Edinburgh is nestled between the Firth of Forth and the Pentland Hills. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site and City of Literature, it has a lot to offer travellers. Despite being steeped in history, it has a modern vibe and draws millions of visitors each year due to its plentiful and diverse festivals. Local expert Louise Slyth shares her tips on how to get the most from a visit to Scotland’s capital city.
After a visitor arrives in my city, I recommend going straight to The Royal Mile, which is home to Edinburgh Castle at one end, and The Palace of Holyroodhouse at the other. Between them, you’ll find charming cobbled streets, a cathedral, and myriad museums. It’s the best place to immerse yourself in the history of the city and get your bearings.
The best time to be here depends on your goals and budget. In August, Edinburgh hosts the annual Festival Fringe (the largest arts festival in the world) so the atmosphere is buzzy and busy. In December we have the famous Hogmanay celebrations. These are great times to see Edinburgh at its best, but accommodation prices will reflect that. The summer months will be kinder if you are planning to do lots of walking and exploring, but as long as you dress appropriately, Edinburgh really is a year-round destination.
I tell first-time travellers to soak up castle vibes by walking through Princes Street Gardens. Then visit The Johnnie Walker Experience either for a tour or just to enjoy a drink with unparalleled views of Edinburgh Castle. You need to book ahead, but it’s worth it.
I also tell them to avoid eating at chain restaurants. Edinburgh has a thriving dining scene; head to Leith to sample great seafood, or Bruntsfield for cute bistros.
The best museum to start your journey and get a good sense of this city is The National Museum of Scotland, which is a short stroll from the Royal Mile. With thousands of exhibits, it has plenty to keep both adults and children entertained for a couple of hours. I’d also recommend Surgeons’ Hall Museums — these award-winning museums spotlight Edinburgh’s contribution to modern medicine. The perfect blend of fascinating and creepy! The pathology museum houses one of the world’s largest collections of pathological anatomy.
Parents should take their kids to The Royal Botanic Garden (known to locals as “The Botanics”) which offers plenty of space to run around, educational exhibits, and a selection of lovely cafés. On rainy days, Camera Obscura will keep little ones amused, with five floors of interactive exhibits including a mirror maze and vortex tunnel. It also has a rooftop terrace which is a great spot to take photos.
Food from the Heart
Among the dishes my city is most proud of is surprisingly NOT haggis! Instead, Edinburgh has a lot of great steak restaurants and locally sourced venison is also very popular (and worth trying!).
I send visitors to try it at Wedgwood restaurant as it’s a very classy experience and they (sometimes) do serve crispy Haggis Bon Bons, so you can tick off two Scottish culinary bucket-list items in one place.
When we get together to celebrate, we generally head to the pub. In Edinburgh you are spoiled for choice; whether you’re looking for traditional watering holes, craft beer specialists or glamourous cocktail bars, Edinburgh has it all. Those seeking an upmarket night out need look no further than George Street, where you can find glitzy clubs and cocktail bars.
When I eat completely local, I’m likely to head to Stockbridge. Whether you are looking for a Full Scottish, cosy pub fare, fine dining, a great burger, Thai, Mexican, or even South American, Stockbridge has everything a foodie could desire (including a weekly farmer’s market). You could spend a fortnight in one square mile and eat in a different place every night!
It’s impossible to choose a favourite, but some standouts in that neighbourhood include Sabor Criollo, a Latin American favourite that serves authentic food in a cosy basement; The Bailie Bar, a Stockbridge institution (and my favourite place for fish and chips); and Whiskers wine bar and café, a relatively new and exciting addition to the Stockbridge dining scene.
My city is known for making…
Whisky! (Note there is no ‘e’ in Scottish whisky). Most of the large whisky producers are based in the Highlands, but there are plenty of excellent places in Edinburgh to taste it, including The Scotch Whisky Experience (also on the Royal Mile). 2023 welcomes whisky production back into the city, with Port of Leith Distillery, the UK’s first vertical distillery, re-igniting the whisky trade that was previously prevalent in the Leith area.
The best outdoor food market is the award-winning Edinburgh Farmer’s Market, open 9am–2pm on Saturdays. You can stock up on seasonal fruit and veg, meats, cheeses and chutneys, while taking in views of Edinburgh Castle.
Another notable market is The Pitt — not just a market, but a home to live music, street food and craft beers.
I always take visitors to Galerie Mirages in Stockbridge, a family-run local business that deals directly with local traders in countries like Indonesia, Laos, Burma and Morocco. I love their ethical practices, but I love their gorgeous jewellery and homeware even more! They are tucked down an alley, so you’d almost miss the shop if you weren’t looking for it, but it has a bit of a cult following for those in the know.
And we know to avoid cheap tartan anything, Scottish flags and plastic Highland cows.
Getting Deeper Into Edinburgh
A great book to learn more about my city is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark, or for a more modern and gritty view of the city, any of the Inspector Rebus novels by Ian Rankin.
Most people know about St Giles’ Cathedral in the high street, but I’d recommend visiting Rosslyn Chapel, 7 miles out of the city centre. It was made famous by The Da Vinci Code, so you now need to book in advance, but it’s a beautiful building with a fascinating history and well worth a visit.
My city is a place people are attracted to because of its history, culture, good food and ease of getting around.
Most people think of my city as the home of our many festivals, but it’s also a great destination for a short break, a base for day trips to places like Glasgow or St Andrews, or to use as a jumping-off point for longer excursions to the Highlands.
This is one of the best places in the world to learn about history. Edinburgh has a fascinating history, and for an immersive experience you can join a walking tour or visit Mary King’s Close for gruesome tales about grave robbers, plagues, intrigue and murders.
Getting Around Edinburgh
One thing you should know about getting around my city is that the city centre is compact enough to cover on foot. If the hills get too much there are regular buses.
The best way to travel in my city to have as little impact as possible is on foot, but we have those hills, so you’ll want to wear flat shoes!
If you are venturing further afield, Edinburgh is also well served by both bus and tram, and there are regular trains to other major cities.
Luckily these methods of transportation also allow me to take in the amazing scenery!
Outside The City
To get away and into the outdoors, head for the hills! The Pentland Hills have several great walking trails (and are a bus or short taxi ride away). You can reward yourself afterwards with a meal in the cosy Flotterstone Inn, where walkers and well-behaved dogs are welcomed with open fires and hearty home cooking.
For a day trip just beyond my city, I recommend the East Neuk of Fife. Just 50 miles away, it’s home to a series of charming fishing villages linked by a coastal path. Ideal for bracing walks, spectacular scenery and fabulous fish and chips!
Many people will head north to visit Dalmeny House, a stately home overlooking the Firth of Forth, but I prefer to head south to Abbotsford Estate, the home of Sir Walter Scott, nestled in the Borders countryside and easily accessible by train.
The best view of my city is from Calton Hill where you can take in the amazing cityscape including the imposing Balmoral Hotel.
Connecting with Locals
When I want to have fun and celebrate being out in my city, I indulge in a Champagne afternoon tea with the girls. There are many Edinburgh venues offering this special treat, but my favourites are The Balmoral Hotel for effortless elegance, or Colonnades at The Signet Library for a truly unique experience.
To hang out with my friends and go to a real insider spot, we head to Whighams wine bar, which hosts live jazz on Sunday evenings and serves great food into the bargain.
The best resource for finding out what’s going on around town is the What’s On Edinburgh website where you can find all the upcoming events and attractions.
When I want to enjoy my city without spending much (or any) money, I take a stroll along the Water of Leith Walkway which runs all the way from Balerno to Leith (about 18 miles). Thankfully you can join the walkway anywhere along the route, so you can take things at your own pace.
Sandy Bell’s is my first choice for music because it’s an Edinburgh institution, with live music every night that’s “unique and unpredictable”. The bar has hosted many famous names over the years including Barbara Dickson, Billy Connolly and Dougie McLean.
And when I feel like dancing, I go to Ghillie-Dhu for some traditional Scottish reels or one of the glamourous clubs on George Street.
Finding Solitude in Edinburgh
When I want to go somewhere to relax in my city, I head to Arthur’s Seat, for walks with panoramic views, or The Botanics, where it’s always possible to find a quiet meditative corner.
What makes me proudest of my city is our connection to learning and literature. Our universities are world-renowned, The Edinburgh International Book Festival is the world’s largest literary festival of its kind, and Edinburgh is the world’s first UNESCO City of Literature. Edinburgh gifted the world writers like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and latterly Ian Rankin and JK Rowling.
When the Seasons Change, This City Shines
Spring (March to May) is the best time to soak up the spring vibes when the daffodils start to emerge. It’s the ideal time of year to climb Arthur’s Seat (actually an ancient volcano) or stroll along Portobello Beach. In March, be challenged or dazzled at the Science Festival. You can immerse yourself in some traditional Scottish folk music at Tradfest, or experience a Celtic Fire festival at Beltane.
I always recommend visitors make the most of the summer happenings (June to August) because it’s festival season and the beer gardens are full and buzzing. Whether your tastes run to Jazz and Blues, Films, Books or Food, we have a festival to suit almost every taste (excuse the pun!). Then in August, it’s high-octane fun with the main event, Edinburgh International Festival, which runs the gamut from opera to comedy, theatre to dance. Don’t miss the chaos and creativity that is Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The fringe has been the launching point of many a comedian’s career, and you can still get free tickets to some shows.
In Autumn (September to November) things calm down a little. Autumn is a lovely time to visit, with orange leaves on the trees, conkers on the ground and cheaper hotel prices! Visitors will still find plenty to do; in September, many unique places allow visitors behind-the-scenes access as part of Doors Open Days and October hosts the Scottish International Storytelling Festival.
The winter months (December to February) are a great time to have a long lunch or find a cosy pub and settle in. The weather can be a bit dismal, but there are plenty of festive treats to tempt visitors to brave the colder weather. Edinburgh’s Christmas runs from mid-November to early January. It’s held in the iconic Princes Street Gardens, with great views of the castle, and you can enjoy the market and funfair, or warm yourself up with some mulled wine or hot chocolate.
It’s become more commercialised recently, but it’s still a fun activity for all the family and a great way to get some Christmas vibes going. Hogmanay is a world-famous celebration and people travel from all over the world to usher in the new year, Edinburgh-style.