Between roaming the Irish countryside and touring through the Scottish Highlands on to Islay, we spent a wee bit of time in Scotland’s capital of Edinburgh. Although our stay was brief (and fell just a few weeks before Brexit), we packed in a full day of culture and history as we stumbled across so many unexpected gems in this quietly beautiful, cosmopolitan city.
One could spend an entire vacation wandering Edinburgh’s storied streets, taking in its spectacular architecture, enjoying incredible dinners, and learning about the city’s intriguing history and residents – J.K. Rowling, Sir Sean Connery (James Bond slash collegiate nude model, as we would discover), Robert Louis Stevenson, and medieval witch hunters (who drowned their victims in a loch that once filled Princes Street Gardens) alike have hung their hats in the affectionately nicknamed “Athens of the North”.
Even with only a day to spare, there’s a lot you can see and do – a stopover in Edinburgh is definitely worth your while if you can fit it into your travels!
Stay on The Royal Mile
If you’re overnighting, book a room in the heart of the city near the start of The Royal Mile. For less than a hotel, we booked an incredible 1700s-built Airbnb flat that overlooks St. Giles Cathedral. Our host Patrick had loads of sightseeing recommendations and hot tea waiting upon our arrival.
Start with The Elephant House
Once you’ve dropped your bags, hit the cobblestones down to The Elephant House, a little coffee shop where J.K. Rowling wrote the first and second Harry Potter books. Get there early morning or just before lunchtime to avoid long lines, and be sure to try the cafe’s delicious shortbread elephant cookies.
Stop by National Museum of Scotland and Scottish National Gallery
Stop by these national treasures for a primer on Scotland’s history and culture and take a quick walk through one of Europe’s finest art galleries. Admission to both museums is free, and special exhibits require a paid ticket. We decided to check out the Celts exhibit at the National Museum, a fascinating dive into 2,500 years of Celtic jewelry and art.
Don’t forget about The Writers’ Museum
Another great museum with complimentary admission can be found tucked away in Lady Stair’s Close off Lawnmarket. The tiny Edinburgh Writers’ Museum is filled to the brim with relics of three founding fathers of Scottish literature: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. Expect manuscripts and first editions, along with quirky artifacts like tribal souvenirs from Stevenson’s travels that inspired Treasure Island.
Find your inner child at Camera Obscura
I’m not one for most major tourist attractions, but have to admit we really enjoyed a childish break from reality when we dropped by this observatory-turned-illusions-house located beside Edinburgh Castle (which we did skip at the advice of our Airbnb host, who recommended the Queen’s Palace as a less frequented and more interesting venue).
Be sure to catch the rooftop presentation of the actual Camera Obscura for a hilarious virtual tour of the city, as well as the stunning views over the tower’s six-story skyline. Then work your way down six flights of optical illusions and tricky interactions before escaping through the enormous kidult playground of a gift shop.
Walk down Royal Mile to hike up Arthur’s Seat
Legend has it that this ancient volcano was the site of Camelot, the home of King Arthur and his noble knights. Overlooking all of Edinburgh, Arthur’s Seat lies at the end of the Royal Mile beside the Queen’s Palace of Holyroodhouse.
Put on some sneakers and trek past the city’s boutiques along High Street, then scramble up Arthur’s Seat for stunning views of the city and a petite experience of the Scottish Highland landscape.
A couple of spots for drinks and dinner
After descending Arthur’s Seat, we made our way back to Royal Mile and stopped off at Dunbar’s Close, a lovely pocket garden hidden away just off the Mile, as well as Kilderkin, a lively locals’ pub. At the advice of Kilderkin’s bartender, we wandered up past Greyfriars Bobby for dinner (give the terrier statue a pet for good luck, and ask an Edinburgher for the story!).
Although it may be easy to miss the nearby restaurant Under The Stairs, it’s worth the hunt to find it – the menu is filled with unexpected turns and plenty of vegetarian options. We were also big fans of the libations, which included the “side boob,” “one is not an ouef,” “beetroot wasabi margarita,” and “the incredible gulp,” a co-mingling of aged rum, ginger liqueur, basil, tomato bitters, lime, and sugar.
Have you ever traveled to Edinburgh?
I’d love to hop back across the pond for one of the city’s epic festivals!
Also on this trip
Galway, Ireland | Killarney National Park | Islay, Scotland
Trip Packing List | My Camera Kit