Edinburgh is an outstanding city and my favorite place in Great Britain to visit. Perched on the southern shore of the Firth of Forth, the capital of Scotland is filled with stunning views, fascinating history & architecture, friendly locals and unique attractions.
There are two distinct areas of Edinburgh that divide the city: Old Town and New Town. Old Town is the more historic section with cobbled streets and medieval buildings and the famous Royal Mile. New Town is grand with beautiful Georgian squares and world class shopping. Both areas are very walkable and worth exploring.
With so much to see and do in Edinburgh, there are plenty of options and attractions worth visiting. I have been to Edinburgh five times now and have narrowed down my own personal top 10 experiences in the capital of Scotland.
1. Edinburgh Castle
No trip to Edinburgh would be complete without a visit to the Castle. This iconic fortress at the top of the Royal Mile almost seems to float above the city. Built on ancient volcanic rock, Edinburgh Castle has served in the past as a royal residence, seat of government, prison, and a military garrison.
Upon entering the Castle visitors are greeted by statues of two of Scotland’s most revered heroes, Sir William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. The Castle houses the crown jewels of Scotland and the legendary Stone of Destiny, used for centuries in the coronation ceremonies of Scottish monarchs and later the Kings and Queens of Great Britain.
Make sure to visit the Royal Palace where Queen Mary of Scots gave birth to James VI of Scotland and the prison where prisoners of war from America, France, Ireland and other nations were kept.
The Scottish National War Memorial is not to be missed. This beautiful chapel commemorates the Scottish fallen from the First World War to the present day.
If you happen to be at the Castle around 1 pm, don’t be alarmed if you hear a loud bang that sounds like gunfire. Every day, except Sundays, the One o’ Clock Gun is fired. This tradition started in 1861 as a way to help ships in the Firth of Forth determine the precise time, which aided them in navigation. While ships no longer need this assistance, the One o’ Clock Gun tradition continues.
2. Holyrood Palace and Abbey
At the end of the Royal Mile, Holyrood Palace and Abbey offer a glimpse into royal life both past and present of the Scottish and British monarchs. The Palace is still the official residence of the current British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. Here you can walk through the former apartments of the ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots and see where her personal secretary and some have alleged lover, David Rizzio was brutally murdered by the Queen’s husband Lord Darnley. Other highlights include visiting the Great Gallery to view magnificent paintings of real and legendary monarchs of Scotland.
Adjacent to the Palace is Holyrood Abbey. Now ruins, the Abbey was founded in the 12th century. Several Scottish monarchs, including Mary Queen of Scots first husband Lord Darnley are buried at Holyrood Abbey. Despite being in ruins, the Abbey still possesses a quiet majesty.
3. St. Giles Cathedral
First built in the 12th century, this Cathedral sits on the Royal Mile and has played a significant role in Scottish religious history. Much of the current building was rebuilt in later centuries. At the apex of the Scottish Reformation in the 16th century, John Knox was chosen as the minister at St. Giles.
The Cathedral is home to the Thistle Chapel where members of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle are inducted by the reigning monarch of Great Britain. This small chapel contains intricate carvings, including a figure of an angel playing bagpipes. St. Giles Cathedral is a peaceful respite from the hustle and bustle of the Royal Mile.
4. The Scotch Whisky Experience
Located on the Royal Mile, the Scotch Whisky Experience is real treat, especially for those who like whisky. There’s even a fun ride to take in a faux whisky barrel that explains the process from beginning to finish of how whisky is made. The tour ends in the tasting room and offers a chance to sample a dram or two from the world’s largest collection of Scotch Whisky. And just maybe during a tour, you’ll encounter the resident feline, Peat the Cat.
5. Underground Vault Tour
Underneath parts of Edinburgh’s Old Town lie a series of chambers and vaults. Constructed during the 18th century, they served as storage units, taverns, and brothels, among other things. As the population of Edinburgh grew, many people, especially the poor struggled to find places to live so the vaults began to serve as housing. No running water, cramped conditions in darkness, the vaults were places of utter misery for the inhabitants. Allegedly the infamous body snatchers Burke and Hare frequented the vaults searching for victims to murder and sell their bodies to local medical schools.
The unsanitary living conditions in the vaults were the perfect setting for deadly diseases including the plague. Many poor souls lost their lives in these dark underground caverns and it is said they continue to haunt the vaults.
Numerous tour companies lead nightly walking tours that descend below the city streets into the vaults. I have taken vault tours with both Mercat Tours and Auld Reekie Tours and would highly recommend either company. Not for the faint of heart, an underground vault tour is a unique and unforgettable experience.
6. Greyfriars Bobby
The story of the loyal dog that guarded his master’s grave for 14 years has captured the hearts of people throughout the world for over a century. Although the veracity of the dog’s story has been questioned, it has been said the little terrier belonged to a policeman named John Gray. When Gray died, he was buried at Greyfrairs Kirkyard. The dog mourned the passing of his owner and for 14 years sat on Gray’s grave. When the dog passed, the people of Edinburgh buried him near his owner’s grave. A statue honoring the dog was erected in 1872 just outside the gates of Greyfrairs Kirkyard. For anyone who has loved a pet, the story of Greyfrairs Bobby and a visit to his statue is sure to warm the heart.
7. Royal Yacht Britannia
For 44 years, the Royal Yacht Britannia was the floating palace for the British Royal Family. Prince Charles and Princess Diana celebrated their honeymoon on the yacht. After serving the Royal Family for over four decades, the Britannia was decommissioned in 1997 and gifted to the city of Edinburgh. Docked on the waterfront, visitors can take in the stunning water views and explore the beautiful rooms that once were the private living quarters of the Royal Family.
8. St. Cuthbert’s Graveyard
In the shadow of Edinburgh Castle at the corner of Princes Street and Lothian Road, St. Cuthbert’s graveyard is certain to send chills down the spine. Situated in a very urban area of Edinburgh, the graveyard is home to an imposing watchtower, a reminder of Edinburgh’s macabre history. The watchtower was built in 1827 to defend against rampant grave robbing to steal corpses for medical research or possibly items of value from the deceased. Following a visit to St. Cuthbert’s graveyard, I would recommend enjoying a cup of tea or a meal at Henderson’s café in the crypt of St. John’s. This vegetarian café is delicious and overlooks the graveyard at St. Cuthbert’s.
9. Walk the Royal Mile
The cobblestone streets of the Royal Mile stretch from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace. Lined with shops selling all kinds of Scottish bric a brac, there are also excellent museums and other attractions. Along the Royal Mile are numerous wynds or narrow alleys and closes hemmed in by taller buildings.
Mary King’s Close is one of the more popular closes to explore. Urban legends claim plague victims were walled up in the close, abandoned and left to die.
When walking the Royal Mile, pay special attention to the shape of a heart in the street outside St. Giles Cathedral. Called the Heart of Midlothian, it marks the spot of the 15th century Old Tolbooth, a prison and a site of public executions. The Old Tolbooth was demolished in 1817 and eventually the Heart of Midlothian was placed at the former site. An interesting tradition is to spit on the Heart. Some say it’s a sign of disdain against the former prison and others say to spit on the Heart is for good luck.
10. Raise a pint at the end of the world
After a day of exploring Edinburgh, it’s nice to pop into a historic pub for a pint. Edinburgh has more pubs than any other area in Scotland. But my favorite historic pub in Edinburgh is The World’s End, located at 4 High Street. The pub’s name is inspired by its location near the old defensive gateway called Netherbow Gate that once stood at the Royal Mile to protect the city of Edinburgh. The area inside Netherbow Gate was known as the World’s End because for many Edinburgh residents, this was where their city and known world literally ended. There used to be a fee to come back into the city which was cost prohibitive to many living in Edinburgh and they often lived their entire lives within the confines of the old city walls.
The World’s End pub marks the site where the old Netherbow Gate stood. The World’s End pub is also built on foundations that include sections of the old Flodden Wall which was a major part of Edinburgh’s city wall defenses during the 16th century. Plus, the food and drink is delicious and the staff very friendly and welcoming to tourists.
Buffy Martin Tarbox is a political and media relations consultant. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and their two cats. Buffy and her husband are currently planning their 8th trip to the United Kingdom.