Edinburgh is an unbeatable city, steeped in history, culture, nature, architecture and constantly shifting northern light. From royal ships and ancient volcanoes to dockside dining and peaceful canals, here are 10 highlights of Scotland's majestic capital that no first-time visitor should miss.
A 12th-century fortress perched atop an extinct volcano with the elegant sprawl of Princes St Gardens in its shadow, Edinburgh Castle dominates the skyline and is Scotland’s most popular attraction. Inside you’ll find the Royal Apartments, the Stone of Destiny, prison vaults and a chapel that’s the oldest building in Edinburgh. Even if you don’t do the tour you’ll catch glimpses of this towering icon wherever you are in the city, and can (sort of) hear it every day (except Sunday) when the one o’clock gun is fired from the battlements in a tradition dating back to 1861.
The Royal Mile
Here is the Edinburgh of your imagination: cobbled streets, higgledy-piggledy houses, dark wynds, dank closes, and more shops selling the holy trinity of tartan, cashmere and whisky than you can possibly imagine (or need). There’s a medieval castle at one end, Europe’s oldest inhabited palace at the other, and countless historic buildings stuffed in between, including the Scottish Parliament and St Giles Cathedral. ‘Daunder’ from top to bottom, dipping into closes and secret gardens, and eavesdropping on the ubiquitous guided tours.
National Museum of Scotland
Fresh from an ambitious £47m development, the National Museum of Scotland, one of the top twenty most visited museums and galleries in the world, is cherished by locals as much as tourists. There are more than 20,000 artefacts, from the medieval Lewis Chessmen to Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal to be created from an adult cell. For many the greatest draw remains the museum itself: an outstanding example of Victorian architecture, its Grand Gallery rising the full height of the building.
Eat out in Leith
A ten-minute bus ride from the city centre, Leith’s historic port has served Edinburgh for centuries. The area around the Shore has undergone a major renaissance and is now the stomping ground of hipsters and creatives, boasting river walks along the Water of Leith and some of the best food and drink in the city. Pick from two Michelin starred restaurants – The Kitchin and Restaurant Martin Wishart – or for more relaxed eating, go for seafood and Scottish classics at the Shore, steak and cocktails at Chop House, brunch at Toast or Quay Commons, or craft ales at Nobles.
Royal Yacht Britannia
While you’re berthed in Leith, head for Britannia, rated Scotland’s best visitor attraction for ten years running. Launched in 1953, this glamorous vessel was the Royal Family’s floating residence for 44 years, travelling over one million miles to become the most famous ship in the world. Explore all five decks, the royal apartments (with the queen's surprisingly small single bed), crew’s quarters and engine room, finishing up in the Royal Deck Tea Room for scones.
The New Town
The joke is that only in 'auld' Edinburgh would a masterpiece of Georgian architecture constructed in the 18th century be referred to as ‘new’. The harmonious grid of neoclassical houses and communal private gardens that make up the city's New Town has to be the world’s most elegant response to overcrowding. Walk the cobbled streets and admire the pillars, high ceilings and decorative friezes of the residences. Then go for a craft ale or whisky at the traditional Victorian Cumberland Bar or Kay’s and pretend you live there too.
Not many cities can boast a walk like this: an ancient volcano rising from the roughly hewn expanse of Holyrood Park with stupendous views across Edinburgh, Fife, and beyond. Described by Robert Louis Stevenson as ‘a hill for magnitude, a mountain in virtue of its bold design’, it’s all just a moment’s (steep) walk from the Royal Mile, yet even on a warm, sunny day you are guaranteed a spot of your own.
Edinburgh is a city of grand outlooks, and one of the best perspectives can be gained from the top of Calton Hill. It’s a short, steep climb to the summit, rewarding you with views down the length of Princes St, the Castle and Arthur’s Seat. It’s also home to the brand new Collective art gallery, top-notch restaurant The Lookout and a hotchpotch of historic monuments, the most iconic of which is an incomplete acropolis started in 1822 by famed Edinburgh architect William Playfair. When funds ran out only the facade was completed and today its giant steps have become the neoclassical playground of children and tourists.
Travel three miles east from Edinburgh city centre and sink your feet in (cold) Scottish sand. 'Porty', as it’s known, is a perfectly Victorian affair, all faded glamour, wonky vibes, and one of the most genteel and bracing seaside proms in Britain. There are good cafes and pubs, a ‘little green van' serving Artisan Roast coffee, a Victorian council-run baths, and the usual rundown amusement arcades. Best of all is the beach: an exceptionally clean two mile stretch of golden sand with seas perfect for swimming (if you can handle the chilly water) and some of the biggest and often angriest skies around.
Cycle along the Union Canal
One of the city’s best cycling routes is along a stretch of the fully restored Union Canal, which runs just over thirty miles from the capital to the Falkirk Wheel. Opened in 1822 to transport coal and reopened in 2002 after lying derelict for forty years, the eight-mile route from Edinburgh to Ratho follows a peaceful tree-lined section of the waterway, crossing aqueducts and winding up at – where else? – a pub, the Bridge Inn. You can hire bikes at Cycle Scotland in the Old Town.
First published in October 2016.
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