Plan an Edinburgh Bucket List Trip
Whether you think Edinburgh should be described as "The Athens of the North" or "Auld Reekie" (two of the many nicknames for the Scottish capital), a visit to this beautiful city is bound to leave a lasting impression.
Cradled by the city's seven hills (more actually, but some are so covered with buildings they are hard to spot), Edinburgh life is sophisticated, youthful, lively, and very entertaining. It's crammed with history and historic monuments, shopping, art, and amazing festivals.
And, by the way, it's never pronounced "Edinboro" or "Edinberg". Say "Edinbruh" and the locals will love it.
These are 10 favorite things to do on a visit, whether it's the first time or the fiftieth.
Party at a Festival - All Year Round
Edinburgh reels from one fabulous festival to another. It doesn't matter when you go; you are bound to find a party.
The biggie is the Edinburgh Fringe, the world's largest performing arts festival. It takes over the city in August - with drama, comedy, dance, music, cabaret, puppetry and kids shows - briefly doubling the city's population and making it the second largest in the UK. Alongside it, there's the Edinburgh International Festival, a curated event featuring the world's top theater companies, orchestras and soloists. It all finishes in one of the biggest fireworks concerts in the world with 100,000 fireworks set off around Edinburgh Castle to the strains of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
But don't worry if you can't make it for August (when there are also book festivals and foodie festivals). Go in June for the Edinburgh International Film Festival or in April for the International Science Festival. Climb Calton Hill on April 30 and join the Green Man and the Summer Queen for Beltane, a fiery and festive pre-Christian festival that welcomes the summer.
And head for Edinburgh at the end of December for Hogmanay. The Scottish version of New Year's Eve is a four-day blowout with a huge torchlight parade, indoor and outdoor concerts all over the place, amazing fireworks and the Loony Dook - a freezing cold dip in the sea on New Year's Day.
Go Aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia
Between 1954 and 1997, when the Queen and senior members of the royal family made state visits around the world, they traveled on the Royal Yacht Britannia, a magnificent ocean-going vessel that's more like a small cruise ship than a yacht.
She was a symbol of a bygone era when "Britannia ruled the waves". Besides ferrying royals about (and taking Princess Diana and Prince Charles on honeymoon), she was used on trade missions and occasionally rescued British nationals from international hot spots.
In 1997, she was decommissioned and, after a tour of British ports, she was permanently moored at Leith, Edinburgh's main port.
Today she is one of Scotland's top visitor attractions, with hundreds of thousands going aboard every year. Visitors can tour the yacht's five main decks and see the state apartments including the Queen's bedroom; shielded behind glass, it is the only bedroom of a living monarch that can be viewed by the public.
One of the interesting things about Britannia is that the Queen herself took charge of the interior decoration of the family quarters. The traditionally furnished sitting room looks just like a slightly larger version of a living room in a middle class American home.
The visit includes a look at the crew quarters as well as life below decks in the sick bay and laundry. Britannia was crewed by volunteers from the Royal Navy and, when the Queen was aboard, a contingent of Royal Marines. You can also have a very posh tea in the Royal Deck Tea Room.
And except for July and August, when she is chartered, you can also see the Royal Racing Yacht Bloodhound - where Prince Charles and Princess Anne learned to sail as children.
Compare a Castle and a Palace
Edinburgh's Royal Mile is bracketed by castles.
At one end, Edinburgh Castle looms over the city atop an outcrop of volcanic rock (most of Edinburgh's hills are the plugs of extinct volcanoes). At the other end, the Palace of Holyroodhouse was once the home of the Kings and Queens of Scotland - including Mary Queen of Scots. It's still the monarch's official residence in Scotland (as opposed to Balmoral, which is her private country estate) and she entertains official guests there for a short period every year.
The palace and the castle are very different, each with its own turbulent history, but both are worth visiting.
Unless you happen to be staying in Edinburgh's Old Town, it's a steep - but pretty- climb through the Princes Street Gardens to the Castle. Dress warmly, no matter what time of year it is, because it's always windy and cold up there. And wear comfortable, sturdy shoes.
Most of what there is to see at this ancient castle, is out of doors - the views over Edinburgh are just spectacular. But you can also visit the Scottish crown jewels - a crown, sceptre and sword - the great hall, the royal palace where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to King James VI of Scotland (later James I of England), and several museums. Since the 17th century, the castle has been a military garrison so much of what there is to see relates to military history.
In 2017, the body armor that Princess Diana wore when visiting mine fields in Angola, a few months before her death, is on display in the National War Museum within the castle.
St Margaret's Chapel, built by King David I in 1130 to honor his mother, is the oldest building in Edinburgh and still used for christenings and weddings. Find out more about visiting Edinburgh Castle.
The Palace of Holyroodhouse
Holyrood Palace is still a working government building, much of it dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. But within its grounds you can also see the private apartments of Mary Queen of Scots and the 16th century tower. It was here that Mary's jealous husband Lord Darnley burst in on her,dragged off her private secretary David Rizzio, and stabbed him 56 times.
Besides the dramatic story of the murder, Holyrood House is the place to explore the history of Scottish royalty. Next to the palace, the Queen's Gallery, hosts changing exhibits from the Royal Collection. Read more about The Palace of Holyroodhouse and how to visit.
See Government in Action at the Scottish Parliament
When The Scottish Parliament building was first proposed in the 1990s, it was estimated to coast £10million. By the time it was opened by the Queen in 2004 it had cost a whopping £414million. That's what I call a cost over run.
Whether it was worth it is up to the Scots to decide, but as a visitor you'll find the building, designed by Spanish architect Enric Miralles, breathtaking.
Visiting the public areas of the Scottish Parliament is free. And if you happen to arrive when Parliament is in session, you can watch from the visitors' gallery. Don't miss the astonishing, high tech debating chamber.
A variety of free tours about Scotland's contribution to science, art, architecture, literature and politics can be booked online before you go. It's worth joining one of the frequent, hour-long tours of the building itself to learn more about its craftsmanship, functions, symbolism and architecture. There's also a family-friendly cafe and a well stocked gift shop.
How many cities do you know that have a mountain right in the center of town? Well, okay, maybe there's Rio de Janeiro. But Corcovado and Sugar Loaf are on the outskirts of the city. Edinburgh actually wraps itself right around Arthur's Seat. And it's an extinct volcano.
Climbing Arthur's Seat is a popular pastime with locals and visitors alike and there are a range of paths leading to the summit. They vary from a longish Sunday stroll with a bit of rock scrambling at the top (families with children and grannies do it in good weather), to the more challenging quarry climb - not a route for beginners. You can, of course, take the easy way by driving up Queen's Drive to the parking at Dunsapie Loch. From there it's an easy - but steep - 15 minute walk to the summit.
Whichever route you choose, it's worth the effort because the views from the summit, all the way to the Firth of Forth, are spectacular.
Learn Something New at a Museum
Rainy days are made for museums and galleries. And in Edinburgh, you don't have to wait long for weather to change to its museum-going best. Luckily, Edinburgh has loads of museums and some of them are real crackers.
The National Art Galleries
The three national art galleries are centrally located, eye-poppingly good and all free.
- The Scottish National Gallery in Princes Street Gardens features European and Scottish art from the Renaissance to the19th century. If paintings by Raphael,Titian, El Greco, Velazquez and Rubens, as well as such modern masters as Van Gogh, Monet, Cezanne, Degas and Gauguin are your cup of tea, this is the place for you.
- The Scottish National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street takes a very broad approach to portraiture, representing important figures in Scotland's history and culture with sculpture, photography, film and digital art as well as painting.
- The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is about a mile and a half to the west. It's arranged in two buildings, across the street from each other, with 20th century French, Russian and Scottish art as well as contemporary art ranging from Andy Warhol to Tracey Emin and Rachel Whiteread. Shock your sensibilities with Dadaist and Surrealist work and sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, Damien Hirst and Eduardo Paolozzi. Paolozzi's monumental sculpture "Vulcan", commissioned for the great hall of this gallery, is among its highlights.
Art Not Your Thing?
At the National Museum of Scotland you can explore exhibits and collections covering millennia of Scottish and world history as well as nature, art, design, fashion, science and technology. And families will enjoy Dynamic Earth, at the bottom of the Royal Mile near the Scottish Parliament building. It's an interactive and immersive experience full of films and special effects, covering volcanoes, oceans, the Ice Age, the age of dinosaurs, space exploration and more. It's a sort of earth science and biology lesson with bells on.
Shop Till You Drop
Edinburgh is a great city for shophounds. Besides the usual major department stores (Harvey Nichols, Debenhams, Marks and Spencer and Jenners - one of the oldest department stores in Britain) there are pockets of independent and quirky boutiques all over the place.
Try St Stephen Street in Stockbridge for quirky vintage shops. Victoria Street is a colorful, cobbled curve that runs down from Bank Street in the Old Town toward Grassmarket (and more shops including Mr. Wood's Fossils). It's a rainbow of brightly painted shops, stocking anything from indie fashion designers to whisky sellers and antiques dealers. Rose Street, north of Princes Street in the Georgian New Town is another place to look for pockets of style. If you love cheese, look for branches of I. J. Mellis . They have a shop in Victoria Street, another in Stockbridge and more branches around town. Go in the morning and they might even have warm bagels to go with your cheese.
Peer Into The Camera Obscura
You might think that Edinburgh's Camera Obscura (beside the castle) with its light shows, optical illusions and magic tricks, is a modern attraction.
You'd be wrong. This arrangement of lenses and periscope in the attic of a Victorian tower in the Old Town has been around, in one form or another, for about 150 years - and it's actually rather good fun.
Created in the 19th century, the camera obscura was owned by various amateur scientists and social improvers; one owner, Patrick Geddes, a town planner and sociologist, wanted to improve people's outlook on life by showing them all of Edinburgh in miniature. From the 1940s to 1982 it was owned by Edinburgh University.
More recently, it's been run by a tourism publisher and attraction operator. And "The World of Illusion" has been added.
So What Exactly Is It?
I won't go into the science but if you've ever made a pinhole camera out of a shoe box and watched an upside down world in miniature play out on the back of the box, you've got it - only Edinburgh's Camera Obscura fills several stories of a building and the resulting image is projected onto a curved white table, 21 feet in diameter.
Guides take you through the experience of watching the city go about its daily activities (looking like a film but actually a projected reflection). Some of the optical illusions that can be achieved are astonishing. With guidance you can, for example, pick up a tiny moving pedestrian in the palm of your hand.
To justify the steep price (£15 for adults and £11 for children older than five in 2017), they've added quite a few other optical attractions arranged over six floors. They include magical optical illusions, dramatic holograms, disoriented effects with lights and mirrors.
You can spend about two-hours taking it all in - more if you have kids in tow. But go early on rainy days; that's when it is most popular and you may have to wait quite a while to get in.
Spook Yourself in Edinburgh's Haunted Underground
The Royal Mile, running downhill from the Castle to Holyrood Palace, sits on a rocky spine. Very narrow streets and lanes (called closes and wynds), where the poor and working poor of Edinburgh lived, once fell away from it on either side. They were noxious and unhealthy, lined with tall narrow tenements and centers of plague and disease. Over time most of them were demolished or simply built over. Now they are the closes and vaults of haunted Edinburgh.
The Real Mary King's Close
Instead of fully demolishing this 17th century close, the Edinburgh city fathers left parts of it as the foundations of the Royal Exchange (now the City Chambers and home of Edinburgh City Council). Remarkably, people continued living in these underground tenements, sealed off from the sky, as late as 1902 when the last resident was forced out.
Today The Real Mary King's Close is a commercial visitor attraction, complete with costumed guides telling about life for the residents - before the close was sealed off, and after - as well as ghoulish tales of murders and hauntings. Despite its commercialization, the whole idea of the place is fascinating and unique to Edinburgh. It's definitely worth a visit if you don't mind steps and don't get claustrophobic.
The Edinburgh Vaults
The Edinburgh Vaults are a series of chambers within 19 arches under the city's South Bridge. For a short period in the 18th century they were used by tradesmen for storage, for taverns, barbershops and other businesses. But their biggest claim to fame, especially for tourists of the ghoulish, was as the place where early 19th century serial killers Burke and Hare stored bodies. The bodies were sold to Edinburgh University medical professor Robert Knox to use in his anatomy lectures. Fittingly, after his conviction and hanging, Burke was used for anatomy lessons himself. And if you are truly ghoulish, you can see his skeleton at the Anatomical Museum of the University of Edinburgh where it is still displayed.
But back to those vaults. They can only be visited on guided tours led by Mercat Tours who have exclusive access. The rather theatrical guides lead you on a spookily entertaining tour with lots of stories about the evil deeds and foul play that went on in these vault. If you liked Sweeney Todd, you'll love this.
Sample the Nightlife
Edinburgh is home to one of the UK's top universities and, like most university towns, you can count on great pubs and a lively music scene. The best way to tune in to what's on when you're visiting is to check out the online entertainment listings in the local newspaper, the Scotsman, or the Edinburgh pages of the popular British entertainment magazine, The List.
It's always worth seeing what's on at Henry's Cellar Bar, one of the city's longest running, independent live music venues. It's a tiny club on Morrison Street and music there is certainly varied - rock, punk, garage, indie, electro, blues, alternative, country, hip hop, folk, hardcore and what Henry's calls "krautrock" -- and, oh yes, jazz too. The Jam House, on Queen Street, attracts a slightly more grown-up crowd (over 21). The dress code is what the British call "smart casual". You can dine and drink as well as enjoy timeless jazz, rock and blues curated in a style established by founder TV presenter and pianist Jools Holland. It's been named one of the top ten bars in Edinburgh New Town.
Edinburgh is About Comedy
If you've ever considered going to the Edinburgh Fringe, you've probably noticed that comedy plays an over-sized role in the schedule. The Stand Comedy Club, one of the big producing venues for the festival, keeps up the comedy scene in Edinburgh year round. Top touring acts and local comedy talent keep this basement comedy club buzzing on York Place right next to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
The Water of Life
No trip to Edinburgh would be complete without learning a bit more about Scotland's amber nectar, Scotch whisky. Don't bother with the whisky themed tourist traps at the top of the Royal Mile - there are several great whisky bars where you can imbibe and learn.
These are among my favorites:
- The Abbey Bar ,on South Clerk Street, stocks 120 different whiskies as well as Scottish food. There's also beer and other tipples, alcoholic and non if you are traveling with companions who don't indulge.
- The Black Cat is a strange little place on Rose Street that opened in 2011 but looks like it's been around forever. They have a good range of whiskies and some outdoor seating.
- The Bow Bar on West Bow in the Old Town, is tiny and usually crowded with locals come to sample more than 300 different Scotch whiskies. If you are willing to join in the banter you shouldn't be intimidated.
A Special Whisky Experience
The Balmoral Whisky Bar is a very special experience for a true Scotch whisky fancier. You can't miss the Balmoral, it's a luxury hotel that's an Edinburgh landmark - that clock tower you see in lots of pictures of the city. Their whisky bar stocks 500 different types, representing all regions of Scotland and all styles. You can stop by the bar to try one or two whiskies - a whisky ambassador will help you choose - accompanied by dark chocolate (the connoisseur's favorite with single malts) or smoked almonds. Their specialty, though, is a range of whisky "journeys". You can try a dram from each of the five main regions for £49 per person; sample four whiskies from four different decades for £65 per person, or really go for broke with the "Rare and Old Journey" - four different whiskies from rare, limited edition or closed distilleries, starting at £105 per person. (All prices as of 2017).