Historic Edinburgh, capital of Scotland, has so much to offer that you can’t possibly do it in a day. The city lies in a beautiful setting, sprawling over an extinct volcano known as Arthur’s Seat, and dominated by the grey, brooding hulk of the medieval Edinburgh Castle — the tourist hub of the Royal Mile, a street exactly one Scots mile long. (The outdated measurement is equivalent to 1,807 meters, longer than the standard 1,609-meter mile.)
Old Town, as this area is known, features a wonderful labyrinth of alleyways and cobbled streets filled with castles, museums and churches. After the 1707 Act of Union joined Scotland and England politically, many of Edinburgh’s wealthier residents abandoned Edinburgh for London. The Georgian terraces — individual terraces found on the front of Georgian-style row homes — of nearby New Town were built in an effort to attract them back. Both Old Town and New Town are part of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Tourism staples include Scotch whisky (with opportunities to learn taste and buy) and golf at St. Andrew’s Links, not too far from the city. Edinburgh is best known for its annual Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the largest arts festival in the world, which takes over the city for three weeks every summer. In addition to a wide array of performances, the city’s iconic Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo takes place at the same time, with the castle as its backdrop.
Alongside this tradition, Edinburgh has an edgy, modern vibe too. Galleries display cutting-edge art, while chic restaurants, day spas and hotels peddle sophistication. A hip pub culture and nightlife scene complete the picture. Meanwhile, on the doorstep is the Scottish countryside — miles of rolling, heather-covered hills, craggy mountains and still-as-glass lochs (one has a resident monster you might have heard of).
Old Town: Dating to medieval times (12th century), Edinburgh’s Old Town is where most of the major historic monuments and attractions are located, with most anchored on or near the Royal Mile. This historic thoroughfare is marked at the top by Edinburgh Castle (the most popular attraction in Scotland) and at the bottom by the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Scotland’s official royal residence. Your best bet is to start your trip down the Royal Mile from the top (our listings run top to bottom); here’s a sprinkling of attractions and sights worth seeing:
Edinburgh Castle: At Edinburgh Castle, key attractions include St. Margaret’s Chapel, the Stone of Destiny (where Scottish monarchs were crowned) and a display of the Scottish crown jewels. Listen for the 1 p.m. gun firing, a ritual since 1861 (daily, except Sundays). Guided tours are available.
Scotch Whisky Experience: At the Scotch Whisky Experience, tastings are available after a fun tour, involving a ride through the displays in a whisky barrel.
St. Giles Cathedral: St. Giles Cathedral is the high “kirk” (church) of Scotland and dates back to the Middle Ages. Inside are numerous memorials, stained-glass windows and art masterpieces.
Palace of Holyroodhouse: The Palace of Holyroodhouse is the official Scottish residence of the British monarch. Try the fabulous tour of the chambers, historic apartments and state rooms that once belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots. The palace gardens are gorgeous.
National Museum of Scotland: In Old Town, but off the Royal Mile, the National Museum of Scotland is a treasure trove of archeological, cultural and scientific exhibits, including Dolly (stuffed and mounted, that is), the first cloned sheep.
New Town: The moniker is misleading, but everything is relative; New Town actually dates back to the 18th century — it was originally built as an antidote to the fetid jumble of Old Town. New Town’s wide streets and beautiful Georgian houses in Charlotte Square are worth a stroll. Queen Street is home to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, while George Street offers boutiques, bars and restaurants. Other attractions include the following four museums.
Scottish National Portrait Gallery: The Scottish National Portrait Gallery is a five-minute walk from Princes Street. See the past and present face to face — from Mary, Queen of Scots to Sean Connery. Admission is free.
National Gallery of Scotland: This museum holds Scotland’s greatest collection of Old Masters. It’s one of Europe’s finest art collections with works from the Renaissance period to the 19th century, including pieces by Raphael, Titian, El Greco, Velazquez, Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Gogh, Monet, Cezanne, Degas and Gauguin. On the lower level, see works by Scottish artists, including a quartet of stunning embroidered pieces. Admission is free.
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art: This modern art museum is set in parkland about a 15-minute walk from Princes Street and is home to the national collection of modern and contemporary art in two buildings, Modern One and Modern Two. Admission is free.
Royal Scottish Academy: The Royal Scottish Academy plays host to Scotland’s contemporary art scene via revolving exhibitions in William Henry Playfair’s landmark building on the Mound.
Local Tours: Nibble your way around the city with Eat Walk Edinburgh, as knowledgeable guides weave in local history between bites of modern and traditional cuisine (yes, you’ll get to try haggis!), as well as tastings of whisky and wine. Or opt for the Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour, which follows in the footsteps of Burns, Scott and Stevenson. For more of a workout, tour Edinburgh, from distilleries to castles, by bicycle via 2 Wheel Tours.
Real Mary King’s Close Tour: This tour takes you underground to a warren of streets built in the 1600s. Once a busy center of commerce, they were buried over time as Old Town grew upward. If you enjoy tales and character guides, you’ll get a kick out of this experience.
Arthur’s Seat: Pack a picnic lunch and climb 823-foot-high Arthur’s Seat (near Holyrood Palace), a one-time volcano with breathtaking views of Edinburgh and the sea. Footpaths to the summit start from Dunsapie Loch or the Palace of Holyrood, near St. Anthony’s Chapel.
Explore the Port of Leith: This once-seedy port neighborhood is spruced up and boasts a shopping mall (Ocean Terminal), hip restaurants and ye olde pubs. The biggest attraction is the Royal Yacht Britannia, a former private vessel for the royal family.
Visit Glasgow: Less than an hour and a half away by train (ScotRail) or bus (CityLink), Glasgow presents a more modern and cosmopolitan face of Scotland than historic Edinburgh. There you’ll find trendy bars, tons of shopping — from high-end department stores to chic boutiques — great art and Victorian architecture.
Visit North Berwick: Another great “trip by train” is the seaside resort of North Berwick (24 miles east of Edinburgh), home to the Scottish Seabird Centre with its Big Brother-style cameras focused on the bird life activity on Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth.
Edinburgh is large and diverse enough to offer an assortment of restaurants and cuisines, from pub grub to a French wine bar and from traditional Scottish to Thai food.
If you’re looking to try traditional, it doesn’t get more Scottish than haggis — sheep’s heart, liver and lungs, minced with onion, oatmeal and spices, cooked in a sheep’s stomach and often served with a shot of whisky (you might want to drink that first once you’ve seen this concoction). Also in the daunting category is black pudding (blood sausage with oatmeal); it’s surprisingly tasty.
You’ll also see familiar dishes with names that seem contrived just to baffle travelers. Mashed potatoes and turnips are called “tatties and neeps,” for example. A typical meat, onion and potato stew goes by the name “stovies.” Even oatmeal, a Scottish favorite, is known instead as “porridge.”
If you enjoy wine and food pairings, you’ll definitely find those at finer restaurants. But you can also have a meal paired with Scotches.
The Scots are justifiably famous for their shortbread cookies, so be on the lookout for locally baked versions. There are tea rooms where you can have a “nice cuppa” along with baked goods that might include scones, shortbread and oat cakes. Or, for a traditional Scottish dessert, try cranachan (also known as atholl brose). It combines fresh raspberries, whipped cream, honey, toasted oats — and sometimes a dram of whisky, too.
Along the Royal Mile: Fun pubs (that also serve bar food) include the Bow Bar, Deacon Brodie’s Tavern and the Jinglin’ Geordie. The Fruitmarket Gallery Cafe is good for casual fare in an art cafe attached to a contemporary Scottish art gallery. And for fabulous medieval atmosphere and seasonal Scottish produce, try the Witchery by the Castle.
In New Town: Cafes and bistros line Rose Street. Whisky fans might want to lunch in the elegant Georgian townhouse of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, where you can pair your meal with a whisky flight.
In Leith: Check out the Ship on the Shore (a seafood restaurant and Champagne bar) and the Kitchin, a Michelin-starred restaurant focusing on seasonal cuisine.
Shopping in Edinburgh
Cashmere and malt Scotch are ideal souvenirs in Edinburgh. Try Jenners on Princes Street, Ragamuffin on the Royal Mile, or Halibut and Herring on Bruntsfield Place for the soft stuff. For the hard stuff, consider Royal Mile Whiskies on High Street in Old Town. Serious Scotch connoisseurs might visit the Scotch Malt Whisky Society on Queen Street in New Town, where an entry fee lets you in to taste and buy upwards of 100 single-barrel malts that can’t be found in stores.
If you are visiting from outside the European Union, you can get back some of the 20 percent VAT (value-added tax) you pay on certain goods. Not all shops participate, and there’s a minimum purchase level. You need to have your passport and fill in a form at the time of purchase. Present the forms to customs officials at your final departure point from the European Union, but keep in mind the agents probably will ask to see the goods. Visit GlobalRefund.com for more information.
The Royal Mile is lined with souvenir shops, while Princes Street has numerous international chain stores. If you’re seeking something a little more unique and specialized, try Grassmarket, located near the Royal Mile; it’s a good spot to find independently owned shops such as the Old Town Bookshop (offering antiquarian and second-hand books), the Red Door Gallery (art and jewelry) and I.J. Mellis (delicious artisan cheeses).
–written by Gayle Keck