Top 10 things to do in Edinburgh
August is here and so is the festival season in Edinburgh. Where London is buzzing with people all year around, Edinburgh definitely hits its peak visitor numbers in August, with hostel prices (and prices of everything, really) hitting their high during this month. But who can blame them because there is just so much going on all over the city. So if you are heading to Edinburgh this August, be sure to see some of these top 10 things before going on the festival circuit. But be assured, even if you can’t go in August, Edinburgh is always well worth a visit, no matter what time of year.
1. Climb Arthur’s Seat
Edinburgh is a city of hills and Arthur’s Seat is certainly the most famous (and tallest) among them, besides Castle Hill of course. Arthur’s Seat is located right next to Holyrood Palace and it can be climbed by any reasonably fit person. Depending on which route you take, it will take you between 30 minutes to an hour to walk up.
There are several routes that lead up Arthur’s Seat. A more gentle route leads up the back of Arthur’s Seat through Holyrood Park and past a small loch. A tougher route leads up the front of Arthur’s Seat which faces the city leads up the hill in several steep inclines which offer stunning views of the entire city (aka the one I accidentally took, thus meeting lots of other confused hikers who also didn’t know how we get from here to the actual top of Arthur’s Seat). Depending on how fit you are, you might want to opt for the gentler route, though. The views from the top are all the same anyway and simply stunning however you get there. I went up Arthur’s Seat in the morning but if you can, try going up for sunrise or sunset, to see some amazing light over the whole city.
2. Visit Edinburgh Castle
A visit to Edinburgh Castle should be on everyone’s itinerary. Or at least on every history geek’s itinerary. The castle represents centuries of Scottish history and has been a stronghold, royal palace, place of worship, prison and home of the Scottish crown jewels and the Stone of Destiny in equal measure.
To save yourself the hassle of starting your day of in a queue, buy the ticket online, at the tourist information office or, especially if you’re spending more time in Scotland, get yourself a Historic Scotland Explorer Pass which will also give you access to Sterling Castle and several other places all over Scotland.
3. Visit Greyfriar’s Bobby & Kirkyard
Just off the Royal Mile and near Castle Hill is one of Edinburgh’s most famous inhabitants: Greyfriar’s Bobby. The statue of the little black dog sits in front of its namesake pub and the Greyfriar’s Cemetery, where Bobby found his fame. As the story goes, Bobby guarded the grave of his owner for 14 years, before he passed away himself. By the way, on the way there, you’ll also walk past the Elephant Cafe, famously the place where JK Rowling wrote parts of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
After taking your picture with Bobby, head across the street to the Greyfriar’s Kirkyard. The cemetery is not only the home to Bobby’s and his owner’s grave but also the inspiration for many names from the Harry Potter books. As you walk around the beautiful cemetery, do stop and read the names of the deceased, you’ll might recognize a few of them. If you have the time, I would recommend a SANDEMANs free walking tour. They take you all over the city center, including Greyfriar’s Kirkyard. During the stops, the guides will tell you the most grizzly stories about Edinburgh past. The stories that continue to stick in my mind (even 6 years later) are the stories about Greyfriar’s Kirkyard. Grave robbers used to roam the graveyards in Edinburgh to dig up freshly deceased bodies, in order to sell them to the University. That’s why there are some cages above gravesides, to keep the grave robbers out. Another talks of little bells that were placed on top of graves, to make sure no one was buried alive. Of course, Edinburgh being the windy place that it is, the bells essentially rung all the time.
4. Have lunch in Prince’s Street Gardens
Between Old Town and New Town lie the Princes Street Gardens, a green oasis at the foot of Edinburgh Castle. If you’ve read my London post (if not, you can find it here), you’ll know that I’m rather impartial to eating outside and Prince’s Street Gardens is a great place to do just that. Pick up some lunch on Prince’s street (my personal favourite is of course the food court in Mark’s and Spencer or Prêt á Manger) and then head across the street to the gardens. There are so many benches you can choose from and they all offer a stunning view of the Castle and the Old Town. But be careful, some naughty little squirrel might just steal your food.
5. Have an Afternoon tea at Eteaket (or a coffee at Cairngorms Coffee)
Any good city trip also involves lots of stops for coffee, tea or cake. At best, you can combine all three into one stop. Lucky for you, an amazing tea and cake place is set right next to a pretty good coffee shop over in New Town. From Princes Street, just head up Frederick Street until you’ve walked across George’s Street and you’re already there.
Eteaket and Cairngorms Coffee are right next to each other and offer a little break from the busy festival city and the even busier Princes Street. Eteaket offers amazingly delicious teas, from floral tasting green teas, to citrusy black teas and sweet fruit-infusions. The teatime menu with small sandwiches, cakes and a scone is just delicious and will give you the energy for even more exploring or it will give you a great excuse to hide from the changeable Scottish weather. And if I’m allowed to be a really old lady for a moment, the teacups and teapots are just lovely and so old-school in a flowery kind of way.
If you are more of a coffee lover, Cairngorm’s offers great coffees to stay and to go and you get a choice between different coffee beans as well.
6. Climb Calton Hill
Edinburgh has three famous hills: Castle Hill, Arthur’s Seat and Carlton Hill. So if you haven’t climbed at least one of them, you haven’t really been in Edinburgh. In terms of difficulty, Carlton Hill lies in the middle, it’s not as high as Arthur’s Seat but the incline also isn’t as gentle as walking up the Royal Mile to Castle Hill.
The views are pretty spectacular from here, though, and some of the most well-known photographs of Edinburgh are taken from up here. You can either enjoy the views over the Castle and the central city, or head towards the remains of what looks like a Greek temple and enjoy the views towards the coast.
7.Visit the Museum of Scotland
It’s rainy and you want to escape from the crowds for a couple of hours? No problem, just head to the Museum of Scotland and enjoy some history, wildlife and culture. The entrance to the museum is free and so you can head in and out as often as you want.
There is an entire section of the museum dedicated to the history of the country and so you get to see some celtic pots and pans or some bits from Mary Queen of Scots’ bedroom. I don’t make it sound very exciting, but believe me it is.
8. Taste some whiskey
It’s a bit of a cliche, I’ll admit, but when in Scotland, do as the Scots do and drink some whiskey (aka the water of life incase you didn’t know). I knew nothing about whiskey on my trip to Edinburgh (it actually took me three trips to Edinburgh to drink some whiskey) but I took the chance and did a tour at the Scotch Whiskey Experience at the foot of the Castle. To be fair, the Whiskey Experience is very much catered towards tourists, so if you’re traveling through the country, it’s definitely worth stopping at a distillery and doing a tour there, rather than in Edinburgh.
The advantage of doing it in Edinburgh is, however, you get to learn about whiskey from across the different regions and you learn how the region influences the taste. In fact the goal at the end is, after learning how whiskey is made and after trying four whiskey from the four main regions, to know which whiskey from which region is more suited to your taste. At the end of the tour, you’ll also get to see the largest collection of whiskeys in the world. I like whiskeys from the Lowlands or Islay. Highland or Speyside whiskeys are just too strong and smokey for me.
9. Walk the Royal Mile (+ a visit to St. Gile’s Cathedral)
The most historic part of Edinburgh is the Royal Mile between the Castle and Holyrood Palace. You can easily spend a day (or two) walking up and down the Royal Mile. I would recommend to start at the top and then walk your way down.
A definitive must-stop is St. Gile’s Cathedral. The Cathedral is home to the order of the Thistle, the second most exalted order of chivalry in the United Kingdom, after the Order of the Garter. The Cathedral is beautiful inside and can be explored for free. If you want to take photos, however, you are invited to pay 1 pound. The entry is free but visitors are invited to leave a donation of 3 pounds. At my last visit, the Thistle Chapel was closed to general visitors but if you asked one of the attendants nicely, they opened the Chapel up and explained the features to you. If you are interested in that sort of thing, definitely ask because the Chapel is lovely and the emblems of all the knights tell a lot about their history.
Walking further down the Royal Mile, you’ll see lots of little alleys leading off the Royal Mile. Walk down them, and you’ll see a window into Edinburgh’s past. Lady’s Stair’s Close leads you to the Writers’ Museum. As someone who loves literature, I, of course, headed there. It’s not as great as I had imagined it but the courtyard in front of it is amazing, with quotes by different writers on the ground.
Along the Royal Mile, you’ll also find lots of tartan and wool shops. Beware, though, as they are obviously charging tourist prices.
10. Visit Holyrood House
At the end of the Royal Mile, you will see Holyrood House, the former palace of Mary, Queen of Scots, and, of course, the current palace of the Queen, when she is in Scotland. Opposite Holyrood House is the true seat of power in Scotland, today, the Scottish Parliament. I personally don’t like it, it just seems overly modern in such a historic location. But it’s best to make up your own mind once you’re there.
Visiting Holyrood House is rather expensive and apart from royal apartments and a view inside the abbey at the back, it’s not really worth it when you’re on a tight budget. If you are interested in Scottish history, the royal family or just like palaces in general, do head inside and enjoy the history of the palace.
For just a feel of the place, you can just head to the cafe inside the palace which offers great cake, sandwiches and soups.
So how about you? Have you been to Edinburgh? What did you visit or are you planning to go there soon? Also, if you have any recommendations of things I’ve missed, just leave it in the comments.