Edinburgh is a magical city – praise indeed, coming from a Glaswegian! To me , it’s like visiting another country not just another city as the two are so different. Scotland’s capital is a beauty, no doubt about it and in recognition, it has been awarded double World Heritage Site status ( Old and New Towns.) Edinburgh is gorgeous with a grey stone cragginess, a fitting capital city for a gorgeous, craggy country!
What anyone fills their day/days in the city with depends on personal interests. I have a big interest in history, art, books, good food and just admiring great architecture and photographing and enjoying beautiful places.
I visit the city around once per month, visiting my oldest son who lives and works there. I usually make a day – or at least a half day – of it. Edinburgh is very easy to wander around. It has a good bus service too.
Beware Edinburgh in August when the world’s biggest Arts Festival is on; unbelievably busy and accommodation prices skyrocket.
The city is very walkable. There is also the Hop On Hop Off bus, which is handy though of course pricier if you don’t enjoy wading through bus timetables and want to quickly tour the top sites. That said, bus stops have really good lists nowadays of where each bus goes, timetables etc and local folk will always help direct you to the right stop/bus number. As will bus drivers – they are usually always helpful.
It really is easier NOT to have a car in the city given the cost of parking it; driving about is fine despite what is sometimes claimed but parking charges are eye wateringly expensive. If you are staying in the city with a car make sure that you have either free or subsidised parking with your accommodation provider.
For 2 days in the city, these would be my priorities( and they do tend to split the city neatly into Old and New Town sights.)
I love the castle but be warned that this is military might on display, not some turreted, pretty fairy-tale place like some of our more residential castles! This rugged, brooding edifice was built for defence and to repel invaders as well as function as a seat of Royal power.
The castle looks amazing and looms spectacularly over the city on its crag.It oozes military history and importance. The queues to purchase tickets for the castle and view Scotland’s gorgeous Crown Jewels (the Honours of Scotland) can be lengthy to say the least. Get there early before the crowds appear!
The National War Memorial is sombre and stunning and reduces me to tears every time. Regimental Books list every serving man or woman who died in the World Wars.The names of my two Great Uncles, both Pipers and who died so young in WW1, are in the Book of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders.
The National War Museum is fascinating with some evocative and moving memorabilia from the World Wars.Look out for the Bible returned to the family of a young Scottish soldier fatally wounded by his German opponent but who comforted him in his dying moments. Overwhelming.More on that story here:
The tiny, 12th century St Margaret’s white chapel is just beautiful. A serene space.
The free guided tours of the castle are really well done and help in understanding and connecting with this amazing place.
If you are still there at 1pm, wait for the ear-splitting explosion of the 1 o’clock gun being fired!
The castle could easily take up a whole half day but 2 hours will do it some justice.
To me the views over the city from here are better than from Arthur’s Seat.
Consider the world famous Edinburgh Tattoo which takes place at night at the castle in August.Book well in advance (half a year or more.)
The Royal Mile
The Castle sits at the top of the Royal Mile. At the opposite end is beautiful Holyrood Palace. This long, cobbled street is medieval though rather dominated by tartan tat shops. However, some attractive (and expensive) cashmere and woollen shops abound also. Nice restaurants too and atmospheric pubs aplenty, as well as the beautiful St Giles’ Cathedral.
Despite the touristy shops, I love the Royal Mile. It’s super-buzzy, with some truly stunning buildings and closes (narrow alleyways that connect to main thoroughfares and are fun to explore.) The architecture here and in some of these closes is stunning.
A piper usually plays on the Mile adding to the atmosphere – you know you’re in Scotland!
I particularly like Gladstone’s Land (free entry for National Trust Card holders), a small but perfect illustration of a 17th century home.
Nearby in beautiful Lady Stair’s Close is the Writer’s Museum (free), another excellent place for memorabilia and info on 3 giants of literature – Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson.
It’s a lovely building to browse in too. When I was last in, the background music was Burns’ ‘Ae Fond Kiss’, a very beautiful, sad and famous song which had me shedding a tear or two. Very atmospheric. The buildings in Lady Stair’s Close are gorgeous and great for atmospheric photos. On the paving stones are the names of some of Scotland’s greatest writers.
The interior of Holyrood Palace is excellent for anyone interested in Mary Queen of Scots. There is some fascinating memorabilia and of course, you can stand in the room where her Private Secretary, David Rizzio was brutally murdered in 1566. The Palace has pleasant grounds and a lovely ruined 12th century Abbey. The site is overlooked by craggy Arthur’s Seat.
The very modern Scottish Parliament building is at this end of the mile too – opinions on it are divided. It’s supposed to look like a ship.
Near the castle is the famous Witchery Restaurant with a Jacobean dining room which is gorgeous inside. Very romantic. But food can be hit or miss and it ain’t cheap.
Nearby, The Colonnades has a good reputation for Afternoon Tea but I’d always tend to have faith in The Balmoral Hotel as 5 star places tend to have to keep up the food quality. I usually find that Afternoon Tea for 1 is enough for 2 people (just as well as it costs 50 quid in both venues!)That said I have eaten at the Balmoral (fab) and not yet at The Colonnades.
Just off the Royal Mile, Grassmarket is another colourful, medieval street with some interesting shops and a great atmosphere. One of the city’s oldest pubs is here, the down to earth White Hart Inn which I like for basic, tasty pub food. The old ceiling beams are carved with Burns’ poetry and sayings.
A 5 min walk from here is The Elephant House café, where JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter. Sadly, it’s not renowned for quality food or cakes but if you can nab a table in the back room the views of the castle are superb. The toilets are covered in Harry Potter graffiti! A must see for Potterheads.
Museums and Galleries
The Museum of Scotland (free entry) is superb and just a 10 min walk from Grassmarket. My favourites are the terrific Celtic artefacts/jewellery and the Roman remains. You could spend all day in here and not see it all.Good roof terrace with great city views.
The National Gallery (free) is on Princes Street and it houses a wonderful collection of Impressionist and Post Impressionist paintings as well as stunning works by Canaletto, Rembrandt, Titian, Botticelli and Constable. Landseer’s iconic image of the Highlands – ‘Monarch of the Glen’ – is here too.
After visiting the Musee d’ Orsay in Paris, I spent an hour browsing this gallery and honestly, it was right up there with what I saw in France! Smaller of course but for that reason, the Collection is perhaps more easily digested and enjoyed.
Scottish Portrait Gallery – even if portraits aren’t your thing, have a look at the entrance hall and upper gallery.Stunning.
There is also a terrific collection of portraits of famous Scots from Billy Connolly to Annie Lennox to Colin Montgomery and Iain Rankin. The most dramatic to me, is Ken Currie’s incredible painting ‘Three Oncologists’, an unsettling, deeply chilling portrait of some of the country’s top cancer surgeons at work, blooded gloves and all.
There’s an excellent café here but it gets busy with ladies who lunch – which usually says something about how good a place is! Nice atmosphere. It’s my Go To place to get off my feet for a while and relax with a nice cake or tray bake or – more healthily – home-made soup or a tasty salad.
A free minibus runs between the Galleries, timetable on display though a small donation is expected.
Princes Street and Gardens
The gardens offer a lovely space to stroll beneath the Castle and to admire Edinburgh ‘s beautiful skyline, away from Princes Street’s traffic. Here also lies another favourite snack stop – The Scottish Café (below the National Gallery.)I love their excellent Banana and Almond Cake with a pot of tea. Sitting in the outside terrace, it’s a grand place to enjoy city views. I’ve never rated their scones however and the Cafe is bit pricey; mind you, who wouldn’t try to profit from that location? Service can be hit or miss too. But I forgive them because of that cake.
Princes St itself is lined with mostly (and depressingly) the usual British High St chains. However, Waterstone’s Bookshop is a beauty and the café offers some stunning views of the castle. Nabbing a window table of course is akin to finding hen’s teeth!
The Caledonian Waldorf and Balmoral hotels sit at either end of Princes St. Being 5 star, they are beautiful. Peacock Alley in the Waldorf is the one I often go into for an expensive pot of tea and to escape the buzz of the city for a while. Not cheap ( a fiver for a pot served with house shortbread) but a real haven of calm and elegance, always friendly and welcoming despite being posh.
The Xmas Markets are good fun and run along the southside of Princes St from late November onwards. There are usually delicious smells coming from the various stalls! A giant Ferris Wheel whisks people up into the chilly winter air for grandstand views of the city.
Similar views can also be had from the Scott Monument all year round.
Terrific views over the city from the top of the hill – again, much better than from more lauded (and much longer to summit!) Arthur’s Seat. An easy pull up of 5 mins or so from the Balmoral Hotel end of Princes St (at Waterloo Place.) Below lies one of the city’s best value restaurants serving consistently good food in a lovely space – Howie’s. Book ahead.
The New Town
Oh this area is handsome! Built in the 18th century so not new, this is one of my favourite areas of the city – quieter than the Old Town, spacious and elegant. The shopping on George St is more upmarket compared with Princes St. Harvey Nicol’s is on St Andrew’s Square; its top floor café has terrific views of the city but book. Adjacent Multrees Walk has a very small collection of designer names. One of my favourite glam restaurants/bars is nearby too –The Dome. It looks particularly amazing at Xmas time when the decorations are just gorgeous.
Hawksmoor Steak House is just off St Andrew’s Square. Although a chain, it’s a very upmarket one and serves great food. Look for their special lunch and pre-theatre menus which offer great value given the food quality. Their Sticky Toffee Sundae is heaven in an ice cream bowl. The Potted Beef and Bacon Starter had superb flavours. The Mackerel Salad starter was delightful too – top notch.
The New Town also has other cheaper eating out chains such as TGIs (of which I’m a bit of a fan because of their Sesame Chicken Strips; ok it’s junk -ish fast food but tasty. Not as cheap as it used to be though.)
The Royal Yacht (Ocean Terminal, Leith)
Elegant and gorgeous, I loved our visit to the yacht with its Royal memorabilia and its understated glamour of another era. Fascinating ship much loved by the Queen. The Royal Deck Tea-room is worth a visit too (and was mobbed when we were there.)
Leith harbour itself is worth a visit. It’s been beautifully restored (reminds me slightly of Bergen) with traditional houses lining a waterfront which is packed with cafes and restaurants including two fine dining Michelin ones – The Kitchin and Martin Wishart.
A Mimi’s Bakehouse outlet is here too.
Water of Leith Walk/Dean Village
A lovely walk, my favourite section being from pretty Dean Village to Stockbridge where there are a string of cafes and delis and also well above average traditional Scottish food at Martin Wishart’s ‘Scran and Scallie.’
Above Dean Village is one of my favourite Edinburgh cafes, the café at Mod 1 in the Modern Art Gallery in Belford Rd. In summer, it’s a treat to sit out in the flower filled Walled Garden. Usually very busy, can’t book.
Dean Village is well worth a short explore. Stunning old buildings which have been converted into smart, expensive flats, with the river running past. The village looks like something out of Hobbit-land or Lord of the Rings – beautiful, almost other-worldly. No shops though, all residential.
The Botanic Gardens
I’m not a fan of glasshouses but the extensive outdoor gardens are glorious. Free to enter with a fee to enter the glasshouses. Very smart upstairs café and terrace overlooking the gardens. About a 10 min walk from Stockbridge in a lovely part of Edinburgh (so many of these!)
A volcanic plug which dominates the city and gives extensive views down to North Berwick, the distant Southern Highlands and of course over the city. However, to me the city views are rather spoiled by the immediate vistas being dominated by modern Edinburgh rather than the older arears. It’s a 45 min or so climb from Holyrood Palace or, if you have a car and can park high up near Dunsapie Loch, it’s only a 15min jaunt to the top. Eroded stone at the summit so be careful as it’s slippy in any conditions but especially so when wet. A great, fun climb. Last time I was up there, a Danish Choir were in full song, something they do every year!
Below Dunsapie is the beautiful little enclave of Duddingston and the 14th century Sheep Heid Inn. Only had tea in there, never food but incredibly atmospheric. It’s said to be Scotland’s oldest pub and one of the oldest restaurants in the world.(The building itself is probably 18th century but there has been a licensed premises on the site since the 400 years before that.)
I usually stay with the family but I can recommend these places which I have stayed in previously:
B&B Edinburgh, Rothesay Terrace. Loved this place.In the quiet New Town, very handsome street, very traditional, atmospheric building.Less than a 10 min walk to Princes St
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