My Scotland Itinerary Ideas series rolls on today with a look at my favorite place in the whole world and a destination you are sure to visit upon your trip to Scotland: Edinburgh. Scotland’s capital is no secret to the rest of the world, but I have more than a few tips that will make your visit to the Athens of the North one of utmost enjoyment.
I have largely focused on specific topics throughout the life of Traveling Savage, but now I’m providing you with information at a higher level to help in your Scotland trip-planning, idea-generation phase. These Scotland Itinerary Ideas articles collect many of my previous posts on the selected region into one place, along with my assessment of their criticality for the visitor and a bevy of useful tidbits that might’ve gotten lost along the way. At the end of the day, these articles should be useful cheat sheets to refer to when you begin planning your next trip to Scotland.
Questions and suggestions are always welcome!
Edinburgh is a poem in stone. Its stanzas the alternately hackneyed and perfect designs of its encircling neighborhoods, its phrases those of bygone eras modeled in the closes and wynds of the Old Town, and its intention the age-blackened monuments of the Dunedians’ lofty aim. Edinburgh is a city of light and dark, of height and depth, of old and even older, and everywhere you tread there are stories waiting to be heard if you would simply stop and listen. The geology of Edinburgh, with its twin mounts and seven hills, emphasizes what most visitors implicitly pick up as they explore this great wonder of mankind – that this is a special place whose meaning, much like a great poem, appears different to each beholder. Perhaps I am struggling to convey Edinburgh’s more subtle graces – it is of course a city of great culture, museums, pubs, and history – but I do so because it is this sheen of the inexplicable and unnameable that makes Edinburgh one of the world’s great destinations.
Things You Can’t Miss
Edinburgh Castle. You literally can’t miss Edinburgh Castle. The fortification’s crenelated bulk seems to hang in the sky above the city, visible from wherever you happen to look up. Given its situation, history, and architecture, I give Edinburgh Castle top billing among all the amazing castles within Scotland’s borders. Seated on a volcanic plug that acts like an immense throne at the top of the Royal Mile, Edinburgh Castle demands a minimum of three hours of your time. Inside the walls is a small city with outstanding views in every direction. If you’ve got a clear day, book your morning or afternoon and experience Edinburgh’s prime site.
Arthur’s Seat. Opposite Edinburgh Castle and looming over the Palace of Holyroodhouse stands Arthur’s Seat and the Salisbury Crags. Arthur’s Seat is yet another extinct volcano that provides a beautiful green space in the heart of the city. A climb up Arthur’s Seat is well worth the effort – especially if you’ve been cramming down Scottish breakfasts – for a bit of exercise and the incredible gale-force winds that greet you at the top. For an interesting descent, head down the backside into charming Duddingston (see below).
Old Town’s myriad closes. The city itself is a site to see, especially in and among the Old Town’s closes and wynds. These narrow corridors shoot off from the Royal Mile like legs on a centipede and drop down toward New Town and the Cowgate. Some lead to hidden plazas while others take you to narrow stairs and excellent pubs. The closes and wynds are a relic of Edinburgh’s development through the ages and make for some of the best exploration I’ve experienced while traveling.
Things You Shouldn’t Miss
Dean Village. When Ian Rankin told me about Dean Village, an old grain-milling hamlet still intact within Edinburgh’s city center, I knew had to find it. This green ripple hidden along the Water of Leith might be Edinburgh’s most astonishing feature. Indeed, it boggles the mind that this pretty village, seemingly locked in the 16th century, exists within a modern European city. The best way to experience Dean Village is to simply follow the path along the Water of Leith to Stockbridge. This beautiful walk takes in Dean Village’s atmospherics and past some surprising monuments.
Rosslyn Chapel. While not in Edinburgh city proper, Rosslyn Chapel is just a quick bus ride south to the town of Roslin. These days, Rosslyn Chapel is most famous for being the ultimate setting of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, but the chapel was famous for its masterful stonework and mysterious past long before that novel. Take a close look at the intricate carvings covering every surface inside the chapel and you’ll notice several places where corn and other vegetables are given particular focus. This doesn’t seem strange until you learn Rosslyn Chapel was built before the discovery of the new world…
The Leith Waterfront. Edinburgh’s one-time neighbor and salty little brother, Leith is now part of the city of Edinburgh and functions as the city’s northern port along the Firth of Forth. In recent years Leith has become the focus of rejuvenation projects and mostly outgrown its shady reputation. Some of Edinburgh’s best restaurants, pubs, and flats are now found within Leith, and a stroll through this region puts a new spin on Edinburgh.
Things to Do Off the Beaten Path
Explore Edinburgh’s underworld. Edinburgh’s immense and diverse underground complexes must vie with the likes of Paris for the world’s spookiest subterranean haunts. The nature of Edinburgh’s development along the slopes of an extinct volcano prompted stepped building along either side of the Royal Mile. As time wore on, new buildings were built on top of older ones, and these more ancient places became sealed off from the world. Various tour providers now take visitors into these dark places. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, consider staying over night in one of the haunted vaults.
Visit ancient Duddingston. Much like Leith and Dean Village, Duddingston used to be an independent village in the distant past where Bonnie Prince Charlie and King James VI loitered. Today, Duddingston exists within the city of Edinburgh, on the backside of Arthur’s Seat near the Palace of Holyroodhouse. This tiny village has had its antiquity preserved throughout the centuries, and you’d be remiss if you didn’t visit The Sheep Heid Inn, Scotland’s oldest pub. Duddingston is yet another facet in the jewel of Edinburgh.
Comb Edinburgh’s lesser-known neighborhoods. Most visitors will be familiar with New Town and Old Town, but Edinburgh has loads of other neighborhoods brimming with character. From Stockbridge to Marchmont and Morningside to Calton, the neighborhoods of Edinburgh provide the opportunity for serendipity in vast amounts. Looking for a good way to explore? Why not build your ramblings in these less-touristed areas around pub crawls? It’s a great way to take in the scenery and get a feel for your surroundings.
Logistics and Salient Bits
Bases. There is no shortage when it comes to options for places to stay. New Town, Old Town, Stockbridge, and Leith are all favorites, but I particularly like the area around the Meadows, just south of the Royal Mile. You’ve got great pubs nearby, a gorgeous park, and you’re pretty much right in the nexus between the Royal Mile and Edinburgh’s interesting near south side. Unfortunately, one of my favorite B&Bs recently closed (re: retirement), but the flats along Middle Meadow Walk are perfect self-catering units. Unless you’re a backpacker staying at hostels, I would avoid staying on the Royal Mile. New Town is quieter (and more expensive) and Stockbridge even more so. The south side is a good, affordable option, and you needn’t fear being far from the action because Edinburgh is actually a fairly small city.
Transportation. Finally, a place where you don’t need (or want) a car! Yes, Edinburgh is a walker-friendly city and I highly recommend putting the old dogs to use here. When you’ve got to get from point A to point B more quickly, take one of the many buses. You’ll be pleased at how fast you get around. Buses and trains range out in all directions from Edinburgh, and you can easily daytrip out to the nearby Lothians on a bus or take a train to get further afield. I recommend taxis only if you find yourself in or passing through the seedier neighborhoods at night. Walking is truly the best way to soak in Edinburgh’s overpowering ambience.
Food & Drink. Edinburgh serves up some seriously good food. From face-meltingly awesome and affordable north Indian/Pakistani grub at Kebab Mahal (below) to ultra high-end dinners at The Witchery, Edinburgh serves up a cornucopia of worldly cuisines to fit any budget. Some of my favorite eats include The Kitchin in Leith, The Grain Store, Oink!, Kebab Mahal, The Dogs, and Dusit. For foodies, Edinburgh is the best spot in Scotland, so get your fill – this range of cuisines will not be matched outside of Glasgow. Nothing beats Edinburgh’s pub scene (Glasgow is a tie), and I’ve waxed poetic about its various drinking holes in a series of pub crawl articles here. Looking for a handful of sure-fire pubs? Here you go: The Bow Bar, Cloisters, The Halfway House, Café Royal, and Sandy Bell’s. Edinburgh possesses a couple of good breweries in Stewart and Caledonian, and whisky heads will be happy to visit the Scotch Malt Whisky Society and the Scotch Whisky Experience.
There you have it. All the ingredients for a memorable visit to Edinburgh, one of Europe’s (and the world’s) great cities. Be forewarned: One visit is not enough to capture all of Edinburgh’s charm. Prepare yourself for a return visit!