I realized that most of my blog posts don’t talk about Edinburgh as a city so I thought I’d put this out there in case anybody had questions about or wanted to know my personal recommendations in Edinburgh. Feel free to share this to your friends and family who are planning their trips to Edinburgh. I may add and update this post as necessary as Andrew and I continue to explore and try new places. If you are coming to visit, please read so we can figure out what things you want to see and eat.
Before you read my “guide,” I want to apologize in advance because I don’t name any pubs or coffee shops. I don’t drink alcohol or coffee so I feel that I am not a good person to recommend a place. That being said, I would recommend that you get a pint in pub and drink a cup of coffee or tea in a coffeeshop. It’s part of the Scottish experience!
When to Visit
Scotland is not known for having great weather, but there are benefits and disadvantages of visiting during certain months.
- January – March: This is “off-season.” You can get the cheapest rates for flights and hotels for travel in January – March. However, the sun goes down after 3:30pm and doesn’t come back up until after 8am so there won’t be much light to do things in the afternoon and evening. Attraction hours will be more limited, but there will definitely be less tourists walking around. The weather will vary, but there probably be strong winds and rain (but your umbrella won’t be very helpful because the wind will just break it).
- April – May: Flights and hotel rates will be going up, but it’s spring so the weather will be better since there will be longer daylight. Again, the weather will vary, but it should be bearable to walk around and see things. I think this is a good time to come, but you may still may be using a scarf and gloves outside.
- June – July: Flights and hotel rates will be very high due to the summer season and graduations, but if you were planning to join a tour through Scotland, this is when most of the tours will run from. Edinburgh doesn’t really have a “summer,” so you’d still need to bring layers (and a rain jacket).
- August: Flights will be expensive and finding a hotel will be difficult due to the Festival, where tons of people come to Edinburgh for shows and performances. The whole city gets booked out. However, if you enjoy the performing arts, this would be a great time to visit cause you can watch a ton of great shows. I describe the Festival better in this blog post. If you’re traveling to Edinburgh during this time, I’d book everything in advanced (restaurants, tours, etc.).
- September-October: Good prices for flights and hotel availability will be difficult due to the number of students moving into the city, but you might be able to get some good deals (check Travelzoo) during the end of September and October since the city will be transitioning into slow season. You may even get some nice weather during this time.
- November-December: There will be more local (UK) travel during this time and you’ll lose out on a lot of sunlight, but flights will probably be more affordable. At the end of November and throughout December, there’s a Christmas Market in the middle of the city that is really nice.
I’m not a fan of museums so I won’t recommend them, but if you’re into them, you should definitely visit them. A lot of them are free.
- Edinburgh Castle: This is the main attraction of Edinburgh, but personally, it’s not my favorite. I’m not a fan of museums and it’s a bit too “museum-y” for me. While it is home to the Scottish Crown Jewels and Stone of Destiny, I don’t think it’s worth the £17 admission fee for adults. If you do plan to go however, book the tickets in advanced so you don’t have to wait in the line. However, if you’re like me, just walk through Princes Street Gardens or Grassmarket for some nice views of it.
- Royal Mile: It’s the most famous street in Edinburgh since it connects the Castle to Holyrood Palace. From the Royal Mile, you can walk through the closes (alleyways) that people used to work and live in. It’s mostly tourist shops, but sometimes you can see some really talented street performers or listen to the bagpipes. It’s really picturesque if there aren’t too many people. However, I still like it when it’s full of tourists.
- Mary King’s Close: “The Real Mary King’s Close” is a tourist attraction showing a close (alleyway) that was partially demolished and buried under another building. The staff lead tours of the ruins of a few closes and show what life was like in Edinburgh during the 16th-19th centuries. For me, this is the most interesting tour/museum-like attraction, mostly because I like learning about how people live (compared to reading signs about Kings and wars). If you’re only going to pay for 1 attraction, this is the one I’d recommend.
- St. Gile’s Cathedral: This is a 14th century church used as the main place of worship for the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh and is sometimes considered the “Mother Church of Presbyterianism.” I think it’s a beautiful church and I love the stain glass windows. It’s free to walk in, but I think it’s also nice to attend a service there. I visited during the General Assembly and it was awesome to sing in that grand building.
- Calton Hill: It’s a hill on the east end of Prince Street and is the views are spectacular. It’s the best place to take pictures. It’s not a difficult climb and there are stairs, but it is a hill so it may be harder for older people.
- Greyfriar’s Kirkyard: Greyfriar’s Kiryard is the graveyard surrounding Greyfriarks Kirk (a church). I like it because I think you get some nice views of the Old Town buildings from there. You can also see a gravestone with the names Thomas Riddle and McGonagall, which may have inspired J.K. Rowling’s characters in Harry Potter.
- If you have more time and are willing to spend a little, Holyrood Palace (Queen’s Residence), Royal Yacht Britannia (Queen Elizabeth’s former yacht), Gladstone’s Land (a restored and furnished 17th century tenement house), The Georgian House (a restored and furnished 18th century townhouse), and the Edinburgh Zoo (there’s a panda!) are other great attractions.
- If you have more time, but don’t want to spend anymore money, the Royal Botanic Gardens, National Museum of Scotland (galleries on natural history, world cultures, European art, & science/technology), or Museum of Edinburgh (16th century house that tells the history of Edinburgh) are great places to visit. You can also visit the Museum of Childhood (the first museum on the history of childhood and toys), but think it’s really creepy and don’t plan to return.
The beset way to see the city is by walking. Here are some good spots.
- Arthur’s Seat/Salisbury Crags – This hike is located in Holyrood Park, a short walk from the Royal Mile. Arthur’s Seat is the highest point of an extinct volcano. There are many routes to get to the top so it can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 1 hour to get to the top depending on where you start and which route you take. If you climb to Arthur’s Seat, it can get really really windy. I like the walk up the Crags (it’s the cliffs next to Arthur’s Seat) for better views of the city.
- Dean’s Village/Water of Leith: The Water of Leith is a river that flows through Edinburgh. It’s a great place to walk or go for a run away from cars. The most beautiful area is Dean’s Village. It’s super picturesque and looks like something out of a storybook.
- Blackford Hill: You get really nice views of the city from here, but it’s a bit far from the city centre. From here, you can see the Castle and Arthur’s Seat. I like the view from here more than Arthur’s Seat because of the views of the houses. It’s really nice in the autumn when the leaves change colors.
The main shopping area is on Princes Street and George Street. Princes Street will have all your normal brands. George Street will be a bit more “boutique”-ish, but I thought I’d share a few spots I personally like.
- Ness: Ness is a women’s Scottish clothing brand. The company takes inspiration from Scotland and puts a modern twists to typical Scottish items. Their sale items are actually pretty affordable too. I’ve gotten a couple cute dresses from Ness.
- Walker Slater: Walker Slater is a clothing store specializing in tweed items and knitwear. They use this cloth called Harris Tweed which is made from wool that is dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. It’s not cheap, but they do make nice jackets, especially for a “smart casual” or “teacher” look.
- Red Door Gallery:The Red Door Gallery, located on Victoria Street is a one-stop shop for local artists to sell their original work, prints, jewelry, and crafts. If you’re looking for something unique, this is where you should go.
- Royal Mile Market: The Royal Mile Market is a traditional Scottish market located inside Tron Kirk (Church) that was built in the 1600’s. The vendors sell unique gifts, arts, crafts, jewelry, and clothing.
- Mountain Warehouse – Okay, so Mountain Warehouse isn’t exactly a Scottish brand, but it is British. If you forgot your jacket or need something warmer, you should go here. Mountain Warehouse is a cheaper version of NorthFace. My dad really liked this store.
Where to Stay
- The Hub by Premier Inn: Rates start from £49/night which is very affordable. The Hub is technically a budget hotel because it’s tiny room with a bed, toilet, and shower, but it’s very new (opened in 2016 I think) and very technologically advanced. It’s one of the “space-saver” hotels so you won’t get any couch to lay on, but you do get a number of free movies and unlimited coffee and tea from the cafe downstairs.
- The Balmoral – If you have money and want to be pampered, I’m biased and will recommend the Balmoral. To be honest, you can get rates around £195/night during the low-season which is not so terrible. It’s right next to the train station so it’s super convenient. They also have a nice gym, spa, and pool. My old San Francisco hotel would charge minimum $395. If you do book, make sure you ask for a city or castle view.
Places to Eat
Cafe Royal: This is a highly recommended spot from my hotel concierge. Half of it is a pub and the other half is a sit-down restaurant. It has really nice decor and some good seafood options. I think it was also a film location for a scene in Chariots of Fire.
Stac Polly: Stac Polly is located in the “cellar” that serves fine-dining, Modern Scottish cuisine. I write more about Stac Polly here.
Fishers: There are two, one in Leith and one in the city centre. I like getting the seafood platter. You can read and look at more pictures in my blog post here.
- Fast Food/Street Food
Tupiniquium – This may be my favorite “restaurant” in Edinburgh. They serve gluten-free Brazilian crepes out of a former police box and they’re DELICIOUS. Anything you get is really good, but I like their pumpkin crepe. The owners are so nice too, but don’t always count on them being open (especially during the slow season). The queue maybe long and you may have to wait 30 minutes for your crepe, but it is so worth it. Crepes are about £5 each.
Che Takeaway: Andrew loves this place. It’s your typical schwarma and falafel spot, but the chips & doner (fries with doner meat and sauce) is really good. It’s also very cheap.
La Favorita: I guess it’s nothing that special, but they serve some solid pizzas.
Origano: This is another pizza spot Andrew and I like.
Lian Pu Express/Lian Pu Hot Pot: There two parts to Lian Pu. Lian Pu Express is a typical, quick, and “cheap” Chinese restaurant. Whenever I crave Chinese food, we usually end up here. Lian Pu Hot Pot though is another awesome spot. AYCE for £16 and it’s really good.
Kampung Ali – Okay, so this is technically Malaysian, but this spot is pretty good. This is another place we frequent when we crave Asian food.
Noodle & Dumpling: This is my comfort food spot in Edinburgh. Noodles are freshly made and the soups are so nice when it’s so cold and gloomy outside. They also have some really good lamb skewers for £1 each.
Dishoom: One of the most popular restaurants in London Dishoom so we were very excited to see that it was going to open in Edinburgh. They serve some solid Indian food. It’s more fancy than your typical Indian restaurant. When I went there, I felt as though I was walking into a speakeasy. Get the fried okra. It’s amazing.
Mosque Kitchen – This is where Andrew and I get our cheap, quick Indian food. The food is already made so you just point to what you want. You can get a meal for £5 or even less.
Bread Meats Bread – Nothing will ever beat the price and taste of In N Out, but Bread Meats Bread is pretty good. They have some unique burgers.
- Dessert/Sweet Stuff
Mary’s Milk Bar: Mary’s Milk Bar serves freshly-made gelato with a menu that changes daily. I really like this spot. Read more here.
Twelve Triangles: This is not cheap, but they have some awesome breads and pastries. More importantly, they sell some of the best donuts I’ve ever had. They have some really unique flavors and they’re not overly sweet like American donuts. I write more about Twelve Triangles here.
Things to Eat
Again, I’m sure I’m missing some things, but these are some things you should probably try while you’re in Scotland. I don’t have a recommended place to get these items, but I’m sure you’ll find it on the menus of the local restaurants, pubs, and shops.
- Fish & Chips – Obviously, it’s fried fish and fries (the fat kind). It’s a British dish that you should probably have once during a trip to the UK.
- Haggis (Neeps & Tatties) – Haggis is heart, liver, and lungs cooked inside a sheep’s stomach with oatmeal, onions, salt, and spices. It sounds gross, but it’s not that bad (although I won’t go out of my way for it). It’s a mix between stuffing and ground meat. Usually, you eat it with Neeps (parsnips) and Tatties (potato).
- Full Scottish Breakfast – A full breakfast in Scotland generally includes a fried egg, back bacon (our normal American bacon is called streaky bacon), sausage, buttered toast, baked beans, black pudding (pork blood with oats), mushrooms, grilled tomato, and haggis. Porridge is also part of a typical Scottish breakfast.
- Bacon Roll with Brown Sauce – This is the cheap/fast breakfast thing to eat. Basically it’s just back bacon (our normal American bacon is called streaky bacon) in between 2 slices of bread. I like it with brown sauce (similar to steak sauce).
- Salmon – Scottish salmon is supposed to be one of the best salmon in the world. Definitely order it for at least one of your meals.
- Irn Bru – Irn Bru is Scotland’s national soda. It’s bright orange and tastes like cream soda. I don’t like it cause it’s too sweet, but it’s definitely something to try.
- Shortbread – Long time ago, shortbread was made from leftover bread dough. Apparently, Mary, Queen of Scots liked shortbread and it became a special treat for special occasions. I don’t eat it because I don’t find it that satisfying for the number of calories, but it’s pretty easy to make. It’s only flour, sugar, and butter. You can get fresh, hand-made artisan shortbread from Pinnie’s and Poppyseeds (but it’s not cheap).
- Sticky Toffee Pudding – Sticky toffee pudding is a British dessert. It’s cake, served with a sweet toffee sauce, and usually vanilla ice-cream or custard. You can get this at most pubs. It’s a nice dessert, but make sure you get this to share because it’s really sweet.
- Whisky – Obviously. You should try some Scotch, whisky made in Scotland.
Day Trips by Train
The train is super convenient for travelers who don’t want to drive on the other side of the road.
- North Berwick: Personally, this is my favorite day trip from Edinburgh. It’s only about 30 minutes away by train from Edinburgh so a trip to North Berwick doesn’t need to take the whole day. You can visit Tantallon Castle, the beach, and the best little seafood shack in Scotland (The Lobster Shack). You can read about our trip here.
- St. Andrews: By train, it’s about 1-1.5 hours away from Edinburgh. By bus, it’ll take about 2 hours. There’s a lot to see in St. Andrews. After all, it’s the birthplace of golf and where Prince William and Kate met (University of St. Andrews). There’s also a beach, a castle, and ruins of a beautiful cathedral. You can read about our trip here. It’s a city you should go to if you’re in Scotland and have the time for it.
- Linlithgow: Linlithgow is a little town about 20 minutes away by train from Edinburgh. The main attraction is Linlithgow Palace which is a great castle to visit. You can read about our trip here. Other than the palace, you can walk around the loch (lake) next to the palace, but there isn’t much else.
- Stirling: By train, it takes about an hour to get to Stirling from Edinburgh. The main attractions are the Castle, Holy Rude Church, and the National Wallace Monument. There’s also a university there too. Stirling Castle is one of the more popular attractions in Scotland, but I have no feelings about it. It’s too museum-like for me. We went to Stirling in the winter so the city was pretty empty so I didn’t really like it, but I’m sure it’s very nice and lively in the summer. You can read more here.
Hope this guide can be a little bit helpful while planning a trip to Edinburgh and we’ll be waiting for your visit!