When visiting a new city for the first time, myself and the Logistics Manager, prior to any trip, always look for information, recommendations, and suggestions on what to see, experience, and enjoy in the location. Now, for all of these, there is nothing better than some local knowledge, and without doubt, we always find that locals know the inside track on how to get the best out of their city. So with that in mind and with us being residents of Scotland’s capital city, a location that is a tourist city and has so much in the way of history, scenery, experiences and hospitality to offer any visitor. Here is my guide to a city break in the Festival City of Edinburgh.
How to get there
The most popular way is to fly directly into Edinburgh International Airport, which has connections across Europe, to the USA, Canada, and the Middle East via Dubai, Doha and Abu Dhabi, and beyond.
Once you’re out of the airport, it’s a 25-minute taxi ride into the city, or you can use the numerous airport buses and also the modern tram system right into the heart of the city. The buses and trams leave directly outside the Terminal and are well signposted.
If you do choose to drive to Edinburgh again it is on the UK motorway network but I will be honest here, driving in the city particular in the busy times can be frustrating. Remember, it’s a historical city so there is no easy way in or out and parking is extremely limited and expensive. However, there are also good train connections with most parts of the UK, including London, on the East Coast Network line.
Being situated on the east coast of the country, it does have a port, Leith, but sadly it’s a port not suitable for the new larger cruise ships, if they visit they tender ashore, however some of the smaller cruise ships do dock. The tender port is called Newhaven and is a 25 minute bus ride from the city centre. Soon in early 2023 the new tram network will be extended so it will be available from both Leith and Newhaven giving good regular and fast access the city centre.
Once you are there, what are you going to see and do?
The city is split into two main areas in terms of where to visit as a tourist. The Old Town, which is where many of the real historical sites are, and then the New Town, which is not really new. It was laid out and built during the late 1700s into the early 1800s and has some of the best Georgian style architecture in the United Kingdom. So first, let’s cover the Old Town area and its favourite locations.
Yes, we have a castle’s and what a castle!! Probably the most famous building in Scotland and certainly the No 1 visitor attraction, it’s world famous and sits above the New Town looking down from the top of the Royal Mile (more on that later). It has commanding views all around the city and beyond. It is truly spectacular to see and can be seen from most of the city and is a must visit. There is an entrance fee, and you can get a guided tour in most languages.
You can also just wander inside on your own. If you’re there at 1 PM don’t miss the one o’clock gun ceremony, where every day at that time they fire off a large cannon/gun to signal the time. This dates back 100’s of years when it was done, so Captains of ships at anchor in the Firth of Forth nearby could set there ships time piece.
Palace of Holyrood
This is the Royal palace in Edinburgh and is to this day still used by the British Royal family, particularly in August when the monarch moves there for a couple of weeks. You can however visit the Palace and it is well worth a look. It’s home to many historical references in particular in relation to the Mary Queen of Scots. The Palace sits at the opposite end of the Royal Mile from the castle and next to Holyrood Park.
So what is this? Well, it’s the main road in Old Town. It runs downhill from the castle right to Holyrood Palace. But on the way there are so many other things to see, for example St. Giles Cathedral, which featured prominently in the recent funeral ceremonies for the late Queen Elizabeth, The Scottish Parliament Building (this was the medieval site of the Parliament and not the current home of the devolved administration that is in fact a modern building at the bottom of the Royal Mile close to the Palace). There are also a number of museums on the mile. These cover all sorts of periods in Scottish and Edinburgh history. Two, I would recommend the The Writers Museum & The Museum of Edinburgh. The mile also has some great old style Scottish pubs and restaurants, and if you visit in August, it is one of the main sites that the Edinburgh Fringe Festival takes over. All the way down here, there are things to see or enjoy.
One of the unique features of Edinburgh is the fact it has a huge park and hill known as Arthur’s Seat, The park is right in the middle of the city, the hill is in fact a extinct volcano!! It was a Royal hunting park back in history but it is now a great open green area that can be accessed from all around the city. If you feel like climbing to its high point’s you’ll get great views out over the city. The park can be accessed from the bottom of the Royal Mile adjacent to Holyrood Palace.
National Museum of Scotland
Located on Chambers Street in the Old Town area, this is a landmark building in its own right. It houses some incredible artefacts, allowing you to explore the diversity of Scottish history, the natural world, Scottish culture, science, and technology all under one roof.
The Real Mary King’s Close
The Real Mary King’s Close is a historic close located under buildings on the Royal Mile. Buried below ground this is a network of narrow alleyways and abandoned houses that has been lying beneath the Royal Mile since the 17th century. It’s the source of many a ghost story. It was sealed off centuries ago as Edinburgh developed and lay hidden from public gaze for all that time, meaning it’s a time capsule of how people lived all those years ago. It is now open to the public and well worth a visit.
This is an area below the castle to the south. It was in medieval times when farmers brought their animals and produced them to market. It was also the site of public execution, it’s ok they don’t practice that these days. Now, it’s a great place to catch another unique view of the castle or visit Victoria Street, which was apparently the inspiration for many a scene in Harry Potter. Which, of course, was written in Edinburgh by JK Rowling There are again some traditional pubs in the area and some great restaurants and cafes. It also has a small flea market at weekends. This area can get very busy but if you have the time don’t miss it.
Greyfriars Bobby & Greyfriars Graveyard
Greyfriars Bobby was a Skye Terrier who became known in 19th-century Edinburgh for spending 14 years guarding the grave of his owner until he died on 14 January 1872. The story continues to be well known to this day, through several books and films. A prominent commemorative statue and the nearby Graveyard which is also the final resting place of several other historical Edinburgh figures are both now a tourist attractions. They can be found not far from the Royal Mile on George IV Bridge near to Chambers Street.
Moving from the Old Town to the New Town now to see what this area has to offer and as was previously mentioned it has some stunning Georgian buildings but it is also the main shopping area of the city.
Saint James’s Centre
The Saint James’s Centre is the redeveloped and modern shopping mall at the east end of the cities Princes Street. It is home to a number of high end stores and boutiques as well as a cinema and a number of restaurants and bars.
Princes Street Gardens
Princess Street is Edinburgh’s traditional shopping street that faces directly onto the castle and Old Town area, but between them is situated the gardens. The gardens house open areas, flower displays, and an ornamental flower clock as well as Victorian statues. They are also home to the historic Ross Fountain and the Ross Bandstand, where at certain times of the year, concerts are held. The area nearest the shops is the setting of the Christmas Market.
Calton Hill is a mix of bustling commercial areas and quiet residential streets. The hill itself, with its city views, is home to the Collective contemporary art gallery and the unfinished folly that was to be a national monument that resembled the Pantheon in Athens. Unfortunately it was never finished but is still a tourist attraction today.
Sir Walter Scott’s Monument
Standing proudly in Princes Street Gardens, the Scott Monument is one of the most iconic Edinburgh landmarks, a must-visit for tourists and locals alike. Dedicated to Sir Walter Scott, it is one of the largest monuments to a writer anywhere in the world. You can climb the monument to give you great views along Princes Street and towards the Old Town.
Johnny Walker Experience
The Johnnie Walker Experience on Princes Street Edinburgh is now a fixture of the whisky tourism scene despite not being a distillery itself. So, what is on offer behind the door of this impressive building, and what should you expect at the Johnnie Walker Experience? From the grand reception area, the tour makes it way around the building, telling the story of Johnnie Walker. There are lots of clever animations and some theatrical motion-based storytelling involving conveyer belts, prompting some to refer to the tour as ‘Malt Disney’, but it’s all good entertaining fun.
At the end of the experience, there is a rooftop bar with great views of the castle and some even better cocktails on offer. There is also a shop where if you desire, you can purchase some very exclusive bottles of whisky or just a more regular one if that’s your choice.
Royal Yacht Britannia
Now, this is actually in Leith Docks, not the New Town. This was the ship used by the British Royal family for state visits abroad, up until its decommissioning, it has played host to many famous historical leaders, and was a real favourite of the Royal Family. It has been fully restored and moored in Leith. If you visit you get a great insight into the private life of the royals. It really is well done and worth a visit.
Edinburgh Zoo, formerly the Scottish National Zoological Park, is an 82-acre non-profit zoological park in the Corstorphine area west of the city. The land lies on the south facing slopes of Corstorphine Hill, from which it provides extensive views of the city.
If you are a fan of a certain boy wizard, Harry Potter, there is a full tour taking in many of the sites that inspired settings in the books/films including the well worth a visit Victoria Street near the Grassmarket that really is worth a look on its own right.
I think no guide to Edinburgh could be completed without references to the three following events because they really are fantastic and enjoyable busy occasions that truly show off the Scottish like having a great time.
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe
This is the World’s leading Arts festival and takes over the city for 4 weeks in August, it is made up of a number of events from drama, to dance to musical, book festival and the really famous comedy shows. There is not a square meter of space in the city not used for some sort of show/performance, it really is something well worth experiencing and I cannot recommend this any higher.
The Edinburgh Military Tattoo
This again is world famous and like the Fringe takes place in August. It’s setting is truely spectacular on the concourse of the castle with the castle as its backdrop. It’s filled with nostalgia and some amazing mass bands from across the world, as well as its spectacular climax with the mass pipe bands. Tickets for this go extremely quickly and can be booked online in December, but they are like gold dust.
OK, I can hear some say What? Simply New Year here is called Hogmanay, now traditional in Scotland. The big holiday at that time of year was not Christmas… it was Hogmanay and the passing of the old year into the new. Now there is always a huge street party in Edinburgh on December 31st, with live bands etc, and at midnight there is a spectacular fireworks show above the castle. But that is only part of it – the city in fact has a 3 day Winter festival at this time starting with the Torch Procession on the 30th December when thousands of people march through the city carrying lighted fire torches. There are also numerous music and cultural events over these 3 days so it is a special time to visit the city.
Scots do love to eat and drink, and the city is full with some really great spots for that, both modern and traditional. So you will not be short of choice if you want to try a local whisky or gin both distilled here in the city, or enjoy some good food. I will finish this with some personal recommendations for eating out and a couple of different tours you may consider.
Eating Out / Night Out
Situated on St. Andrews Square in the new town, Indian style food but a really great experience. It is based on Mumbai Street food in a colonial British Raj setting and is well worth a visit of you like you food with spice.
The Sheeps Heid Inn
Situated just outside Holyrood Park, a very traditional Scottish pub and food, famously this was a known favourite spot of the late Queen Elizabeth who was known to make surprise unannounced visits to this bar. It is situated in a very historic part of the city again, well worth a visit.
Top end food in a very exclusive intimate setting directly next to the castle in the Old Town. If you’re looking for top-class food and a special setting on that special occasion, then this is the one. Great to try.
The Nor Loft
This is a chic rooftop bar that sits atop The Market Street Hotel next to Waverley Station with views towards Princes Street Gardens. It has some excellent food and equally impressive cocktails, not to mention Champagne.
The Guildford Arms
This is a traditional Edinburgh/Scottish pub found just off Princes Street with an extensive selection of beers and whiskies. It also serves simple and wholesome traditional Scottish pub food. It has a small upstairs restaurant, but its pubgrub is just as good. If you visit, look up and admire its stunning interior ceiling. This is a traditional pub in the true sense.
Found on Hanover Street in the New Town, this is the place if you’re looking for breakfast or brunch, as well as a highly recommended Full Scottish Breakfast it also caterers for vegan and vegetarian customers. It has an excellent menu, and the Logistics Manager also rates its coffee options. So, to start your day visiting the city, you won’t be disappointed with a visit here.
Victoria on the Bridge
Enjoy Italian cooking ? Well, this is the spot, run by a Scottish Italian family. This restaurant has some excellent dishes all at reasonable prices, good service, and not far from the Royal Mile on George IV Bridge.
This top-class seafood restaurant is a bit further from the city centre and is to be found near Leith Docks at 1 Shore Leith. It is an easy tram journey or taxi run from the city and you won’t be disappointed as it has great seafood. There are other options if that’s not your thing. However, every dish is cooked to perfection and the service is equally good. Well worth the effort to get there.
Now for something a bit different, these experiences in the city are all ones which I and the Logistics Manager have tried and enjoyed. So, we recommend them as they really are fun, different and worth trying.
1, Edinburgh Gin Tasting
There has been an explosion of interest and drinking of Gin across the UK and Europe in the last few years, and Scotland has been at the front of that trend. We now have a multitude of small batch Premium Gin’s produced here. One such brand is Edinburgh Gin, which is produced right here in the city. So you can visit and learn how it’s made as well as sample some of the produce right in the city at Edinburgh Gin 1A Rutland Street.
2, Ghost Tour
This tour at night takes you into the darker places of the old town where you hear first hand of some of the more gruesome history of the city, and you may just meet a ghost! Having done this tour with friends visiting the city, I can say it is a fun experience and does give you a flavour of the cities history. There are a number of companies offering versions of this tour, so check online as they are all equally good fun.
3, Day at the Beach
Yes, honestly, if you have some time to spend in the city, you could also spend a portion of that at a good old British Beach resort. Yes, why not visit Edinburgh by the Beach, otherwise known as Portobello it is something different and worth a look. It’s only 30 min by bus. No’s 26, 45 or X26 will get you there from the city centre. Here, you will find a couple of miles stretch of golden sandy beach backed by a promenade which is home to amusements, traditional fish and chips outlet as well as a children’s playground and soft play area. However, it is also the location of two first-class bistros. The Beach House & Miros. So something is a bit different on your visit to Scotland’s capital.
4, Trike Tours
Now like almost every large city there are a couple of options to tour the city using the Hop on Hop Off Bus service that covers all the main attractions and leaves regularly from St. Andrews Square in the New Town. However, why not step it up a bit by touring the city on a exhilarating Trike complete with leathers and hi tech helmet. Your easy rider guide will take you around the city on the Trike and give you a running commentary of all the main attractions, including some hidden gems and history. It’s a fun way to enjoy a day in the city.
So, that is my local recommendations of what to see and enjoy on a visit to Edinburgh. As for accommodation you won’t be short of choice as the city has all types to offer from 5 star hotels to self catering apartments. Do keep in mind those festivals I mentioned earlier, because at the respective times of the year, they take place prices are at a premium and availability can be limited. So do plan your trip. Hope to see you here sometime. Please share the page with anyone you know who may be visiting the city.