'Piled deep and massy, close and high; mine own romantic town.' So wrote Sir Walter Scott of Edinburgh, the city of his birth, and the first in the world to be designated a Unesco City of Literature in 2004. You might say that the Scottish capital and books go together like a more amicable Jekyll and Hyde, which in turn was inspired by the capital’s architectural make-up – the split personalities of its Old and New Towns – and written by another of its legendary scribblers, Robert Louis Stevenson.

Edinburgh Castle seen from Princes Street Gardens on a sunny day
Beautiful Edinburgh has been home to and inspiration for many of the world's greatest writers © Lou Armor / Shutterstock

Heritage and landmarks

With a literary heritage spanning centuries, some of the most famous contemporary writers on the planet (is there anyone who hasn’t heard of JK Rowling?), and the world’s biggest and oldest literature festival, cities don’t get more bookish than Edinburgh. Even the train station is named after a novel: Scott’s Waverley, published in 1814 and often credited as the first historical novel in the western tradition. Birthplace of the Scottish Enlightenment, it was also in Edinburgh that the world’s first circulating library was established in 1726 and, in 1768, the first copy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica was published. But Edinburgh’s literary status transcends even its history and the writers it has housed. This is a place that actually looks like it’s stepped out of the pages of a fairytale, with its higgledy-piggledy Old Town, castle perched on ancient volcanic rock, and the sheer romance and drama of its skyline.

Statue of writer Walter Scott sitting in the middle of the monument dedicated to him
The Scott Monument dominates the city's skyline just as the writer dominated early nineteenth-century literature © Brais Seara / Getty Images

There are so many ways to explore Edinburgh’s literary scene, from more traditional tours around the Royal Mile to its burgeoning spoken word scene. Perhaps the best – and certainly the most unavoidable – place to orient yourself is the Scott Monument. Among the tallest monuments to a writer in the world, towering above Princes Street Gardens and begun eight years after the writer’s death in 1832, it’s a Gothic cathedral to early 19th-century literature. You can climb the 287 steps for a sweeping city view or just get a crick in your neck from gazing up at this blackened old marvel, before strolling the few minutes from here to the Writers’ Museum in the heart of the Old Town. Celebrating the lives of three of Edinburgh’s literary giants – Scott, Stevenson, and Robert Burns, who famously referred to the capital as ‘Edina! Scotia’s darling seat!’ – it houses arterfacts including Burns’ writing desk, Stevenson’s riding boots and the printing press on which Scott’s Waverley novels were first produced.

Tours, libraries and shops

As anyone who has negotiated the length of the Royal Mile will know, Edinburgh abounds with tours including a clutch of excellent literary walking trails. The Edinburgh Book Lovers Tour traverses 500 years and takes in both the birthplaces of writers and the places that inspired them, led by local author Allan Foster. The Edinburgh Literary Pub tour basically does what it says on the tin, and for Ian Rankin fans, the Rebus tours are a must, celebrating Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels, which are among the most popular books set in the capital. 'Edinburgh isn’t so much a city, more a way of life,' Rankin has said. Leith Walks, meanwhile, takes Trainspotting fans on a heady tour of Edinburgh’s coolest area, which inspired Irvine Welsh’s modern masterpiece, back when it wasn't so cool. And for those who come here for one reason only, The Potter Trail is the original award-winning tour guiding fans to the hallowed cafe where Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book and the graveyard where a certain headstone inspired the character of He Who Must Not Be Named.

The entrance to the Scottish Poetry Library
The Scottish Poetry Library is the place to come to get your Burns on © Kay Roxby / Alamy Stock Photo

For studious bookworms, no city break is complete without a visit to a library. The National Library of Scotland, located just off the Royal Mile, is the largest in the country and one of the major research libraries in Europe. It contains over 24 million printed items, more than two million maps, and around 100,000 manuscripts. Copies of the Gutenberg Bible, a letter submitted by Charles Darwin alongside the manuscript of On the Origin of Species, and a First Folio of Shakespeare are just some of the treasures included in the collection, as well as the extraordinary archive of Muriel Spark, another of Edinburgh’s iconic writers. Off the Canongate, the Scottish Poetry Library, housed in the world’s first purpose-built poetry library, is home to an unparalleled collection, including the full archive of Edwin Morgan, one of Scotland's most celebrated recent poets, in calm modernist surroundings. It holds regular live poetry events. For fans of the spoken word who want more, Neu! Reekie!, is more avant-garde collective than night out, with its word-loving blend of poetry, performance, and music.

You can easily lose a day rummaging in the city’s antique and independent bookshops. West Port, ancient home of booksellers, boasts a bunch of them, including the fabulously overstuffed Armchair Books, where as the website eloquently puts it 'our overburdened shelves groan like masts in a squall, [and] our threadbare and quasi-oriental rugs may distractingly catch the eye or foot'. In Stockbridge, Golden Hare Books has a cleverly curated stock of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and art and design books, as well as an enchanting children’s section. For the politically minded, Lighthouse Bookshop on West Nicholson Street is a must. Known as Edinburgh’s radical bookshop, it has more than 10,000 titles and a focus on left-wing and Scottish politics, feminism, revolutionary history, environmentalism, LGBT+ writing, and translated fiction. And don't miss the Edinburgh Bookshop in chic Bruntsfield, an award-winning independent retailer with an excellent selection and an impressive programme of events from big name authors to story-time for under-5s.

People relax in Charlotte Square dutring the Edinburgh Book Festival
Enjoy the Book Festival in the scenic setting of Charlotte Square © George Clerk / Getty Images

Festival fun

Edinburgh’s most famous literary happening is undoubtedly its annual international book festival, which every August, when the world-famous Edinburgh Festivals descend on the capital, springs up in a tented makeshift village in the elegant surrounds of Charlotte Square in the New Town. More than a thousand authors across every genre you can imagine attend each year in almost as many events. With pop-up bookshops, free live events, and the chance to spot literature’s superstars while you laze around on the grass with a book and a beer, this is truly a book lover’s paradise and something to put in your calendar if you have the slightest interest in literature.

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