Built on seven hills, like Rome, Edinburgh is quite compact for a capital city. Old, cobbled streets rise to the castle, gothic architecture houses hotels and a former department store, and modern city life crams every nook and cranny full with things to see and do. In fact, there’s so much to see and do, it seems incredible this relatively small capital can fit it all in.
The museums and art galleries are mostly free to enter in Edinburgh. The National Gallery, The National Portrait Gallery and The National Museum of Scotland barter with your time instead of coin, and visitors can spend hours, even days, lost in the traditional and modern art. Across the road from the National Museum of Scotland is Greyfriars Kirkyard, said to be a haunted graveyard where so many visitors experienced a haunting from Sir George Mackenzie when they stepped inside his “black” mausoleum, it’s now been permanently locked. At the entrance to the kirkyard, check out the bronze statue of the Skye terrier, Bobby, who spent 14 years guarding the grave of his owner.
If you haven’t had enough of the macabre side of the city, head to Surgeons’ Hall Museum where the death mask of famous grave robber William Burke, of the grave-robbing duo Burke and Hare, can be seen. Up on the top floor of the museum is the dentistry section, which is arguably more terrifying.
But Edinburgh is neither one thing nor the other. Beautiful to wander through and intricately fascinating, the streets are filled with surprises. Nip down the “closes” – the name for small alleys between buildings – to find backstreet yards with little museums and hidden bars. Off The Royal Mile, the main “strip” where most of the tourist shops are, is Monteiths Bar and Kitchen. Look for the small sign and the tunnel of fairy lights, and you’ll be led down to a dimly lit basement where cocktails and small plates are served in an intimate atmosphere.
On the other side of The Royal Mile is The Cowgate, an area of a few backstreets where cattle were once herded through town. There are records of this area being named The Cowgate from as far back as 1428. Today it’s a little shabby here and there, but it has a certain charm and while it has been previously known as a more raucous part of town, chic restaurants, bars, and boutique hotels are moving in and changing all that. Enjoy dinner in Casablanca Cocktail Club, sip cocktails next door in House of Gods’ cocktail bar, and stay over in one of the decadent cabin rooms.
Right at the bottom of The Royal Mile is Holyrood, where Scottish parliament sits. Behind this building is The Palace of Holyroodhouse, the king’s official residence in Edinburgh. It’s a historic royal palace, which visitors can take a tour of. Along with the gardens and the ruined abbey, there’s a lot to see and it can take up a few hours to do it justice.
From Holyrood it’s just a short walk down to Leith. Sitting right by the sea and showing off Edinburgh’s coastal charms, this is another area that was run down not long ago, but is now rising up and becoming a smart and chic place to be. Artisan bakeries and trendy cafes and bars line the streets, while down at the port you can take a tour of the moored Royal Yacht Britannia, formerly the Queen’s private yacht. Continuing the theme, there’s also a floating hotel here, Fingal, a former Lighthouse Board ship, now permanently berthed alongside Britannia. It’s a far cry from the ancient winding streets of the old town of Edinburgh and it’s one of the things that makes Edinburgh such a varied and endlessly interesting city.
Back in town, there are a few places to sample some of Scotland’s finest whiskies. On Castle Hill, the Scotch Whisky Experience has a tour, tastings and a collection room with almost 4,000 bottles of Scotch whisky on display. Over on Princes Street, opposite the railway station and the National Gallery, is the Johnny Walker Experience, where there’s an interactive exhibit, whisky tasting and a rooftop bar that has great views over the city.
But for tipples Edinburgh isn’t just about whisky; they also make excellent gin here. Further up on Princes Street is The Edinburgh Gin Distillery, where you can take a tour and learn how gin is made, then taste some of these premium gins.
Carry on walking from The Gin Distillery, all the way to Haymarket, and it feels like you’ve reached a village all of its own. The main street of shops and cafes is as bustling as any London district, but nip down a side street and you’ll discover a tucked-away cathedral that’s shielded from the busy street. Take a tour inside and there’s a glorious Edwardo Paolozzi stained glass window on the right. Stay overnight in Haymarket at The Roseate, a Victorian villa that was built as a private residence and still feels like a home.
If you come to Edinburgh for the castle, you won’t be disappointed; it’s a fascinating look back into the history of this fortress on the hill, and it’s especially stunning when lit up in the evenings, but reach a little further and walk some of the seven hills and you’ll find a flurry of gems scattered around the city. Drink a dram or two in a traditional old pub or try a gin cocktail in a swanky cocktail bar. Enjoy fine dining at Wedgewood Restaurant or fast food at Wahacca Mexican Street Food. Climb up to Arthur’s Seat at Holyrood and feel like you’re in the remote countryside, or climb the 287 steps inside the Scott Monument on busy Princes Street. Whatever you choose to do while in Edinburgh, one thing is for sure – one trip won’t be enough.