15 things to do for your first time in edinburgh
Having grown up in the North-East of England, I have been coming to Edinburgh for years, and the magic never ever wears off.
The city lies nestled between extinct volcanoes (Arthur's Seat and Castle Rock), and is compact enough to walk between the old and new town. If you arrive by train into Waverley Station, you're straight into the action. Even the lift up from the station has amazing views!
Edinburgh's top things to do in 36 hours
Edinburgh is a compact city but if you're tight on time it's probably a good idea to do a couple of things at a time which are close by (e.g. both in the Old Town or the New Town), to avoid continuously criss-crossing Princes Street Gardens. I've popped down a suggested itinerary below (including all 15 top things to do in Edinburgh).
Day one in Edinburgh
Start the day with a hearty Scots breakfast at Mum's. Delicious local food at diner prices. Try the Mum's Classic with Stornoway black pudding, or the scottish smoked salmon and eggs.
Of all the top things to do in Edinburgh, you cannot miss out on Edinburgh Castle. Get there early (first entry is at 9:30am). There is a lot to see, but if you're pressed for time, don't miss The Lang Stairs (steep steps up to the summit of Castle Rock which once formed part of the original entrance), and St. Margaret's Chapel (the oldest part of the castle dating back to the 12th Century).
£17 per adult
An Edinburgh must-do: Real Mary King's Close
For a glimpse into 17th Century tenement life in Edinburgh, just a five minute walk down the Royal Mile, Real Mary King's Close is unmissable (in fact it's my favourite thing to do as it is so immersive). This makes for a great contrast from the regal splendour of the castle, as you are walking through a perfectly preserved 'close' (a very narrow street) and inside former homes of real families who lived in 'Auld Reekie' (the 'real' in the name is due to the people discussed in the tour being genuine inhabitants of the close, thanks to local records).
£14.50 per adult
Lunch away from the crowds just off The Royal Mile
Tucked away, down Advocate's Close, but only a few minutes from The Royal Mile, The Devil's Advocate is a buzzy spot serving up locally sourced food (try the melt-in-the-mouth Tweed Valley burger).
If you have room afterwards, try the Scottish cheese with 'oaties'.
Explore Scotland's treasures at the National Museum of Scotland
The light and airy National Museum of Scotland holds some of Scotland's most fascinating artefacts, such as the Arthur’s Seat miniature coffins - which remain a mystery, but may be linked to infamous 19th Century murderers Burke and Hare. Don't miss the Rennie Mackintosh furniture and The Galloway Hoard (the richest collection of Viking silver and gold, found in Dumfries and Galloway in 2014).
Find inspiration (in many ways) in Greyfriar's Kirkyard
You cannot escape Harry Potter when you come to the Old Town in Edinburgh. Greyfriars Kirkyard, near The Grassmarket, is where J.K. Rowling found inspiration for some of the weird and wonderful names of the Harry Potter novels. You can see the graves of Tom Riddle and a Mr McGonagall (apparently J.K. changed the gender to avoid hefty royalty fees). I've been told by the wonderful guide (named Wallace.. I mean, it just does not get much more wonderfully Scottish than that right?), that there is even a Hufflepuff grave too (albeit indistinguishable these days).
This peaceful spot was once used as a medicinal herb garden for Franciscan monks in the 16th Century. There is still a small plot, cared for by volunteers. Wallace kindly picked some for me, and when you rubbed the small leaves together, you get a wonderful sharp lemon smell (can anyone help me with the name of this herb - lemon verbena ? Lemon balm perhaps?)
Finally, don't miss a stop at the grave of the most devoted dog in history, Greyfriar's Bobby, who held vigil at his master's grave for 14 years, until his own death in 1872 (the life-sized statue of the loyal Syke Terrier is just outside the main entrance).
Need a pick-me-up? Try a Scottish deep fried Mars bar.
Yes, a deep fried Mars Bar. Some say it has 1200 calories and some say it can bring on a stroke within minutes. Feeling brave?
Yes, it's a touristy thing to do in Edinburgh but I'm a Northerner myself so couldn't resist! The Clam Shell on The Royal Mile will prepare you one for £2.90. Good luck!
Take a stroll around Edinburgh's Grassmarket (and sample a wee dram)
The Grassmarket swings down from The Royal Mile, along an elegant parade of shops and bars (Victoria street and West Bow).
Pop into The Bow Bar. Famous for it's extensive range of whiskey (371 at the last count), the helpful owners will happily help you fathom the 14 page menu and pick something that's just right for you. This glorious small bar is a rare mix of steadfast locals sharing a table with curious tourists.
Literary walks and haunted jaunts in Edinburgh
If you want a walking tour in Edinburgh, you are spoilt for choice. With this being a city of literature, the popular Book Lovers tour leaves every day from The Writer's Museum. However, if you're feeling brave (and are not of a nervous disposition), try The Underground City of the Dead ghost tour in the South Bridge Vaults. These chilling tours run year round. Go to the evening one for maximum fright-factor.
Day two in Edinburgh: up early for a hearty Scottish breakfast in The New Town
The New Town has beautiful Georgian streets and squares, and together with the medieval Old Town holds UNESCO world heritage status.
Popular brunch spot Papii on Hanover Street serves a stack of waffles that will keep you going for the day ahead. Get there early to avoid the queue (opens at 7:30).
Beat the crowds for the best views from Calton Hill
Edinburgh has so many options for stunning views over the city (see section below!). Calton Hill is the quickest and easiest climb. On the eastern end of Princes Street, take a quick run up the steep hill and be rewarded with 360 degree views of the New Town, Arthur's Seat and all the way over to The Firth of Forth.
Take a peak around the Queen's seat in Scotland, Holyrood Palace
The Queen spends a week in residence at Holyrood Palace in early Summer. If your time is tight, make sure you don't miss Mary Queen of Scot's chambers. 'The most famous room in Scotland', Mary's bedchamber, and the Outer Chamber, where, in 1566, her secretary David Rizzio was brutally murdered under orders of her jealous husband Lord Darnley.
For even more gruesome history, the ghost of tortured Agnes Sampson (accused of witchcraft in 1592) is said the roam the castle.
£12.50 per adult
Live like a local and unwind in Princes Street Gardens
After all that royal pomp and drama, take a stroll down to Princes Street Gardens.
Separating the old and the new town, this peaceful park dips down just below the Castle on one side and Princes Street on the other. This park was once the 'Nor Loch' (The North Loch), which was used as part city fortification, and part sewage cess pit for the old town of 'Auld reekie' (whose waste rolled down the steep streets straight into the water. Grim.
Happily, these days, the park serves as a relaxing picnic spot for locals and visitors, and hosts the Hogmanay concert and fireworks every year (tickets go on sale in September).
Take a Scottish (or Italian) treat home with you from Valvona and Crolla
Don't leave Edinburgh without popping into Princes Street's favourite department store, Jenners. Valvona and Crolla have a small cafe overlooking Princes Street. Sip a cappuccino before picking out some Italian foodie treats, or a box of buttery Scottish shortbread.
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Edinburgh's best city views
You are truly spoilt for choice! Edinburgh has some excellent vantage points, all within easy walkable reach of Princes Street. Here are my top three:
This moderate hike across an ancient volcano can be done in around 2 hours (round trip) from Holyrood Palace. Don't forget your layers as it's super windy at the top (and let's face it, you're in Scotland! ;-) but the views are SO worth it. Free entry.
When you're visiting Edinburgh, you will no doubt find yourself in Princes Street Gardens at some point, so why not climb the Scott Monument? After climbing the tight squeeze of a staircase up to the top, you'll be rewarded with wonderful views across the New Town and over to Edinburgh Castle. It costs £5 and remember to take cash as credit cards are not accepted.
This is the easiest of views to ascend. Set in a park at the eastern end of Princes Street, you'll get 360 degree views along Princes Street and the New Town, Arthur's Seat and The Firth of Forth. Free entry.
Getting into town from Edinburgh airport, Waverley Station and Haymarket.
If you're flying into Edinburgh, the Airline Bus service departs every ten minutes (and operates 24/7), takes 40 minutes and costs around £4.50. There is also a tram service (every 7 minutes from 6:15am - 22:45pm), takes 30 minutes and costs £5.50 for a single journey.
If you're arriving by train into Waverley, the station is situated at the heart of the action, at the end of Princes Street (tip - when you exit, take the elevator up to street level for a first glimpse and panoramic views of the city). By the way, if you are travelling north via the East Coast Main Line, from a southern station (e.g. London Kings Cross), be sure to book a seat on the right side of the train (in the direction of travel) as this will give you beautiful sea views in the Scottish borders as the route hugs the coastline.
Haymarket is a little further west, but you can easily walk to Princes Street in about 20 minutes.
Where to stay in Edinburgh: budget
Code hostel is tucked away down a tiny side street, off Rose Street, just behind Princes Street in the new town. This spotless gem has privacy-within-a-dorm sleep pods, complete with your own charging points, light, shelf and even free earplugs. There is a female only dorm available (£29 per night or £23.30 if you book well in advance) ,and breakfast is included. What's more, everything from check in to your own locker is operated by a code (no need for padlocks!).
Where to stay in Edinburgh: mid range
Stay Central is a well-equipped stylish hotel, popular with the younger set as there is a lively bar downstairs. Double/twin room from £86.
What are YOUR favourite things to do in Edinburgh? Let me know in the comments box :-)