Edinburgh is a town very much to my liking, offering plenty of history and architectural delights in a comparatively compact area. I worked it into my itineraries on three separate occasions, and while I feel that I have not fully explored the town yet, I possess a healthy appreciation of it. The harmony of distinct architectural styles, from medieval Old Town to neoclassical New Town, is expressly recognized by UNESCO on the World Heritage list, but that’s just one aspect of a beautiful and vibrant town.
Both the Old Town ♥♥♥ and the New Town ♥♥ contain a lot of examples of eye-catching architecture and many great vistas. They are also not big, so you can get a good impression of either in just a couple of hours.
The main Old Town thoroughfare, Royal Mile ♥♥♥ warrants significant exploration all by itself. Together with its extensions at both ends, it leads not only to the castle, but also houses several major monuments.
St Giles Cathedral ♥♥ is the main church in Edinburgh. It boasts brilliant stained glass windows and a number of other architectural and decorative features suitable for a great church. Photographers are asked to donate £2 for the privilege of taking interior pictures, which is a worthwhile investment for any photo enthusiast.
Edinburgh Castle ♥♥ can take over half a day to enjoy to the fullest. It is a large complex on several levels of elevation offering nearly two dozen exhibitions, museums, and other points of interest. I especially liked the Crown Jewels exhibition, the Prisons of War Museum, and the Great Hall, and also stepped into a small St Margarite church and the Scottish National War Memorial, and lingered on a couple of terraces and batteries taking in magnificent views over the city.
The Palace of Holyroodhouse ♥ is imposingly picturesque on the outside and full of superb decorations and furniture on the inside. The excellent audio-video guide provides plenty of info and historic contest.
Mary King’s Close ♥ is an interesting historic excursion, located opposite the cathedral. It takes you underneath current buildings to the places that Edinburgh’s residents inhabited in the 17th century. There are a couple of interactive media exhibits and several set-up scenes on the tour, of varying quality, but on balance, this is a different look at the history of the town that is hard to bypass. Entrance is at timed intervals and you may have to buy tickets in advance in busy times.
People’s Story at Canongate Tolbooth ♥ is a compact exposition full of assorted facts and illustrations about various aspects of life in Edinburgh over the last couple of centuries. Kind of randomly assembled, but makes for a multi-faceted picture overall. Free and well worth a stop – and the wealth of the materials can potentially lead to spending a lot of time here.
The Scottish National Gallery ♥ offers a reasonable and not overwhelming collection, obviously with a lot of Scottish painters, but representing many of the grand masters, even if with just a single painting or two. The permanent collection is free to peruse.
The National Museum of Scotland ♥♥♥ is an incredible ensemble of soaring spaces given to a wide range of subjects: natural history, ethnography, archeology, applied arts, design and fashion, transportation and energy, the evolution of Scotland, etc, etc, etc. The rooftop terrace – definitely a hidden gem – offers great views of the city. You probably need a week to properly see all there is to see in this museum, and it is all free.
There are a few other museums in town that may be interesting to visit, such as the Museum of Edinburgh, the Royal Scottish Academy, Camera Obscura & World of Illusions, or Dynamic Earth, that may feature on my future trips.
Among the many monuments in the city, Scott Monument ♥ stands out – and it holds the distinction of being the largest monument to a writer in the world. The Hub, at a busy juncture on the Royal Mile, is the tallest spire in Edinburgh belonging to a never-consecrated church, which now functions as an event venue.
Greyfriars ♥ is another church in town worth seeing. It is not too lavishly decorated, but the organ is super-impressive, and there are several vivid stained-glass windows.
There are other churches here or there that you can stop by. One more curious than others on account of its elliptical interior shape is St Andrew’s and St George’s West church. It houses a popular café on the lower level.
I found myself walking through the New Calton burial ground one day and was surprised both by the ambiance of the cemetery itself and by the different perspectives of the city that it offers.
For those who love scotch but have no opportunity for distillery visits, Edinburgh offers several Whisky Experience locations, where you can reputedly taste practically anything that is produced anywhere in Scotland. I only stepped into one for a glance around.
Accommodation-wise, any location in either of the Old or New Towns will put you within walking distance of most of the points of interest.
In the “memorable stays” category, an excellent AirBnB apartment on Waverley Park (link) puts you within 15 minutes of the central Old Town on foot; it is a two-level apartment, with three bedrooms and a small full bathroom on the upper floor, and the kitchen, two lounges, a bigger bathroom and utilities on the lower floor (which is the 3rd floor in the building – or the 4th in American terms); on the downside: no elevator and parking may be a challenge – although free, it is in short supply near the building.
Another memorable stay was at the Festival Apartment (link) right off Royal Mile. One can hardly ask for a better location or amenities.
As far as eating out is concerned, whether you reserve a table in advance based on online ratings or just pick a restaurant at random, it is hard to have a truly disappointing meal in Edinburgh. I personally prefer local vibes in pubs, but sometimes sitting down in a different type of eatery can have its rewards.
Worthy of specific recommendations are: Las Iguanas (in the Charlotte Square half of George Street), which serves selections from all over Latin America (try xinxim); or Howies Victoria (right in the picturesque cluster of Victoria Street), a popular establishment with excellent food.
For pubs, it is actually rare to run into a poor experience anywhere in the UK. Rose Street in Edinburgh – parallel to and in between George and Prince – is a pedestrian enclave full of popular pubs.
Mimi’s Bakehouse on Canongate is a wonderful stop in a cozy space for breakfast or coffee.
For food on the go, pork sandwiches from Oink (multiple locations) are an excellent choice.
Scotland looks not exactly small on the map, but most of its points of interest are reachable from Edinburgh via car. The furthest-away point – Islay, or Skye, or Orkney – would not work as intraday trips, but many others could. See this article for options. The Scotch distillery visits are aggregated in a separate article.