Edinburgh is a city like no other; I fell in love almost instantly. On my travels there I heard it asserted numerous times that Edinburgh is the most beautiful city in all of Europe — a bold statement, I know. But climb to the top of Calton Hill or, better yet, scale the battlements of Edinburgh Castle on one of Scotland’s glorious sunny days, where you can look out over the skyline all the way to Firth, and you’d be hard-pressed to argue.
The city is split roughly down the middle — into the medieval Old Town, with its narrow meandering streets and hidden closes (or alleys), and the neat and gridded Georgian New Town. While most of the ‘sight-seeing’ and tourist attractions are concentrated in Old Town, some of the city’s finest shopping and dining can be found in New Town.
At the center of it all is Princes Street Gardens and Waverly Station, the main transportation hub for this incredibly compact and walkable city. Here is where we begin our journey, with the feather + fir guide to Edinburgh.
Prior to its rebirth as a public park, Princes Street Gardens lay at the bottom of the Nor Loch, a medieval defense to the north of the city. The draining of the loch began in the 1760s with the building of New Town.
Easily Edinburgh’s most well-known public park, The Gardens extend along the south side of Princes Street and are divided — East and West — by what is called The Mound, an artificial hill connecting Old and New Town. From here, one can see a good number of Edinburgh’s most recognizable buildings and landmarks: the Scottish National Gallery (which I highly recommend visiting), the Royal Scottish Academy, the domed headquarters of the Bank of Scotland and its adjoining museum, the elegant Balmoral Hotel, a 5-star hotel housing a Michelin-starred restaurant and its signature Scotch whisky bar, the North Bridge, the towering Scott Monument and, of course, the ever-present figure of Edinburgh Castle, overlooking The Gardens from its rocky perch atop an extinct volcano.
From The Mound, you can make the short but steep trek up to the Royal Mile, which lies just south. The Royal Mile is made up of a group of streets that form the main thoroughfare through Old Town, bookended by two of Edinburgh’s most significant historical sites. Beginning at Edinburgh Castle, the Royal Mile runs downhill for roughly (you guessed it) a Scots mile until it reaches the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the official residence of the British monarch in Scotland.
Even if you only have time to see one thing in Edinburgh, you would be remiss not to visit Edinburgh Castle. This icon of the city is a probably the most popular tourist attraction, but for good reason. It’s really more like visiting a village, with numerous buildings, exhibits and museums contained within the castle walls. A guided tour is included in the price of your ticket; as someone who generally prefers the ‘self-guided’ tour, trust me when I say this is a tour worth going. The guides are very knowledgeable and love sharing stories from the castle’s long history. If you have the chance, try to get through the gate in time for the 1pm canon fire. All in all, Edinburgh Castle is without a doubt worth the price of admission. Panoramic views of city certainly don’t hurt either.
You don’t have to venture far from the castle esplanade to find all the gimmicky shops and attractions one would expect from the city’s busiest tourist street. But of the abundance of storefronts touting cashmeres and woven tartans, perpetually ‘on sale’, I do recommend popping into the Tartan Weaving Mill and Exhibition. This 5-floor warehouse does indeed have woolen plaid for purchase in every form, but more importantly, it is a functioning mill where you can see weavers and looms hard at work.
If you find yourself having spent over 6 hours at Edinburgh Castle and in desperate need of a bite at 3pm, you could step into Ensign Ewart, a traditional Scottish pub right down the street. Established in 1680, this inviting pub has all the charm of a 17th century building, with its low, timbered ceilings. Though this place apparently caught a bad rap a few years back for refusing to serve military in uniform, it has since come under new ownership, and now focuses on all things Scottish, including that winning Scottish hospitality. Personally, I found Ensign Ewart a cozy, friendly place to grab a Scottish pint and a delicious(!) sandwich and bisque — and in relative peace from the swarming tourists at 3:00 in the afternoon.
Or if you care to venture a tad further from the castle, you may also find something appealing at The Devil’s Advocate, a bar and kitchen hidden away in a Victorian pump house in Advocate’s Close, or at the award-winning Italian Cucina. If afternoon tea is your thing, look into The Colonnades at the Signet Library, which can be found a stones throw from St. Giles Cathedral. The cathedral is famous for its ornate crowned spire, and the interior is just as beautiful.
Do not — I repeat — do NOT make the mistake of sticking only to the main boulevard that is the Royal Mile. Some of the best parts of Old Town are found by wandering off the beaten path. Like the Writer’s Museum, which I quite literally stumbled upon after strolling into a close out of curiosity. Scotland has a storied literary tradition, to say the least, and this little museum within in a tower house by the name of Lady Stair’s House pays homage to the three foremost Scottish writers. Here you will find the history, writings and personal effects of Robert Burns, Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson.
Amble down George VI Bridge and hang a sharp right onto Victoria Street, a glorious little market street crammed with colorful local shops. Shops like The Old Town Bookshop, where I took shelter for a half hour when the skies decided to simultaneously rain and snow on an otherwise sunny day, and from whence I emerged with an armful of vintage books. Or like Demijohn, a “Liquid Deli” where you’ll find everything from infused cooking vinegars to gooseberry gin to 13-year single barrel single malt Scotch straight from the cask. Get fitted for a fine tweed jacket at Walker Slater. Admire artwork, prints, jewelry and other crafts from local artists at Red Door Gallery. Send your sense of smell into overload at Isle of Skye Candle Company. It’s a small miracle I didn’t spend every penny to my name in this little merchant enclave of Old Town.
Follow Victoria Street as it winds down, around and under George IV Bridge, and you may find yourself wandering through Greyfriar’s Kirkyard. Notable Edinburgh residents have been buried here, in the shadow of the castle, since the 16th century. Notable residents like Greyfriar’s Bobby, for instance. The story goes that this little Skye Terrier belonged to a night watchman by the name of John Gray. When John Gray died, he was laid to rest at Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, and his faithful companion guarded his grave for 14 years, until he himself died in 1872. Greyfriar’s Bobby was buried just outside the kirkyard gate, and a statue of him was erected atop a drinking fountain at the corner of George IV Bridge and Candlemaker Row.
Directly across the street from the Greyfriar’s Bobby drinking fountain you’ll find the National Museum of Scotland. Currently undergoing redevelopment to add 10 new galleries, the museum houses exhibits on every thing from Natural History, World Cultures, and the History and Archaeology of Scotland, itself.
Making your way back up George XVI Bridge to the Royal Mile, there are numerous places to stop for a breather or a bite to eat. I found the cafe at the National Library of Scotland a perfect place to rest my laurels for a bit (and to hide out from the rain). They, of course, have free WiFi; all you have to do is ask the attendant at the front desk for an access code. They also have excellent coffee and snacks, and a handful of interesting exhibits of their own. Caffe Lucano is also an agreeable place to get a cup of coffee or a sandwich.
Potterheads may be interested to know that The Elephant House, just across the street, is where JK Rowling spent much of her time writing when she lived in Edinburgh. Its claim to fame is being the tea house where Rowling first wrote the character of Harry Potter. It’s worth popping in for a hot tea to-go just so you can use the restroom, where fans of Harry Potter from all over the world have covered the stalls corner to corner with tributes and messages to his creator and favorite quotes from the books. Or if you are so inclined, you can sit and have a meal in the dining room, which looks out onto Edinburgh Castle. I found that the food, however, left something to be desired.
Alternatively, you could venture farther away from the Royal Mile and explore the neighborhoods surrounding the University of Edinburgh. Grab a drink and catch an afternoon movie at the quirky pub The Brass Monkey, or sample some Swedish bread at Peter’s Yard. Catch a gig at the Queen’s Hall, or an exhibition at Summerhall.
Further east, you’ll find the Castle Terrace Restaurant, a fresh and stylish Michelin-starred restaurant nestled at the foot of the castle. Other places of note on this side of the city are Traverse Theatre, one of Edinburgh’s premiere theatrical venues, The Hanging Bat for some quality craft beer, brewed on site, and Cameo Cinema, rumored to be one of Tarantino’s favorite picture houses. If the weather permits, take a stroll through The Meadows, one of Edinburgh’s many green spaces.
For equal parts nature and city scape, you could also climb to the top of Arthur’s Seat in Holyrood Park. Or you could walk the grassy slopes of Calton Hill, in the very center of the city at the west end of Princes Street. The neighborhood surrounding this usually quiet park is filled with lively bars and restaurants.
For a change of pace, walk from Calton Hill into New Town, one of the largest Georgian developments in the world, and—being home to roughly 25,000 residents—also the largest historic conservation area in Britain.
Here you can shop and dine to your heart’s content. If you’re in need of caffeine to fuel your shopping spree, you’re in luck. New Town has a handful of exceptional coffee shops; places like Artisan Roast, near the Edinburgh Playhouse, or The Caffeine Drip and Affogato, closer Dean Village and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.
If you’re looking for an evening of fine dining, Chef Sean Clark’s The Table or New Chapter, near the Royal Botanic Garden, should do nicely. One may also find a post-dinner drink at Pickles on Broughton Street, The Bon Vivant, The Voodoo Rooms or Bramble Bar.
Roughly a mile north of the city center lies the Port of Leith, the city’s major harbor. For a true cross-section of Edinburgh, one only need to stroll down Leith Walk, the main artery connecting the port and east Princes Street. One of the main attractions of Leith, besides the abundance of good food and drink, is the Royal Yacht Britannia, the floating home of Her Majesty the Queen and the Royal Family for more than 40 years.
While you’re in the neighborhood, take a look at The Kitchin, an award-winning restaurant from the same group behind The Castle Terrace Restaurant.
Well, folks, that about does it. Hope you enjoyed Edinburgh from the feather + fir perspective. Don’t forget to check out this city guide on Pinterest as well!