Let’s face it—if you don’t already know that Edinburgh is my favorite city in the entire world, you probably don’t know me at all. Touted for its world-famous festivals and Harry Potter roots, Edinburgh charms the imagination. As you wind through its closes and marvel at its beauty, I know you’ll leave Edinburgh feeling inspired, too.
Where to stay
If this is your first time visiting Edinburgh, stay in the city center. Doing so will enable you to explore the city on foot—simultaneously saving money on transportation while seeing the city from its best angle: up close and personal. There are a number of luxury hotels, like The Balmoral and The Caledonian (now a Waldorf-Astoria), to satisfy your five-star taste, but my choice is the 4-star Grassmarket Hotel. Located in the charming Grassmarket area, this cozy hotel is just a few minutes’ walk to Edinburgh Castle, Princes Street Gardens, the Royal Mile, and more. Or, if you want to go the Airbnb route, I'd recommend looking for a flat in the New Town, Old Town, or Bruntsfield neighborhoods.
How to get around
While the trams that slide through Princes Street might seem like a convenient way to get around town, your best bet for public transportation is taking the maroon double-decker Lothian Buses, which cover much more ground for the same price. If you’d rather get to your destination in a jiffy, hail a black cab—they’re everywhere in the city center, offer free Wi-Fi (look for the code on the back of the driver’s seat) and cabbies are some of the friendliest, most helpful guides to learning more about the city. Uber is widely available in Edinburgh, as well, but doesn’t offer the same charm as black cabs do, IMO.
What to see & do
Perched high atop a volcanic plug sits Edinburgh Castle—you'll see it from almost anywhere in the city, so plan to make your way up there during your visit. You’ll not only enjoy the views from Castle Rock, the castle itself is a series of buildings filled with the history of Scotland. From the castle runs the Royal Mile, a stretch of shops, restaurants and pubs; some are a bit touristy but otherwise a great place to check out local street performers and vendors. If you want to sample and learn about Scotch whisky, check out the Scotch Whisky Experience. It’s located immediately down the hill from the castle. At the bottom of the Royal Mile, there’s the Scottish Parliament building and the Palace of Holyrood. Both are worth checking out.
If you’re looking for something outdoorsy—and I definitely recommend this if you catch a nice, sunny day—hike up Arthur’s Seat. It’s located just past the Palace and Parliament building in Holyrood Park. It's about an hour’s hike/walk, and again—great views of the city!
If you’re looking for a structured way to see the city, I recommend Iconic Edinburgh Tours. Their walking and photography tours (you can use your phone if you don’t have a “real” camera – that’s what I did!) offer a great way to get some really interesting pictures and learn about the city’s history.
Looking to explore with a little more flexibility (and maybe a little less in the budget)? Edinburgh World Heritage (EWH) has created a self-guided list of 101 Objects so you can explore the city’s literary, military, culinary (and sometimes colorful) past. Start at the EWH offices on Bakehouse Close, where you can learn about the Acheson House—what’s now the EWH headquarters was once a brothel affectionately known as the Cock and Trumpet, named after the Acheson family crest, of course. More than 75% of the 101 Objects are free to visit and city bus routes can be found on the website for planning purposes, with a few suggested itineraries to get you started.
If you’re interested in European football (ie. soccer), definitely buy tickets to attend a match while you’re in Edinburgh. You’ll have to choose between the two local clubs, Hibernian FC (also known as Hibs or Hibees) or Hearts FC to root for. A fierce rivalry exists between the two clubs that’s been around for hundreds of years.
Not a sports fan? If shopping and sipping are more your vacation style, skip the “high street” stores and bars (aka, those found on George and Princes Streets) and head to Stockbridge. This Edinburgh neighborhood offers a plethora of boutiques and vintage stores for your shopping pleasure. Once you’ve had your retail fix, head to St. Stephen’s Street to check out one of its swanky cocktail bars.
Where to eat
If you take one piece of my Edinburgh advice, I hope it’s this: Try. The. Haggis. I promise you, it’s delicious. You should try it in its traditional form—haggis, neeps, and tatties (AKA, haggis served with mashed turnips and potatoes, often topped with brown gravy)—but you’ll also see it served in a variety of ways. For instance, I’ve had it in spring rolls at The Whiski Rooms.
Haggis aside, there are lots of options for eating Edinburgh for meat-eaters and vegans alike. For casual dining, check out The West Room for locally-inspired bites, or Holyrood 9A for great burgers and local beers. If you’re in the Bruntsfield neighborhood, definitely stop in to Meltmongers—home of the UK’s #1 cheese toastie (aka. grilled cheese). Order The Big Cheese, an oozing combination of three cheeses and chili chutney on plump sourdough, with a side of sweet potato fries. Yum.
For upscale dining, venture to Leith to visit the Michelin stars: Martin Wishart and The Kitchin. Looking for a spot that’s more centrally-located? Head to Angels with Bagpipes, located right on the Royal Mile.
Where to drink
Scotland is best known for its whisky (more on that later!), but there’s another local liquor that’s worth sipping: gin. In fact, Edinburgh Gin is distilled right in the heart of the city, meaning you can visit the distillery, learn about the process and sample some of the good stuff.
Whighams Wine Cellars is my fave spot for a glass of wine and a cheese board. Alternatively, the Grassmarket area has a strip of pubs that are fun, especially on a nice day, you can sit outside and enjoy a few pints. Rose Street also has a row of pubs and restaurants with outdoor seating that are great if you have a sunny day. My personal favorite is The Black Cat.
For fancy drinks, head to Harvey Nichols—there's a restaurant on the 4th floor of the department store with great views. Twenty Princes Street is another gorgeous option for fancy drinks and cityscape views.
What to do outside Edinburgh
Yep, I know this is a city guide, but I’ve got more to say about what to see and do in Scotland. For starters, there’s no better way to discover Scotland than to visit the 12 classic malt distilleries that represent its unique whisky-producing regions. Even if you aren’t a whisky drinker, a visit to a distillery or two will enlighten you as to how the ‘water of life’ has helped shape the history of the country. While many distilleries can be quite a journey from the city center, Glenkinchie is just a 35-minute drive from Edinburgh. Here, you can explore the ground floor exhibition that details the history of the distillery and the surrounding Lowlands region, take a behind-the-scenes guided tour of the production area and end your visit with a flight in the bar. Prices vary depending on what you want to see, and if you’re tight on time, make sure you at least splurge on the £5 it costs — yup, that’s it! — for a sample of three generous pours of the local stuff.
Across the River Forth from Edinburgh is the Kingdom of Fife, a beautiful region full of coastal towns where local artists thrive and fish ‘n chip shops rule. Along its waterways, the Fife Coastal Path stretches 117 miles, with eight digestible sections for those who desire to walk it in its entirety. If driving the coast is more your speed, you can still discover all the path has to offer, including the small fishing villages of Saint Monans and Crail, known for their pastel-colored homes and art galleries, as well as the storied college and golf town of St. Andrews. Dine on fish ‘n chips at the award-winning Anstruther Fish Bar in Anstruther — whether you sit-in or takeaway, don’t forget to douse your meal in “chippy sauce,” a special blend of vinegar and brown sauce that’ll earn you a nod from the locals.
Also known as Scotland’s Route 66, the North Coast 500 is perfect for travelers who prefer the freedom to wander at their own pace. Established in 2015, the scenic route through the Highlands starts and ends in Inverness and covers 500 or so miles of northern Scotland. To explore the entirety of the trail takes between four and five days by car and whether you start by heading east or west, you’re guaranteed to discover breathtaking views in either direction. Start by visiting their website to plot the ultimate Scottish road trip based on the attractions you want to see, reviewing the suggested itineraries, or downloading the NC500 app for access to its interactive map. What’s ahead for those who discover the great Up North? White-sand beaches that rival the Caribbean, castles that aren’t overrun with tourists, lighthouses that illuminate majestic cliffside towns and limestone caves that dwell deep underground.
Not feeling the ol’ driving on the opposite side of the road idea? Good news—there are a plethora of tour companies to get outside Edinburgh and see the Highlands, Loch Ness, and more. My favorite tour company is Rabbie's Tours. All of their guides are knowledgeable and friendly, and they offer both one-day and multi-day tour options. I recommend going on at least one of their day tours while you're in Edinburgh.
What to pack
The weather in Edinburgh is notoriously unpredictable. Scots love to say that you’ll experience all four seasons in one day — and they’re right! If you have any sort of rain jacket, I’d advise bringing one, or if not, buying one. Sure, you could buy an umbrella in any number of tchotchke shops — you’ll find them next to the shelves of stuffed hairy coos (that’s ‘cows’) — but they won’t stand a chance against the strong winds Edinburgh often experiences. Skip the umbrella and sport the rain jacket. The way I see it, you can’t blow a hooded rain parka inside out, and this will leave you hands-free for snapping photos.
The fine print: AWCity guides are not meant to be your comprehensive guide to a city. Treat these guides as if you asked me for my personal recommendations for where to stay, eat, drink, and play. Also, I've received no compensation for recommending these places, and I'll always let you know if that changes.