Edinburgh — or 'Auld Reekie' as no one really seems to call it — is a glorious mish-mash of Georgian grandeur and medieval snickelways, topped up with with an iconically aloof castle and an extinct volcano, which makes you double-take the first time you clap eyes on it. The city is undoubtedly one of the UK's classiest, and an excellent introduction to Scotland. Some kind of festival apparently happens here every August, too.
Getting to Edinburgh
Direct trains run between London King's Cross and Edinburgh Waverley stations. They're regular (two or three within the hour) and the swiftest trains take around four hours 20 minutes. Affordable fares are available, but a tad needle-in-a-haystack. Search and book well in advance, and keep 'em peeled for sales from LNER and Lumo.
Coaches from the likes of FlixBus are usually the thriftier option, though strap in; it'll take nine or so hours.
Edinburgh need to know
- Getting around Edinburgh: Petite in comparison to London, Edinburgh is a wonderfully walkable city, and there may not be much call for using public transport, especially on a maiden visit. Still, there's a decent bus and tram network (though the latter gets a bad rap from the locals, who waited yonks for it). If you are doing it on foot, a word of warning: Edinburgh is a very steep and hilly city, particularly in the centre.
- Accommodation: Assuming it's not August (see directly below) Edinburgh is flush with a range of accommodation to suit most budgets, including Airbnbs and chain hotels. The five-star Balmoral — with its clock set three minutes fast to benefit those sprinting for their train — has a fine reputation, but these days, many other first-rate hotels also vie for your cash. For something novel, kip on the floating hotel, Fingal.
- Edinburgh Festival/Fringe: Each August, Edinburgh Hulk-ifies into a hive of comedy/dance/drama/music/fireworks. If your dream is steeping yourself in a vat of culture/whisky for a month, the Fringe/International Festival is where it's at. Alas, accommodation during August is almost prohibitively expensive. Plan a year ahead if you can, or become good friends with an Edinburger.
- Scottishness: First time in Scotland? It's quipped that Edinburgh is the most 'English' part of Scotland — but if it's whisky, bagpipes, and well-and-truly battered food you seek, there are plenty of places that deliver the goods.
Exploring the Royal Mile
Sweeping through the heart of the historic city is the Royal Mile — a succession of grand cobbled thoroughfares running from the Palace of Holyroodhouse in the east, to Edinburgh Castle in the west. Both of these regal bookends will give you a fine footing in Edinburgh's history (though not cheap). But first spend some time zig-zagging your way up and down the Mile's wealth of shops, pubs and churches, as well as ducking into the various snickelways. A few Royal Mile addresses worth calling in at:
- Descend into the 17th century streets beneath the Royal Mile, on the Real Mary King's Close tour (touristy, but undeniably fascinating).
- Seek sanctuary from the hustle and bustle in St Giles' Cathedral, where you can often catch afternoon concerts.
- Spy on the city, and play tricks on your brain at Camera Obscura & World of Illusions.
- Get a crash course in the spectrum of Scottish drams (and ride about in a barrel) at the Scotch Whisky Experience.
- Spitting on the Heart of Midlothian mosaic is thought to bring good luck, though not so much since Covid.
Eating in Edinburgh
Stodge is a staple part of food in these (often chilly) parts, and there is no shame in delving into the delights of a macaroni and cheese pie from The Piemaker, a pulled pork bap overloaded with crackling and apple sauce, from one of the city's Oink outlets — or indeed, some battered haggis/Mars bar courtesy of a distinguished chip shop like the Clam Shell.
Of course, being an international destination, there are many more strings to Edinburgh's culinary bow. Café St Honoré does exquisite french bistro staples at £34 for three courses. Or splash your cash on beef tartare with quail's eggs at The Little Chartroom. Sweet teeth can be sated at Mary's Milk Bar, which serves freshly-made gelato and chocs in 1950s-chic surrounds.
Museums and galleries in Edinburgh
Holyroodhouse and the castle aside, there are a number of other cultural institutions worth popping your head into. The National Museum of Scotland (free entry) is home to Dolly the cloned sheep (spoiler alert: Dolly is now dead and stuffed) and a hidden terrace with super views of the city. The neo-gothic Scottish National Portrait Gallery is free too; come here to ogle work by Scottish greats like Samuel John Peploe and Ian Cheyne.
The Writers' Museum is crammed with manuscripts and trinkets from the likes of Rabbie Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott. For something more kid-friendly, Dynamic Earth bids you to dive the depths of the ocean, and sail among the stars, via impressive immersive experiences.
A night out in Edinburgh
Time to hit the tiles, and oh boy, are there some drinking holes in this city:
- For old school vibes: Sup the whisky of the day at Bow Bar; order a real ale in the theatrical surrounds of the Guildford Arms; chew on a kabanos at Dagda Bar; probably run into crime writer Iain Rankin at his pub of choice, the Oxford Bar.
- For beer: Vault City peddle some of the finest sour beers known to man, and have two taprooms (one with a smokehouse) in Edinburgh. The Hanging Bat can be relied on for a slew of interesting brews, many of them Scottish (Tempest, Newbarns, Black Isle), as can the unfussy Jeremiah's Tap Room, on the way towards Leith.
- For swank: Panda and Sons is a speakeasy in the New Town, reached by descending through a fake barbershop, to an extravagant lair where they'll ply you with Mexican highballs. Nightcap's another worthy speakeasy, or, if your taste buds seek the untainted embrace of neat scotch, have a wee dram at the Balmoral's upmarket whisky bar.
Looking for a show? It's the Fringe all year round at redoubtable comedy club The Stand, as well as venues including Festival Theatre, Edinburgh Playhouse and — for upcoming writers/directors — Traverse Theatre.
A walk up Arthur's Seat or along Portobello Beach
Edinburgh's got a number of head-clearing walks, chiefly among them the ascent up Arthur's Seat — the ex-volcano that's now a gorgeous walk with peerless views over the city. Visit at the right time, and you can have a snowball fight up here.
Another Edinburgh climb with rewarding views is Calton Hill (see top image), peppered with various monuments blackened by the Edinburgh weather, including a tribute to Nelson, and a faux Greek temple.
If you'd rather take in a bit of the coastline, hop a bus to Portobello Beach, and take a stroll along the sands. The area's got ice cream parlours and pubs to keep you occupied, and if it's too bracing for a dip in the sea, there's always the local pool with its replica Victorian Aerotone.
Or visit the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, where you can bliss out among rock gardens and redwoods, a mile from the city centre.
Exploring the rest of Edinburgh
Got some time to kill? Tick off some of these:
- Curving, cobbled and colourful, Victoria Street is probably the most Instagrammed street in Edinburgh.
- Walking tours: There's no shortage of these in the city, from ghosts to whisky to comedy. Oh, and Harry Potter of course — most of the books were penned in Edinburgh.
- Tour of Parliament: Speaking of tours, there's a good one of Enric Miralles' Scottish Parliament building, influenced by everything from upturned boats to the flower paintings of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
- St Stephen Street is a cute thoroughfare lined with with vintage shops, a book store and the like — it's a few minutes walk from the city centre, on the way to Dean Village (also picturesque).
- Go pat the head of Scotland's best-known dog, Greyfriars Bobby.
On the list for next time...
- Neighbouring Leith has become a darned sight bougier since Irvine Welsh set his novel Trainspotting here. Call in at the Teuchters Landing, which does a superb fish kebab, and has a hoopla bar game, where you try to win a dram of expensive whisky. Or book a Michelin-starred three-course set lunch menu for under £50, at The Kitchin.
- In our humble opinion, the Forth railway bridge is one of the world's most jaw-dropping spans. Catch a train/bus out to South Queensferry; from here you can do a short boat cruise to Inchcolm Island and its 12th century abbey. You'll also get immense views of all three Forth bridges (which span three centuries).