Visiting Edinburgh: Our Guide to the City

Visiting Edinburgh: Our Guide to the City

Edinburgh is one of my favorite places we’ve visited, which is saying a lot because I typically prefer idyllic countrysides and mountainous regions over cityscapes. But the city captivated my attention starting from day 1 and continued to delight during our entire stay. The city is extraordinarily packed with things to do, no matter what your interests are. From medieval buildings to ancient castles (both standing and in ruins), to a quirky shopping district and farm-to-table dining, there’s endless amounts of sights to see and things to do. We obviously couldn’t do it all in one trip, but we’ve assembled a list of our favorite things we did while in Edinburgh, and some of them aren’t on your typical Edinburgh To Do List.

Our List:

Walk the Royal Mile

This famous part of Edinburgh is central to the heart of Old Town Edinburgh and is steeped in centuries of history. Start at Holyrood Palace (home of the Scottish Parliament) and from there meander your way west. You’ll pass the Scottish Parliament building, Canongate Kirk and my favorite pitstop: St. Giles’ Cathedral. Built somewhere around 1390, the exterior boasts beautiful architecture and the interior has a bright blue ceiling and exceptionally intricate stained glass. Continue on to the “end” of the Royal Mile and you’ll run into the grand Edinburgh Castle. This castle is one of Scotland’s most iconic landmarks and its high perch on an extinct volcano gives prime views of the surrounding city. While the interior features cool artifacts and old architecture, I found it to be over-touristy and expensive to enter. We still went inside though because of its famous status within the area.

Visit Calton Hill

Calton Hill is much more accessible than Arthur’s Seat but still features panoramic views of the city, including Princess Street (the main shopping area) and Scott Monument, Edinburgh Castle, and even Arthur’s Seat. On top of the hill you’ll find the facade of what was supposed to be a replica of the Parthenon in Athens: construction began in 1822 after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, but funds ran dry and only the facade was completed. It used to be a mark of shame upon the city, but it’s now a popular monument. There’s also two old observatories and Nelson’s Monument, all of which are worth a quick visit.

Take a Road Trip South

If us Americans can rent a car and drive on the “wrong” side of the road through the Scottish countryside, then anyone can. We took an entire day and still didn’t get to all the stops we had planned out: Bamburgh Castle, Alnwick Castle, Melrose Abbey, and Jedburgh Abbey. Bamburgh castle is huge and is one of the country’s largest inhabited castles. Stepping inside was like entering a time capsule and I especially loved the bright blue clock on the clock tower. It’s right on the coast, so make sure you walk down to the water after visiting the interior. Alnwick Castle & Gardens is not only stunningly beautiful, but it’s also any Harry Potter fan’s dream castle. It was featured in the first two movies and still appeals to fans by offering flying lessons and a Harry Potter shop. Continue on to Jedburgh Abbey, which is partly in ruins but the main walls still stand. We were the only ones there that afternoon, and it was a great experience. Our last stop was Melrose Abbey, although we unfortunately didn’t make it there until it after it had closed for the day. It’s situated in a tiny little town and we were able to walk around the fenced exterior, but not inside. It looked like an amazing building though and we hope to revisit some day.

Not only were the stops on this trip amazing, but so was the peaceful drive through the Scottish countryside. We drove through small towns that most tourists never visit and got to see another side of the country away from all the classic tourist stops and the big city. This particular route forms a loop that ends back in the city, meaning you never see the same thing twice.

Explore Craigmillar Castle

It definitely took some navigating, but we made it to one of my favorite places we visited this trip: Craigmillar Castle. We took a bus from our condo in the heart of the city to a stop right near a hospital. Across the street, there was a little sign that said “Craigmillar Castle Road” with a lightly trafficked path up a hill through a field of tall grass. From the top of the hill, you could see the castle in the distance and it was a beautiful sight. The castle is partially in ruins, but most of the walls and prominent features still stand. The reason why we loved this stop so much was the ability to openly explore. Most castles you visit have very defined areas you can visit and lots of things you can’t touch; whenever you see a closed door, you can’t help but wonder what’s beyond it. But this castle had no doors and no closed areas (besides a couple of doorways that opened up to the floor below with a 20ft drop). We were essentially the only ones there, admission was cheap, and there was no tour guide hovering over your shoulder, allowing you plenty of time to explore all the nooks and crannies and fulfill your curiosity.

Ride the Train to St. Andrews

This area is famous for a couple of reasons, but our visit to St. Andrews was mostly to visit the cathedral ruins. It was built in 1158 and now stands in ruins right on the coast. It was a beautiful place to visit and explore. While in town, stop at St. Andrews Castle and walk through the university’s grounds. The golf course is a popular spot as well because it’s the oldest golf course in the world. That being said, we aren’t golfers and it looked like an average golf course to my untrained eyes. As easy as it is to be rocked to sleep on the train, keep your eyes open because you’ll pass through beautiful countryside as well as some gorgeous coastal towns.

Scale the Scott Monument

This area is famous for a couple of reasons, but our visit to St. Andrews was mostly to visit the cathedral ruins. It was built in 1158 and now stands in ruins right on the coast. It was a beautiful place to visit and explore. While in town, stop at St. Andrews Castle and walk through the university’s grounds. The golf course is a popular spot as well because it’s the oldest golf course in the world. That being said, we aren’t golfers and it looked like an average golf course to my untrained eyes. As easy as it is to be rocked to sleep on the train, keep your eyes open because you’ll pass through beautiful countryside as well as some gorgeous coastal towns.

Taste Some Whiskey

If you like whiskey, we recommend visiting the Scotch Whiskey Experience and taking a tour. If you don’t like whiskey, it’s still worth stepping into their shop where you’ll find hundreds of different kinds of whiskey, all varying in size, age, and price. The tour is very informative and we learned so many interesting things about Scotch, from how it’s made to the different regions of Scotland and how they produce different flavors.

Experience the Real Mary King’s Close

Be transported back in time with a guided tour under the current streets of Edinburgh to 17th century living. The city’s old alleyways are now underground and were perfectly preserved when they were built over. I wasn’t a huge fan of the dramatic, acting tour guide, but being able to walk where citizens lived and worked hundreds of years ago was a really cool experience.

Float Upon the Royal Yacht Britannia

The yacht was the royal family’s floating holiday home from 1953-1997 and it is now moored permanently at the Ocean Terminal next to the 1930s racing yacht Bloodhound. The audio tour sheds light on the queen’s taste, the ship’s crew of 241, and the 1950s decor.

Just Walk and Eat

Ultimately, this is our favorite thing to do at any travel destination to a city. Soak in the culture by walking the main city areas and eating local delicacies. Immerse yourself in the local history by visiting the universities, monuments, and museums you come across in town. While we planned out some of our days, most were just spent walking around and doing whatever we came across. We walked past The Elephant House (cafe where JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book), visited ancient graveyards, shopped at tiny little historic bookstores, and ate at local restaurants.

Things we didn’t do but still recommend:

Hike Arthur’s Seat. Arthur’s seat is the highest point on the remains of an extinct volcano that erupted 350 millions years ago and features brilliant views of the entire city of Edinburgh. The hike is about 3 miles / 4.75 km and takes 2-3 hours depending on fitness level. It’s free and is a beautiful stop. We didn’t make it mostly because we ran out of time, and partially because we couldn’t bring ourselves to hike anymore after walking around town for miles and miles.

Surgeons’ Hall Museum & National Museum of Scotland. Both are extremely highly rated museum attractions in the city and we wish we could have visited, but we ran out of time. I think I would find the Surgeons’ Hall particularly intriguing, especially since it sheds light on 15th century to current medical practices and the accompanying instruments.

Royal Botanic Gardens. In all honesty, I’m a sucker for gardens no matter where in the world. From home gardens to royal gardens (like Keukenhof in the Netherlands), I could spend all day soaking in the sights and smells of flowers. I usually make it a point to visit major botanic gardens when I travel, but didn’t have time to make it to this one.

Whatever you do, enjoy yourself.

Have you been to Edinburgh? If so, we’d love to hear your favorite attractions! Use our contact form or shoot us an email. Have questions? Feel free to ask us!

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