Scotland is like that person you meet in the bar who you bond with immediately. It welcomes you with open arms with its kindness, its candor, and its pure excitement to show you what its all about. And there’s no better way to know Scotland than to know it’s heart, Edinburgh.
Lately, I’ve had an influx of friends visiting Edinburgh (when I’m not there, of course). I had initially written a quick guide, then I realised that I got through that entire guide in a day. Basically, that was a no-go and this is a round-two. If you do want a quick guide, however, head over here to my guest post on Wynee’s blog!
Edinburgh is a city of contrast. During the winter, it’s a bleak, grey and brown space. But during the other seasons, it’s an ethereal, lush setting of an old fairytale. It’s posh, yet it still carries the trademark Scottish grit. It’s a capital city of over 500,000 people, yet it feels like a large village. These contradictions make for a lot of ambiguous feelings about Edinburgh, but most of these are good feelings.
Since Edinburgh isn’t as well-known as other European cities, I’m very proud to be living in Edinburgh. I’m also a bit protective of it too. My favourite part of hosting visitors is seeing their reactions to Edinburgh’s gems: this ranges from our largest hill, Arthur’s Seat, to the super-late nights in the summer (there’s still light at 11pm), to the countless pubs. There are many reasons why Edinburgh was named 2nd highest quality of life on earth, and my complete guide to Edinburgh will show you why
What to Know
- When to visit: Honestly, any month except January and February would be ideal.
- March-May gives you the spring, with late-April to early May giving you the cherry blossom blooms all over the city.
- June and July give you the longest nights and the best weather
- August is the month of the Edinburgh Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival. With over 50,000 performances throughout the month, there’s something for everyone.
- September – November is when everything cools down. It can still be warm at times, and in November you’ll see as Edinburgh’s sheds it’s verdant summer coat for something a little more autumnal, through fiery reds and oranges.
- December makes up for its lack of good weather with a booming Christmas Festival. Ferris wheels, hot wine, kid’s rides, and countless markets make this experience for everyone.
- Like the rest of the UK, we use the Pound Sterling. Currently, the rate is $1.32 per pound, so things will be expensive. Not as bad as London, but similar to other European cities.
- We speak English, not Scottish; I’ve been asked this too many times (aka more than zero)
If you’re already in the UK, take the train and arrive at Edinburgh’s Waverley Station. This will place you smack in the middle of the city along the main shopping street, Princes Street. By plane, you’ll arrive at Edinburgh Turnhouse Airport. You can take an AirLink bus to Waverley Station for £4.50, or a one-way tram for £5.50. A taxi/Uber will cost you roughly £16-20. However, the cheapest way is to take the 35 Bus from Port F and it’ll take you straight into central Old Town for £1.70.
Where to Stay
The city’s quite small, so no matter where you stay, you’re never more than 30 minutes walking from any attraction you want to see.
- Old Town – The historic centre of Edinburgh, this is home to the Royal Mile, St Giles Cathedral, the Edinburgh Castle, etc. It’s the most traditional Edinburgh experience you can get.
- New Town – The posher part of the city, if you’re looking for shopping, fine dining, and beautiful architecture, this is it.
- Stockbridge – 20 minutes north of the central Princes Street by foot, this is my favourite neighbourhood. Full of cheap eats, markets vintage shops, and unique bars, it’s best enjoyed on the weekends with the Stockbridge Market is open.
- Tollcross – Perhaps the most typically “urban” part of Edinburgh, you’ll get the hustle and bustle from our main venue, Usher Hall, and the countless bars, trendy restaurants, and young energy.
- West End – The prettiest part of Edinburgh to me, this part looks distinctly European with its ornate architecture. It’s minutes walking from Princes Street, so you have everything you’ll need on your doorstep.
- Leith – Further out, get a different side of Edinburgh with its canals and Michelin-starred restaurants.
The city is very walkable, but if Edinburgh’s hills prove to be too exhausting, there’s a bus system for £1.70 a ticket. We have a tram system, but it’s…ineffective, to say the least, outside of getting to the airport. Ubers are also quite cheap; the most I’ve ever spent on an Uber is £7.
Things to See
- Royal Mile – Our 1.1-mile main street, it’s filled with traditional Scottish shops, churches (including the famous St. Giles Cathedral), and bagpipe performers. On one end is the Edinburgh Castle, and the other end is Holyrood Palace, or the Queen’s Scottish home.
- Victoria Street – A super colourful street that goes down to Grassmarket
- Calton Hill – A 10-minute hike will give the iconic panoramic views of Edinburgh
- New College – One of the most striking buildings in Edinburgh, this is the University of Edinburgh’s school of divinity
- Holyrood Park – Our biggest park, it’s the home to Edinburgh’s extinct volcano, Arthur’s Seat, which you can climb with a 30-minute hike. It has lakes, fields, and because it’s Scotland, church ruins dating back to at least the 1300’s.
- Circus Lane – Edinburgh’s most famous residential street, due to its instagrammability.
- Princes Street Gardens – Smack in the centre, this massive park extends from each end of our main street. Whether you want to admire the Edinburgh Castle or take a nice walk from Princes Street to Old Town, it’s a perfect escape from the hustle and bustle.
- The Meadows – Directly south of the University of Edinburgh, it’s a popular spot for the students to hang out the three days a year when it’s actually warm. For three weeks in Spring, the park explodes into beautiful shades of pink!
- Dean Village – Originally a graining mill for 800 years, this isolated yet tranquil spot makes for fantastic photo opportunities with it’s German-style architecture and flowing river.
- University of Edinburgh – Recently ranked #18 in the world (the one thing I’ll brag about), walk in the steps of famous alumni including Charles Darwin, J.K. Rowling, three signees of the Declaration of Independence, and countless others.
Things to Do
- Arthur’s Seat – the defining feature of Holyrood Park, this extinct volcano now serves as our 823-foot/251m hill for hiking to see all of Edinburgh and miles out.
- Edinburgh Castle – Edinburgh’s most famous attraction. Admittedly, the £15 fee is a bit steep and may not be worth it, but if not, it makes for an amazing subject for photos!
- Princes and George Street – Our main street our fancy shopping street, these back-to-back streets offer everything you’ll ever need. If it’s not sold here, it doesn’t exist.
- Scott Monument – The tallest monument dedicated to an author (Walter Scott), you can climb the “gothic rocket” for…you guessed it! More panoramic views! Thinking I should make a Photography Guide to Edinburgh next.
- Scottish National Gallery – All museums in the UK are free, so stop in and check out Scotland’s finest neoclassical art.
- Scottish Museum of Modern Art – A bit far out, discover Edinburgh’s newest contemporary art, accompanied by a striking outdoor sculpture at its entrance.
- Camera Obscura – Dedicated to optical illusions, you can climb to the top to capture amazing aerial shots of the city centre.
- Royal Botanic Gardens – A greenhouse filled with palm trees, a Chinese garden, and more await you, 30 minutes walking of Princes Street.
- National Museum of Scotland – Everything you need to know about Scotland is in this building
Things to Eat
- Ting Thai – budget Thai restaurant, popular with students
- Yamato – pricy, yet incredible sushi, perfect for the last night
- Whistle Stop Barber Shop – popular burger spot, in the style of an American diner
- Kim’s Mini Meals – this Michelin-starred restaurant has the best bibimbap in town
- Contini – their Italian food perfectly accompanies the dazzling interior, reminiscent of a Florentina Palazzo.
- Soderberg – windows as walls, Swedish buns, and great cappuccinos: the Scandinavian experience without the Scandinavian prices.
- Grassmarket/Stockbridge Markets – every weekend, you can indulge in food from around the world. The Colombian arepas and Spanish paella are highlights.
- The Scran and Scallie – The best place for local Scottish food, including haggis, neeps, and tatties. If anyone tells you where to find a wild haggis, don’t fall for it (spoiler alert: haggis isn’t an animal)
- El Falafel – after a night out, their shawarma will prevent any possible hangover the next morning.
- Mary’s Milk Bar – the best ice cream in the city! Mary, the shop’s owner, makes the flavours from scratch daily.
Things to Drink
- Cult Espresso, Baba Budan, Machina – Cool, sleek coffee joints throughout the city. Popular with students and young adults alike.
- Rosevear – My favourite tea shop in all of Edinburgh, choose from over 50 teas!
- Paradise Palms – Neon lights, pink, palm trees, and cocktails: it’s a millennial’s dream. But really, their cocktails are amazing, and there’s a reason why it’s always packed.
- Brass Monkey – A traditional pub, except they have..couches! And movies! A perfect place to pass out when you realise you’ve had too much.
- Hoot the Redeemer – My favourite bar in the city, you can custom-make your drink, from the flavours (out of 25+), to the alcohol, to the sweetness and length of drink. (pro-tip: get a raspberry-coffee daquiri, it’s so strange but so right)
- Panda and Sons – Deep in New Town, this vintage spot has the most unique cocktails I’ve ever seen. I had one in a Chinese takeout box and it had soy sauce in it! It was much better than I expected.
- The Abbey – Whisky fans: drink to your heart’s content from a selection of over 250 whiskies.
Take a Day Trip
- Portobello Beach – 25 minutes by bus, you can head to our beach, on one of those three days of summer.
- Pentland Hills – A 20-minute bus ride, walk with the massive highland cows through a beautiful trail lined with hills and greenery.
- Cramond Island – If the tide’s low, walk the very long bridge to one of our nearby islands to see WWII-era fortifications
- Highlands – For £45-50, you can take a day-trip two hours north to see Scotland’s majestic highlands, including the famous Glencoe.
Edinburgh’s an enchanting city that’s truly unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. Stepping into the city is like stepping into an old fable. At the same time, it’s quite haunted with its dark history and penchant for cemeteries. It’s gothic, dark, but so beautiful. But more beautiful than anything I listed above, again, is the people. To this day, my dad, three years later, points out how friendly the Scottish people are. I always say no matter how pretty a place is, the people can ruin the beauty. But here, the people not only amplify, but complete the beauty of Edinburgh.
Within minutes, you’ll meet Scotland, in the form of that person in the bar. And they’ll make you feel at home like you’re a part of their family. And like the bar patron, you may feel pressured to drink sometimes due to its heavy whisky/beer culture (and you don’t have to). Edinburgh is the home and the host; after meeting Edinburgh, you must meet the other guests of the house via Glasgow and the Highlands. But by staying in the home for a while, you’ll capture the true essence and the best first impression of Scotland. And I hope my home treats you as well as it has me these past few years.