Why hadn’t we been to Edinburgh before? That was what we were wondering after we’d visited the capital of Scotland on a long weekend. The costs probably – Edinburgh is by no means a cheap city to visit –, the weather for sure. For many years in our quest for suitable travel destinations nice temperatures and dry, sunny weather ranked high in our search profile. And that was not what we associated with Edinburgh and Scotland.
We were foolish of course. It’s like thinking that you’ll see Scots wearing kilts everywhere you go, when in reality the only people you see wearing kilts in the streets of Edinburgh are people who in one way or another earn their money in tourism (besides that kilts are worn mostly for special occasions). Like the stereotype of Scots wearing kilts is far from reality, the weather is not always bad either.
Typical Scottish weather
The weather forecast the day before our arrival in Edinburgh promised that we’d be going full Scottish though: light rain, patchy light drizzle, patchy rain nearby, patchy light rain, fleeting showers, passing showers and showers followed by rain were some of the descriptions we saw for the four the days of our stay. Lucky for us the weather forecasters were off. No drizzle or patchy rain, but dry and cloudy most of the time and a gloriously sunny Sunday (what’s in a name).
But even with ‘typical Scottish’ weather we’re sure we would have fallen in love with Edinburgh. What a gorgeous city. With so many charming old buildings Edinburgh is heaven for people who like to go sightseeing. Walking distances are short, at every corner new surprises await. History and heritage is everywhere, even when you don’t visit the most famous tourist sights. To give you some guidance we’ve compiled a list of some of the things we liked in Edinburgh anyway, plus two (half) day trip suggestions outside the city. Here they are.
Things we liked in Edinburgh
Like many people we started our trip to Edinburgh with a visit to Edinburgh Castle. Perched high on Castle Rock with views across the city you can immediately understand the strategic importance of this location and why it has been used both as a royal residence (since at least the 12th century) and a military stronghold (since the start of the 17th century). As such it has played a major role in Scottish history.
Much of that history can be learned touring the castle grounds (and with the help of a very detailed audio guide). You can visit the fortifications, several museums, barracks and prisons as well as the Royal Palace, housing the Scottish crown jewels, the oldest surviving crown jewels in Europe. Seeing the long waiting line to get into the room that holds the crown jewels we decided to forego on seeing them though.
To be honest: We were not very impressed by the castle itself and thought it rather expensive. It was nice – and seen from afar it’s a magnificent sight –, but walking around we were a little underwhelmed. It certainly wasn’t the highlight of our visit to Edinburgh, but an must see nonetheless. As it is the number one tourist attraction in Edinburgh and gets overrun by tour groups during the day, it’s best to get there as soon as the castle gate opens or visit at the end of the day.
The Royal Mile
After visiting Edinburgh Castle a logical thing to do is to walk the Royal Mile all the way down (literally) to the Palace of Holyroodhouse at the other end. The Royal Mile is a nickname, by the way, the actual street name changing five times as you walk along. Many museums and historic landmarks are located along the Royal Mile and can easily fill a full day of sightseeing.
We found the late 15th century St Giles Cathedral the most interesting. Although quite sober on the inside, it has some very nice stain-glass windows. Regretfully we missed out on Real Mary King’s Close – a subterranean labyrinth of alleyways dating back to the 17th century that can only be visited on guided tours. We were saving it for a rainy day, but since that day never came we decided to go the afternoon before our flight back home, not realizing that we’d have to wait a few hours before the next available tour. That would sadly be too late for us.
Leading off the Royal Mile are many so-called ‘closes’, the alleyways and courtyards that together with the main street originally formed the old town of Edinburgh. As a means of protecting the inhabitants from attacks by the English in the old days, most alleyways are narrow with high buildings on each side, making it easier to defend the city from outside aggression. It’s fun to wander into these closes, which offer some of the best photo opportunities in the city.
Palace of Holyroodhouse
The walk down the Royal Mile ends at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the royal family’s official residence in Scotland since the 16th century. The Palace is most (in)famous as the home of Mary Queen of Scots and as the site of the murder of Mary’s secretary Rizzio, allegedly by her jealous husband Lord Darnley. You can visit the bedroom where it all happened. The slightly overpriced entrance ticket includes the atmospheric ruins of 12th century Holyrood Abbey next to the palace and a stroll through the surrounding park.
From Holyroodhouse it’s a short walk to the start of the hiking trail to the 251 meter high peak of Arthur’s Seat, which you can see from all over Edinburgh. Budget at least two hours to hike up to the peak (which can be a bit steep at the end). If you are strapped for time going right (we went there by mistake) instead of left at the start of the climb you can have good views of the city from the Salisbury Crags (they are actually better here than from Arthur’s Seat).
Running parallel to the north of the Royal Mile are Princes Street (for shopping) and Princes Street Gardens (for relaxing and grand views of the old town and Edinburgh Castle). For even better views we climbed Scott Monument, a 61 meter high Gothic spire built to commemorate novelist Sir Walter Scott after his death in 1832. It’s a bit of a tight squeeze to climb the 287 steps of the dizzying spiral staircase all the way to the top, but the views are worth it. The Ferris Wheel next to Scott Monument doesn’t involve climbing stairs, but is more expensive and has less impressive views.
From Princes Street it is only a short walk to Calton Hill, one of the best and most popular lookout points in Edinburgh. On top of the hill are some memorials, like the Nelson Monument that can be climbed for another perspective from above (we got there too late for that). Calton Hill a great spot to relax, take in 360 degree views of the city and hope for a glorious sunset with Edinburgh’s Old Town skyline in the background. We were not that lucky.
As noted earlier Edinburgh is a rather expensive city. Luckily it has its fair share of free museums to keep costs down. Unlucky for us: Most of the museums didn’t really cater to our interests (we’re not big fans of museums anyway). But because they’re free we took a quick peek inside the Scottish National Gallery (which for an art museum we actually found quite lovely) and the National Museum of Scotland, a bit of a museum for everything, ranging from natural history and archeology to science, industrial technology and ancient decorative art from all over the world. It also has a rooftop terrace with a view of Edinburgh Castle.
Water of Leith Walkway
Starting behind the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (also free) is the Water of Leith Walkway which leads you in seven kilometers along the Water of Leith to the seaport of Leith. The first stretch is most picturesque, passing through Dean Village and Stockbridge, which we included in our best photo spots in Edinburgh post. At Stockbridge it’s possible to make a beeline for the Royal Botanic Gardens (we didn’t). The stretch between Stockbridge and Leith we found decidedly less interesting.
Royal Yacht Britannia
The most important reason to walk all the way to Leith anyway is to board the Royal Yacht Britannia (but you can also take the bus of course). This was the floating palace of Queen Elizabeth for over 40 years before it was decommissioned in 1997. The audio tour included in the pricey entrance ticket guides you over five decks past the private rooms of the royal family and the living and working quarters of the 220 Royal Yachtsmen and lets you learn about (strict) live on board and the grand moments that happened here. Her Majesty’s Rolls-Royce is also present in a specially built on-board garage, but most of the ship is quite modest for royal standards.
Greyfriars Kirkyard and around
One of the most photographed sights in Edinburgh is the life-sized statue of Greyfriars Bobby, the dog that kept watch at the grave of his master from 1858 to 1872. The story was immortalized in a novel and a Walt Disney movie, but we didn’t really feel the urge to take a picture of the statue. It’s just a rather plain statue. The surroundings looked more interesting to us, more particularly peaceful Greyfriars Kirkyard and its ancient grave monuments.
For those with a little more time on their hands – or a special interest – a half day excursion to Rosslyn Chapel is a rewarding side trip outside the city. Lothian Bus 37 to Deanburn leaves every half hour from the North Bridge, taking about 45 minutes to get to the village of Roslin. From there it’s a five minute walk to Rosslyn Chapel that became famous because of the final scene of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code that was set here. Since then it has developed into a major tourist attraction. As the chapel is not so big it can quickly feel quite crowded inside.
We mainly visited because it is said to be the prettiest church in Scotland. And it is a beauty indeed, the ornately carved interior rife with symbolic imagery and gorgeous stain-glass windows (no pictures allowed inside regretfully). Founded in 1446 the chapel is shrouded in mystery. Was it associated with the Knights Templar and Freemasonry? And why is there a carving of maize (which originates in North America) in a chapel that was built before Columbus discovered America?
With almost four full days we ventured out of Edinburgh for a second time visiting Inchcolm Island on an unusually sunny Sunday morning. We headed out by train to the nice town of Queensferry to admire the Forth Bridge – an 1890 built, 1.447 meter long rail bridge spanning the Firth of Forth – and boarding the Maid of the Forth to visit Inchcolm Island and the beautifully ruined Inchcolm Abbey founded in 1123.
Travel tips Edinburgh
Stay – Edinburgh is an expensive city to sleep, so finding decent accommodation without spending a fortune is not so easy. We ended up at the St Valery Guest House, a bed and breakfast located in a quiet side street a few minutes’ walk from Haymarket Station. Edinburgh castle was about 15-20 minutes’ walk away. The Lithuanian owners were friendly and helpful.
We had the cheapest room (still a whopping 100 euro) with a built-in shower cabin, a cramped wash basin and a private toilet outside the room in the hallway. Beds were comfortable, wifi was a little spotty in our room on the second floor but good downstairs, breakfast was great. I ate a full Scottish breakfast the first day, but didn’t like the black pudding (blood sausage from pork fat), so asked for Scottish breakfast without it, making it basically an English breakfast I guess…
Transport – There are several ways to get from Edinburgh Airport 13 kilometers west of the city to the city center. Airlink buses and the Edinburgh tram are the most convenient if you don’t want to shell out for a taxi. Edinburgh is a very walkable city but sometimes it can be convenient to take one of the double-decker buses that you see riding everywhere. You can buy tickets from the bus driver. Make sure to have exact change.
We visited Edinburgh in September 2016