7 Things to Experience in Edinburgh
History, culture, festivals, art and stunning scenery – you’ll truly find all of these things in Scotland’s capital. One of the best times to visit Edinburgh is during the month of August to experience festivals galore, but with its colourful past, iconic monuments and wealth of things to see and do, it’s a great city to visit all year round. And let’s be honest, you’ll probably forget what time of year it is anyway – it’s not uncommon to experience four seasons in one day in this place!
Whether you need some time out from all the excitement of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Art Festival, The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, and the Edinburgh International Book Festival, or are waiting until they’re over so you can skip the crowds, here are some things to experience that will cater to all tastes and budgets.
1. For Instagrammers
If you’re the type to get out and about and aren’t too fazed by a bit of exercise then make the most of the stunning views you’ll get from up on Calton Hill. Dotted with monuments and with views for miles, this is the perfect place to take some snaps and get oriented with the city before you descend to explore its streets.
If you’re prepared for a more challenging climb you’ll be rewarded with even more spectacular views should you choose to walk up to to Arthur’s Seat or the Salisbury Crags, which you can reach by heading to the very end of the High Street (known as the “Royal Mile”) to the Scottish Parliament and Holyrood Palace and turning right, where the paths ascending the towering hills will lead you to your destination.
View of Edinburgh from nearby Arthur’s Seat. Image: Clarissa Hirst
2. For Castle Lovers
Edinburgh Castle is not to be missed. Not that you could even if you tried; occupying a vantage point high above the rest of the city, it dominates the sky no matter where you are. But getting a closer look is worth the visit (and the price – £16.50 for adults). Once inside you’ll get to see Mons Meg, one of medieval Europe’s most famous weapons, the crown jewels, cavernous prisons beneath the Great Hall, the Royal Palace, and even Edinburgh’s oldest building – St. Margeret’s Chapel.
Edinburgh Castle. Image: Philip McErlean
Castles abound in Scotland, and if you’re staying in Edinburgh you’re lucky to have not only one incredible castle on your doorstep but two. So if castles are your thing, don’t pass up the opportunity to visit Stirling Castle, which is equally as spectacular as Edinburgh’s (I’ll dare to say I think it’s even better!)
3. For Families
For a subterranean adventure and a spooky ghost story or two you can’t go past Real Mary King’s Close. A tour of this place will take you beneath the Royal Mile to the hidden history of Edinburgh’s 17th century “closes”. The homes inhabited by both poor and middle class families during this time are still there today, and according to popular legend, some of their ghosts might still be around too… Guides dress up as characters from the past and any budding thespians can play along with them. Tours leave every 15 minutes and take 1 hour. If you’re visiting in the summer or festival season then book your tickets in advance the day before either from the ticket office (opposite St. Giles’ Cathedral on the Royal Mile) or online. Prices are £14.50 for adults, £12.75 for students and £8.75 for kids under 15.
On a budget? Save your pennies and take advantage of the many entertainment options along the Royal Mile, which in peak season is jam-packed with buskers, performers, human statues, fortune tellers, the odd Star Wars character and magicians. Make sure to leave some change if you stay to watch.
Image: Jesús Gorriti
4. For Art Nuts
The Scottish National Gallery houses some incredible paintings by world-famous artists in a fairly condensed space; it won’t take you an entire day to wander through here. Look out for works by Monet, Van Gough, Raphael, Botticelli, da Vinci and Rembrandt. Did I mention it’s free?
Image: Clarissa Hirst
5. For History Buffs
Anyone with a penchant for the past will be right at home in this historical city. If you’re on a budget I’d suggest simply strolling around the city and soaking up all the history from the street. A walk down the Royal Mile alone will take you past tiny closes, hidden courtyards and buildings with plenty of personality. Except that most of the time walking along the Royal Mile is bit of a nightmare, so do it early in the morning before the city wakes up. Pop in to Greyfriars Kirkyard, the graveyard surrounding Greyfriars Kirk (the Scots still use the Old Norse loanword kirk instead of the English church). Opposite the graveyard’s gate is a statue of Greyfriars Bobby, a dog who slept by his former master’s grave after he died for thirteen years.
The Museum of Edinburgh is small but worth a visit if you want to learn about the construction of the city of Edinburgh and its volcanic origins and will give you some more perspective of what it is you are actually walking past (and on top of). The most interesting part is the film at the very end. If it’s historical intrigue you’re after then pay a visit to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, right at the very bottom of The Royal Mile. Here, you’ll learn all about Mary Queen of Scots and a murder that took place within her chambers…
Holyrood Palace. Image: stu smith
6. For Shopaholics
There’s a multitude of handicraft and souvenir shops along the Royal Mile but it’s crowded and in general quite overpriced. Princes Street is a good place to start if you’re after a spot of shopping. There you’ll find Zara, Primark, The Body Shop, M&S, Boots and an Apple Store. After a busy afternoon of retail therapy, you can relax in the Princes Street Gardens, indulging in a lovely view of the surrounding city amidst the greenery.
Alternatively, those with a penchant for Gucci, Louis Vuitton or Marc Jacobs will head to Multrees Walk, home to designer and high fashion brands. My recommendation is the Grassmarket and Victoria Street area, where you’ll find a combination of designer, vintage and indie fashion retailers, along with antiques, crafts and plenty of places to nab a healthy bite to eat.
Victoria Street. Image Credit: Raphaël Chekroun
7. For Foodies
Edinburgh is a food-lover’s paradise. From haggis, delectable Scottish breakfasts to scrumptious cafes and markets selling local produce, you’ll find it all. Just several minutes walk away from Victoria Street is The Elephant House cafe, which is famous for being the place J.K. Rowling often spent time writing her Harry Potter novels. But Edinburgh boasts a multitude of incredible coffee houses and cafes so make sure you walk around aThe Edinburgh Farmers’ Market takes place on the first Saturday of every month on Castle Terrace underneath Edinburgh Castle. You’ll find everything from meat and seafood to fruit and veg, soups, cheese and desserts.
For brunch or lunch stop off for a quick bite to eat at the fantastic teahouse Sugarhouse Sandwiches on the Royal Mile. It does get packed but both the food and service is great and if you’re lucky you’ll nab one of the stools or indoor tables. They’ve got “Scottish cheddar and cracked black pepper” scones, marvellous teas and warming soups. And when those lips start to feel a tad parched we recommend the beer bar The Hanging Bat on Lothian Road.
The Elephant House Cafe. Image: Caitlin Bonnar
There’s plenty more to do in Edinburgh. You can check out all the current and upcoming events in the city at thisisedinburgh.com but the best insider information will come from your local hosts, who’ll know the city inside out. By organising a homestay you’ll share a skill (such as cooking or Spanish) with your host and in exchange they’ll introduce you to their culture and show you where they hang out, giving you awesome tips on what to see and do. Browse our hosts from the UK (why not turn it into a road trip?) here.
Clarissa Hirst is GoCambio’s Content Manager. A born-and-bred Australian, Clarissa currently calls Sweden home. She’s travelled to over 40 countries, loves learning foreign languages, and her passion is inspiring others to learn about and explore the world around them. She hopes to one day speak fluent Russian and ride the Trans-Siberian railway. You can connect with Clarissa on Twitter.
Feature image: Raphaël Chekroun