Updated: 9/10/2018 | September 10th, 2018
The cobbled streets, tight quarters, the castle, the Gothic architecture of many of its buildings —Edinburgh’s beauty is inescapable.
Originally, I visited Edinburgh for my birthday back in 2009 and, enjoying the city’s beauty and history, have been coming back ever since, even spending a new year’s here a few years back! I absolutely love this city and its people.
Edinburgh has been the capital of Scotland since the 15th century (though people have lived here since 8,500 BC). The city was destroyed by the English in 1544, but eventually recovered and became the center of the Scottish Reformation in the 16th century. In the 19th century, Edinburgh lost it’s status as the #1 city in Scotland to the manufacturing city of Glasgow. However, Edinburgh was famous for its literary figures and became an educational and literary capital growing rapidly during the later 19th century.
In the 20th century, Edinburgh remained a city of banking, and education, growing rapidly in the later part of the century and early 21st century thanks to tourism and just a growing interest in Scotland.
Edinburgh is a small city with friendly people and history everywhere. I love walking down the small, cobblestone streets, and getting lost in the little squares and back alleys of the city. Here, locals will say hi to you and chat you up over a pint in the local pub. It’s a magical town that inspires you at every turn.
If you’re going to visit Edinburgh, here are some of the best things to see and do in Edinburgh on your trip:
The Royal Mile
This historic street stretches from the Castle to the palace and is the most popular street in the city. It’s the main thoroughfare in the Old City and is a great place to people watch, sightsee, listen to buskers, and grab a bite to eat.
St. Giles Cathedral
This not-technically a cathedral (cathedrals need a bishop and this one has none) is very old and beautiful. Also known as the High Kirk of Scotland, St. Giles Cathedral was founded in the 12th century (though little remains from that period) and is the primary place of worship for the Church of Scotland. The cathedral is located between the Castle and the Palace, it’s a good place to see stunning Gothic architecture and good stained glassed windows.
High Street, +44 131-225-4363, stgilescathedral.org.uk. Open Monday-Friday from 9am-7pm (5pm during the off season), Saturday from 9am-5pm (closed during the off season), and 1pm-5pm on Sunday. Guided rooftop tours are 6 GBP per person, and a photo permit for the church (interior) is 2 GBP.
Take a ghost tour
Edinburgh is actually considered one of the most haunted cities in the world. In the 17th century, Lord Advocate Sir George Mackenzie was appointed to round up religious dissidents. Some 18,000 people were rounded up and killed on his watch. the story goes that his tomb was disturbed by a homeless man, releasing his vengeful spirit. Since then of 500 people have claimed to have seen (or been attacked!) by the ghost of Mackenzie. This has led to the popularity of haunted walking tours around the city. There are plenty of different tours to choose from, including walking tours, underground tours, and bus tours (available during both the day and night). Some of the best companies to check out at Get Your Guide, Mercat, and New Europe.
The roots of Edinburgh castle were likely established around the 2nd century, though it wasn’t until the 7th where we start to see the formations of a castle take shape. Today’s castle was built in the 12th century, though many parts have been reconstructed over the years. While it’s not the best castle in the world, it has an interesting history, a daily cannon fire, great views, and historic artifacts in it. It’s definitely worth a tour if you’re into history or architecture!
Castlehill, +44 131-225-9846, edinburghcastle.scot. Open daily from 9:30-6pm (5pm in the winter). Admission is 18.50 GBP for adults (17 GBP if you book in advance) with discounts available for children.
The Scott Monument
This Gothic tower stands an impressive 61 meters high and is actually the second tallest monument to a writer in the world (the first is in Cuba). Sir Walter Scott was a novelist, playwright, and historian known for such books as Ivanhoe and Rob Roy. For a good view of the city, climb up the stairs!
E. Princes St Gardens, +44 131-529-4068, edinburghmuseums.org.uk/venue/scott-monument. Open daily from 10am-9pm (4pm in the winter). Admission is 8 GBP for adults with discounts available.
The Elephant House
The cafe became super popular for one reason: Harry Potter. J.K Rowling spent many an hour here writing her epic Harry Potter saga. Once that fact became known, Harry Potter fans from all around the globe have flocked here to see the place with their own two eyes. More often than not, there are people outside taking photos and even a line to get in!
21 George IV Bridge, +44 131-220-5355, elephanthouse.biz. Open Monday-Thursday from 8am-10pm, Friday from 8am-11pm, Saturday from 9am-11pm, and Sunday from 9am-10pm.
Built in the 15th century, this famous chapel is a Da Vinci Code lover’s dream. There are many (alleged) links to both the Freemasons and the Knights Templar. Even if you don’t believe in any of that, the detailed carvings are impressive and the chapel’s long history make it worth checking out. (It’s not far from the city and a good excuse to get out of Edinburgh for a bit!)
Chapel Loan, +44 131-440-2159, rosslynchapel.com. Open daily from 9:30am-5pm (6pm in the summer). Admission is 9 GBP, with discounts avilable. Interior photography isn’t permitted
Museum of Edinburgh
When you’re strolling down the Royal Mile, don’t forget to check out the Museum of Edinburgh. It will give you a much a better understanding of the city’s history and how it became the city that it is today. Best of all, this museum is free!
edinburghmuseums.org.uk/venue/museum-edinburgh. Open daily from 10am-5pm. Admission is free but donations are welcome.
Hike to Arthur’s Seat
If you want a sweeping view of the city you’re going to have to put in the work. It’s not a particularly difficult walk, but some parts can be a bit steep. The wind can get incredibly strong up there, but it’s the perfect place for a picnic to watch the sunset if you feel like stretching your legs.
Visit the Writer’s Museum
This museum covers the lives of 3 of the most famous Scottish writers: Waler Scott, Robert Burns, and Robert Louis Stevenson. You’ll learn about their personal lives as well as their work. There are numerous paintings, writings, and personal objects from their lives. It’s a neat museum that sheds some light into the history of some of Scotland’s most successful writers.
Lawnmarket — Lady Stair’s Close, +44 131-529-4901, edinburghmuseums.org.uk/venue/writers-museum. Open daily from 10am-5pm. Admission is free.
Scottish National Gallery
This museum first opened in the 1850’s and is home to Scotland’s national collection of fine art. If you want to get a deeper understanding of Scottish history and culture, this is a great place to dive in.
The Mound, +44 131-624-6200, nationalgalleries.org/visit/scottish-national-gallery. Open daily from 10am-5pm (7pm on Thursdays). Admission is free, though some exhibits cost money.
The Scotch Whisky Experience
If you’re a fan of Scotch, you’ll not want to pass up a whiskey tasting. This is one of the best options in town, offering up tours, tastings, and a full day training school. Located on the Royal Mile, you can try all sorts of different local whiskeys. Since this isn’t a distillery you’re free to browse selections from across the country, making this a great choice for someone looking to sample a wider variety of whiskey.
354 Castlehill, +44 131-220-0441, scotchwhiskyexperience.co.uk. Open daily from 10am-5pm (open later in the summer). A basic tour is 27 GBP, with discounts available. For their more comprehensive tours, prices will be higher and you’ll need to book in advance.
Do a pub crawl
If you’re planning on doing the rounds and searching for the city’s best drink, join a pub crawl. They are a great way to meet other travelers and you’ll be taken to bars, pubs, and nightclubs you might not have discovered otherwise. There are plenty of available pub crawls in the city, but the biggest (and best) is the Edinburgh Pub Crawl. They take you to 7 bars and your ticket includes 6 free drinks as well as some additional discounts.
69 Cowgate, +44 7547-022-182, edinburghpubcrawl.com. Pub crawls occur every night. Tickets are 7 GBP.***If you’re planning to visit Edinburgh, this list will help you get your trip started. It is one of my favorite places in Europe. While the city is a major tourist destination, it lacks a lot of the crowds that swamp other cities in Europe (except during major festivals, then this place is a zoo). And best of all? Edinburgh is not that expensive either! It’s a win-win!
Photo Credit: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15