It has atmospheric gothic architecture, an imposing castle on a hill right in the centre of town, and more experiences and attractions than you can fit into a week.
The castle is a great place to start for anyone’s first time in Edinburgh, but once you’ve wandered the ancient halls and seen the Stone of Destiny, get out into the city and find out why it’s such a special place to be.
Scotland’s Parliament sits at the bottom of The Royal Mile, there are monuments, statues and gardens everywhere you look, and on the outskirts of town there’s the Botanical Gardens and even a zoo.
Explore the museums and galleries
In Edinburgh, some small museums and art galleries have an entry fee but most in Scotland, including the National Gallery of Scotland and The National Museum of Scotland, are free.
You can easily lose a day in these cavernous buildings filled with art and artefacts. The Impressionists in The National Gallery of Scotland impress, while in the National Museum of Scotland, the first rotary printing press stands close by the Millenium Clock Tower, spanning acres of time.
Head to the Surgeons’ Hall Museum for grisly displays of body parts in jars and a top floor dedicated to the history of dentistry, and to The Portrait Museum for a long gaze into the eyes of famous faces from history and the present.
Down in the port area of Leith, the decommissioned Royal Yacht Britannia is now a floating museum, left exactly as it was when the late Queen Elizabeth last sailed on it. Walk the royal stairways and stand in the state bedrooms and the dining room, and it’s clear to see why she loved it so much.
Taste a few drams of whisky
Scotland and whisky are forever bound together, and you can’t visit Edinburgh without trying a few drams. The Scotch Whisky Experience is where to start if you’re new to whisky and want a bit of history on the subject.
It’s on Castlehill, with displays and information charting the timeline of this most famous drink. There’s a tasting room where you’ll get to try a few, and a whisky library which is a room filled with almost 4000 unopened bottles of whisky.
On Princes St, The Johnnie Walker Experience has some fun interactive tours and tastings, including chocolate pairings and an archive tour. The popular rooftop bar is a great place to try a whisky cocktail. The views over Edinburgh, especially in the evening, are breathtaking.
Alternatively, you can nip into any bar in town and try a whisky or two from their collection. Panda and Sons is a speakeasy-style bar that appears to be a barber shop from the outside. Once you’ve been taken down into the basement and entered through the bookcase door, you’re in a cool cocktail bar with a wide choice of whiskies.
Head to the beach
It’s easy to forget how close to the sea you are when you’re enjoying everything the city has to offer, and sometimes only the sound of the seagulls gives it away, but Edinburgh has a fascinating coastline and some quaint little beaches. Portobello is a 15-minute drive from the city centre, with a soft sandy beach and traditional promenade.
This area has only recently been regenerated after falling into decline, so it’s an up-and-coming place to be. Facing the beach is a row of cafes, restaurants and bars with outdoor tables and chairs making it the ideal place for lunch.
For a bigger beach that’s a little more rugged, Cramond is less bustling than Portobello and attracts walkers and those who like their beach a bit quieter. There are some cafes, but most people come here to wander on the sands and, when the tide is low, walk the causeway over to the island. If you do, just make sure you check the tide times so you don’t get stranded on the island!
Shop the city
For high street names and familiar stores, Princes St has everything you’d expect to find, while over on The Royal Mile the small shops cater to the tourist market.
This is where you’ll find souvenir shops and boutique stores selling tartan suits and wool sweaters. It’s also where you can browse in bottle shops for local beers and specialist whisky. Vintage shops are dotted around the town, at Grassmarket, and Candlemaker Row, but down on Bread St there’s a small concentration of vintage shops, record stores and independent cafes.
If you love a charity shop, head down to Leith and there’s an impressive selection on offer. You can find real gems down here and pick up a good bargain. For everything in one place, there are small shopping malls at the bottom of Princes St and at Leith Port.
Take a walk
Edinburgh is a very walkable city, in fact it’s much easier and quicker to get around on foot than it is by car or public transport. It is quite hilly, the city is built on seven hills, but if you don’t might a bit of a hike here and there it’s a great place to explore.
You can book an organised walking tour of the city, or you can grab a visitor map and explore yourself. Cut through Greyfriars Kirkyard to get from the Grassmarket area to The National Museum of Scotland and take a moment by “the black mausoleum”, said to be so haunted it’s now been permanently locked.
Head up towards Lawnmarket and peep inside St Giles Cathedral, where Queen Elizabeth II recently lay in state. Walk down the curved Victorian-era Cockburn St - stopping at one of the independent cafes - and on to Princes St.
Make sure to check out the “closes”, tiny alleys in between buildings that were once for residents only, and how house some lovely courtyards and interesting little museums, bars, and shops.
Where to eat
There’s a whole world of food options in Edinburgh. For fine dining in an intimate setting, Wedgewood Restaurant on The Royal Mile is cosy, and serves the best venison steaks in town (in my experience anyway) or grab a table at One Brasserie in The Sheraton Hotel at the top of Princes St.
Head down to the bottom of the street for burgers at The Alchemist. They have impressive vegan options, and the cocktail menu is a lot of fun! Sip cocktails from some unusually shaped vessels and expect a lot of dry ice for drama and theatrics, or warm cocktails with decadent cream on top. Mexican street food is at its best at Wahaca, or for something really special, book a table at Number One, the restaurant in The Balmoral Hotel.
Off The Royal Mile, in a small area called the Cowgate, you’ll find Holyrood 9A, which serves good bar food, and the Casablanca Club, a restaurant with risque art on the walls, and the atmosphere of an exclusive dinner club.
Where to stay
At the top end of the tree, The Balmoral is perfect for a special occasion stay, but if this is your first time in Edinburgh, The Hilton Edinburgh Carlton is perfectly placed for exploring the city.
It straddles the railway station in the new town and The Royal Mile in the old town and is housed in a former department store that retains all its exterior architectural features. The hotel’s Marco Pierre White steakhouse bar and grill is an unpretentious steak restaurant, and they serve a great negroni.
For something more casual, Native offer apartments in a hotel setting. Each has a fully equipped kitchen and a small living area, as well as bathroom and bedroom. Breakfast in a bag can be picked up at reception, and though it might not be a full fry-up, it’s a decent small breakfast to be eaten in your room or on the go.
Further out of town in the Haymarket area is Roseate, a Victorian villa-turned-boutique hotel with free-standing baths in the rooms and an intimate dining room and bar that was once someone’s drawing room. If you like your hotel quirky, House of Gods off The Royal Mile is a cocktail bar with cabin-style rooms, where a waiter will wheel his cocktail trolley to your door to mix you up a drink and your breakfast basket, which is delivered to your door, comes with morning mimosas.
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