I’m sure if you’ve taken one look at my Instagram feed you’ve come to the speedy realisation that I have a mild obsession with Scotland and Edinburgh in particular. Having been four times in two years and already hankering to go back I feel like this city has seeped into my very soul. The overwhelming feeling of calm and happiness that emanates from me when I am flying over the Forth, no matter the hour of day or night, assures me I’m ‘home’. Curious as that sounds, as I have never lived there, I feel utterly enchanted on each and every visit. Each return trip merits more detailed research so that I can get further under the skin of this charming city and burrow as deeply into it as it has me. There are some unmissables on a visit to this city. Read on to find out what they are.
There are of course some big-ticket locations you must see and some I return to myself, like familiar friends. Many on this list are free to visit and simply require a comfy pair of shoes and a desire to knock out 20 thousand steps in half a day. This list I have compiled is one I wish I had had on my first visit because it handily highlights some big-ticket locations worth seeing for a first-timer to the city. It helps you get your bearings and more importantly identifies eateries and pit stops to make along the way. You’re welcome.
First stop is Calton Hill. Easily accessed by strolling up Princes Street (past the Balmoral Hotel and old cemetery grounds on your right up to the Scottish Parliament) until you see a sign and a path to the left. Follow that up to the monument laden hill with views out over the Old and New Towns as well as the Forth and out to Leith. You can see and climb the Nelson Monument (that costs £6 per adult open 10am- 5pm weather permitting) as well as amble about the National Monument which resembles a Greek temple, albeit unfinished.
There is also the Dugald Stewart Monument and a City Observatory amongst others and did I mention the views? So, there are a more than a few reasons to make Calton Hill a must-see on your city stroll.
One of the quaintest, most enviable streets in Stockbridge, in my opinion, is Circus Lane. What I wouldn’t do to own a cottage on these mews. No matter the season this curved laneway is picturesque and sought after from the snowy tracks over cobbles in winter to the blooms of summer flowers you will want to snap a few pictures here. Plus, it’s free. It is a residential street so obviously, behave yourself and respect the property and surrounds. You can find Circus Lane about a 12-minute walk from Princes Street to the north of the city. All of that cuteness may require a stop off at The Pantry for coffee, cakes, lunch and or breakfast depending on your tastes.
Royal Mile and the closes, museums and more
The Royal Mile is the main thoroughfare in the Old Town and lined with a plethora of whisky and woollen vendors. Some of which can be avoided unless you fancy paying over the odds for a keepsake. What I love about the Mile, aside from the eye-catching and deeply historic architecture are the many closes that branch off the street each brimming with its own stories and memories.
Check out the Closes
Some favourites of mine include Advocate’s Close leading down to Cockburn Street, Mary King’s Close (which is now an incredibly interesting and worthwhile stop on your visit to the city as you can explore underneath the street level to the world below. More on that later), Anchor Close (on the lane is a lamp post that makes me think it is a slice of Narnia in the city),
Bakehouse Close (because I’m an Outlander fan and A. Malcolm’s print shop was located here at ‘Carfax Close’) and last but not least White Horse Close because aside from being ridiculously picturesque it was a departure point for stagecoaches between Edinburgh and London and a bustling location by all accounts. The area was said to have been formerly used to house Mary, Queen of Scot’s favourite horse as Holyrood Palace is close by. Don’t forget to stroll down Lady Stair’s Close at Lawnmarket on the Mile into the often quiet but always beautiful courtyard in front of The Writer’s Museum. I dare you to tell me it isn’t one of the most picturesque areas in the city. It is certainly one of the most photographed.
Other unmissables on the Royal Mile
The top of the Royal Mile hosts Edinburgh Castle and Camera Obscura both of which require an entry fee and booking tickets but there are a few other museums along the Mile as you walk towards Canongate and then on to Holyrood Palace. One of my favourite finds on the Royal Mile is the Royal Mile Gallery for antiquarian prints and old copies of British maps. The collections in here are incredible and make for wonderfully unique souvenirs. I have made more than one purchase in here on my visits. There is also the Museum of Childhood with a few toys you may not have seen for quite some time on display.
Vennel views of the castle and Grassmarket
I love the peace and quiet earned by escaping the bustle of Grassmarket and resting on the steps of the North Vennel. Rarely have I encountered any sort of crowd up here and so have had uninterrupted views of Edinburgh Castle which is located at the top of the Mile. Unlike a close, which was a tenement entry to private property, a vennel is a public by way usually to a high street. The Grassmarket area is rife with bars and tourists and if you’re in the city for the Six Nations games it is often the go-to area as it’s full of atmosphere for the matches. There is a rooftop bar in the Cold Town House bar if you are looking for another view of the castle from below. Weather permitting this is a sweet if small, bar area festooned with fairy lights and revellers.
This kirkyard (churchyard) is worth a visit (and is free to enter) not only because of the often elaborate and interesting tombstones and history associated with it but because of the heartwarming tale of a little Skye terrier who reportedly guarded the graveside of his former owner, John Gray, for fourteen years following his death. He has his own bronze statue outside the kirkyard on the corner of George IV Bridge and Candlemaker Row and even inspired a Disney movie (I never knew this fun fact.)
Oh yeah, and J.K Rowling has apparently said that a graveyard resident (Tom Riddell) subconsciously inspired her evil character Tom Riddle/ Lord Voldemort resulting in Harry Potter tours of the city making this graveyard one of the pit stops! Click on this link for a map on how to find the grave, if you are so inclined. One of my favourite tapas restaurants is nearby, Café Andaluz, if after all your graveyard explorations you require a little sit-down and a glass of wine afterwards!
I absolutely love the diversity and huge collection of fascinating exhibits in this beautiful and free museum. It’s a great way to pass the time on a rainy visit to Edinburgh. Located on Chambers Street, about a 10-minute walk from Edinburgh Castle, this museum has a wonderful panoramic view out over the city on the rooftop terrace on the 7th floor. The museum houses dinosaur bones, Egyptian artefacts, art and textile exhibits, aeroplanes and whale models and has a wonderful section on Scottish history and clan life from the 18th and 19th centuries.
I cannot recommend this museum enough and while it is free to enter as are most UK museums you can make a donation if you want. Open from 10am until 5pm it is one of my favourite stops in the city. There is also a cafe in the museum if you need to adjust your caffeine levels on a rainy day stroll.
There are also the National Art Galleries (Scottish National Gallery and Scottish National Portrait Gallery) near the foot of the Mound on Princes Street. Both are free to enter and open daily from 10am until 5pm.
Penhaligons for scents
It may seem to be an unusual stop on a city visit but this perfumerie was founded in the 1860s by William Penhaligon in London and was attached to the Jermyn Street hammam. Penhaligon made his own fragrances for his clients, many of whom were politicians of the day. Considering how undoubtedly smelly the general population were at the time I find it fascinating that they still have their first fragrance; Hamman Bouquet for sale, made in 1872. Blenheim Bouquet worn by Winston Churchill is also available for your curiosity and you are in good company as Penhaligons has two Royal Warrants to its name.
If you too fancy owning a perfume which is favoured by the royals, still maintains the original style glass bottles with ribboned glass stoppers and combines the opulently indulgent scents of oud and black pepper or citrus and oakmoss this is a must stop. While browsing is free the perfumes are not and do cost a pretty penny. Might I suggest Juniper Sling, my favourite as a light, citrusy starter. Try their fun fragrance quiz to see which scent suits you. The Edinburgh store is located on 33 George Street at the corner of George Street and Hanover Street.
Explore and shop in New Town
While Princes Street has many of the fast fashion and high street brands like H&M, Primark and TopShop the upmarket George Street carries some of the more designer names like Hobbs, Anthropologie, The White Company (my fav!) and Whistles. Both main streets in the New Town contain enough establishments to help you to empty your wallet in a short space of time. The Waverly Mall, located in the Waverly Station also has a few stores and all along the New Town area are an abundance of eateries, bars and cafes to help satiate you on your spending spree. Might I suggest El Cartel for delicious Mexican bites and Dishoom for incredible Bombay Cafe cuisine that is not your usual Indian fare. Dishoom requires a booking for parties of 6 or more and don’t take bookings for 2. You won’t usually wait for a table for lunch but I have queued for around 40 minutes for a table for 2 for dinner here. It is well worth the wait though.
Dean Village is about 15-20 mins walk from Princes Street and this quaint little village within the city is a must see. Part of the unmissables list for sure is this former grain milling village north of the city centre. It was a separate village until the 19th century and fell into a state of poverty peaking around 1960 but has undergone regeneration and refurbishment and is now highly sought after as a residential and social spot. It has become engulfed by Edinburgh and its outlying suburbs and is a very trendy, picturesque spot to stroll around and lunch in so add it to your list.
If a stroll around a 350-year-old garden appeals to you then make your way to the Botanic Gardens near the Stockbridge neighbourhood. There are 70 acres of lush gardens to transport you from the city centre and the elegant Glasshouses (there is an entry fee for these) house so many diverse plants and flora you’ll temporarily forget where in the world you are. The desert-scape was my favourite.) Information on education and conservation is available onsite and there is a coffee shop there too.
In my opinion, no visit to Edinburgh is complete without a walk down Victoria Street. Even if you have zero interest in Harry Potter and Diagon Alley (which this street is said to have inspired) it is still a charmer. Outside the Harry Potter paraphernalia mecca that is Museum Context is often parked a blue, restored Ford Anglia. Take a snap of the HP car for your Insta grid and thank me later.
If the wizarding world holds no sway with you stop into the Red Door Gallery and pick up a print or quirky card or poster in here. This incredible little gallery hosts the work of many British and Scottish artists and illustrators and some of the pieces in here make for excellent mementoes of your visit.
I have to mention I.J.Mellis’ Cheesemongers on Victoria Street because my not so secret love is cheese and a takeaway parcel of cheese from this gem of a store is a perfect picnic starter. You can nip into the boulangerie down the street for a baguette and bingo you are snack ready for a city picnic in Princes Street Gardens. There’s plenty to see on Victoria Street and even though it is bang in the heart of the tourist areas it is still a gem in my eyes.
For the most part, the above-mentioned stops are free and unless you want to make purchases, buy food or pay for specific exhibits or keepsakes you are not opening your wallet. The next few suggestions do involve spending cash for entry etc.
Mary King’s Close
As I mentioned above Mary King’s Close was just that, a tenement entryway into one of the larger closes off the Royal Mile. It has since been covered over and the buildings below preserved as the city’s street-level was raised. Also called the underground city this tour details the lives of residents of the low houses and conditions in a very overcrowded Edinburgh during the 1600s. It is one of the most interesting attractions in the city and since I loathe anything dungeon-y or spooky this was a great compromise as there’s an eerie element to it without risking any actors popping out to test your blood pressure or scream pitch. Tickets really do need to be booked in advance to guarantee the times you want. I have left it until the last minute twice and been disappointed not being able to get tickets before I had to leave the city but on my most recent visit, I got lucky because I was flexible and got one of the last slots of the day. The attraction is open from around 10:15am until 9pm but there are seasonal variations so check the website. Tours run every 15 mins and it takes about an hour. Tickets cost £16.50 for adults and £9.95 for children and there are combo family options.
Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace
If you enjoy history particularly that of Scotland and the Royal family connections then these are for you. Edinburgh Castle has some really interesting nooks and crannies worth exploring including a dog graveyard for loyal companions of soldiers. It was a royal residence until 1633 and the oldest building in all of Scotland, St Margaret’s Chapel, is up there. Open 9:30 – 6pm and adult tickets cost £17.50 if you book online and £19.50 if you don’t so pre-book online to make sure you get in.
The Palace of Holyrood House is the official residence of the British monarch in Scotland and located at the opposite end of the Royal Mile to Edinburgh Castle. The Queen spends one week there at the start of the summer where official engagements and events take place. This was news to me as I thought Balmoral in the Cairngorms was the official residence. Nope. If you enjoy 17th Century apartments and Baroque ceiling work it is certainly worth your visit and while it may not be everyone’s cup of tea it is a fascinating look into a Royal Palace that is still in use today. This is another apparently haunted building in Edinburgh’s string of places where ghosts hang out. I am too much of a wuss to even entertain a ghost tour so along with Edinburgh Castle this is another stop on the many ghost tours of the city so rather than a visit inside you may opt for the ghoulish version of its history. Ticket prices are £15 per adult but you can get a Royal Visit ticket for £24 which includes garden entry too. The Palace is open from 9:30 – 16:30 (last admission 15:15) from November to March and 9:30 – 18:00 (last admission 16:30) from March to October. Since it is a working palace there are sudden closures so check ahead of time if you want to go.
Visit a gin distillery
Scotland is full of whisky distilleries but did you know that some also produce damn good gin and there are plenty of great gin houses to check out on your visit. Edinburgh Gin in the West End, do fun, interesting tours in their underground distillery and have named their copper stills Flora and Caledonia! There is also the Pickering’s Gin Distillery who also do tours and tastings. These guys set up their brand in 2013 and their can-do attitude and story makes you hanker for a tasty bevvie after a tiring day on your feet learning about Edinburgh’s history. Booking ahead of time is strongly advised on both these sites so don’t miss out.
Eat your way around the city
Edinburgh has so many incredible restaurants and cafés. From award-winning fine dining locales to mind-blowing food and wine pairing locations to wholesome, traditional, local vendors. There is somewhere to suit every taste and budget. A stroll around the city reveals so many places to stop off at it is quite easy to do your own ‘food tour’ of the city but you may want local advice and input as well as a little history info along the way. Check out Edinburgh Food Safari for some fun foodie strolls around the city. Either way, I’d certainly suggest including a warming hot beverage at the uber-trendy The Milkman on Cockburn St. Or try Soderburg Bakery which is a delish Nordic-inspired coffee shop with delish sweet treats to nourish you on your 20,000 steps walk around the city. For chilled pizza and beers try Brewdog in Cowgate. I’m not a beer fan but they have some tasty, fruity beers that don’t taste too strongly of hops and accompanied by a good pizza it’s a keeper of a spot.
Brunch is one of my favourite notions meals of the day, followed closely by afternoon tea and I highly suggest you check out one of these three for brunch; Dishoom near St Andrew’s Square in New Town, Urban Angel is a fav and can get quite busy so you need to get there early or be prepared to put your name down and come back later on and if you’re in the Haymarket area and fancy natural, local produce do not miss MILK, All are delicious and all very different. You can thank me later.
I know I have already mentioned a Mexican cafe; El Cartel but this place, Topolabamba on Lothian Rd also deserves a visit. It is a bigger location for your Mexican food fix and the portion sizes are great. The shrimp tacos were by far the most scrumptious I have had in a long time.
Of course, there are a million and one more things to do in Edinburgh that are just as exciting but if you are a first-timer I’d suggest using this list as a jumping-off point and exploring from there.
- Get on the bus to Leith and stroll this regenerated port area with award-winning seafood eateries as well as the Royal Yacht Britannia. The yacht is open from Jan – Mar and Nov – Dec 10:00- 15:30 and April to Oct it’s open from 9:30 – 16:30. Tickets cost £16.50 for an adult.
- Hire a car and get out of the city (while still not venturing too far) by visiting Hopetoun House. This stunning stately home was used as a film location for the Outlander series and has wonderful garden strolls and preserved elements of life in a stately home.
- Why not get out of the rain and book tickets to visit Camera Obscura, located beside the entrance to Edinburgh Castle. The world of illusions will surely keep you entertained with five floors and hands-on exhibits this bit of fun attraction also has wonderful views over the city from the rooftop terrace. Tickets are £16 for an adult and its open from 9 am – 10 pm in the summer and 9:30 – 8 pm outside of peak season times. Check as there are a few variations on the website.
- Drive or get the bus out to visit Rosslyn Chapel in the village of Roslin, Midlothian. ‘According to legend, the treasure of the fabled Knights Templar is stowed in a still-deeper vault whose entrance is sealed off by a stone wall.’ Made more famous in pop culture with the release of the Dan Brown book and movie The DaVinci Code this unfounded theory still garners the location a lot of attention from enthusiasts, fans and grail seekers. While the legend may not be true it is nonetheless a beautifully restored and maintained place of worship.
If you want to explore further afield check out my post on a short road trip in the Scottish Highlands.
If you don’t want to drive why not jump on the train at Waverly Station and take an hour-long journey to Glasgow to explore another Scottish city gem.