Edinburgh, Scotland is a vibrant, modern city with a rich history and cultural heritage. It lies at the southern edge of the Firth of Forth, on Scotland’s east coast. Edinburgh’s history dates back to prehistoric times. The modern city sprung up in the Middle Ages, as a small settlement on Castle Rock. It became a burgh by royal charter in the early 12th century, and expanded into what’s known as the New Town in the 18th century.
When I lived in Glasgow, I would often jump on the train for the 45 minute ride to Edinburgh. My friends and I explored the city, visited the coast, and hung out at the local bars. In my two recent visits to Edinburgh (winter 2018), I visited the Christmas markets and castle, hiked up Arthur’s Seat for epic views, and partied for Burns Night at the Prestonfield House.
From the National Museum of Scotland and wandered through the closes in search of hidden cafes and bars. There’s so much to see and do in Scotland’s capital city, from the castle to the former docklands. Here’s a myriad of things that you should see and do – plus where to stay – in Edinburgh, Scotland!
How To Get To – And Around – Edinburgh
Edinburgh, Scotland is very easy to get to. All major US carriers fly direct to Edinburgh Airport (EDI) from cities across the USA. Budget carrier Norwegian Airlines also flies direct to Edinburgh from several east coast cities. Be aware that some flight schedules are seasonal.
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If you are already in the UK, you can fly or take the train. Trains take about five hours from London, two from Manchester and York, or seven from Bristol. The main train station is Waverley Station, located on Princes Street in the heart of the city. Haymarket is a smaller station to the west; it is near some of the hotels and the conference center.
There are two public transportation options to get into the city from Edinburgh Airport. The first is the 747 Airlink Bus, which is an express bus into Waverley Station. In 2014, Edinburgh opened a new tram line, which runs a similar route to the bus. However, thanks to its dedicated tram lanes it’s often faster than the bus, which can get stuck in traffic!
Tickets For Public Transport
Purchase bus tickets at the ticket counter near the airport bus stop. If there is no one manning the counter, you can purchase tickets from the driver. Make sure you have coins for this transaction. Tram tickets are sold at automated kiosks near the tramline; these do accept cards. To return to the airport by tram, either purchase a round trip ticket or buy a ticket from the machines located at the city stations. You can also purchase bus and tram tickets from the ticket vendors located at Waverley Station in the city.
In order to get around the city, I suggest walking. Edinburgh is compact enough (and has enough one way streets) that using public transport is often longer than walking, unless you are staying out along the airport road. However, black cabs are ubiquitous, Uber is prevalent, and the public bus system is extensive. To get to some of the Edinburgh suburbs or further afield, either take a local bus or a train from Waverley.
What To Do In Edinburgh, Scotland
Many of my American clients include Edinburgh on a UK itinerary. It requires a few days – no less than two, I would suggest – to see the main sights. If you’ve been to Edinburgh before, then two or three days also allows you time for a day trip to St. Andrews, Stirling, or Loch Lomond. For first-time travelers, the below attractions are the major draws. No matter what your interests are, you will find plenty of things to do in Edinburgh!
Arts and Culture
As Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh is home to the national galleries and museums. It also boasts a plethora of other museums, from ones dedicated to childhood, writers, and the people of Edinburgh. Robert Burns, Scotland’s National Poet, is celebrated every January 25th in traditional Burns Suppers hosted across the country. A literary destination for its sweeping vistas and narrow street , Scotland makes appearances in plenty of pop culture books and films.
Edinburgh Castle is the city’s most visited attraction, and I recommend spending a half day here. There has been a castle on this site since the 12th century, although few of the current buildings survived the Lang Siege in the 16th century. St. Margaret’s Chapel (12th century) is a notable exception; it is considered the oldest building in Edinburgh. The Great Hall (16th century) and the Royal Palace also survived the siege. There is evidence of human inhabitation and other structures on Castle Rock since the 2nd century.
Monuments in Edinburgh, Scotland
Edinburgh Castle is home to the National War Museum and Memorial, as well as the Crown Jewels, which are known as the Honours of Scotland.
The Scottish National Galleries are located just below the castle. This is a complex of three museums: the National Gallery, the National Gallery of Modern Art, and the Portrait Gallery. Some of the highlights in the collections here include works by Surrealists Magritte, Miro, and Giacometti, Rembrandt, Titian, Vermeer, Picasso, and Andy Warhol. There has also been a recent influx of art galleries across Edinburgh, many of which celebrate Scottish art.
Within walking distance of the castle is the Walter Scott Monument on Princes Street. The Nelson Monument, dedicated to Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson who died at Trafalgar, is on Calton Hill near the unfinished National Monument. Visitors can climb the Scott Monument and Nelson Monument, both of which have great views over the city.
Festivals In Edinburgh
The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, a spectacular display of Scottish music, piping, dance, and tradition, takes places in the Edinburgh Castle’s Palace Yard each August. This is a must-see event! Hogmanay, Edinburgh’s famous New Year’s celebration, also takes place within the castle, although there are parties across the city.
Another summer event is the famous Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Taking place over three and a half weeks in August, it is the world’s largest arts festival. The Fringe is also not juried, meaning anyone can participate; in 2017 there were over 50,000 performances of 3,400 shows. Former Fringe participants include Flight of the Conchords, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, Rowan Atkinson, and members of the Monty Python team.
Second only to London in world-class shopping, Edinburgh is home to plenty of luxury brands, many of whom are Scottish designers. Head to Princes Street for the iconic House of Fraser, historic Jenners, and Debenhams department store. Harvey Nichols, an upscale department store, is located at St. Andrews Square. Visit the cafe at the fifth floor for great views of the Firth of Forth. Neighboring George Street and Multrees Walk boast designer brands Michael Kors, Louis Vuitton, and Burberry. Victoria Street, the real-life Diagon Alley, has some quirky Harry Potter shops, vintage markets, and Walker Slater, which sells Scottish wool and tweed items.
Sports and Leisure
Golf is the sport of Scotland, and as such there are great options for golf courses in Edinburgh. Of course, St. Andrews is a must-visit destination in Scotland and very easy to access from Edinburgh for a day of golfing. Gleneagles, the host of the 2014 Ryder Cup, is just a train ride from Edinburgh, although I suggest spending some time overnight at the fantastic luxury hotel.
Both soccer (football) and rugby are also popular with the Scottish. The Scottish national teams play at Murrayfield, a short distance from the city center. Other sports and leisure activities in Scotland include horseback riding, archery, hiking, kayaking, and curling.
One of my favorite things to do in Edinburgh is climb Arthur’s Seat. The extinct volcanic crag that lies at the bottom of the Royal Mile – downhill from the other volcanic crag, the Castle Rock – towers above the city. It’s part of the Queen’s park, adjacent to Holyrood House, the Royal Family residence in Edinburgh. Numerous trails, and one road, wend their way to the summit of Arthur’s Seat. Hundreds of people hike up daily. If you can, go for either sunrise or sunset for sensational views of the city coming to life or lighting up the night.
Scottish food historically has never been something to write home about. Heard of haggis? That’s a very traditional Scottish dish that consists of a meaty, greasy, starchy mix of meats and grains stuffed inside a bag and baked to perfection. People tend to shy away from haggis, which has a reputation for being unappetizing, but I really feel the need to put this rumor to rest.
Haggis is delicious, filling, and once you sink your teeth in there’s nothing scary about it. Traditionally, haggis was sheep and calf offal mixed with onion, oats, and suet, cooked in a bag made from a sheep stomach. Today, the ingredients are the same but the bag is artificial. Haggis is served with neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes).
Other traditional Scottish dishes include cullen skink, bannocks, Scotch broth, porridge, shortbread, and tablet. These are staples on pub menus or at a family dinner. As Scotland is an island, other popular items include smoked salmon and haddock, fish stew, black pudding, and Scotch pies.
There’s a revolution going on in Scotland similar to what I discovered in Dublin, Ireland. Food producers are focused on local foods. Expect to see locally sourced cheeses, jams and honeys, breads, and meat and fish. Everything from the pub menu gets an upgrade with this emphasis on new Scottish food.
Head for Leith, Edinburgh’s port town, to experience local cuisine amidst a thriving new community. The docklands, once not such a great place to go, are home to a number of boutique shops, restaurants, cafes, and bars. The Royal Yacht Britannia is also located here.
Scotch Whisky And Gin
I can’t talk about Scottish food without mentioning Scottish drinks. Namely, Scotch whisky. The smokey malted barley drink is distilled across the entire island, from the southern Isle of Aran to the Orkneys and everywhere in between. While touring distilleries is a time-honored pastime, there are also several places in Edinburgh where you can taste various distilleries vintages.
However, during my most recent visit to Edinburgh, the one drink that continued to jump out at me from cocktail menus and store shelves was gin. And, not just London Dry Gin but Scottish gin distilled in Orkney, Shetland, and Lewis and Harris. To get a taste of the breadth of this gin revolution, head to Cranachan & Crowdie, on the Lower Royal Mile. The shop sources a range of gins, shortbreads, fudge, jam, and gifts from small Scottish producers.
Where To Stay In Edinburgh
In order to make the most of your time in Edinburgh, the best place to stay is in the city center. There are some excellent hotels in and around the Royal Mile, at the heart of the old town. These include the G&V Royal Mile, a 5* Radisson Collection property on George IV Bridge, and a Radisson Blu at the North Bridge. Lateral City, a luxury hotel company, offers serviced apartments across three properties. These are ideal for families. The New Town boasts two luxury hotels: The Balmoral, a Rocco Forte Hotel, and the Waldorf-Astoria Edinburgh, The Caledonian, a Hilton hotel. The Balmoral is where JK Rowling finished the seventh Harry Potter book. Guests can book the JK Rowling Suite (below) which pays tribute to the magical series.
Edinburgh also has three other Hilton hotels in the city center, for those with Hilton Honors points. The DoubleTree by Edinburgh City Centre is located near the University of Edinburgh, Hilton Edinburgh Grosvenor is near the International Conference Centre, and Hilton Edinburgh Carlton is on North Bridge. There is also a DoubleTree at Edinburgh Airport and another at Queensferry Crossing.
For IHG Rewards members, options include the Hotel Indigo on Princes Street, the Crowne Plaza on Royal Terrace below the Nelson Monument, and several Holiday Inns near the airport.
An option for travelers with Marriott Rewards, Starwood Preferred Guest points, or Ritz-Carlton Rewards is the Sheraton, Grand Hotel & Spa. This large business-style hotel is located halfway between the castle and the International Conference Centre. The only Marriott hotel in Edinburgh is on Glasgow Road, close to the airport, and great for people with early flights. A W Hotel is slated to open in Edinburgh’s city center in 2021.
Staying just outside of town is another option for those who have already visited Edinburgh before. The Prestonfield House is a gorgeous country estate with just 23 bedrooms. It’s a picture perfect Scottish home, and feels like you’re staying with posh friends who collect things from everywhere they go. Prestonfield is a destination all its own, but it’s just far enough from town that I don’t recommend it for anyone wishing to explore Edinburgh proper at length!
Questions about Edinburgh? Comment below!