Edinburgh, or ‘Auld Reekie’, is Scotland’s capital city and a crown jewel in the band of wonderful cities found in the United Kingdom. The city strikes a wonderful balance between old-world charm, with its sweeping Georgian architecture and blackened skyline, against more modern sensibilities (think chic cafes, cosmopolitan cuisine.) The city centre can be easily walked from one end to the other, but keep in mind this is another city of seven hills, so all fitness levels will be challenged. Edinburgh is the second most visited city in the UK, and for good reason, as there are literally hundreds of sights to see.
Edinburgh Tourist Sights
The Royal Mile
Many sights can be seen on the Royal Mile, a street which stretches from Edinburgh Castle to the Scottish Parliament. The list below is in geographic order, starting from the castle.
Edinburgh Castle dominates the skyline and is a symbol of the city today. In use for over a thousand years, the castle grounds are expansive and in excellent condition. Be sure to see the Scottish crown jewels – not as impressive as the ones in London, but noteworthy nonetheless.
Just south of the castle is Camera Obscura , one of a few camera obscuras around the world. Using a series of mirrors and lenses, you can see interesting perspectives of Edinburgh from a tiny room on the top of the building.
Saint Gile’s Cathedral is a wonderful old cathedral in the middle of the Royal Mile. Its interesting spire is said to represent the crown of thorns; be sure to visit the Thistle Chapel, wonderfully decorated and storied in history.
Hidden down beneath the modern city pavement is Mary King’s Close. During the times of the plague, the city decided to put the diseased down in this alley and brick it off from the rest of the world. The close remained shut for many years as the city was built up around it. It now is a wonderfully insightful perspective into city life in the medieval times.
At the bottom of the Royal Mile you will find one of Scotland’s most controversial buildings, the Scottish Parliament. Scotland is a devolved ‘nation’, meaning that while it remains within the United Kingdom, it has decisions and rights over certain topics such as transportation or environment. The Parliament was a very expensive building to build and is a very unique architecture, dissimilar to anything else in Edinburgh.
Palace of Holyrood, across from the Parliament, is the official home to the Queen during her visits to Scotland. The palace has played host to a number of various historical events, and was home to Mary Queen of Scots at one point in history. In addition, there are some wonderful remains of the abbey next door.
There are a few excellent museums in Edinburgh. The National Gallery of Scotland , gracefully placed in between Princes Street Gardens and the castle, is just as beautiful on the outside as it is on the inside. It has an extremely large collection and thus frequently rotates through a number of shows throughout the year.
The Museum of Scotland is a free museum and is a great way to learn and understand the history of Scotland and its heritage.
For modern art fans, the centrally located Fruitmarket Gallery is a small but feisty gallery with unique, engaging shows. Wildly popular with the locals, it is a must-see for any visitor.
Not a typical ‘museum’, the Royal Yacht Britannia in Leith is a great insight into the life of a royal family member. The ship is massive and is in pristine condition.
Edinburgh’s Other Great Sights
Arthur’s Seat is the highest point in Edinburgh and is a strenuous but manageable walk within Holyrood park. Dress properly – it is generally windy and cold at the top year-round – and always wear proper footwear as the rocky path can be slippery. The views are well-worth the effort.
Another one of the hills in the city centre, with an easier climb to the top, is Calton Hill. The acropolis-like National Monument is bold and inspiring, regardless if it is finished or not. Nelson’s Monument offers a great view as well, both of the bird’s eye perspective of Calton Hill but expansive views of the rest of the city.
Greyfriar’s Kirkyard is another popular stop due to its relation with Greyfriars Bobby, the dog who sat by his master’s grave for years waiting for him to return. The graveyard itself is beautiful, with some of the oldest graves in the city. In more modern times, though, the popular activity is the night tour of the Covanters Prison, probably the closest place you will get to a haunting, with hundreds of reported “incidents” over the years.
Tourist Information Services
Edinburgh and Scotland Information Centre
3 Princes St (above Waverley Mall, next to the train station)
Tel: +44 0845 225 5121
Shopping In Edinburgh
There are several distinct shopping streets in the city centre:
* Princes Street: The hub of the Edinburgh bus network, Princes Street is where you will find the majority of the major brands, such as Marks & Spencer, British Home Store, Waterstones, as well as a number of souvenir shops. On the east end of Princes Street is the Saint James shopping centre.
* George Street: Just two blocks away from Princes Street, this is home to the city’s upscale shopping, including a number of fashion shops and major British brands such as Molton Brown.
* Victoria Street: This beautiful street, connecting the Royal Mile with Grassmarket, is home to a number of wonderful boutiques, including the well-known IJ Mellis cheese monger and specialised liqueur shop Demijohn.
* Cockburn Street: Another connector street – this time from the Royal Mile to Waverley Station – is Edinburgh’s alternative scene, where many interesting t-shirts, tattoos, and specialized souvenirs can be found.
* Saturday mornings are host to the Edinburgh Farmer’s Market , underneath the castle on Castle Terrace. The market is open from 9AM until 2PM.
It is important to note that the public and bank holidays are different in Scotland than in the rest of the UK. You may also find that many banks in Scotland follow the English calendar, but all tourist attractions / bus service / pubs / restaurants stick to the Scottish calendar. Few places close, but opening hours may be reduced. Buses usually run a Saturday or Sunday service.
New Year’s Day
New Years Bank Holiday Jan 2
Spring Bank Holiday Generally the first Monday in June
Summer Bank Holiday First Monday in August
Saint Andrew’s Day Bank Holiday November 30
Boxing Day December 26
Be sure to check out our post by Michael Orr Quick Eats in Edinburgh