Thanks to its mixture of unique geography and a rich and fascinating history, Edinburgh is steeped in atmosphere. Among towering buildings of dark sandstone, its medieval street plan and Reformation-era architecture, you can stop by cosy pubs for a whisky or relax on the green lawns of Princes Street gardens for a picnic.
Explore streets full of independent shops that wind up and down from the historic parade of the Royal Mile, rising to Edinburgh Castle at the top and The Palace of Holyroodhouse at the bottom. You’ll meet a host of old Scottish heroes as you go: don’t miss the woad-painted performer dressed as William Wallace, armed to the teeth and available for photographs.
Ever since I first came to Edinburgh in 2005 — then as part of a band performing at its world famous Fringe festival— I’ve loved this city. And there’s a great deal to love, so I’m going to focus on a few things that make Edinburgh a particularly fantastic place to spend as much time as you have.
Arthur’s Seat and other high places
Edinburgh has an incredible array of things to climb. This gives you both the childish delight of being high-up, and some excellent vantages from which to marvel at Edinburgh’s historic buildings. There’s the needle-like Scott Monument on Princes Street, Calton Hill with its follies, the cannon-lined battlements of Edinburgh Castle, and perhaps best of all, there’s Arthur’s Seat in Holyrood Park. A mountain-esque hill overlooking the city, Robert Louis Stevenson called it “a hill for magnitude” but “a mountain in virtue of its bold design”. That’s exactly how it feels.
A few steps beyond the elegance of Holyroodhouse, you’re climbing the slopes of Edinburgh’s epic neighbour with rugged basalt cliffs looming above you. From the top, you can look down on Edinburgh Castle and the city in its entirety, on the Firth of Forth opening into the North Sea, and the beginning of the Highlands looming up to the north-west. I recommend climbing it when you arrive by way of an introduction, and once again before you leave to conclude your travels.
Spooky, atmospheric places
The Real Mary Kings Close takes you deep within the city streets, down to a gloomy underworld of a time gone by. In the bowels of the Royal Mile, the perfectly kept remains of the city’s streets circa 1600 live on, brought to life by tour guides playing the parts of its one-time residents. Learn about living conditions, plague and what befell its residents, and keep your eyes peeled for the ghost of a young girl that’s said to haunt her old house. Stepping back out into Edinburgh afterwards gives you a profound sense of perspective, knowing there are streets right below you. If you want something even spookier, head to the Covenanters Prison in Greyfriars Kirkyard. It’s said to be haunted by a malevolent poltergeist, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Food and drink
Throughout Edinburgh you’ll find great little restaurants tucked away. Take a haggis tour at Arcade on Cockburn Street, indulge in a huge steak at the Mussel and Steak Bar on Grassmarket, or just tuck into some traditional sweets at The Toddle-In.
Grassmarket and Victoria Street are good bets if you want to browse for something tasty or find somewhere to stop for coffee too. The Bow Bar on Victoria Street is a particularly welcoming pub with a great selection of spirits.
The Edinburgh Fringe
The Edinburgh Fringe is the city’s tour de force. It’s the largest arts festival in the world, and every August it transforms an already fantastic city into a bustling sea of excitement and entertainment. Town halls, churches, restaurants, hotels, bars, art spaces: you name it, it’s been turned into a venue for theatre, comedy, music, poetry or dance. Street performers and musicians are to be seen everywhere, while on the Royal Mile small stages are set up for theatrical companies to perform teaser portions of their plays and attract their audiences for the evening. Perhaps thanks to the city’s many levels, it manages to be busy without feeling crowded, so you can still see the sights with ease, then enjoy the festival’s extensive programme of events. It’s hard to adequately capture the buzz of Edinburgh in festival time – there is so much going on, so many people visiting from all over the world, and so many people involved in the events themselves, that every experience is given an added oomph.
For further information on Edinburgh and its attractions, head to VisitScotland