as that is where the money is to be made these days.
- Restaurants: again, there are too many to sensibly list… and again, in the city centre you are never very far from one and most serve excellent food, but a few of note are:
- Howies – Waterloo Place
- The Sockbridge Restaurant – St Stephen’s Street, Stockbridge
- Browns – George Street
- The Witchery – Royal Mile (booking in advance is probably essential – the earlier the better if you really want to go)
- Ondine (seafood) – George IV Bridge
- The Dining Room – Queen Street
- Amber Restaurant (part of the Scotch Whisky Experience below) – Royal Mile
And what to eat? Well, haggis, neeps and tatties obviously! (Oops, sorry about that last link! Try Google Translate, maybe?) No, seriously, although haggis may be made out of all the bits of a sheep you’d rather not hear about, the result is delicious!
OK, so haggis is not to your taste. Let me sing instead the praises of Cullen Skink – made well, it is Nectar of the Gods… made less well, it is still to die for. Give it a try – you won’t regret it!
Shortbread and tablet are Scottish confections which strip away the non-essentials and concentate on delivering the consumer their desired maximal sugar-hit with minimal extraneous fuss. Alongside chip-suppers and deep-fried mars bars (yes, that really is a thing), they are probably responsible for the poor state of Scots dentistry, the prevailing coronary rate and the Scottish obesity epidemic. Yummy!
Oh, and don’t forget whisky! (You hadn’t? Good!)
- Princes Street – world famous for the mile of shops which line its north side, facing Princess Street Gardens and the Castle to the south, this is Edinburgh’s eqivalent of London’s Oxford Street. The streets leading north off it – Hanover Street, Frederick Street and Castle Street – also house numerous well known stores. Of particular note are:
- Jenners department store: Edinburgh’s answer to London’s Harrods (my mother once told me a story – probably apocryphal – of queuing to pay in Jenners, where the gent in front was paying by cheque… which he signed with a flourish: Donald MacDonald, The MacDonald of MacDonald – the clan chief doing his shopping!)
- John Lewis department store: in the St James Centre just off the extreme east end of Princes Street
- The Royal Mile – lined for most of its upper length with smaller, more niche establishments, the Royal Mile is the place to look for those souveniers of your visit which are special to Scotland and Edinburgh: shortbread and tablet, Highland Dress and tartan (American: “plaid” – but please: pronounce it pl-aid not pl-add!) or perhaps a wee bottle of 25-year-old malt to help ward off the northern chill!
- Waverley Mall – lots of shops in one building – useful if the weather is bad and shopping is your agenda.
- Ocean Terminal – a seriously large collection of retail outlets and other facilities – many restaurants, a cinema, a gym and a childrens’ play area – Ocean Terminal is also the main point of entry to the Royal Yacht Britannia, so a visit to one might conveniently take in the other.
- The Tron Kirk and Royal Mile Market – this one-time church on the Royal Mile, just a minute’s walk from the Radisson Blu, has now been converted into a market full of stalls offering craft goods, souveniers and – in one case – a booth where they offer to identify your clan based on your surname, in which cause they are not put off by that not sounding especially Scottish. This confidence turned out to be misplaced in the case of “Nikijuluw“, however!
Other attractions and sights
My own personal preference is for simply strolling around the Old Town, in particular the upper parts of the Royal Mile and the numerous ancient closes, wynds and alleys that descend from it, or down Victoria Street to the Grassmarket and the Cowgate, but here are some of the places you might like to specifically visit:
- The Grassmarket – this street-cum-market-square lies in the valley to the south of the Castle Rock and continues on eastward, parallel to the Royal Mile, as the Cowgate. Once a drovers’ market and a place of execution (there is a memorial where the gallows used to stand), the Grassmarket was until relatively recently the haunt of drunks and down-and-outs (two Hostels for homeless men used to stand at its eastern end), it has now moved up-market and is lined with pubs (The Last Drop’s name commemorates not the dregs in your bottle or glass, but the hanged man’s – or woman’s – fall to the end of the rope), restaurants and hotels. From the south-west corner the Vennel steps lead up past remnants of the old town walls to George Heriot’s School and Lauriston Place. Wind your way down to it from George VI Bridge (see below) via Victoria Street or Candlemaker Row (by the statue of Greyfriars Bobby).
- George IV Bridge – named for King George IV, this is an elevated roadway crossing the deep valley of the Cowgate, connecting the Royal Mile and the Mound to the Lauriston district to the south. In one of the several cafes on its west side J K Rowling is said to have written the first Harry Potter book: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. At the south end you will find the famous statue of Greyfriars Bobby, while near the other stands the National Library of Scotland. For Potter fans, the free Potter Trail tour starts at one end (Grayfriars Bobby) and ends at the other (Victora Street – well worth a visit in itself).
- Calton Hill – this city centre hill is crowned by yet another Parthenon replica – this one unfinished, being only a facade, the money having run out almost immediately during its construction in 1822, and now known as “Edinburgh’s Disgrace“. The hill is also home to Nelson’s Monument, commemorating the famous British Admiral, the old Royal High School building (another Grecian portico) and the Old Obsevatory (even more Grecian porticos!).
- The Royal Observatory – atop Blackford Hill is where the Astronomer Royal for Scotland and his observatory decamped to on leaving the Old Observatory above and where they remain to this day. It also houses the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Astronomy and a visitor centre (booking in advance is required however).
- Edinburgh Zoo – around 3 miles west of the city centre on the slopes of Corstorphine Hill, Edinburgh Zoo can be reached by bus: numbers 12, 26 and 31 will all take you there from the bus-stop just east of the Royal Scottish Academy on the south side of Princes Street, a 10 minute walk from the hotel. Famous for its King Penguins, the Zoo is currently home to the UK’s only pair of Giant Pandas (for which you will almost certainly need to book in advance), however the 82 acre site is also home to a huge range of other wild animals. Open from 09:00-18:00, adult admission is £18.00.
- The Royal Botanic Garden – around 1.5 miles north of the city centre, “the Botanics” (as they are locally known) can be easily reached by bus: services 8 (from here), 23 or 27 (both from here) stop beside the East Gate on Inverlieth Row. Established in 1670 as Scotland’s first “physic garden”, the gardens have been on their Inverlieth site since 1820. See the world-famous Rock, Peat and Woodland Gardens all in an idylic setting.
- The Scottish Parliament – situated at the bottom (east end) of the Royal Mile (alongside Holyrood Palace), the Scottish Parliament building is where Scotland’s 129 MSPs meet to debate. The building itself has been a source of controversy since its inception: intended as “a non-hierarchical, organic collection of low-lying buildings” blending with its surroundings, the success of which you can judge for yourself! Most of it is freely open to the public, although obviously there are security checks.
- Dynamic Earth – situated on Queen’s Drive, just behind the Parliament building and beside Holyrood Palace, Dynamic Earth is a futuristic exhibition looking at the geological history of planet Earth. More aimed at school children, it is still a fun place to visit for adults with an interest in such. Adult admission: £13.50 (10% online discount).
- The Edinburgh Dungeon – this attraction on Market Street beside Waverley station is just a 5 minute walk from the hotel. Aimed at scary thrills for kids, it is a little silly, but may still be fun if you like that kind of thing. The 80 minute “journey” through Scotland’s “darkest history” is £12.00 for adults.
- The Scotch Whisky Experience – situated at the top of the Royal Mile, the “experience” involves a lecture on the subtleties of whisky – with samples! – a Disney-style ride through the whisky making process, an impressive collection of whiskies and – inevitably! – a shop where you can buy them. The Amber restaurant (mentioned above) is however, excellent. Even if you are not a whisky drinker before you go, you may find that you are afterwards! The basic tour is £27.00 per person, with more expensive options available.
- George Heriot’s School and the Old Royal Infirmary – situated on Laurison Place, just south of the Grassmarket, Heriot’s is where I went to school. Founded in 1628 on the bequest of George Heriot, court goldsmith to Anne of Denmark and banker to her husband, James VI and I, the main building is impressive, especially when lit at night. My daughter is convinced that Heriot’s was the inspiration for J K Rowling’s Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry from the Harry Potter books, and who am I to argue (have you tried arguing with a teenager?). Opposite it on Lauriston Place is the old site of Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, now undergoing redevelopment; originally the site of another school: George Watson’s (the rivalry between the two remains), it is similarly impressive.
- The Forth Bridges – alongside the original 1890 Forth Bridge (which anyone will tell you is The Best Bridge in the World!) stands the Forth Road Bridge, built during my school days, but which has since worn out (hopeless noob!), being replaced by the newly opened Queensferry Crossing. The trio make a spectacular sight as the engineering triumphs of three different centuries vault side-by-side across the wide Firth of Forth. Not strictly in Edinburgh, but well worth the short journey to see.
Talking to the locals
In spite of my occasional imputations to the contrary, most Scots you will meet in Edinburgh speak perfectly comprehensible English, albeit with a distinct accent (much less so than in many other parts of Scotland, however). Topics of conversation which you may want to avoid if not wishing to become embroiled in heated debate are Scottish Independence (Scots are profoundly – and in some cases, passionately – divided on the issue) and Brexit (Scotland voted very strongly against such lunacy, proving that, on some subjects at least, Scots are fully rational).
The Scots are prone to define themselves in opposition to the English (Sassenachs). Abroad, if asked if they are English, they will assert their nationality quite forcefully (Je suis Écossais! – Ich bin Schottisch! – the latter almost the first German phrase I learned). It is not that they don’t understand that their interlocutor really intended to ask if they are “British”, it is simply that they are making a point! Centuries of warfare and conquest have not entirely been forgotten, nor forgiven, even in Edinburgh – probably the most “English” city in Scotland.
Otherwise the denizens of Edinburgh are almost universally friendly and welcoming… just don’t get into arguments with the drunk ones! The toast is: “slàinte mhath” – don’t worry about the strange Gaelic spelling – almost nobody in Edinburgh speaks Gaelic anyway – just say “Slanje!” (no Assia, not “Zanzibar“!).
Galleries and Museums
Edinburgh has a centuries-old reputation as an international centre of arts and culture, dating back to (and even beyond) The Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th century. Supporting that tradition, and exhibiting many of its fruits, are Edinburgh’s copious array of art galleries and museums (admission is generally free except where noted); a small sample are:
- The Royal Scottish Academy sits on Princes Street at the bottom of the Mound, looking like an imitation of the Parthenon, opposite Hanover Street. In addition to permanent collections of Scottish art ranging from the 18th century to the present, and touring exhibitions, the Academy also has a very pleasant restaurant in its basement, with wonderful views out over Princes Street Gardens. The food is very good, but its justified popularity may make it hard to get seated at busy times – bookings on +44 (0)131 225 1550 or online.
- Just behind and uphill from the Academy, and visually similar, is the equally pillared Scottish National Gallery which houses a spectacular collection of international old masters: Botticelli, Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Constable, Turner, Monet, Van Gogh, Gauguin and many more. There are around 1,500 painting, 2,000 prints and drawings and 100 sculptures, with more being added all the time.
- At the east end of Queen Street, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery houses a collection of paintings, drawings, photographs and sculptures of the faces of Scotland across the centuries. Here you can gaze on the visages of David Hume and Rabbie Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson and Tilda Swinton, Sir Watler Scott and Flora Macdonald, John Knox and Winston Churchill, Mary Queen of Scots and her mother Mary de Guise, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Adam Smith, Sir John Buchan, Ramsay Macdonald, Eric Liddell, Sir Compton Mackenzie, Sir Chris Hoy, Ian Rankin, Robert Carlyle and Billy Connolly, as well many less well-known but equally interesting individuals (a personal favourite is Tom Derry, Fool to Anne of Denmark, wife of King James the VI and I of Scotland and England).
- The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is more distant from the City Centre, about a mile west of Princes Street on Belford Road. It too has a pleasant tea-room.
- The Talbot Rice Gallery is situated in Edinburgh University’s Old College and puts on a variety of exhibitions – see web site for details.
- The National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street could take all day to explore in itself. In my youth I whiled away many happy hours here after school.
- The Museum of Edinburgh is located on the Royal Mile opposite the Cannogate Kirk in Huntly House and is devoted to the stories of Edinburgh’s past, as well as several exhibitions.
- The Writers’ Museum lies just off the upper section of the Royal Mile, to the north, down Lady Stair’s Close, and is devoted to memorabilia from three of Scotland’s literary giants: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson.
- John Knox House, one time home of the father of Scotland’s Protestant Reformation, now houses the Scottish Storytelling Centre. Famously misogynistic, Knox railed against the “Monstrous Regiment of Women” – by which he meant the unnatural (i.e. unbiblical) rule of the female monarchs, Mary de Guise, her daughter Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I of England. Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein would no doubt have approved! Adult admission £5.00.
- Surgeons’ Hall Museums on Nicholson Street (with yet another Grecian portico) exhibits a variety of “natural and artificial curiosities” acquired there since 1699, initially as medical teaching resources: the Pathology, Surgery and Dental collections. There is also a cafe for when you have had your fill of curiosities and require a fill of something more nutritious.
- The Fruitmarket Gallery on Market Street is a venue showing the works of contemporay local artists.
Walking and Views
- Princes Street Gardens – filling the drained basin of the old Nor Loch, in good weather the gardens provide a very pleasant place to stroll and spend time admiring the view of Edinburgh Castle and the imposing north frontage of the Old Town. Generally open until early evening, the gardens can be accessed from many points around their perimeter.
- Arthur’s Seat – the remains of this ancient volcano can be climbed: the easiest way (for certain values of “easy“) is from the back, parking on Queen’s Drive by Dunsapie Loch, then climbing to the summit up the mostly grassy slopes. Warning: the last stretch is tricky and probably best not attempted if the weather is inclement or windy (it will be a whole lot windier up there!) The views from the top over Edinburgh and the Firth of Forth to the Kingdom of Fife make the effort worth it if you can manage.
- Salisbury Crags – a more gentle walk than attempting Arthur’s Seat, but with views over the city which are almost as good, the Crags could be the objective of a pleasant 1 hour round trip hike (click the “on foot” symbol in the blue “Options” section) from the hotel.
- Blackford Hill – another volcanc feature (although from the Devonian, ~400my ago, rather than the rest of Edinburgh which is from the Carboniferous, ~300my ago), Blackford Hill lies about 2 miles south of the city centre. Gentler than Arthur’s Seat, the hill still presents a stiffish climb for wonderful views over the city, especially at sunset. Best reached by car (the 38 bus which serves it comes nowhere near the city centre), you can take the pain out of getting to the top by parking in the car park outside the Royal Observatory, close to the summit. In the valley to the south of the hill, and accessible from it, there is a very pleasant walk (click the “on foot” symbol) through the Hermitage of Braid.
- Dean Village and the Water of Leith – Dean Village is a charming old settlement hidden away 10 minutes walk from the West End of Princes Street. The Water of Leith is the river flowing through it, which can be walked for much of its length. Side trips might take in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art or The Royal Botanic Garden (see both above).
In a few places above I have mentioned getting one bus or another to wherever it is you would like to go. Here is a tip: in Google Maps zoom in on where in Edinburgh you are heading for. Once in close, look for the little blue public transport icons nearby. Hovering your mouse over these, or clicking on them, will bring up the numbers of the bus services which stop there (remember they will generally be on two sides of any given street and in Britain we drive on the left, so make sure you are looking at the correct direction, while on busy streets like Princes Street, different services use different stops).
Then go to this Lothian Buses page and from the combo-box select the number of the service you are interested in. The map below the combo will refresh with that bus’s route (including an indication of whether the service is currently running) and you can then zoom in on that to see where you might most conveniently catch it (or not, as the case may be). You will need to use the zoom-in/out buttons here, but as a plus the direction the bus is going in is indicated with arrows on the stops. You can then build your own timetable in the panel to the right.
Also very handy is the Lothian Buses app (download links at the bottom of that page). As well as showing timetables, it does real-time tracking of the actual buses by GPS, so once at your stop (or sitting comfortably in a nearby pub!) you can see how long you will be waiting, which can take a lot of the frustration out of bus travel.