With its grand castle and famous festival, Edinburgh is a tourist magnet. But Scotland’s capital isn’t just a collection of big-ticket sights. Set on a series of extinct volcanoes and blessed with chasm-like medieval alleys and grand civic squares, Edinburgh is a stunner with substance.

There’s history around every sandstone-hewn corner, of course, but you’ll also find vibrant life in its parks, pubs and suburbs. Edinburgh isn’t just worth visiting, it’s worth throwing yourself into. Here’s what you need to know before you dive in: when to go, what to pack, the slang, the smells and the banknotes.

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Planning your trip to Edinburgh

Arriving in Edinburgh

Edinburgh's airport is 8 miles (13km) away. Buses (cheaper), trams (quicker when the roads are busy) and taxis (good for door-to-door drop-offs) connect the terminal with the city center. If you’re arriving from outside Britain and you’re not a UK citizen, you’ll need to fill out a passenger locator form.

Train passengers roll into Edinburgh Waverley – travelers coming from England will get gorgeous coastal views on the way up. Buses arrive at St Andrew’s Square in the New Town, just north of the center.

Come in summer for a chance of sunshine

Summer, when the days are long and bright and the winds are generally docile, will suit most visitors best. But if you don’t mind a spot of dreich (dismal) weather, come in the colder months, when you can mix warm pubs and museums with bracing strolls along atmospheric streets.

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Dodge the Festival (unless you’re here for the Festival)

The world’s biggest arts festival takes over the city every August. If you’re going, book your accommodation months in advance and be ready to book the biggest shows early too. If you’re not, avoid August. Things also get pretty busy around Hogmanay (the run-up to New Year), but the madness is shorter-lived.

Booking in advance can be worth it

The earlier you book your accommodation the better, especially during the Festival. The biggest shows, including the Tattoo, should be booked well in advance too. The Edinburgh City Pass is worth a look if you’re also going to hit attractions such as the Castle and Leith’s Royal Yacht Britannia – it includes access to the fun city bus tours too.

Beyond that, booking online a day or so before you go is a good idea for the castle – you can save money and waiting time. 

Pack waterproof gear

You’ll need a jacket whenever you’re visiting. Edinburgh rarely gets that cold, but it can change from bright sunshine to rain-lashed darkness in a heartbeat. You’re likely to do a fair bit of walking, so a pair of comfy shoes is important. There’s no need to pack anything particularly formal.

People sitting on the grass and relaxing in striped lawn chairs near Ross Fountain in Princes Street Gardens, with Edinburgh Castle above.
The Old and New Towns are separated by a valley containing the elegant Princes Street Gardens © lou armor / Shutterstock

Why are there two towns?

Central Edinburgh is a city divided. But it’s not any ill feeling that keeps the city apart – instead a valley containing the elegant Princes Street Gardens and Waverly Station separates the Old and New Towns. The Old Town is the medieval quarter, where packed tenements rise high and cobbled streets and wynds (alleys) stretch down from the famous Royal Mile. The New Town (around 250 years old, everything being relative) has airy boulevards and clipped squares along an orderly grid.

Further out are districts including the West End (fairly smart), Leith (the rough-cut setting of Trainspotting, now steadily gentrifying) and the Southside (low-key and studenty).

How long do you need in Edinburgh?

Take a day for a whistle-stop tour of the Royal Mile and a ramble around the Castle, or take two to get a sense of what the Old and New Towns have to offer. Four days or more will give you a proper feel for the city, heading north to the former port of Leith and west to the Gallery of Modern Art, as well as ticking off all the big sights in the center.

Spending time in Edinburgh

What kind of currency do you need? 

Scotland has its own banknotes, but English notes are accepted everywhere in Scotland. (You’ll find a few shops in England that don’t repay the favor.) Card and contactless payments are now more common than cash, and they're the easiest way to pay on public transport too – if you use cash on a bus, you’ll need exact change, or a pass is a good alternative.

The Pink Triangle is where to find LGBTQ+ Edinburgh

Edinburgh’s gay scene is centered on the “Pink Triangle”, just northeast of Princes Street. CC Blooms is the mainstay, with (fairly expensive) food in the day and cabaret and DJs at night. Down the road in Abbeyhill, the Regent is a laid-back alternative. Same-sex marriage was legalized in Scotland in 2014. 

Sniffing out Old Reekie

“Old Reekie” is one of Edinburgh’s most enduring nicknames. It dates from the 17th century, when the Old Town’s narrow, tall streets, combined with the Nor Loch (a stagnant pool where Princes Street Gardens now sits) created a notorious odor that mixed smoke and effluent. These days, Edinburgh smells much like any other city, although the West End sometimes has a slight boozy fug from the brewery.

People and traffic on Princess street near Edinburgh Castle, as seen from the Calton Hill
 There's no subway, but buses are helpful for heading to Leith or the Southside © andreyspb21 / Shutterstock

How to travel around Edinburgh

It's hilly, but walking is the best way to get around Edinburgh – you’ll pass unexpected views and get a feel for the city’s rhythms. If you’re heading right across town, a cab (try Central Taxis) or ride-sharing app (Uber is the big one) isn’t a bad bet. There’s no subway, but trams connect the city center and West End with the airport, and buses are also helpful for heading to Leith or the Southside.

Etiquette in Edinburgh

Don't offend the locals

If you meet someone in a social setting, an informal “hi” or a handshake are the usual greetings. You’re unlikely to inadvertently cause offense, though subjects like politics and religion are generally avoided in small talk. Scottish independence and Brexit can inspire passionate responses too.

Remember that Edinburgh is in Scotland, which is a part of Britain, but you’re definitely not in England – while lots of English people happily make Edinburgh their home, the England football team is traditionally booed with enthusiasm.

Buy your round in the pub

Rules here are the same as elsewhere in Britain and Ireland – one person usually orders for your group at the bar, paying for the “round” of drinks and bringing them back to the table. Everyone else then takes turns to get the round. Smarter bars may have table service, and almost everywhere will be able to offer a tray if you’ve lots of drinks to carry.

Most places take cash, although card or phone payments are more common. Pubs stay open later than south of the border – usually until midnight or 1am.

When should you tip, and how much? 

Tipping is only really required for table service in a restaurant (10% to 15%), although locals often round up taxi fares. If a hotel porter helps with your luggage, a tip of a pound or two per bag is standard.

Mind your tongue!

As a cosmopolitan city, Edinburgh is used to a range of accents. But you may not recognize every word you hear – take, for example, haar (a sea fog), Jambos (supporters of local club Hearts), Hibbies (hy-bees, supporters of city rivals Hibernian), Weegies (Glaswegians) and salt ‘n sauce (a vinegary and delicious condiment for chips). And you should ken (know) that Cockburn Street is pronounced “Coe-burn” and Edinburgh itself is “Edin-bru”, or even “Embra”.

People walking along a street in Edinburgh on a wet rainy day
Watch your step as you explore: The sloping cobbles of the Old Town are slippery when wet © wimala namket / Shutterstock

Health and safety in Edinburgh

It’s a safe city – but watch your step

Edinburgh is relatively safe. Pub-packed areas like the Cowgate (Old Town), Rose Street (New Town) and Lothian Road (West End) get lively on Friday and Saturday nights, but serious trouble is rare. Calton Hill offers good views during the day but is best avoided at night. Take usual precautions for a city, and use recognized ride-sharing apps or black cabs if in doubt at night.

Street scams are also uncommon, but watch your step as you explore: The sloping cobbles of the Old Town are slippery when wet. And when crossing roads, remember that traffic drives on the left.

Can you drink the water?

Oh yes. Edinburgh tap water is safe to drink ,and you can request it for free with your meal in a restaurant. The region’s water is soft (low in dissolved minerals), giving it a fresher taste than water from much of the UK.

Attractions are mostly accessible

Most modern hotels and attractions are accessible for travelers with disabilities, but many older buildings – including guesthouses and some pubs and restaurants – lack ramps and lifts. The New Town, with its wide streets, is more straightforward for wheelchair users than the steep, sometimes cobbled streets of the Old Town. Tourism body VisitScotland has a useful guide to accessible accommodation.

Introducing Scotland

You might also like: 
Budget Edinburgh: the best things to do for free in Scotland's capital
17 best things to do in Edinburgh
Edinburgh for first-timers
 

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