Scotland Itinerary Ideas: Edinburgh

by Keith Savage · 38 comments


Edinburgh Castle as seen from Princes Street

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

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!


AlisonNo Gravatar May 6, 2016 at 4:47 PM

Hi Keith –
Incredibly helpful site – currently my go-to in planning my trip. Assuming the normal safety precautions of any woman traveling solo abroad – are there any particular parts of Edinburgh you’d recommend avoiding staying in? I’m also considering a brief trip up to Inverness (still checking out your itin options).

Thanks!

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar May 6, 2016 at 4:55 PM

Hi Alison,

Glad to hear you’re finding the site useful! The only area of Edinburgh I’ve found to be a little sketchy is the Lothian Road area shooting southwest from the Old Town, especially around Fountainbridge and Bread. It’s more skeezy than dangerous. Parts of Leith used to be pretty much off-limits, but that area has undergone serious gentrification in the last ten years.

Cheers,
Keith

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CarmenNo Gravatar January 26, 2016 at 8:04 AM

Hey Keith,

I plan to visit Edinburgh again and I would like to know if Easter is a good period. The first time I went to this city I stayed around the centre and did not visit too much. I can see there are a few more places that I need to see, this time around. From the first time that I have been there, all I can remember were the delicious jacket potatoes, the huge muffins or the delicious sandwiches. I would like to fill my tummy with these again 🙂 Therefore, all I want to know is if I will find the shops closed during Easter? So far I’m looking at coming on 25th and returning on 27th or 28th of March (2016). What do you think and what is your advice?

Thank you so much!!!

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 26, 2016 at 9:08 AM

Hi Carmen,

I’ve been to Edinburgh during this time and everything was open. It’s a cool, pretty time of year. Some of the flowers will just begin blooming. Enjoy your trip!

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CarmenNo Gravatar January 28, 2016 at 9:09 AM

That’s strange!

Are you sure they are going to be open (I mean, even on Sunday when it’s Easter)? Don’t people have a break during Easter?
How about the transport? I suppose it is less frequent, right?

Cheers!

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 28, 2016 at 10:28 AM

Businesses do have an Easter break, but those businesses that cater to tourism remain largely open. I can’t promise you everything will be open all the time, only that I didn’t run into closure during my time there. If you’re staying in the center of Edinburgh, you can see everything on foot.

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kimberNo Gravatar July 30, 2015 at 10:31 PM

your website is fantastic, keith – thanks for sharing all of your experience with all of us. i’m going to be in the UK in sept/oct, and will be a few days in Edinburgh, about 10 days on Islay, and then was thinking of doing a few days in Glasgow before i have to head back to London. i’m on a bit of a budget, but don’t want to do hostels – any recommendations for cheap to mid-range hotels in those places? thank you so much!

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 31, 2015 at 10:00 AM

Hi Kimber,

Thanks for the kind words about my site. I typically stay in luxury accommodation when I travel, so I’m afraid I won’t be much use to you answering this question. When it comes to accommodations, I always start with TripAdvisor.

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kimberNo Gravatar July 31, 2015 at 12:08 PM

Thank you for taking time to reply, I appreciate it.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar August 4, 2015 at 7:56 PM

No problem!

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ShariNo Gravatar October 13, 2015 at 1:24 PM

I am considering a trip to Scotland and Ireland with my 18 year old daughter in March and would love to hear what upscale/luxury accommodations you recommend. We will definitely visit Edinburgh and her friend at St. Andrews. I am trying to work out the rest of the 8 day trip and would love recommendations as this will be our first time there. Thank you.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar October 13, 2015 at 1:52 PM

Hi Shari, have a look at the accommodations I’ve written about here on this site.

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RuacaNo Gravatar July 25, 2015 at 9:06 AM

I booked a side trip to Scotland this August (staying in Ireland). I had no idea the fringe festival was going on. I am a little nervous now I won’t be able to really see Edinburgh the way I hoped. I hope it’s not a crazy time to go. Too late now, I am committed and booked. And, I an staying in old town, again as a newbie I figured this was the ideal area to be located.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 27, 2015 at 9:05 AM

Hi Ruaca. Edinburgh is certainly a much more crowded place during the Fringe Festival, but the magnificent essence of the city is never lost. The Old Town is my favorite part of town, and it is also the epicenter of the festival. Adjust your expectations – it is the busiest time of year – but know that you will still have the opportunity to experience the heart and soul of this most amazing city!

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AmyNo Gravatar February 11, 2015 at 10:07 PM

We are thinking of taking a 7-day trip to Scotland with our 1 year old in mid-June. We would like to stay in the same accommodation for several nights to reduce the hassle of packing and unpacking. We could either stay in Edinburgh the whole time and take a few day trips or stay in Edinburgh for the first half and then go to another home base for the second half. If we went with the first option, what day trips would you recommend? If we went with the second, where would be a good place to visit for a few days?

We enjoy cities, history, nature, pubs, restaurants…really anything but whiskey! We would be comfortable driving if that is a more convenient way to get between certain destinations (we did two weeks in Ireland pre-baby and actually enjoyed driving on the left!). The baby is a good traveler, but we would rather not commit to long driving days.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 12, 2015 at 9:05 AM

Hi Amy,

There are lots of options for day trips from Edinburgh. You could go east to Tantallon Castle in East Lothian, south to Melrose and the Border abbeys, west to Glasgow, and north to Stirling and St. Andrews. Driving would be more convenient to places like Tantallon and the Borders.

An option for a second base would be Pitlochry or Dunkeld in Perthshire. Those are beautiful towns not too far from Edinburgh but with an entirely different feel. They’re also on the main rail line north.

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the paper boat sailorNo Gravatar October 8, 2014 at 4:47 PM

I was in Edinburgh for the Fringe this year, and although I went to some remarkable festival events, a part of me also wished the city were more open for exploration. Still, I did manage to visit the underground haunts and naturally didn’t miss the things one cannot miss, ate at The Kitchin (wowza!) and Dusit, and tried many a local ale. Not too shabby for four days, and without a doubt it is my city of the year.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar October 8, 2014 at 8:50 PM

Brave soul, visiting Edinburgh during the festival. Yeah, the Kitchin is great and I’ve heard Dusit is fantastic. I *really* love Kebab Mahal.

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MarkNo Gravatar July 7, 2014 at 10:01 PM

Great website with great info. What is your opinion of personal guides? Worth the cost or just as well to explore on your own? Do you miss anything without a guide?

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 7, 2014 at 10:33 PM

Personal guides can be a great boon to any trip to Scotland. I’ve never hired a guide, but I’ve had friends who were locals that led me around and showed me the ins and outs of places. There’s nothing like it, and it makes a great accompaniment to time spent on your own dedicated to exploring and serendipity. There’s too much variety in the quality of guides for me to say it is or is not worth the cost. 99% of my travels have been without a guide of any sort and, clearly, I’ve loved every second of it. 🙂

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DarlaNo Gravatar June 20, 2014 at 3:36 PM

Wow. Even a country gal like me is tempted to spend more time there than just visiting the Castle. That said … how are the Highlands overall for providing vegetarian meals? Will I find myself surviving on potatoes? 😉

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar June 22, 2014 at 4:36 PM

Generally, your best for vegetarian meals is Indian restaurants. Meat is a common component of most Scottish meals.

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AdamNo Gravatar March 9, 2014 at 3:38 PM

Awesome photos. We have visited Edinburgh last spring and it became one of my favorites. Lovely country, amazing architecture and strange but interesting cousine (fried Mars/Snickers..) ;))

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Jennifer JensenNo Gravatar February 24, 2014 at 4:49 PM

I am taking my sweet mother this summer (in late June) and I so appreciate all of the advice and recommendations. We are so excited!

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 25, 2014 at 8:57 AM

You’re very welcome, Jennifer!

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ShereenNo Gravatar February 21, 2014 at 8:18 AM

I recently read a book that was set in Edinburgh and I remember reading about many of the places you mentioned. My imagination doesn’t compare to your pictures though. Thanks for sharing. These are great insights. It’s so hard to know what to do and what are the must see things in a city.

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Shanna SchultzNo Gravatar February 20, 2014 at 4:39 PM

We have been to Edinburgh three times, and I am continually amazed by finding new places to explore each time we go. Your post has added a few more to my list for next time…We missed Rosslyn chapel on previous visits and Dean Village sounds like a great gem of a place to go away from the tourist crowd. Great post!

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 20, 2014 at 4:45 PM

Glad to help! Rosslyn Chapel might be favorite man-made structure in the all the world. It’s that awesome.

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Moira TollanNo Gravatar February 20, 2014 at 11:22 AM

Love Edinburgh, haven’t been in over 10 years but will find my way home to Arbroath, Angus and my first trek will be to the Castle……be still my beating heart….xo (living in Canada)

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 20, 2014 at 3:08 PM

My grandmother is from Arbroath! Small world.

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wanderingeducatorsNo Gravatar February 20, 2014 at 11:05 AM

LOVE, love, love Edinburgh! And your recs!

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 20, 2014 at 3:03 PM

My favorite city!

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waynebNo Gravatar February 20, 2014 at 6:15 AM

A very nice synopsis of what Edinburgh offers visitors (and locals) who want to discover this magical city beyond its most obvious attractions (i.e., High St., Princes St., Holyrood Palace… ). The mention of Stockbridge, Dean Village, Calton, Marchmont, Morningside and other more village-like areas (often with streets of wonderful stone homes and hardy gardens) is particularly pleasing, as too many visitors miss out on one of the city’s best kept secrets: where those Edinburgh folks actually live. I have loved Edinburgh since – literally – first sight. And that was a photo in 1968! In 1975 I moved there…I lived there. I now visit. And I do miss it terribly. As will anyone who visits. I have many friends who have also spent time there, and we agree that the lure to return never subsides. Once again, this feature is a tasty sampling of one of life’s great feasts. Savour ever bite. And haste ye back.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 20, 2014 at 9:26 AM

Hi Wayne,

Some of the best times I’ve had in Edinburgh happened when I just started walking beyond the Old Town/New Town nexus into the surrounding neighborhoods. There are some great pubs, shops, greens, and views to find, and serendipity always makes it sweeter.

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