Edinburgh is one of my favorite cities in the world. I can wander the Royal Mile ducking in and out of shops or pubs when the rain comes or spend hours learning about Scotland’s fascinating history in one of its many museums. With its bustling shopping and restaurant district in the New Town to the historic sites and Medieval Castle in the Old Town, there is something for everyone. The city serves as the capital of Scotland and seat of its government. It’s also the second largest financial center in the United Kingdom behind London, which means it’s not only about kilts and Whisky but a place where serious business occurs. If you go, grab a raincoat and an umbrella and imagine yourself as Mary, Queen of Scots and travel back in time to a city filled with adventure and mystery.
I arrive by plane from Shannon, Ireland midday, grab the Airlink directly outside baggage claim and 30 minutes later my bus drops me in the West End, where I booked an Airbnb for three nights. I drop my bag; peel off a layer of clothing and head to Edinburgh Castle, a 10-minute walk from my location. The view of Edinburgh Castle never disappoints as I narrow my focus on the medieval fortress towering high above the ground serving as a symbol of Edinburgh and the strength of the Scottish people. Mesmerized by its beauty and grace, I take a deep breath and trek up the stairs connecting the Grassmarket district to the Old Town. I spend three hours exploring the Castle’s grounds.
Edinburgh Castle – Perched at the highest point of the Old Town on Castle Rock, the castle dates to the 12th Century when King David I ruled. The courtyards and museum can get quite crowded especially in July or August so plan to go early or later in the day. Hiring a guide is highly recommended. You can easily spend four hours visiting the site. Hours: 9:30 AM – 6:00 PM. Cost: Adults £18.50/$24, Child £11.50/$15 (Save by booking in advance) See Royal Edinburgh Ticket
Next, I brace myself for the hordes of tourists along the Royal Mile. It’s particularly crowded between King George IV Bridge and the Castle. I allow myself the beating because quiet is only minutes away as I cross South Bridge to Scott Monument, the Gothic looking steeple dedicated to Sir Walter Scott, a famous Scottish novelist and playwright. I am now in the “Mound” or Prince Street Gardens, a park filled with beckoning benches, colorful flowers and cafes directly in the shadows of the Old Town. It’s a great place for relaxing and people watching. Eager to see the castle from another vantage point, I plunk myself on a bench and stretch my legs.
No rest for the weary. It’s time for dinner and England is playing Nigeria in the World Cup (soccer). I retreat closer to the West End and stumble into Shakespeare’s Bar for a pint and some tomato soup. The bar is crowded but not as I expected. I chat up a bartender who informs me that the Scots aren’t big fans of the Brits. In fact, I begin to wonder why Scotland voted to remain part of the United Kingdom. England wins and I call it a night.
It’s 6:00 AM and the sun has been raging through my window since 4:30 AM. Summer in Scotland provides 17 hours of daylight making outdoor activities accessible day and night. With the forecast calling for rain, I decide to haul myself out of bed and hike Arthur’s Seat. I walk from the West End, down the Royal Mile to the beginning of the climb, which begins in front of Holyrood Palace. I ignore the signs that read, “this way” and venture along the cliff before retreating and correcting my mistake. About an hour climb to the top, I brave gusting winds to enjoy 360-degree views of the city stretching from the port to the countryside. It’s a challenging climb but accessible to all levels with the right shoes and clothing.
Having worked up an appetite, I make my way back to the Royal Mile where storefronts and cafes are opening. I spot a display of scones and donuts in the window of Sugarhouse Sandwiches and peek my head inside where a wave of freshly prepared baked goods lures me into the dining room. I devour a bowl of Scottish porridge with honey and a hot latte and get back to pounding the pavement.
I’m torn about whether to go and shower but one look at the sky reminds me this is Edinburgh and when the skies are clear take advantage of the time. I inquire about one of the many “free” walking tours along the Royal Mile. A tour starts at 10:30 AM and with one quick glance at the time, I sign up for it. My guide Chelsea is originally from Calgary, Canada and while she specializes in World War II history it’s clear after spending an hour with her she is passionate about Edinburgh’s past–her stories captivating.
There are several free tours offered along the Royal Mile but make sure to pick one that covers St. Giles Cathedral, Greyfriars Kirk and gives a historic overview of the city. There are optional Castle Tours and Haunted Edinburgh Tours also for free. I tipped £10 /$13
My free tour ends at the Writers Museum and since I am in the City of Literature I want to learn more about Edinburgh’s greatest writers. The museum showcases the works and personal items of Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson. I envision Scotland’s gripping past and revel in their stories. Before leaving Makars’ Court, I pause to admire the inspiring words of Scottish authors inscribed in the stones throughout the square.
The Writers Museum is located off the Royal Mile in Lady Stair’s House, which dates to 1622. There is a gift shop filled with tasteful items and books from Scottish authors. Hours: 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM. Entry free
Crossing the Mound to the main thoroughfare of the New Town, Princes Street, I am exhausted from walking and hungry. I head toward my neighborhood cutting along Rose Street, a fun-filled street parallel to Princes lined with hundreds of pubs and restaurants. I pick a place for dinner and make a mental note to make a reservation. The winds have brought cloud cover and cold air and I sense rain is near. I hasten my pace and notice Fatty Owls. Its charming windows wave me inside and I order a soup and sandwich. Locals gather and I eavesdrop on their conversations. They are complaining about the weather–no surprise here. I finish my lunch with peppermint tea and remember I still need a shower.
After a shiatsu massage at the Healthy Life Centre, my taste buds are crying for food. I make my way to Rose Street in the New Town, where I attempt to negotiate with the reservation manager at the Mussel Inn. The restaurant is hopping but he politely turns his smile into a frown and suggests next time I make a reservation (I forgot to do that). The zen I am feeling from my massage is fading and I Google “Best oysters in Edinburgh near me.” Cafe Royal Circle Bar is only minutes away from my location and I make a mad dash to the restaurant. The interior bar is covered in dark wood, with soft lantern lighting. It’s lined with bar tables and booths for larger groups. My eyes dancing with excitement, my stomach gnawing, I order smoked salmon, two-dozen oysters, chips and a typical Scottish dessert with berries and cream sauce. Wishing I had a wheel barrel to escort me home, I step into the pounding rain and call an uber. I sleep well. *Tricky to find with construction. Find the Apple store on Princes Street and make your way around the corner.
Today, I retrace my steps from Day 2 and locate Sugarhouse Sandwiches. It is only minutes away by foot from Holyrood Palace and my first stop of the day. I gorge myself on a warm blueberry scone but it’s not enough and I order the creamy Scottish porridge with honey–again. The Scots prepare their food piping hot, I burn my mouth on the porridge but waiting for it to cool is not an option.
Heeding my own advice, I arrive at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s residence in Scotland, right at 9:30 AM when the ticket desk opens. It’s too early for tourist buses and I’m free to roam the public rooms of the palace fantasizing about life as a member of the Royal Family. Staff is busy preparing the grounds and palace for Queen Elizabeth’s arrival next week. I ponder who in Scotland can secure me an invite but no one comes to mind.
Palace of Holyroodhouse – The palace serves as the Queen’s residence when she is in Scotland. There is a beautiful art collection and the audio guide tour provides a great overview of the history of the palace as well as what function it serves today. There are also several options for guided tours. Be sure to explore the Abbey and grounds directly behind the palace before exiting the entry gates. To beat the crowds, go right when the palace opens at 9:30 AM. Cost: Adults £14.00, $18 – Over 60 / Student (with valid ID) £12.70 /$16.50 See Royal Edinburgh Ticket
My afternoon plans are set giving me enough time to tackle Calton Hill. With its steep hills and winding pathways, the city is keeping me fit. I alert my quads to the climb ahead, and drag my body up more stairs arriving at St. Andrew’s House, the headquarters of Scottish government. I pause to take in views of the Old Town specifically admiring Edinburgh Castle, the Scottish Parliament Building and Holyrood Palace. A little less breathless, I hike more steps to a cluster of historic buildings: National Monument, Nelson Monument, the Dugald Stewart Monument, Robert Burns Monument. This is a great location to admire panoramic views of the city and appreciate Scottish history.
It’s about time for lunch and I wind my way down Calton Hill to Leith Walk, the main road connecting the city center to the port of Leith. It’s about a 30-35-minute walk from the New Town and I want to work up an appetite. I am craving lobster and where better to go for seafood than Leith. The Ship on the Shore is located steps away from the port and clustered around inviting docks and other seafood restaurants and cafes. I order the smoked salmon, oysters, garlic lobster and chips. When the waitress asks if I want dessert, I decline feeling glutinous.
It’s a gorgeous afternoon and the sun is granting me a gift. I walk back to the city center along the Water of Leith nature path starting at the docks and ending at the Tesco Supermarket in the New Town. The path is great for walkers and bikers and tree and bush provide a shady respite from the sun or rain. It’s now late afternoon and I haven’t made time for shopping. I cut through Queen Street Gardens and sneak a look in the stores along George Street. They are mostly US and UK chains catering more to the mainstream than tourists and my dollar doesn’t go far on the pound. I escape bag free.
I have a few hours until my next tour and decide caffeine is needed to snap me out of my food coma. The Grassmarket in the Old Town is adjacent to Edinburgh Castle and provides plenty of cafes and pubs to grab a beer, pastry or coffee and tea. There are also upscale Scottish brands and tourist shops to peruse. I am appropriately jolted awake when my heart rate and Victoria Street collide. I stop in a Harry Potter themed store to catch my breath and notice a women’s dress shop across the street. I am admiring myself in the mirror twirling from side to side when a little voice inside reminds me I will never wear a plaid kilt in New York City. I am proud of my willpower and that I saved £190/$247.
It’s Happy Hour and I am excited for the Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour. We gather at the Beehive Inn in the Grassmarket where our hosts for the evening begin exuberantly ranting about Robert Burns and I don’t quite get the joke and I scrutinize my fellow tourists across the room. It hits me. This man and woman are performers. This is an act! My group consisted of 10 people (English speakers) from Canada, Australia and the United States. We laughed for hours (pub = alcohol) learning as much about Edinburgh’s literary community as Scottish history. After the tour ended, five of us—one couple from Michigan, the other from near Ottawa and me–took the idea of pub crawl to its literal sense and closed out the night around midnight chasing open pubs along Rose Street until the bewitching hour forced us to call it a night at McDonald’s for greasy fries.
Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour – This is very fun. Tours are nightly at 7:30 PM with a group of about 10 people. Actors portray Edinburgh’s greatest writers and tell their stories in pubs in the Old Town and New Town — many of the pubs are historic places where writers gathered or fashioned their stories. If this is your first visit to Edinburgh, I suggest booking on day one. Sorry over age 18 only. Cost £12/$16
1/2 BONUS DAY
I wake up groggy, the effects from the pub tour and fries obvious. It’s my last day and I have goals to accomplish. I pack up my suitcase and depart the Airbnb as I found it–sparkling clean. Lugging my belongings the 10-minute walk to the Grassmarket, I spy a vegan cafe, Pumpkin Brown, where I proceed to shovel down a raw bowl of mixed fruit muesli and a turmeric latte. This will definitely realign my system; I hope.
I struggle to carry my suitcase up Victoria Street, over George IV Bridge to Waverly Train station. I don’t remember sweating this much in Edinburgh. The “left luggage” services are near the Princes Street entrance. After zig-zagging through passengers, I park my possessions with two nice men, grab a ticket and listen to their warning, “After 2 hours, the price jumps.” Free of my constraints, I am reborn, and off to wander the Royal Mile one last time.
The stairs from the New Town to the Old Town continue to plague me but I am on a Harry Potter discovery mission and time is ticking. I walk through the Grassmarket to an unmarked entrance connecting Greyfriars Kirk to the Old Town. The free city tour visits the cemetery but I want to see more. I secure a map from the church and to my surprise and pure exhilaration, I locate the McGonagal, Cornelius, Moodie, Black and Potter tombstones. They served as an inspiration for J.K. Rowling’s characters in the Harry Potter novels. I take a second look at George Heriot’s School, and observe its likeness to Hogwarts. My imagination carries me to the pages of Harry Potter and I wish I could cast a spell to stay here forever but I have one more stop before lunch.
Visiting the National Museum of Scotland is a must for families especially on a rainy day. I browse through the displays on Scottish dress through the ages and take special note of the different clan attire. Each clan represented by a different colored kilt and hat.
National Museum of Scotland – The museum contains Scottish antiquities, culture and history and it’s next to the Royal Museum, which holds the science and technology, and natural history exhibits. The galleries are spacious and there are special traveling exhibits year round. There is also an extensive gift shop and two cafes to eat or drink. Hours: 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM. Entry free
It’s noon –and an early lunch is in order. I scoped out Ondine previously and knew it would serve as a great place for my final meal in Edinburgh. I order a glass of wine (hair of the dog), two-dozen oysters, and the seabass with creamed spinach. I even eat the bread with butter. Satisfied, I walk along the Royal Mile slowing my pace, taking in the fresh air and gazing affectionately on the castle. I browse a few stores buying a knit hat from the Tartan Weaving Mill and an Edinburgh patterned cashmere scarf from Kiltane.
Now it’s certainly time to go. I collect my bags, paying more than I intended and I study the boards for Glasgow Queen Station. To discover Edinburgh is to live its stories. I can’t wait to visit again.
Important Note: Edinburgh is also know as Festival City and boasts some of the best international art, music, theater and storytelling in the world. I highly recommend visiting the festival website for more information. The city swells to capacity during the Fringe and Military Tattoo festivals in August.
For a complete list of the places I visited, see below the photos.
Located outside baggage claim. Arrives every 15 minutes. From the Airport to the Center of Town, it costs £4.50 and takes about 30/35 minutes.
WHERE TO EAT
Restaurants New Town
61-65 Rose Street – Mussels and fries. Small space, fun area. Make a reservation.
Cafe Royal Circle Bar
19 W Register Street – Go for the atmosphere, oysters and Whisky.
Fishers in the City
58 Thistle Street – Seafood / Original restaurant located in Leith.
Restaurants Old Town
2 George IV Bridge – Seafood (expensive). Right off Royal Mile. Great views of George IV Street and Victoria Street.
158 Canongate (on the Royal Mile) – Great cakes, muffins, breakfast and lunch, vegan, vegetarian options. Homemade everything. I loved the Porridge so much I went back twice.
La Barantine Victoria
Victoria Street – French Patisserie and cafe, soups, sandwiches to stay or go.
16 Grassmarket – Vegan, organic cafe and light meals to stay or go.
Restaurants West End
33 Bread Street – Charming cafe, soup, sandwiches, coffee, tea.
Shakespeare’s Bar – Pub grub, meat pies, fish and chips, beer.
65 Lothian Road
The Ship on the Shore
24 26 The Shore – Seafood restaurant and Champagne bar. Fish brought in daily.
1 The Shore – Nautical old-fashioned feeling, oysters and wine
Edinburgh Castle – Book a guided tour and arrive early.
Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour
Palace of Holyroodhouse
9:30 AM – 6:00 PM – Go early to beat the crowds.
Real Mary Kings Close – Underground streets and old stories of the “real” Edinburgh. Meet the residents. *Must make a reservation. It’s one hour and there are tours every 15 minutes.
On the Royal Mile near St. Giles Cathedral
The Royal Yacht Britannia – Explore 5 decks including the State Apartments and the Engine Room. It is accessible by Lothian Buses 11, 22 and Skylink 200 and 300 every 10 minutes to Ocean Terminal.
Multrees Street – Luxury designers like Louis Vuitton
George Street – Upmarket retail US and UK based chains like Anthropologie, Karen Millen, LK Bennett
Princes Street – Apple store, McDonald’s, House of Fraser, Vodafone
Kiltane of Scotland – Cashmere, wool & tweed scarves, kilts, jackets
Tartan Weaving Mill – Nearby the Castle. Nice quality gifts, clothing, everything
Healthy Life Centre – Holistic Treatments and Therapies, Yoga and Pilates
35-37 Broad Street – West End