There’s just something about Edinburgh.
I can’t quite put my finger on it. I don’t know if it’s the beautiful buildings on every street, or the cobblestone streets that instantly add character, or the wild and raw history of the city, or the wonderfully friendly people, or the atmospheric suburbs, or the endless things to do, streets to explore, bars to discover. Maybe it’s the boundless energy that encapsulates the city during the entire month of the Fringe festival, or just the fact Edinburgh has everything; arts, culture, beaches, hikes, a world-class zoo, and it’s a hop, skip and jump from plenty of other places. There is just something about it that catapults Scotland’s capital straight to the top of my list of places to live.
There is, undeniably, a hell of a lot to do in Edinburgh, and I haven’t done all of it.
But, importantly for someone who sees Edinburgh as a place to live rather than simply visiting as a tourist, I’ve dived a little deeper into the city and what it’s about, and come up loving it.
The best thing about Edinburgh to me, is even the tourist hubs are still amazing areas. I can imagine taking a lunch break and sitting in Grassmarket looking up at the castle. I love that you can go shopping on a street overshadowed by a monolithic gothic monument, surrounded by beautiful gardens and overlooked by a castle. And if you want a bit of nature, you’ve got a volcano literally at the end of the Royal Mile.
Here are just some of my highlights of the city.
The Royal Mile
*THE* tourist hub, this stretch of cobblestone road has so much atmosphere that it doesn’t even matter how busy it is. In the photo above, it’s almost deserted in lockdown, but I’ve hit up Fringe festival in August enough times to know what it’s like when it’s seriously busy. And I still loved it! (Or maybe that’s just because you’re stopping every few seconds to check out a street performer or some type of art.)
This is “Old Town”, so it’s chockablock full of historic buildings, churches, pubs and of course all the tourist haunts.
This isn’t where a local would come to do shopping (you’d want Princes Street for that), but I still feel incredibly lucky that this is my city centre.
The creme de la creme of tourist Edinburgh. You don’t HAVE to go inside (there’s a reason it took me so long to do it – it’s almost £20 to enter!!) but it’s always worth a wander up the Royal Mile to see the landmark up close and get some stunning views over the city.
If you’re expecting royal rooms and decorations of grandeur, you might be disappointed. This is first and foremost a military castle, and although there are a couple of residential rooms with not much at all in, the exhibitions focus on Scotland’s position in battle. As a result, there are cannons abound (don’t miss the 1 o’clock gun, every day except Sunday!), a military museum, and the single best war memorial I’ve ever seen.
The focal point of the castle is the room holding the crown jewels and stone of destiny. Sounds as magical as Scotland gets, right??
It’s worth noting, as I found out the hard way, that if you’re struggling to walk against the wind going up the Royal Mile (especially that last part that’s a complete wind tunnel), chances are the castle is going to be shut to visitors…! There I was thinking the indoor exhibitions would be perfect for the bad weather. Sucked to be me that day, I had to walk back down in the rain!
The old town of Edinburgh is just the epitome of what an “old town” should look like. A cobblestone square looks up at the high and mighty castle, preceded by lots of narrow streets, including the gorgeous colours of Victoria Street.
The square marks the spot where people used to be hanged, so there’s a bit of gory history on every corner in Edinburgh! (We’re only just getting started, seriously; hold on tight, guys.)
There are a couple of more fun things to do, though – Scotland’s smallest pub is in the square, and I highly recommend climbing the steps of the Vennel for one of the best views of the castle in the city.
Related post: 50 Photos To Make You Want To Visit Edinburgh
I’ve just mentioned Victoria Street, but it deserves its own section. This is far and away my favourite street in Edinburgh, in part because it’s said to be the inspiration for Diagon Alley (and I can see why!). In fact, there are tons of Harry Potter related sites and inspiration in Edinburgh, as JK Rowling lives here and wrote the books here.
On Victoria Street alone, there are two Harry Potter shops – I highly recommend a visit to the Museum Of Context, which sells a whole load of cool collectable items, and they also have a photo opportunity on the top floor where you can don your finest Hogwarts robes and really look the part!
I also highly recommend grabbing lunch from Oink, a hog roast café that is just as amazing as it sounds.
YAY! I finally made it up Arthur’s Seat!
At the end of the Royal Mile, you can take a hike up to the iconic peak of Arthur’s Seat which affords incredible views over every direction of the city and across the Firth of Forth to Fife (try saying that quickly).
It’s well worth the walk, and you can choose between an easier path (which is the only one I’ve done) and a much harder hike along the craggy edge of the Salisbury Crags. The easier hike takes around an hour to one and a half hours return (I’ve gone up in half an hour before).
Don’t forget to visit Bobby’s statue just outside the top end of the graveyard. You can rub his nose for good luck, but – I fear I’ll crush some dreams with this one – apparently this was made up by a tour guide!! Bobby’s keeper’s grave, John Gray, can be found near the entrance.
So I am one of those weird people who loves walking through graveyards. Plus the fact JK Rowling got a few of her character names from the gravestones (there’s a Thomas Riddle/Riddell somewhere!) really piqued my interest.
I first visited on an Auld Reekie ghost tour, which I highly recommend. Because I went in winter, there was one part of the graveyard we couldn’t really visit at night due to slippery paths, so they couldn’t point out Thomas Riddell’s grave. I did find an unmarked piece of wall with Sirius Black written on it, though…
If you want to find Thomas Riddell’s grave, it’s along at the bottom of the Flodden Wall. That’s all I’ll tell you, although they have had to put some infrastructure in to support the footfall to his grave.
Another reference is a plaque by the gate to a school, for a William McGonnagal. In fact, the school itself (you can see it through the gates) is thought to be inspiration for Hogwarts!
Greyfriar’s is also home to some of Edinburgh’s most notable characters, including the ill-famed George Mackenzie, who carried out King Charles II’s persecution against Protestant covenants. Under his power, 1200 covenanters were imprisoned, most of whom died either through execution or maltreatment. His mausoleum is said to be the most haunted grave in the kirkyard; apparently people who have been close to it, particularly women, have reported the next day to have marks on their neck as though they had been strangled. There are also lots of stories of being chased by a shadow from his grave – although our tour guide said of course it could be inside their heads!
In fact, the council locked up his grave many years ago because there were too many strange stories, and a tour guide cashed in on this by getting permission to lead tours into the tomb. Within a few months, he stopped his tours because weird things kept happening to his customers!
Close to Grassmarket, one of the most interesting but gruesome parts of Edinburgh’s history resides in the Southbridge vaults above Cowgate (Cowgate is so-called because cows used to run through the street on market days; another contribution to Edinburgh’s nickname, “Auld Reekie”).
You can visit the vaults on several tours in Edinburgh; coincidentally, I went with Auld Reekie tours because Groupon has a deal on different options. I did the vaults & graveyard tour and it was a reasonable group of about 12-15 people; far less crowded than a couple of the tours we passed!! Our guide was really good, although keen to disprove any spooky myths, which seemed strange for a ghost tour! Then again, it made her stories feel a bit creepier because you felt like she wasn’t going to believe just any old wives’ tale.
The history of the Southbridge vaults isn’t scary – it’s actually pretty horrifying. The vaults began as storage space for the shops above, but were quickly abandoned when the poor structure led to regular flooding. Soon, the city’s poorest people moved in – being homeless was a crime in the 1800’s, and people fled for cover to protect themselves from arrest and/or execution.
As it turns out, the vaults were not a great cover or protection. As well as flooding, excrement from the streets would seep through the ceilings (the real reason behind the name “Auld Reekie” is that families would shout “gardy loo!” and throw their toilet contents onto the street below… and these vaults were below the street), and there was very little lighting, water or air flow in the vaults that often held at least ten people in each small room.
Crime, prostitution, disease and murder quickly became rife (in fact, it’s rumoured that Burke and Hare hunted victims in the vaults) and it’s not quite clear what became of the people who lived there, or how life in the vaults came to an end.
National Museum Of Scotland
Perfect for a rainy day (of which there are many in Scotland), although I went in on a whim while I had some spare time. What I found surprised me, and I spent a lot longer in there than I expected. The museum is huge! You could easily allocate a half day or more to this place – in fact, I’ve been in there a few times now and still haven’t seen everything.
It’s fantastically geared up for kids – there is SO much interactive stuff, like flying a hot air balloon and putting things together or solving puzzles. You can even see Dolly the sheep! That said, it’s not just a kiddo’s museum at ALL. I was really impressed, and came away putting it up there with London’s museums, which are pretty unbeatable anyway. And best of all – it’s free!
I also went into the Museum of Edinburgh on the Royal Mile and although it won’t kill a lot of time, it’s definitely worth a look around for an insight into the history of the city.
If you don’t have time for a hike like Arthur’s Seat, then Calton Hill, minutes from Princes Street, is really nice, too – and it’s one of the best places in the city to watch the sunset.
As well as the view over the city, there are actually quite a few things to explore up on the hill; a mismatched array of monuments. The foreboding pillared monument marks the lives of Scottish soldiers and sailors, and another is a towered monument for Nelson.
One of the most famous landmarks of Calton Hill (the one in the above photo) is actually a monument commemorating someone I’d never even heard of: Dugald Stewart, a mathematician and professor at the University of Edinburgh. The more you know!
Before I really fell in love with Edinburgh’s old town, I used to spend a lot of time around Princes Street (you know, when I was younger and little old island-life-me loved the novelty of big shops), and my highlight there is Scott Monument.
Another thing high up – literally – on my to-do list is climb it. On mentioning this to various friends in Edinburgh, it turns out none of them have done it either. Still, it’s one of my favourite pieces of architecture in the city, so it makes the list.
Impossibly pretty Dean Village is an Instagram favourite, and it’s not hard to see why. Located just a ten minute walk from Princes Street (other guides tell you it’s five minutes; either they have mile-long legs or they’re running, because I’m a pretty fast walker myself), this is potentially a hidden gem in the heart of the city.
I absolutely adore the fairytale-like Dean Village, and there’s nothing better on a Sunday than going to Stockbridge markets and walking along the Water of Leith to Dean Village.
Related post: 50 Photos To Make You Want To Visit Edinburgh
A very good friend of mine used to live in the lovely neighbourhood of Leith, and staying with her whenever I visited Edinburgh kickstarted my love of the area. Once again, it’s cobblestone streets, but quiet and very pretty along the waterfront. There are plenty of bars and restaurants around to keep you occupied, but even so, buses into the centre only take little over ten minutes. Perfect!
This has a much more local feel than anywhere else on this list, but it’s a great area to get under Edinburgh’s skin and see the real side of it.
If you’re up for it, you can walk along the Water of Leith – most people walk the 3 miles from Dean Village.
(Fun fact: Trainspotting was based and filmed in Leith. Thankfully Leith has transformed from a drug haven to a trendy neighbourhood!)
(Fun fact #2: I have never seen Trainspotting.)
The zoo in Edinburgh had been on my list for a long, long time – but even more so since they got the giant pandas! Edinburgh Zoo is renowned as one of the best zoos around for their conservation efforts and for the zoo itself, so I was keen to check it out.
I have to admit I was slightly underwhelmed because I had the problem of comparing it to Singapore Zoo (definitely one of the best zoos in the world). That said, it was definitely better than Australia Zoo, which for me suffered the same problem!
However, for me, it was entirely worth it just for the pandas (one of the few animals I’ve never seen before) and the penguins!
Another unfortunate circumstance was that avian flu was rife in the UK when I visited, and as a precaution, the zoo cancelled the infamous “penguin parade” until the end of February. Naturally, our visit was only about three days before it was back on the schedule. But that didn’t matter at all!
Fun fact (and this really is fun): one of the penguins has a knighthood. Sir Nils Olav is the mascot and colonel-in-chief of the Norwegian King’s Guard!
I also loved the talk on the Indian rhino, I finally got a good photo of a binturong, and we got to see tapirs, which are freaking awesome. We also got a phenomenal view of zebras with hills in the background (Edinburgh Zoo itself is on a hill, which can get tiresome) and said hello to some super cute meerkats. And monkeys. Ooooh, and I also finally saw a sun bear, another animal I’d never seen before!
Where to eat & drink
The Elephant House
If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you’ll probably want to take a visit to The Elephant House; the coffee shop where JK Rowling wrote the draft for the first book! As you can imagine, the café is busy as hell thanks to the Harry Potter effect. It’s easy to take a photo from outside, but you might have a queue to contend with if you want a drink. If anything, a trip to the toilets are definitely worthwhile! The women’s especially is covered in HP-related graffiti! Find it between the Royal Mile and Greyfriar’s Bobby.
Mary’s Milk Bar
I’d highly recommend Mary’s Milk Bar down in Grassmarket – famous for both being really, really good, and for their… unique flavours of ice cream! Some of the ones I’ve heard of include:
- chilli & pineapple
- salted liquorice & chocolate
- earl grey tea & citrus
- fried banana in butter
- hot cross bun… flavoured ice cream!?! Yeah, you read that right.
I had two flavours – I couldn’t resist the salted caramel, and I decided to try… wait for it… goats cheese & pickled cherry!! Let that one sink in for a minute. It was actually quite nice! Only problem was, I bought it, turned around and the last seat had just been taken by someone who walked in. So I ate it outside. In the rain. I mean, I got a beautiful view of the castle, but…
Bread Meats Bread
Lothian Road is home to lots of great restaurants and a few bars to really pack a punch for a night out. My favourite place along here is Bread Meats Bread, which does (in case you couldn’t guess from the name) delicious burgers. We’ve been there with several groups of visiting friends, and everyone has loved it! It’s also been full every time, which says it all. They mostly do burgers, but they also do delicious poutine!! And trust me when I say – if you’re going to get “raspoutine”, do it as a main, or share with someone else!
Oh, and did I mention the fact one of their burgers is served in a doughnut?
I’ve already mentioned Oink in this post, but it really is that good! There’s one on Victoria Street, the Royal Mile, and Hanover Street in New Town.
Don’t come here if you’re vegan, because this is full on hog roast. You choose your size, your bread, your stuffing (including haggis!) and your sauce (I go for apple sauce every time, no question). IT. IS. SO. GOOD.
Makar’s Rest Gourmet Mash Bar
Yep, it’s exactly what you think it is. A gourmet mashed potato restaurant. Can you think of anything more awesome?
It’s not as greasy spoon-ish as it sounds – they serve up some really good food! You choose your main and then choose a mash to go with it, and every one I’ve tried so far has been scrumptious!
I’ve only ever been to the one on the Mound, but there is also one in the West End.
The Banshee Labyrinth
This is my favourite pub in Edinburgh, and it’s right off the Royal Mile! When I first discovered it, I actually texted my friend to say “do you know anything about this pub? Is it actually any good, or is it just really gimmicky?” She replied saying she goes there all the time and to meet her there in ten minutes! Well, okay then.
Here’s why: it’s predominantly a rock bar, which has a cinema room that shows movies every single night, and brick-wall vaults with more bars (which are closed on week nights, but we went back at the weekend!). It even has a rave / karaoke / gig / open mic (depending on the night) room, if you can find it!
In fact, the whole pub is inside the Southbridge Vaults (see above!) so it’s full of interesting history.
Oh, and if the downstairs bars are closed, here’s what you get to see instead:
Apart from the Halloween-esque theme, it really reminded me of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in London, which if you don’t know by now is probably my favourite pub ever. It’s full of vaults and rooms and nooks and crannies, and if you don’t fancy a big night out, you can go chill in their cinema room or catch one of their regular open mic nights! Amazing!
Related post: 15 Quirky & Unique Places To Eat & Drink In Edinburgh
We popped in here for a quick drink – and as well as just being a really nice bar, they also have live music every night! I will say it’s fairly expensive, but that’s because it’s on the Royal Mile. That said, it’s well worth a visit if you’re a tourist and like to check out some local live music!
If you want something a little more traditional and off the beaten path, I highly recommend Captain’s Bar, a lovely little pirate-esque pub on College Street, just off South Bridge. It’s a bit cheaper, much smaller, and they often have trad musicians gathered for a wee jam! Lots of fun!
For more of my favourite places to eat & drink in Edinburgh, check out my guide to the best quirky bars and restaurants in the city.
Where to stay?
As a backpacker and hostel-lover, I highly recommend Edinburgh for a hostel stay! When I last planned a trip to Edinburgh before we moved here, I shortlisted my options to at least five amazing looking hostels. My top picks are:
High Street Hostel – this won my shortlist the first time around, and it’s set in a nice building right off the Royal Mile. It used to be owned by someone who came to a sticky end when he was involved with the murder of Mary Queen Of Scots’ husband!! Well, it’s always nice to stay somewhere with a bit of history.
Kick Ass Hostel – this is a newer hostel in the old town and has an awesome bar, a good cafe and a modern feel! If you want a more upbeat stay, this is a great place to meet people and have fun. It has consistent rave reviews so it’s definitely worth a check out (or check IN!) but do bear in mind it’s definitely more of a party hostel than most of the others.
Belford Hostel – not as central as a lot of hostels (i.e. not in the old town) but a short walk from Princes Street. I stayed here about 10 years ago so my recommendation is slightly out of date – but it’s inside a church! How cool is that?
Castle Rock Hostel – probably the best location for a hostel as far as views go, and I think the closest proximity to the castle, too. This place also has consistently great reviews and was hovering in my top 3 choices, but it’s the only one on this list that I haven’t stayed in yet.
Okay, I’ve covered a lot. Almost 4,000 words of a lot, in fact. I hope I haven’t bored you guys, but I reaaaally love Edinburgh, okay?
So where are some of YOUR favourite places in Edinburgh? I’d love to hear about them in case I’ve missed them!
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Disclaimer: the hostel links are all affiliated, which means I earn a tiny bit of commission if you decide to book any of them, at no extra cost to you! This helps with the running costs of my site and bears no impact on my opinions in the post. 🙂