Edinburgh travel guide

View over Edinburgh New Town and the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh Castle

Settled around two extinct volcanoes and steeped in history, Edinburgh is a cultural, culinary powerhouse boasting dramatic scenery, excellent food and fabulous shopping. With lots to see and do, it’s a great destination for a weekend city break. If you’re planning a trip to Auld Reekie, here’s my mini travel guide to the Scottish capital…

History

The entrance to Edinburgh Castle

Perched atop one of the city’s two ancient volcanoes, Edinburgh Castle is not to be missed (above). The huge fortress is home to a royal residence, the legendary stone of scone, the Scottish crown jewels, the city’s oldest building (St Margaret’s Chapel), the national war memorial and a few museums (a couple of regimental museums and another on prisoners of war). While the ruined David’s Tower was the site of Scotland’s very own ‘red wedding’ when the young head of the Black Douglas clan and his brother were murdered during a banquet in an event known to history as ‘the black dinner’.

The Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh

Down the hill from Edinburgh Castle, at the end of the Royal Mile, is Edinburgh’s other royal residence, the Palace of Holyroodhouse (above), the Queen’s official residence in Scotland. The palace is also the site of another infamous royal murder – that of Mary, Queen of Scots’s private secretary David Rizzio by her husband Henry, Lord Darnley, and his cronies. Inside the palace you can tour Mary’s apartments and explore the ruined Holyrood Abbey (below), which once upon a time hosted the coronations and marriages of many a Scottish monarch.

A passageway inside Holyrood Abbey

Delve into the capital’s more recent history and pop inside the Scottish Parliament opposite Holyrood Palace. The parliament, which is free to visit, offers guided hour-long tours focusing on different aspects of the building – you can choose from a parliament tour, a photography tour, an art tour or an architecture tour.

Museums and galleries

There are a number of world-class museums and art galleries in the Scottish capital, but the best by far is the National Museum of Scotland. The enormous museum extends over multiple floors and features exhibitions about Scottish history, the natural world, technology, science, fashion and more.

The museum’s most famous artefacts are the Lewis Chessmen, a series of 12th century ivory and walrus-tooth chess figurines discovered on the Isle of Lewis. Eleven of the glorious chessmen – they each have unique facial features – are on display here, the remaining 82 pieces are in the British Museum in London.

The statue of Greyfriars Bobby

On leaving the museum, don’t miss the statue of Greyfriars Bobby opposite (above), outside Greyfriars Kirk. JK Rowling found inspiration for many a Harry Potter character’s name in the churchyard – the names on the gravestones include Thomas Riddell, McGonagall, Potter and Moodie.

Art lovers should make a beeline for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Housed in a gorgeous red brick building in the New Town, the enormous gallery is home to a host of portraits of fascinating, world-leading Scots (I had no idea how many Scots had shaped our world until I visited). Flora MacDonald, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns are among the famous Scots whose portraits are on display.

Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh

The Scottish National Gallery (above) beside the city’s Princes Street Gardens features works by a slew of famous artists such as Constable, Monet, Degas and El Greco. While modern art fans should plan a trip to the city’s Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art where you can see works by the likes of Joan Miro, Alberto Giacometti and Rene Magritte.

Plants and wildlife

Edinburgh’s most famous gardens are the Princes Street Gardens in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle. The popular gardens are a great place to while away an hour or two with a book on a sunny afternoon. The Royal Botanic Gardens to the north of the city centre span some 70 acres and are home to more than 13,500 plant species. RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, meanwhile, looks after the UK’s only giant pandas (Tian Tian and Yang Guang) and koalas (Alinga, Goonaroo and Toorie), along with penguins, lions, vultures, hippos and more.

Walking

View of Arthur's Seat from the grounds of the Palace of Holyroodhouse

When a city boasts two extinct volcanoes, you know there will be plenty of opportunities for long walks and hikes. The best hike in the city is the magnificent Arthur’s Seat (above), which overlooks the Palace of Holyroodhouse and has breathtaking views over Edinburgh and out towards the Firth of Forth. There are various trails you can follow to the peak, some steeper than others, and depending on the weather, it can get pretty windswept at the top.

If you’re not feeling quite so energetic, the nearby Calton Hill, which is topped by the  distinctive, unfinished Parthenon-like national monument, is a better bet. For those who dislike hills, the Water of Leith walkway follows the path of the River Leith from the suburb of Balerno to the port of Leith and extends over 12 miles in total. But for a shorter walk, start in the city’s picturesque Dean Village and follow the river through the city to Leith, home to the Royal Yacht Britannia.

Shopping

Princes Street is Edinburgh’s shopping mecca, awash with the usual high street names such as H&M and Marks & Spencer, but make sure to explore the streets and alleyways behind it in the city’s New Town. The area is filled with independent boutiques that are well worth a browse. Edinburgh’s quirkiest and most interesting shops, though, are to be found in the city’s Grassmarket area and along steep Victoria Street that curves from the George IV Bridge down to Grassmarket.

Food

Outside London, Edinburgh is one of the UK’s brightest culinary hot spots featuring a host of exceptionally good restaurants and cafés. One of my favourite places is The Scran & Scallie gastropub, co-owned by renowned local chef Tom Kitchin, which serves modern, seasonal British fare. Be sure to rock up on a Sunday evening when folk musicians play in the bar area – there’s a lively atmosphere and it makes for a fun evening.

Chez Jules, an unpretentious French bistro in the New Town, is also worth checking out, as is Hendersons, an Edinburgh institution that serves excellent veggie and vegan dishes. It’s my go-to breakfast place in the city. For a quick caffeine fix, Wellington Coffee in the New Town is a tiny, basement delight. Order the hot chocolate – it comes with a giant, pillowy chunk of marshmallow on the side.

Day trips

Fancy seeing some sights outside the city? You’re in luck as the area surrounding the Scottish capital is brimming with places to visit. Fans of symbolism and/or The Da Vinci Code should hop on the number 37 bus from Princes Street, which will take you to the village of Roslin, home to the romantic 15th century Rosslyn Chapel and its copious, intricate stone carvings. Sadly, there’s no sign of the holy grail.

The courtyard inside the ruined Linlithgow Palace

If Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse failed to satisfy your appetite for all things royal, the haunting Linlithgow Palace (above) is a short 20-minute train ride away. The ruined shell of a palace was the birth place of Mary, Queen of Scots. While the imposing and impressive Stirling Castle is around 50 minutes by train from Edinburgh Waverley Station.

Inchcolm Abbey

The beautiful Firth of Forth is also a short train ride away – alight at South Queensferry where you can catch a boat to Inchcolm Island. The small island in the middle of the firth is home to a splendid, partially-ruined abbey (above). While sailing across the firth, keep your eye out for puffins (their distinctive orange beaks make them relatively easy to spot) and soak up the magnificent views as you sail under the iconic Forth Bridges.

Getting there

Edinburgh Airport is well served by airports in the UK and abroad. Once you’ve arrived, the easiest way to get into the city is via the express bus service. Buses run every 10 minutes and cost £7 for a return ticket. The bus’s final destination is Waverley Bridge, overlooking Edinburgh Waverley train station, in the heart of the city.

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The Scran & Scallie

My mother is a big Tom Kitchin fan and one of her ambitions is to eat in his restaurant, The Kitchin. Unfortunately it’s booked up months in advance and as our trip to Edinburgh was very last minute, I decided to take my mother to the next best thing, Kitchin and Dominic Jack’s gastropub The Scran & Scallie. Boy, did this turn out to be one of my best calls in Edinburgh. It was fabulous and well worth the visit.

The pub saves a few tables each service for walk-ins and on our Sunday evening in the Scottish capital, we decided to chance our luck. We had to wait around an hour for our table (the pub was packed), but we had a great time sitting at the bar while we waited, sipping cucumber martinis (me, delicious and refreshing) and sauvignon blanc (mum).

It turns out there’s always live music in the bar on a Sunday night and we really enjoyed listening to the Scottish folk songs being played. It created a jolly atmosphere in the pub and was a wonderful accompaniment to our meal.

The food? Delicious. We both chose one of the specials for a starter, mackerel tartare, which was quite simply, superb. I could easily have polished off a second plateful, everything about it was just right – it was light and delicate, yet full of flavour. Just incredible. Monkfish wrapped in pancetta was our choice for mains and that too was very tasty. I then opted for a cheese board, while mum went for the chocolate brownie with stout ice cream, which she loved. My cheese board was very generous with a good variety of flavour-packed cheeses (including a blue, soft and hard cheese) served on a platter alongside accompaniments such as small home made oatcakes and damson jam. Despite being rather full at this point, I demolished the lot. The wines were very good, too.

A shout out to the staff, too, who were friendly and attentive (while not being overbearing). I’d highly recommend it if you’re looking for somewhere special to eat in Edinburgh, I will definitely be returning on my next trip to the Scottish capital.

Info
The Scran & Scallie, 1 Comely Bank Road, Stockbridge, Edinburgh EH4 1DT
Open seven days a week
Mains between £9.50-£18.50
scranandscallie.com

 

Arthur’s Seat

View of Arthur's Seat from the grounds of the Palace of HolyroodhouseThe first time I visited Edinburgh I was transfixed by Arthur’s Seat and vowed to climb it the next time I was in the city. Fast forward 10 years and on my return to Edinburgh, I found Arthur’s Seat to be much bigger and much more imposing than I’d remembered.

The peak of Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh

Undaunted, I set off to complete my mission, and on coming to a fork in the path I was following, met a group of Americans who informed that the path to the left was the easy route, while the path to the right was the “super hard route up millions of steps”. Naturally, I chose the super hard route.

The view over Edinburgh and the Firth of Forth from Arthur's Seat

This route involved climbing up what seemed like a never-ending series of steps – I had to stop a few times on the way up to catch my breath – and travailing a few paths that were a little too close to the edge of a steep drop at times for my liking.  But I eventually reached the top after a final short, sharp scramble up a very rocky path. It was very windy at the peak, but the views across Edinburgh and across the Firth of Forth were well worth the effort.

Coming down off the peak was a little hairy, and I like a number of other women, clambered down across the rocks on my bum a few times. But once off the rock, I joined the easy path and practically ran down the hill. The next time I’m in Edinburgh though, I think I’ll choose the easy path.

Holyrood Palace and Abbey

The ruins of Holyrood Abbey from the gardens of the Palace of Holyroodhouse

One of the Queen’s two residences in Scotland (the other being Balmoral), Holyrood is situated in the centre of Edinburgh at the bottom of the Royal Mile opposite the Scottish Parliament and boasts magnificent views of Arthur’s Seat. Inside the palace, you can tour the state apartments, which are open to the public whenever the royal family aren’t in residence.

The Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh

There’s plenty to see within the state apartments, including the throne room and the great gallery, which is home to an extensive set of portraits of Scotland’s monarchs (both real and imaginary) by the Dutch painter Jacob de Wet. I particularly enjoyed Mary, Queen of Scots’s apartments where Mary lived on her return to Scotland from France and which were the setting for her second marriage to Henry, Lord Darnley, and his subsequent murder of her secretary David Rizzio.

At the end of my tour of the royal apartments I dropped in on a temporary fashion exhibition to mark the Queen’s 90th birthday, Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style from The Queen’s Wardrobe, where outfits worn by the Queen during her reign, as well as her childhood, were on display. It was fascinating to see all these royal outfits up close as the accompanying photographs of the Queen wearing the clothes don’t convey all the intricate and delicate embroidery work on some of the pieces. I also enjoyed seeing how the Queen’s style has evolved over the years.

Next to the palace is the ruined Holyrood Abbey (above), which was originally founded by David I in 1128, and during its illustrious history has hosted the births, marriages and coronations of various Scottish monarchs. It’s an incredibly beautiful and evocative building, and must have been a grand and wonderful sight before it fell to ruin.

The view towards Arthur's Seat from the grounds of the Palace of Holyroodhouse

Before leaving, I took a walk around the peaceful palace gardens and enjoyed the spectacular views of Arthur’s Seat. The palace also has a great café, which made for a nice spot for lunch.

Info

Palace of Holyroodhouse, Canongate, Edinburgh EH8 8DX
Open 9.30am-6pm (26 March-31 October), 9.30am-4.30pm (1 November-25 March), seven days a week
Adults £12.00, Children £7.20, Concessions £11.00
royalcollection.org.uk/visit/palace-of-holyroodhouse

Edinburgh Castle

The entrance to Edinburgh Castle

Perched high on top of one of Edinburgh’s two dormant volcanoes is Edinburgh Castle, an impressive fortification that dominates the surrounding landscape. A citadel home to lots of different buildings rather than a simple stone castle, it’s worth taking the time to explore all the many structures within the castle walls, such as the various museums (including one on prisoners of war and a couple of regimental ones), the royal palace, St Margaret’s Chapel, David’s Tower and the Scottish National War Memorial.

If you want to learn more about Scotland’s royal family, make sure to visit the royal palace. The apartments take you on a journey through Scotland’s royal history, as well as that of the country’s crown jewels and the stone of scone (also known as the stone of destiny). The displays throughout are interesting and informative, and I came away with a much better understanding of Scotland’s royal history (although minor gripe: one of the displays referred to James VII of Scotland and II of England’s second wife Mary of Modena as his first wife as opposed to his second).

At the end of the exhibition, there’s a chance to marvel at Scotland’s crown jewels and the stone of scone. Scotland’s crown jewels, also known as the Honours of Scotland, include the crown worn by Mary, Queen of Scots, at her coronation and a sceptre that dates back to 1494. During their long history, the jewels have been hidden twice, once from Oliver Cromwell’s army in the 17th century and then during the Second World War. They were also locked away in a chest following Scotland’s union with England and rediscovered by the novelist Sir Walter Scott in 1818. Traditionally used in the coronations of Scotland’s monarchs, the stone of scone, meanwhile, was stolen by Edward I in 1296 and taken to Westminster Abbey where it was placed beneath a wooden chair upon which many subsequent English monarchs were crowned. The stone was returned to Scotland in 1996.

Edinburgh Castle is also the site of Scotland’s very own red wedding (minus the wedding part). The ruined David’s Tower, which has been partially excavated and was where Scotland’s crown jewels were buried during the Second World War, is the site of one of the most infamous murders in Scottish history. The Black Dinner, as it was known, took place at Edinburgh Castle in 1440 when the powerful Douglas family – the young 6th Earl, his brother and his adviser – were invited to the castle for dinner. But during the meal a black bull’s head, a symbol of death, was brought into the banqueting hall and the Douglases were subsequently beheaded in the palace yard in front of the 10-year-old king, James II, following a mock trial.

St Margaret's Chapel in Edinburgh Castle

The tiny and quaint St Margaret’s Chapel (above), which sits within Edinburgh Castle, is the oldest building in Edinburgh. Other buildings worth seeing within the castle include the medieval Great Hall built by James IV in 1511 and the solemn Scottish National War Memorial, which commemorates the Scottish soldiers killed during the First and Second World Wars, as well as subsequent conflicts.

There was much more to Edinburgh Castle than I’d anticipated and it was very different to the stone castle I had pictured in my mind beforehand. I hadn’t realised it was home to Scotland’s crown jewels, the stone of scone or the country’s national war memorial, and it was great to stumble upon these. Well worth a visit.

Info

Edinburgh Castle, Castlehill, Edinburgh EH1 2NG
Open 9.30am-6pm (April-September), 9.30am-4pm (October-March), seven days a week
Adults £16.50, Children £9.90, Concessions £13.20
edinburghcastle.gov.uk

Edinburgh

Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh

I first visited the Scottish capital 10 years ago on a brief day trip when I was at university, during which time I saw a little of the Royal Mile, Holyrood Palace… and that was about it. Since then I’d been keen to go back and properly explore the city.

Home to two dormant volcanoes, Edinburgh is a hilly, delightful city steeped in history. The old town with its narrow medieval alleyways and beautiful grey stone buildings has a mystical, enchanting charm and it’s impossible not to contemplate its influence on JK Rowling, one of the city’s most famous residents, in writing the Harry Potter series. At times I felt as though I could be walking down Diagon Alley or exploring parts of Hogwarts.

View of Arthur's Seat from the grounds of the Palace of Holyroodhouse

Arthur’s Seat, meanwhile, the large dormant volcano at the bottom of the Royal Mile overlooking Holyrood Palace, feels a world away from a bustling capital city (above). It’s easy to forget you’re in the middle of a city while walking through the park admiring the ancient geology and enjoying the fantastic views over the city and the Firth of Forth from the top of the striking peak.

History and geology aside, Edinburgh is also a great place for foodies. Almost every plate of food I had in the city, whether a  bowl of soup, a slice of cake or a mound of mussels, was delicious and I rarely had a bad gastronomic experience. The portion sizes were also very generous.

Among the best cafés and restaurants I visited were Hendersons, a vegetarian cafe and restaurant that serves mouthwatering salads and delicious breakfasts; the tiny Wellington Coffee with its great coffee and hot chocolate (served with a glorious chunk of marshmallow on the side), and giant scones and croissants;  Tom Kitchin’s lively gastropub The Scran and Scallie; and charming French restaurant, Chez Jules. The food at Café Portrait at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery was also first rate.