Edinburgh thrives with literary history and ages of torment and turmoil. There were golden moments of ages past which at times seem a distant memory. What Edinburgh, Scotland always leaves people with is the sensation of being home…
The city is the ‘Mecca’ for writers. Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Robert Burns were among the famous writers to have lived and thrived in the soot stained city. Edinburgh has many names: ‘Auld Reekie’, ‘Athens of the North’, and ‘Modern Athens’.
‘Auld Reekie’ seemed to be the nickname that stuck. Soot and smog consumed the city’s cramped quarters. At times people could see a cloud of gray smoke over the buildings which made closes (alleys) even darker during the day.
Buildings were poorly made and floors were added as the city grew. The wooden structures were unable to hold the weight and started to bend. It became so bad, that the top of buildings would lean on each other over the street darkening it even in the day.
There was no sewage system. People would toss their bed pans out the windows into the streets. There was such a significant amount of waste that some closes would be a foot deep in excrement. It lead to unsanitary and poor living conditions. People continually died from diseases and not enough sunlight.
Despite the hardships of living in Edinburgh, people flocked to the city for the opportunity to become something else.
Today, there is so much to see and do in the city that it’s hard to do accomplish a lot in even three weeks. But should you ever take the leap and head to this ‘Mecca’ here are the top 18 places to see and things to do.
For many, the castle is what they associate with Edinburgh. It sits atop Castle Rock at the beginning of the Royal Mile. Numerous royal families and soldiers have lived within its walls.
It’s location enabled the military to keep an eye out over the entire city and have a good view of who was encroaching upon their territory. There were balls, true love, military conquests, tortured servants, and stolen crown jewels. The castle thrives with stories from across the centuries.
Today, part of it still serves as housing for the military. Every day at one o’clock, you can see a select few of the military ignite the one o’clock cannon. It used to be heard all around the city but over time it’s noise was reduced as a result of complaints.
The street is alive with bars, cathedrals, restaurants, and things to do. Starting at the base of the Edinburgh Castle, the street has had its share in the turmoil of the city.
During the witch trials, women were rolled down the steep street in a barrel with nails hammered through the walls. They would roll until they confessed. At the top right hand side of the street, there used to be a pool of water on top of the roof where witches were drowned.
Other sights to see are the St Giles Cathedral, The Scotch Whisky Experience, Jolly Judge bar, Deacon Brodie’s Tavern, and The Writers’ Museum. The Jolly Judge is a great place to escape the rain. It’s off one of the closes and you go beneath the street into a dark, comforting pub. This is the perfect place to catch up with friends.
Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour
This one leans more towards literature lovers, but it’s great for people who love drinking and having great laughs. Two guys portray a battle of wits and discuss some of the more famous literary figures who have stayed, inspired, and thrived in the city.
You’ll start your tour off in the Old Town at the Grassmarket and end in the New Town. This is a great way to end any night. It doesn’t matter if you’re alone or with friends, everyone in the group is always warm and friendly. By the end of the night, you won’t feel alone, and you’ll make some great new friends.
Cadies & Witchery Tour
Discover the murders and ghostly tales of Edinburgh. This tour is filled with history. You’ll go down closes and visit some of the darker sides of Edinburgh.
The tours guides are always dressed up as historical characters and provide wonderful entertainment. When I went last September, the two people would joke with all of us and perform stupid stunts. Not only were we laughing, but locals who weren’t even part of the group joined in on the fun.
That is one good thing about Edinburgh. Everyone seems to know how to be friendly, relaxed, and have a good time!
The tour normally costs about 10£, but you get a book with all the tales of the city. You’ll hear about ‘Half Hang-it Maggie’ and the crazy lady of Fisher’s Close.
This area was famously known for moving cattle through the streets of Edinburgh. Over the years it has become a bit darker place. At one point in time, it was a hot spot for body snatchers.
Today, the street is a good place for getting a drink, karaoke, and watching a good game of football. The Three Sisters Pub is one of the hot spots in this area. It’s two stories and provides an array of entertainment. There’s also a hidden club called the Bongo Club, which can only be accessed at a certain time in the night. This is one you might want to have some friends to go with you to be extra safe.
Grassmarket Market / Stockbridge Market
These markets are fantastic. There’s fresh fruit, music, wonderful food, and an array of crafts.
The Grassmarket Market (yes, it sounds a bit redundant) is held normally every Saturday in the Grassmarket. This is in the Old Town close to Cowgate and Greyfriars Bobby. People might be lucky and see a play or get to ride a Victorian bicycle. Make sure to check out the Greek food here. It is amazing!
The Stockbridge Market is a food lovers paradise. They have an array of various foods that are always tasty. Don’t forget to get some fresh sweet treats or even a strawberry tart. They usually have someone playing music while you look at all of the arts and crafts. This is a good place to get a scarf to keep your neck warm while you roam around the city.
Greyfriars Bobby / Kirkyard
If you’re a Harry Potter lover this is a must visit! A lot of the names J. K. Rowling uses in her books came from the grave stones in Greyfriars Kirkyard. There are also tales of several hauntings among the kirkyard (cemetery) which have scared visitors and locals alike.
What many people remember about Greyfriars Kirkyard is Bobby. Bobby was a white Skye Terrier who guarded the kirkyard with the nightwatchman, John Gray. He was devoted to his master until the day he died and even after. There were nights Bobby would lay by his master’s grave only to be kicked out by the new guard.
As time passed, the new guard grew to love him. Locals loved to play with Bobby and many made sure to provide him with food and water. Eventually, the Lord Provost of Edinburgh paid for the dog’s license and provided him with a collar to ensure his safety.
You can see Bobby’s statue outside of the kirkyard and in front of Greyfriars Bobby (the pub). It’s a fountain made for kids to reach and a place for dogs to drink should they need water.
Calton Hill has a collection of monuments and sights. Here you can see why locals used to call Edinburgh the ‘Athens of the North’.
The National Monument of Scotland is the focal point of ancient Greek Architecture. It was originally advertised as a giant mausoleum where people can pay to have their loved ones buried here. This was a way to get funds to build the monument.
It didn’t take long for funds to run out and construction to stop. Today, visitors are left with half of what could have been.
Other sights to see on Calton Hill are the Observatory, The Nelson Monument, Calton Hill Cannon, and the Dugald Stewart Monument. The Stewart Monument offers the famous view which many have captured of the city of Edinburgh. It’s a great place for a photo op!
This is a good half day or whole day activity depending on how long you want to stay here. Holyrood Park is situated on the outer edge of the city and offers a gorgeous view of Edinburgh and the countryside.
Pack a lunch and hike up the Radical Road to Arthur’s Seat. It’s a challenge, but an adventure you’ll always remember. A good thing to note is that you might want some good hiking shoes since the rocks are slippery, and the trail gets narrow as you near the top.
Feel free to toast your victory with a shot of Famous Grouse! Maybe add some water to it, because the whisky can be very potent.
Princes Street / Princes Street Gardens
Princes Street is a great center point when traveling around Edinburgh. It’s one of the largest streets with an array of shopping centers and a relaxing park, Princes Street Gardens.
Centuries ago the gardens used to be the Nor Loch. During the witch trials, accused victims were drowned in the lake which began to stink over time. There were also rumors of the Lochness Monster being seen, but that was debunked when they drained the lake and found no evidence to prove the allegations.
Princes Street Gardens is a great place to have a picnic. You can grab a bite to eat at the cafe/crepe stand located near the Scottish National Gallery. They have amazing crepes, fish and chips, and Irn Bru.
Some monuments and sights you’ll see in this area are the Scott Monument, Scottish National Gallery, and Waverly Station.
This street is neat to check out if you’re hungry. They’ve got an array of pubs and diners. During the night, you’ll see the entire street lit up. It’s like a picturesque cafe street in Paris.
Some places to check out here are Dirty Dick’s Bar, The Black Cat, and The Amber Rose. Check out specials for the nights. You never know what deal you’ll find.
Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Admission is free! This is something to check out when you’re in the New Town. In the entrance you’ll see busts and statues of famous writers and even Queen Victoria. The building has exquisite architecture with several floors full of various art.
Depending on when you go, they will have different exhibitions available to see. Some of them you will have to pay for, but if you don’t want to there is still quite a bit left to see.
Teviot Row House
This is aimed more towards young adults but still worth checking out. This is a favorite among college kids. Located on the University of Edinburgh’s Campus, the Teviot Row House offers several floors of bars and is open late.
If watching sports on a large screen, playing pool, and drinking is your thing, then the Sports Bar is the best place for you. They also have a unique two-story Library Bar, where you’re surrounded with books. The bar offers a variety of seating and even an outside portion for smoking.
One unique thing about the Teviot Row House which you might happen upon is one of its silent clubs. People pay 5£ for headphones which allow you to switch between two radio stations. Once you return the headphones, you’ll get your money back.
The room is dark, open, and lights excite the scene. Everyone dances and sings, but if you don’t have headphones you won’t hear the music. It’s an innovative way to keep down the music and not disturb others in the area.
Sweet Treat Shops
There are a multitude of sweet treat shops in Edinburgh. You’re sweet tooth will always be satisfied. What’s even better is that all of their ingredients are fresh! Now you rarely get that in the United States.
Some must hit places to satisfy your sweet tooth are Patisserie Valerie, Bibi’s Bakery, and the Fudge House. Bibi’s Bakery has unique cupcake flavors and amazing macaroons. I once tried an elder flower cupcake and a Rhubarb and custard macaroon. I was immediately addicted. If you want fresh fruit on a tart, check out Patisserie Valerie on North Bridge.
According to locals, this was the inspiration for Diagon Alley in Harry Potter. The street curls around down to Grassmarket. Each building is a different color and there are two stories.
Visitors can find an array of shops from antiques and books to gag gifts. One shop near the bottom is known for its big nose which has been the debate of several political battles. Should you go into one of the books stores, you might find an original copy of Sir Walter Scott’s books. There’s also a place called Oink which is reported to have the best pulled port in all of Edinburgh.
This is a great place to check out the history of medical advances and phenomena. The Surgeons’ Hall has a collection of items from around the world such as shrunken heads and skin from one of the body snatchers in the Victorian era.
Photos aren’t allowed in the hall, but you are welcome to spend as long as you want looking and reading all the information possible. Throughout the day, they will have a presentation on how dissections were performed in the early stages of medical practices.
You’ll find out about laughing gas and the people who partied with it. The skin of Edmund Burke from the infamous Burke and Hare killings is on display. When he was convicted of his crimes and sentenced to death his body was donated to science. It was dissected like all his victims were and students took pieces as souvenirs. They made them into wallets, book covers, and more.
Charlotte Square / St Andrew Square
These squares are good places to see wonderful architecture or relax on the grass reading a book. The two squares are connected via George Street where you’ll find some churches and great places to eat. Charlotte Square is known for it’s Victorian architecture and the Prince Albert statue which resides in the middle.
On the opposite end lies St Andrew Square. This place has the Melville Monument which is one of the biggest ‘ego’ monuments around. If you want to have a picnic, this is the place to go. It’s wide open and you can bathe in the sun.
Assembly Roxy / Summer Hall
Have you heard of dancing the Ceilidh? Well these halls are the perfect place to learn about the dance. It’s been part of the Scottish culture for centuries. People from all around come together to dance, talk, and have fun.
Back in the day, a Ceilidh was also known for poetry and stories. As time passed, these slowly fell out of popularity and the dancing took over.
It’s usually easy to get a ticket to these halls for a night out of dancing, but make sure you book them early. They tend to go quickly since everyone loves to attend the dances.
Unlike other places, they don’t care if you come alone or with friends. No matter what, you will be on that dance floor by the end of the night. Everyone is warm and welcoming.
The hosts understand that not everyone will know the dances, so they take time out before a new style and teach everyone the steps. This will go very quickly so be ready to keep up. There will be some elbows to the face.