Edinburgh is the most magical city I have ever been to, and I don’t just mean because it served as the inspiration for the world of Harry Potter. There is an effervescent charm that fills the air here, and the history is tangible. It’s beautiful and it’s bloody and it’s dirty and it’s real. I appreciate that about a city. Edinburgh can be as equally haunting as it is lovely. But just look at the stone buildings! The castles! This is a city that has good looks and personality. You can’t ask for better.
By the time you leave Edinburgh, you’ll be convinced you have Scottish blood somewhere in your family tree. Come home with an affinity for whisky and a tartan scarf or two – or even a kilt! If you can trace your heritage, you’ll find a variety of goods in your very own clan tartan. Lucky you! I can’t trace my Scottish roots, but I can watch Outlander and tell everyone that I’m Clan Fraser. That’s how it works, right? Je suis prest.
Fun fact: did you know the national animal of Scotland is the unicorn? The history of Edinburgh will constantly surprise you as you explore the UNESCO-protected cobbled streets of the New and Old Town!
|| The Royal Mile
The Royal Mile is the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town – a historic stretch of cobblestone road that extends from Edinburgh Castle at one end to Holyrood Castle at the other. The ‘Scots mile’ is actually made of up four connecting streets – Castlehill, Lawnmarket, High Street, and Canongate. The way is lined with shops touting tartan and Scottish specialties, as well as pubs, restaurants and magnificent tea rooms.
Be sure to visit the stunning St. Gile’s Cathedral, dating back to the 14th century. Behind the cathedral is Parliament Hall and across is the Real Mary King’s Close, a hidden part of the city that was once built upon and offers a glimpse back into life in the 17th century. Some claim this area is haunted, and if you like that sort of thing, you’ll find many ghost walking tours along the Royal Mile that will lead you into more secret areas of the Old Town, like the South Gate Vaults. And then there’s the Scotch Whisky Experience, Canongate Kirkyard, the Tartan Museum, and plenty more to explore along the way!
|| Edinburgh Castle
Towering over the rest of the city, Edinburgh Castle sits atop an extinct volcano. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say I was looking up at Hogwarts. But fantasy aside, Edinburgh Castle has its own fascinating and bloody past, playing an integral role in Scottish history. It has served as both a royal residence and a military stronghold.
Within the ground, visitors can explore royal apartments, such as where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James VI. In an adjacent room, the Honours of Scotland (the Scottish crown jewels) are on display, including a crown, sword, scepter, and the Stone of Destiny. St. Margaret’s Chapel is the oldest building in Edinburgh, and the Great Hall was once used for meetings of the Scottish parliament. There is the colossal Scottish National War Memorial, as well as fascinating prison exhibits in the lower vaults of the castle. A canon is fired off every day (except Sunday) from the battery at 1 PM, so be sure to catch that from the castle or from Prince’s Street below!
|| Palace of Holyroodhouse
Holyrood is the official home of the British monarchy in Scotland, so it is quite literally a residence fit for a Queen. This is where Her Majesty stays whenever she’s in town! The Palace of Holyroodhouse is open to visitors for most the year. Explore the historic state apartments, the royal gardens, and the ruins of a 12th century abbey.
Holyrood is famous for serving as the residence of Mary, Queen of Scots – she married Lord Darnley and the Earl of Bothwell here. And in 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie set up his court at Holyrood amidst his ill-fated campaign to restore the Stuart line to the British throne.
|| Tolbooth Tavern
If you’re looking for a side of history with your whisky, the Tolbooth Tavern is the pub for you. Its housed in the original 16th century Canongate Tolbooth building, located near the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Visitors once payed their toll here while crossing into Edinburgh. It also housed a courtroom and a prison! More hauntings, anyone?
|| Prince’s Street and New Town
There’s a low valley in the middle of the city where bridges stretch from the Old Town to Prince’s Street. It almost seems as if there should be water there, but after a few crosses you realize you’re just crossing over the train station. There actually did use to be a lake here, but due to bad sewage systems in the Middle Ages and the natural slopes of the streets, Loch Nor became a sort of…. dumping ground. Ew. But that’s real history I suppose.
That did, however, make the ground extremely fertile! Which is why the area now houses the Prince’s Street Gardens. And just beyond that, Prince’s Street itself runs parallel to the Royal Mile, characterized by iconic monuments and Georgian buildings like the one to Sir Walter Scott.
This side of the city is known as the New Town, an extension of Edinburgh built in the 18th century for the upper classes. This area of town is noticeably ‘nicer’ if you will, with straighter roads. Along Prince’s Street you’ll find the run-of-the-mill high street shops, and beyond that are some of the loveliest residential areas in town.
|| Circus Lane
The prettiest lane in all the world. Circus Lane is a residential road in New Town near the village of Stockbridge, only a ten-minute walk from the city center. This is one of the perfect iconic shots of Edinburgh! The quiet cobblestone way is lined with mews and feels like something out of a fairy tale.
|| Dean Village
Continue your New Town stroll past Circus Lane and on to Dean Village. This is the ultimate hidden gem of Edinburgh and well worth going out of your way for. The village is located near Stockbridge on the Water of Leith, a small river that snakes its way through Edinburgh to the sea.
The area is a historic milling village, and the river is surrounded by more picturesque cobblestone lanes and stone cottages. Walk to the end of Hawthornbank Lane for the best view of all.
From the heart of the village, you can follow the Water of Leith along trails that wind through a stunningly green park, below the upper roads of the city.
|| Greyfriar’s Kirkyard
Back in the historic Old Town Edinburgh, visit the most infamous cemetery of all. Greyfriar’s Kirk (Gaelic for church) is a chapel worth viewing, but the real draw here is the graveyard – harrowingly beautiful by day, hauntingly grim by night.
The last remaining stretch of the Flodden Wall, a 16th century city partition, runs through the cemetery. Ghost tours lead tourists to the tomb that hosts the legend of the Mackenzie Poltergeist. If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you’ll find the grave of a certain Tom Riddell, as well as some other monikers that may very well have inspired characters.
|| Greyfriar’s Bobby
Just outside Greyfriar’s Kirkyard on the main road, you’ll find Greyfriar’s Bobby Pub and a small bronze statue of a dog. The story is quite heartwarming. In the 1858 century, gardener John Graypassed away and was buried in the cemetery. His loyal terrier, Bobby, refused to leave his master’s grave and watched over him. Though dogs weren’t allowed in the graveyard, the people of Edinburgh rallied around him, building him a shelter and serving him food everyday at the One O’Clock gun. Bobby was even given a collar from the Lord Provost of Edinburgh. He kept watch over his master’s grave until his own death in 1872.
Visitors today can visit Bobby on watch near the cemetery. And while many like to ‘snoot the boop’ for good luck, locals don’t encourage touching his nose as it is eroding the coloring on the statute.
|| Carlton Hill
For one of the best views of the city, climb up Carlton Hill, located at the end of Prince’s Street. It’s a small peak covered in monuments, such as the columns of the National Monument, the tower of the Nelson Monument, the Robert Burns Monument, the old Royal High School, the City Observatory, and the iconic Dugald Steward Moment.
|| Arthur’s Seat
If you’re really up for a hike, climb Arthur’s Seat for the ultimate panoramic view over Edinburgh. Where else can you climb a dormant volcano in the heart of a city? I recommend taking the short trek to the peak to watch the sun rise or set over the city. Arthur’s Seat rises 251 M above sea level and provides excellent trails. Or try your hand at rock-climbing on the famous Sailsbury Crags! It’s a fairly moderate hike, only taking about forty minutes to reach the top, so be sure to pack comfortable shoes.
|| Victoria Street
The prettiest street in Edinburgh after Circus Lane is Diagon Alley. Oh! I mean Victoria Street. Right.
But with all those colourful facades, who wouldn’t be mistaken? This curved street is lined with an array of vibrant shops full of books and artifacts. The street was designed in the early nineteenth century and descends from the Royal Mile down to Grassmarket Square.
|| Cockburn Street
Another (unfortunately named) picturesque lane in Old Town, Cockburn Street curves up from Waverly Station to the Royal Mile, welcoming many a visitor into the city. Like Victoria Street, it is lined with a colourful array of shops, cafes, and restaurants.
|| The National Museum of Scotland
Offering free entry to visitors, the National Museum of Scotland boasts an impressive collection of exhibits on nature, art, design and fashion, and science and technology. Here you’ll find Dolly the Sheep, the first genetically cloned mammal. Or the Millennium Clock Tower, a unique musical clock built to look like a medieval cathedral. With so many exhibits, there’s something for everyone in here – and if you get caught in the rain typical to the region, it’s a great way to kill time!
What’s your favorite thing to do in Edinburgh?