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Things To Do Edinburgh – Understand
Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland and is chock-full of Scottish history throughout the centuries. While being a major tourist attraction, the city has managed to keep the Old Town alive and yet you will be surprised by how much modern culture you will find here. It took me a while, but after a few days I would consider Edinburgh one of the best ‘modern’ old towns I have ever been to.
Since summer sees so many tourists here, you will need to do some good prep to avoid the major crowds and tourists traps – but that’s why you are reading this guide.
The Scottish climate is famous for being unstable; don’t be surprised if you experience all four seasons in one day here. Bring windproof layers that you can take off in seconds.
With the British Pound at 1.32 to the Dollar, Scotland feels cheap and food and drinks are VERY good value to most US visitors. Hotels outside the major tourist season are good value too. Who would have thought a few years ago that the UK could be a ‘value destination’?
The Scottish charm is rough but the warm hospitality will make you feel very welcome in this city.
Glasgow and Edinburgh are both home to great food, coffee and many excellent microbreweries. It’s not London, but the creativity of entrepreneurs is very vivid and prices are so much lower.
Things To Do Edinburgh – Safety
Edinburgh is a safe place night and day. Be careful at night around Waverley train station but the worst thing you are to likely encounter is obviously drunk people or roaming bands of youngsters. Their criminal energy is usually low and not directed against tourists.
Things To Do Edinburgh – Get Around
There are plenty of airport buses and an airport tram all vying for your business for a few pounds. Inside the city (and that’s likely the Old Town) you can either study the bus layout or simply walk (which is what I did). Uber is in town but it’s not my favorite choice due to the many traffic restrictions and the high price tag. Taxis are expensive and I found no need to use them at all.
Things To Do Edinburgh – Sights
The second you arrive in Edinburgh, you know this city will keep you busy. There are just so many historic buildings and scenic views that you can spend a week here and still have many items left on your list.
Edinburgh Castle is visited by a stunning 1.4 million visitors every year. GBP 16 will get you a ticket, which you can buy online as lines can get long at peak lunch hours. The castle is built on top of an extinct volcano and has magnificent views.
The castle is said to be the most besieged structure in the world and was involved in the constant power struggles between England and Scotland for hundreds of years. The last major conflict was in the mid-17th Century and the castle has been used mainly for military purposes since then. It still has an official use, although most of its buildings are not exactly regal.
It’s a pretty castle but there isn’t much to do once inside, so if you are on a tight budget, save yourself the fee and the crowds.
There is a free tour that starts every 30 minutes; however, my guide hadn’t had the best day and was incredibly difficult to understand because of his low voice and strong accent. Plus I learned almost everything about the castle reading this Wikipedia article.
This is a (rarely used) summer residence for the Queen. It’s small, but the lines of tourists are long. I skipped the GBP 12 entry fee.
This park along the old volcano provides fantastic views all over Edinburgh. It’s mainly used by locals for a walk or strenuous jog. Take good shoes and walk up to 30 minutes on a sunny day – you will thank me later.
This huge museum in the middle of Old Town is mind-boggling – the sheer amount of exhibitions and maze-like structure will make you run for an exit sooner or later. However, it’s free admission thanks to the National Lottery. The exhibitions contain everything from dinosaurs to pottery to Scottish history. It’s all very well done and the displays are very informative.
Calton Hill is often referred to as the oldest public park in Scotland and the ruins of a Roman-like column structure have made it famous. The views towards Edinburgh are fantastic and this is the place to go for great pictures.
While touristy, this large square has a lot of character and has a farmers’ market on Sundays. You can catch a glimpse of the castle towering overhead at anytime while sitting outside at one of the many (very average) places, enjoying the scenery.
The area around Princess Street is called New Town and is mostly for shopping, but also has some great food and coffee options. It makes for a great stroll – just keep in mind that most shops close at 6PM sharp.
If you are tired of the crowded, small alleys of Edinburgh, you should consider a day trip to Stirling and Glasgow. Both are two very different Scottish cities – Stirling is all about its castle and medieval streets, while Glasgow was the engineering heart of the Industrial Revolution that made Scotland rich in the 19th Century.
Stirling and Stirling Castle are about an hour’s drive from Edinburgh. The scenic old town is best discovered on foot (so park outside the city) and wander through the small alleys up to the castle.
Again, I found this castle to be a bit of a let-down given the high GBP 15 entrance fee, but you can check out the nearby beautiful views and explore the cathedral and cemetery without any fees.
Glasgow is much more gritty and it’s clear that the golden times of the 19th Century are long gone.
A good way to bring them back, though, is by visiting the Glasgow Science Centre, which has free admission. The exhibition provides great insight into the engineering marvels that dominated this part of the world for many decades.
Glasgow has a thriving university, beautiful grounds along the River Clyde and a surprising amount of delicious food and drink options. We stopped by cafezique (loved those meringues) and the Riverhill Coffee Bar downtown.
We also tried Babu Bombay Street Kitchen, which has very innovative curries on offer.
The main Mother India’s Cafe is located in Glasgow and the location convinces with super-friendly staff, fast service and delicious food.
Things To Do Edinburgh – Food & Drink
Back to Edinburgh and it has some serious ethnic cuisine options and top-notch coffee.
Hidden in a small alley in New Town is this hipster taco shop. It’s refreshingly modern and yet authentic and serves delicious creations of tacos in pairs of two. Prices are GBP 4-10 per pair of tacos. I really liked the taste and freshness, but don’t go there too hungry.
This small coffee shop is right in the middle of two main shopping centers. However, I had to walk by several times to find it as it’s hidden in a basement, but the location really adds atmosphere. Excellent coffee and super-friendly staff make for a rewarding experience. Definitely get a scone as well!
Right at the touristy Grassmarket area is this fantastic little shop that creates ice cream like few others. Goat cheese ice cream with honey, anyone? The salted caramel or malted caramel ice cream will make you want to return every day.
Ong Gie looked a bit too authentic when we walked in. However, the Korean chef dishes out high quality Korean staples like barbecue meat, bibimbap and kimchi stews. The menu does not stand out, but the quality of each dish was fantastic – that’s hard to find even in Korea.
This uber-clean sushi spot delivers a quality sushi experience, though it gets crowded past 7PM and lines can be long.
I first met this fantastic mini-chain of Indian tapas-style food in Glasgow. Luckily, there is one in Edinburgh as well. There are no reservations, so get there early or be prepared to wait for at least 30 minutes. The menu features a long list of super-delicious Indian curries – most for GBP 5.
You will likely need one or two to be full and they are great to share. I loved the eggplant and butter chicken curries the most. Highly recommended!
This pub is almost impossible to make out from the outside and it’s bigger on the inside. There is also a red telephone box suspiciously close to the entrance! The staff are exceptionally friendly and fast. You’ll get your burger fill in minutes and have a craft beer on your table in less than 3 minutes. I found both the beer and burger lacking in taste a bit, but the atmosphere and exceptional service make up for it in my book.
This South Indian restaurant does not look like much, but spins out super-delicious dosas and curries. The chicken and vegetarian dosas we tried were finger-licking good and the prices are so low that you can’t stop eating. It’s also BYOB so take your favorite wine or beer there.
If you want to see how the locals hang out and enjoy beer, go to The Hanging Bat on a Friday or Saturday. Fantastic draft beers, a big selection of locally-brewed beers, super-friendly staff and a modern yet easy-going atmosphere make this place a winner. Drinking is surprisingly cheap in Scotland – especially if you just came in from Norway (like we did).
Have you ever waited for an espresso drink for 20 minutes or more? Well, this place has no lines, but still consistently makes you wait for drinks. We thought it must have been a one-off, but the second time we had the exact same experience. However, the coffee is great, the desserts are super-yummy and the atmosphere is creative. There is very fast WiFi and whenever we got here this place was crowded to the last seat; maybe everyone was just waiting for their coffee??
A bit misleading, this sushi place is actually a ramen-only place for most of the day. The ramen isn’t cheap but it’s very tasty, with much more flavor than most ramen I’ve tried all over the world. The bowls are huge but there’s not much soup or noodles in there. Ramen isn’t a cheap option in Edinburgh, but gourmet food – well, I’ll take it!
If you haven’t yet been to this uber-German grocery store that opened all over Europe in the last few years, stop by this location. They offer very high quality groceries (including German chocolate) for prices that are so low you’ll think it’s a mistake. I stocked up on Kinder chocolate for the rest of my trip here.
Things To Do Edinburgh – Where to Stay
Try to stay in the Old Town to get the maximum buzz from this fantastic city. I tried out the DoubleTree by Hilton Edinburgh, the Radisson Blu Edinburgh and the G&V Hotel Edinburgh during my stay. The latter two, both Club Carlson properties, are fantastic and I’d be happy to return.