I have to admit that I had a hard time writing the introduction for Edinburgh. Not because there is nothing to say; quite the opposite in fact, there is so much to see and share that I didn’t quite know where to start. Our three days in Scotland’s capital city was filled with things to do, yet it never felt hectic. The compact walkable city is filled with quirky nooks that just beg to be discovered. The combination of medieval Old Town and elegant Georgian New Town with hidden gardens, neoclassical buildings, and tiny windy alleys is what makes Edinburgh special. So special in fact that the whole city has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995.
Walking around almost anywhere in this incredibly well-preserved city will give you the feeling that you’ve been transported back in time. Whether it’s strolling through an old kirkyard, walking down the well-worn cobblestone streets, or throwing back some whisky in a dark dingy pub that has been around since the days of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, it’s easy to forget what year you are in. The city is filled with history, amazing architecture, and plenty of Scottish culture – enough to keep you occupied between all the drams of whisky.
It is not hard to see why it’s considered one of the world’s most gorgeous cities with all of its rocky hills and panoramic viewpoints. There is no shortage of Instagram-worthy spots. Here are a few of my favorite things to do and see in Edinburgh:
1. Royal Mile
Edinburgh’s most famous attraction by far is the Royal Mile at the heart of the historic Old Town. This one mile street stretches from the magnificent castle at the top of the road all the way to Palace of Holyroodhouse at the other end. The street measures exactly 1 Scot mile, an old unit of measurement that lends it its name.
Tartan shops, pubs, and restaurants line the cobblestone road. All year round, the busy pedestrian walkways are filled with street performers. Living statues and musical acts can keep you entertained simply walking up and down the Mile. Keep an ear out for a kilted bagpiper nearby with his sweet lilting sound of music that keeps visitors spellbound.
2. St. Giles Cathedral
In the heart of the Royal Mile, you’ll find this 14th-century cathedral with its distinctive crown-shaped steeple. The Cathedral is also known as High Kirk of Edinburgh, the principal place of worship of the Church of Scotland in the city. You can join a service or just pop in for a quick visit to see the stained glass windows, pretty blue ceiling, and intricate Thistle Chapel.
St. Giles is the patron saint of Edinburgh, but the building contains numerous other monuments to the city and its famous citizens – from Robert Louis Stevenson the famous author to James Young Simpson the famous doctor who discovered the use of chloroform as an anesthetic.
Cost: Free, £2 if you want to take photos
3. Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle sits proudly at the top of the Royal Mile overlooking the Old Town and can be seen for miles around. The ancient fortress has not been occupied for centuries, but it used to house all of the visiting royalties. You can walk along the castle ramparts which offer some of the best views of the city.
Inside the battlements, you can visit the royal apartments and regal over the Scottish Crown Jewels, just be warned that there is no photography allowed inside. Another interesting exhibit are the military prisons. I was surprised to learn that the prisoners were treated very well. They actually got two loaves of bread, a steak, and two beers each day. They were even given a clothing allowance from the Crown, and they played games like backgammon and dominoes to pass the time.
Cost: Adults £16.50, Free if you have ASVA pass
4. Closes and Wynds
The narrow stairways and darkened closes between towering tenements overlooking the Mile are one of the distinctive features of the Old Town. In the olden days, before the city expanded, people were living on top of each other and these wynds were filled with garbage and refuse from the people living in the “high-rises”. Even though we are no longer knee-deep in waste, these interlocking passages create a tiny world within the city that take you back in time. Each close has its own name which is associated with its former use or a notable resident. During our wanderings, we even happened upon a secret garden tucked away inside a close, giving this place a feel of magic and wonder. Dunbar’s Garden Close is just an example of the oases within the bustling city.
5. Victoria Street
Tucked away just behind the Royal Mile is the colorful Victoria Street, home to many craft shops, galleries, and restaurants. This pretty curving cobblestone road was the inspiration for Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley, down to the joke shop at the end of the street. There is even a Harry Potter store fully stocked with impressive looking wands, knick-knacks, and other paraphernalia.
This is one of the Instagram
–famous places; you’ll often see people stop in the middle of the road taking pictures of the colorful storefronts. After you’ve finished exploring Diagon Alley Victoria Street, wander down the cobbled slope to the popular Grassmarket area.
Located below the Royal Mile and Edinburgh Castle is the Grassmarket area. This historic marketplace is now filled with eclectic pubs and restaurants, a popular spot for both locals and tourists alike. On a lovely Friday afternoon, it was filled with people, drinks in hand.
A little further past the end of the street, you’ll see the Castle high up over the hill. For one of the best views of the castle, go up the Vennel – a narrow alleyway off of the main street. From the top, you can see the quaint street lamps, apartments, and market square with Edinburgh Castle in the distance.
7. Circus Lane
If you’re looking for another Instagrammable location, head over to Circus Lane, one of the prettiest Mews in Edinburgh. Located only about a 10 minute walk from the New Town center, this historic lane is hidden between large Georgian townhouses. Circus Lane used be stables in the olden days, but now the much sought-after neighborhood is full of pretty houses with flower boxes on each side of the cobblestone road. It has a quaint village feel right in the city center, again giving that juxtiposition of nature vs city feel that Edinburg does so well.
8. National Museum of Scotland
One of the highlights of my trip was a visit to the National Museum of Scotland. From the outside, the sandstone building looks quite imposing, but once you’re inside it’s light and airy in the main hall. The open layout and high beamed ceiling make the space look inviting. It is very different than any museum that I’ve ever been to.
The museum rises six floors and covers the history of Scotland from the ice age until present. You’ll be able explore collections relating to Scottish antiquities as well as take in the natural wonders, learn about diverse world cultures, and explore the science and technology exhibits.
9. Greyfriars Kirkyard
This may sound ghoulish, but I really enjoy visiting old cemeteries when I travel, as you know from my trip to New Orleans. I love to read the old tombstones, and aside from being hauntingly beautiful, they are also full of history. One of the most famous inhabitants of Greyfriars Kirkyard, in Edinburgh’s Old Town, is a little Skye Terrier dog called Greyfriars Bobby. The story goes: after his master passed away, the dog continued to guard his grave for the next 14 years! Now that’s love and dedication.
Another interesting tidbit about this graveyard is that it is where JK Rowling found inspiration for names of Harry Potter characters. If you look closely at one of the headstones, you might see Thomas Riddle’s, also known as Lord Voldemort, final resting place.
10. Calton Hill
For the best view overlooking the city head up a small hill a 10 minute climb east of Princes Street. Calton Hill provides panoramic views of the city including Arthur’s Seat, Holyrood Park, and Edinburgh Castle. This instagram-worthy spot is usually full of picnickers, but it is especially busy around sunset, the perfect time for a photo op.
At the very top you’ll also find the unfinished National Monument of Scotland, and the Nelson Monument. The Monument is dedicated to the Scottish sailors and soldiers who died during the Napoleonic Wars and was modeled after the Parthenon in Athens. Due to lack of funds however, it has been left unfinished.
11. Dean Village
‘Rus in urbe’, a Latin phrase that means literally ‘country in the city’ is an illusion of countryside created within a city, a thing that Edinburgh does so well. Within 10 minutes of the busy Princes Street you’ll find the quaint Dean Village located right by the Water of Leith. The village was previously the center of a successful grain milling area for more than 800 years. At the heart is Well Court, the most iconic building in the village. This building was built in the 1880s and housed local workers who worked at the water mills. The colorful historical houses will transport you back in time. For the best views, head down Hawthornbank Lane towards the water.
12. Camera Obscura
If you’re looking for a fun way to spend a rainy afternoon, then head on over to Edinburgh’s oldest attraction, located right next to the entrance of Edinburgh Castle. Camera Obscura and World of Illusions has been around since 1853! A lot of the exhibits are originals from the Victorian era.
The inside of this five floor interactive museum is filled with optical illusions and fun puzzles that combine simple illusion tricks with more high-tech light shows. Spend time exploring an infinity corridor of light or get lost in the room of mirrors. Or go up to the very top floor and join the Camera Obscura tour. From inside the mysterious Victorian rooftop chamber, you will see live moving images of Edinburgh projected onto a Victorian stone table through an ancient periscope. You can make the traffic climb over paper bridges and even pick up the sun with your hands. When you’re done with tour, walk over to the rooftop where you’ll get the best aerial view of the Royal Mile. As the sun sets, the golden light reflecting on the buildings around the Old Town area are a sight to behold.
Cost: £15 adult, Free if you have ASVA pass
13. Ghost Tour
Edinburgh has a very long history – and not all of it nice. To explore the darker side of the city, look no further than the various tour companies in Old Town who will be happy to share their tales of torture, hangings, or just good ghost stories. We decided to go with the Mercat Ghost and Ghouls tour, because you can’t visit Edinburgh without hearing about some of its otherworldly residents.
Our tour started at the Mercat cross, the central market place. This is where people used to meet and gossip, but also where they doled out punishment to criminals. The slight drizzle at the start of the tour turned into pouring rain as we huddled closer to hear our guide share stories about what happened back then when you found yourself on the wrong side of the law. Criminals got their ears nailed to the cross and whipped with cat-o-nine tails as the crowd watched and cheered.
We then proceed to the underground vaults to hear the tales of all the ghosts that were stuck down there and continue to haunt the place to this day. The stories were told in dark candle lit rooms, creating a very chilling atmosphere. Even if you don’t believe in ghosts, the animated storytelling from our guide was still entertaining. We ended our tour in the cellar where we enjoyed a dram of whisky and listened to more ghost stories.
Cost: £16 adult, Free if you have ASVA pass
14. Scotch Whisky Experience
A trip to Edinburgh is not complete without sampling some of Scotland’s most famous export. There are a number of whisky tours/tastings on offer around the city, but the best one is the Scotch Whisky Experience. They offer a variety of tours ranging from Silver to Platinum that help you become a ‘one-hour-whisky-expert’. Even if you’re not a whisky connoisseur like myself, it was still a fun experience to learn about the distilling process that turns water and barley into the final scotch whisky product.
The best part is that at the end you get to try whiskey from the different regions. The Scotch Whisky Experience works with all of the major distilleries, each one with their very own distinctive taste and profile depending on the region that it came from. As we learned, each distillery has their own unique copper pot that lends to the taste of the scotch whisky. The tasting room has the world’s largest collection of 3,300 bottles of Scotch whisky on display creating a stunning backdrop as we enjoyed our dram.
Cost: £26 – Gold tour, Free if you have ASVA pass