My guide to making the most out of a week in the capital of Scotland.
It's been one crazy year, and that is an understatement. In less than a month I am due to start my first post working as a Junior Doctor and I am both excited and extremely nervous at the same time. Before starting, Dan and I were both keen to be able to get away somewhere and spend some time together as we both have fairly hectic work lives back home. With international travel restrictions still in place, we decided to take the train up north and spend a week exploring the beautiful city of Edinburgh.
Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland, located in the central-east of the country near the North Sea, and a little over a 4-hour journey for us by train. With its dramatic cityscape, classic architecture, and rich heritage and culture, it is clear to see why Edinburgh is one of the most popular UK destinations to visit. My family were also staying up there the same week so it was the perfect excuse to meet up after being apart for the majority of the past year.
For our week away we stayed in a chic Airbnb pad which had been newly refurbished to create a stylish yet homely space. It was perfectly located in the heart of the New Town, meaning it was only a short walk to all the major tourist attractions and close to lots of restaurants and bars. Complete with a cosy mezzanine bedroom, spacious bright living area, and modern kitchen, we were more than happy to call this apartment home for the week.
If you have read any of my previous travel blogs, you know that there are certain criteria we look for when booking accommodation. In addition to being centrally located (an obvious one), I always look for apartments with kitchens. Despite eating out most of the time in a new city, I love having the option to cook if I fancy a night in, or to prepare snacks to take with us when exploring. Not only did this kitchen have everything we could need including stove, fridge, and washing machine, it was also super cute too!
Around the city
The city of Edinburgh is divided into two halves; the Medieval Old Town, and the Georgian New town, separated by the Princes Street Gardens in the valley between. Both towns are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites and it is clear to see why, with the two areas having unique architecture styles and both great historical and cultural significance.
We spend the majority of our trip exploring the cobbled streets of Edinburgh's Old Town. The Old Town is the oldest part of the capital, with magnificent medieval architecture, narrow closes, and historical monuments. The Royal Mile runs right through the heart of the Old Town, stretching from Edinburgh Castle all the way down to Holyrood Palace, the official royal residence in Edinburgh. Along the mile (which is just longer than a mile due to Scotlands adopting the English metric system later on), are numerous famous sites including St Giles' Cathedral and the Writers' Museum, along with souvenir shops, bustling restaurants, and lively pubs.
The Edinburgh closes are steep narrow streets that branch off the Royal Mile. In the 17th century, the Old Town was becoming extremely overcrowded, Edinburgh was surrounded by walls to protect the city so rather than expanding outwards, the city expanded upwards to be able to house all its residents, with some buildings reaching over 8 stories high. Often mistakenly thought to be underground, the depths of the closes are dark eerie places to visit. To learn more about the history of the old city streets we visited The Real Mary King's Close. The guided tour takes you down through the old houses and streets that were once home to inhabitants of the city. I think this was one of my main highlights from our Edinburgh trip, largely because I had very little knowledge of the history of the cities old living conditions. Sadly photography is not permitted but here's a photo of the outside!
As with every city we travel to, we were very quick to book ourselves on to a free walking tour. You'll have probably noticed one of these tours when visiting any major city when travelling - they are the people walking around the main attractions with large colourful umbrellas and flocks of inquisitive tourists closely following by, you can't really miss them. We always try to book on these tours as they are such a great way to learn about each cities unique history and are also completely free so you can't go wrong (although you should definitely tip the guide depending on what you thought of the tour).
We went on a tour of the Old Town by Sandemans (a company we have used in a few other European cities before), which had lots of tours running frequently so they are easy to slot into your travel itinary. Our guide (shout out to the fabulous Jen) really made the tour an experience to remember. At each stop around the Old Town we were immersed in fascinating tales about Edinburgh, learnt about the key landmarks along the Royal Mile, and got to understand more about the cities rich, and often dark history which we never would have known about otherwise.
One story that I found really interesting was about the Heart of Midlothian, marked with a heart on the pavement outside where the Old Tolbooth building once stool, a building for taxation, incarceration, and torture. Jen said you can always spot who is a local and who is a tourist because today the locals will often spit on the heart, whereas tourists will unknowingly walk straight through it (often stepping in fresh spit).
Descending the southwest side of The Royal Mile you will find yourself in Grassmarket, Edinburgh's medieval marketplace with stunning views of the Castle towering above. Along with being a marketplace for the sale of horses and cattle, it was also known as a place of public executions - like I said earlier Edinburgh has a darker side. Today it is a popular spot in the city, dominated by artisan shops and many traditional pubs such as The Last Drop and Maggie Dickson's, named after the woman who survived her own hanging.
Located a little further south in Old Town is Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh's famous burial ground. A graveyard may sound like a strange place to visit but it is home to many of Edinburgh's fascinating stories, and the gravestones which inspired many of the characters for the Harry Potter franchise including Tom Riddell (Tom Riddle), Moodie (Mad-Eye Moody), and McGonagall (Professor McGonagall). Make sure to keep an eye out for the bronze statue of Greyfriar's Bobby, an ode to the loyal local Skye Terrier who guarded over his master's grave in the Kirkyard every day for 14 years until his death in 1872.
The New Town was built later on (as the name suggests) as a solution to the increasingly crowded city in the 18th century. Facing Edinburgh Castle, Princes Street is the main shopping street in the city and it's hard to miss, bursting with department stores and popular high street shops. Along with being a great place to visit for a bit of retail therapy, New Town has some must-see historical landmarks including the striking Scott Monument, erected after the death of the Scottish literary figure Sir Walter Scott. The gothic spire is situated at the east end of Princes Street and you can climb to the top for spectacular views of the city below.
Once the sun goes down, there is still plenty to experience in the city. From the modern trendy bars and clubs of the New Town, to the old traditional pubs of the Old Town, Edinburgh's nightlife is certainly unique. Near our apartment in New Town was the newly built St James Quarter, opening just a week before we visited. On the top floor, we enjoyed spending our evenings in Lane7, a social space complete with bar, bowling, pool, ping pong, mini-golf, and arcade games. There are also several venues in different UK locations so I'll definitely be looking out for more of their branches when visiting other cities.
When visiting Scotland, you have to come prepared for all weather, and more often than not that usually means rain. Whilst we were there, we experienced a few days of the worst weather imaginable, as in it was so bad the streets flooded (typical us)! Luckily there is an abundance of indoor activities to enjoy on the more miserable days of the year.
Sitting on top of an extinct volcanic hill, Edinburgh Castle dominates the skyline and looks over the city below. Previously home to various English and Scotting Monarchs over the years, it is now used as a military base and the most visited tourist attraction in Scotland. When visiting the castle, there are several different sites to see including the Great Hall, St Margaret's Chapel, the Prisoners of War Exhibition, and the Crown jewels and Stone of Destiny. You can choose how many to see, and in what order and for how long so you can arrange the day how you wish.
For something a little bit different, I would recommend visiting Camera Obscura & World of Illusions. Located near the top of the Royal Mile, the building is home to over 100 different illusions situated over 5 floors, and it was a really fun and unique way to spend a few hours. Strangely enough, it is one of Edinburgh's oldest visitor attractions being open to the public since 1853, although I'm sure it has changed A LOT over the years.
The highlights for me were the mirror maze and the disorienting vortex tunnel. If you aren't drawn in by the weird and wonderful illusions, then it is worth visiting just for the breathtaking 360-degree views of the city you get from their observation deck at the top of the building.
Another great indoor activity to escape the rain is the National Museum of Scotland - it is also completely free to enter! The museum was packed with a variety of exhibits including Scottish history, design and fashion, science and technology, art, and so much more. There were a lot of parts that were likely (definitely) geared more towards young children, but we are big kids at heart and enjoyed exploring all the different floors. Because pre-booked time slots were required, we could only get in late afternoon and sadly ran out of time to see everything before it closed, so I would definitely recommend setting aside a few hours to be able to fully take in all the extensive collections.
Outside the City
After spending most of our time exploring the busy city streets we wanted to spend a few hours away from the crowds. Deans Village is only a short walk away from the city but feels like a town straight out of a fairytale.
Located along the Water of Leith, historically Dean Village was a working grain milling area for over 800 years and many remnants of this can still be found whilst exploring. Make sure to look out for Well Court, perhaps the most architecturally striking building which was originally built to house local water mill workers in the 1880s, and is still lived in today. I would definitely recommend climbing down to the side of the river bank for the iconic view you see in all the photographs.
Another gem located just outside of the city is The Royal Botanic Garden, which is the perfect way to escape from the crowds and immerse yourself in nature. Originally founded in the 17th century as a garden to grow medicinal plants, the gardens continue to play an important role in scientific research, as well as being a centre for plant conservation, and of course for members of the public, such as ourselves, to explore.
Spread out over 72 acres, the gardens are much larger than they initially appear, and are home to around 13 thousand living plant species from around the world. Notable highlights of the gardens include the Chinese Hillside, the waterfall in the Rock Garden, and of course, the Victorian Palm Glasshouse, which was unfortunately closed for renovations whilst we were visiting but was still stunning to admire from the exterior.
Throughout the year they have everchanging exhibitions so there is always something new to see, whilst we were visiting there was a macro-photographic exhibit with stunning detail shots of botanics from around the gardens. Admission to the garden is also free which is always a bonus when travelling on a budget.
Thank you so much for reading about our short city break to Edinburgh, I hope you enjoyed hearing about our staycation this year and you have added Edinburgh to your bucket list. We had so much fun exploring the Scottish capital and would happily return (hopefully sooner rather than later) for another getaway.
My top tips for travelling to Edinburgh
Make sure to pack a rain jacket, although there may be no rain forecasted when in Scotland you never know.
There was so much to do in Edinburgh so unfortunately we weren't able to experience all the city has to offer. Other things that were on our list to do that we ran out of time for include exploring the princes street gardens and taking a trip to Leith.
I would advise booking accommodation fairly central to the city as this is where most of the interesting sites and activities are located and everything is in walking distance.
Edinburgh is definitely one to visit for all you vegan foodies, it has an incredible selection of cafes, restaurants and coffee shops - It really was vegan heaven. For my recommendations, check out Vegan Food in Edinburgh (coming soon).
Until the next adventure!