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The Go Ahead Travel Guide to Edinburgh

Jun 06, 2020 by Jamie Gallerani

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Bagpipes, castles, Scotch whisky in every pub—Scotland has it all, including an unforgettable capital city. To help you make the most of your trip, we’ve tapped in to our expert staff and travelers to bring you this Go Ahead Travel Guide to Edinburgh! Read on to discover the top things to eat, most authentic souvenirs to seek out, and the best things to do on tour in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Currency: Pound sterling

Languages: English, Gaelic & Scots

Best way to get around: On foot! The city is small and walkable.

UNESCO-listed sites: Old & New Towns

Word to know: “Chum,” which means to accompany someone somewhere

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WHEN TO GO

Alright, we’ll just cut to the chase: There’s really no bad time to travel to Edinburgh. There are countless seasonal events dedicated to music, theater, and ghosts—and the indoor and outdoor attractions in Edinburgh don’t stop there! Here are some of our favorite times to visit Scotland’s capital.

  • May for the spring weather. “The sun doesn’t set until almost 10pm, which gives you plenty of time to explore,” says Go Ahead staffer Amanda. “You also beat the summer crowds.”

  • August for the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Want to see performances by the British Armed Forces, Commonwealth, and international military bands at the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo? Then this is “hands down the greatest show on earth!” says traveler Jenny. “I can close my eyes and still hear the pipes and fiddles. The dedication of the performers to their art and the amazing synchronicity of all of the bands from all countries performing together brought me to tears.”

  • August for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival—we’re talking to you, theater lovers! “This is the largest theatre festival in the world,” says Go Ahead staffer Merisa. “You’ll be able to see theatre from all around the world in tons of venues across the city.”

  • October for the Samhuinn Fire Festival, where you’ll join revelers for Halloween night on tour in Edinburgh. “One of the highlights was the Hellfire Club excursion,” says traveler Jason. “Hiking up a small mountain at night to visit an abandoned hunting lodge? Spooky!” Another perk of fall travel to Edinburgh is seeing all the foliage, says Go Ahead staffer Lael.

  • December for the Christmas markets. “The Christmas markets were incredible—some of my favorites I’ve ever been to,” says Go Ahead staffer Anna. “It felt like I was on a movie set of Harry Potter.” There are a few markets throughout the city, but East Princes Street Gardens are said to have the best.

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WHAT TO SEE

Even for our experts, it’s tough to pick just a few attractions in Edinburgh because there are so many! The architecture is unreal, there’s royal history around every corner—and don’t even get us started on all the pubs.

  • The Scottish Crown Jewels in Edinburgh Castle. No Edinburgh travel guide is complete without this stop. “I went to Scotland when I was 13, but what I remember most vividly is touring the castle and learning about the incredible amount of history that took place there,” says Go Ahead staffer Lora. And she’s not off the mark—of all the places to visit in Edinburgh, none combine history and really, really good views quite as well as this centuries-old stone fortress.

  • The Royal Mile in the Old Town. With all the historic architecture and authentic pubs and shops, this place is a UNESCO World Heritage site—and one of the most popular places in Edinburgh—for good reason. It starts on the slope of an extinct volcano and is loaded with must-see spots (think: Parliament, churches, museums). “Plus, you can enjoy street performers here,” says Go Ahead staffer Allison. “It’s not unusual to come across a bagpiper in full kilt regalia!”

  • The Georgian-style New Town. Yep, this is also a UNESCO-listed site, and has a completely different vibe than its older counterpart. “Edinburgh has a cozy, small town feel but there’s plenty to do and see,” says Go Ahead staffer Paula. “It’s very walkable and you can easily go from a very historic area to the more modern New Town, so it’s the best of both worlds.”

  • The Sir Walter Scott monument. When it comes to literary monuments, this one comes out on top—literally. It’s over 200 feet tall and sits distinguished as the largest monument to a writer in the world.

  • The Royal Yacht Britannia. This ship was once Queen Elizabeth II’s floating palace, and you can step aboard to see how the Royal family and the ship’s crew lived and worked.

  • The Palace of Holyroodhouse. “After visiting Edinburgh Castle, we spent some time walking the Royal Mile toward Holyroodhouse,” says traveler John. “Members of the current Royal Family still occupy it; the self-guided visit was great.”

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WHAT TO DRINK

Every Edinburgh travel guide worth its salt has an ode to old pubs and whisky—without the e! Of course, Scotch isn’t the only thing to drink, so we’ve got you covered with some other local libations to seek out on tour in Edinburgh.

  • A “wee dram” of Scotch whisky—it’s the national drink, after all. “On my last trip to Edinburgh, I purchased a box with different types of whiskys from around Scotland,” says Go Ahead staffer Amanda. “When I got home, I was able to try them out and learn more about which kind I preferred.”

  • Irn-Bru. This fizzy, sugary soft drink is pronounced “iron brew,” and is made from a secret recipe of 32 ingredients. It’s so popular, it’s often called “Scotland’s other national drink.”

  • Edinburgh gin. The city’s distilling history dates back to the 18th century, and this flavorful tipple is still made with locally sourced ingredients.

  • Hot chocolate floats—and not just any floats, but the ones visitors and locals alike have fallen in love with at Mary’s Milk Bar. What’s not to like about homemade gelato plopped atop warm hot chocolate? Visiting this place is considered one of the best things to do in Edinburgh for good reason.

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WHAT (& WHERE) TO EAT

Eating local specialties isn’t only one of the top things to do in Edinburgh—it’s a must no matter where you travel in Scotland! Whether it’s deep-fried, fresh-caught, or served with neeps and tatties, there are countless dishes to seek out in the city, and we’re sharing a few of our favorites.

  • Haggis. It may not seem appetizing at first, but no Edinburgh travel guide is complete without a mention of this traditional dish made from sheep offal. It has a peppery flavor and a texture similar to crumbled sausage, and is most often served with neeps and tatties (mashed turnip and mashed potato). “The savory, herby flavor is truly unique,” says Go Ahead staffer Allison. You’ll find the dish almost everywhere, but Arcade Bar is one off-the-beaten-path spot to get a great plate.

  • Cullen sink. Ask almost any Scottish person, and they’ll say they love this creamy soup made from smoked fish and potatoes. (And anything the locals like is right up our alley!) One good place to try some? The Devil’s Advocate. With hundreds of whiskys to try and seasonal Scottish ingredients, this bar and restaurant set in an old Victorian pump house is the place to go for a taste of the real thing.

  • Some of the world’s best salmon. You heard right—Scotland lays claim to fresh salmon that’s worth writing home about thanks to its proximity to the Atlantic and surrounding lochs. Try it smoked at Something Fishy, a no-frills fishmonger’s shop on Broughton Street.

  • Pizza crunch, a food you’re not likely to have tried anywhere else. “Pizza Crunch, which is a battered and deep-fried pizza, is a really amazing Scottish specialty,” says Go Ahead staffer Jamie. “It’s among some of the delicious fried things you can eat in Edinburgh (like fried Mars Bars, too!).” It’s an indulgence, sure, but Edinburgh is a walkable city, which means you can get your steps in after digging in to this delicious treat.

  • Scottish shortbread. The first printed recipe for this sweet biscuit dates all the way back to 1736 in Scotland, and it’s since become synonymous with the country. Even Mary Queen of Scots was said to love it with caraway, so it’s worthy of a spot on any city guide of Edinburgh. (Pop in to the Shortbread House of Edinburgh for some of the city’s best.)

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HOW TO SPEND FREE TIME

We know one thing for sure: You’ll never run out of things to do in Edinburgh. It’s the world’s first UNESCO City of Literature (bookstores, anyone?), has sprawling greenspaces, and there are hidden gems aplenty no matter where you turn.

  • Literature lovers, visit the Elephant House. “This is the café where J.K. Rowling wrote the majority of the first two Harry Potter books,” says Go Ahead staffer Amanda. “If you’re a fan, I recommend breakfast here to soak up the ambiance and then a walk through Greyfriars Kirkyard, the graveyard behind the café. Rowling got a lot of inspiration for characters’ names from the tombstones here.”

  • Pop in to Armchair Books, a quirky place Go Ahead staffer Jamie loved during her visit to Edinburgh. As you can tell from their self-description of “very nearly alphabetised chaos,” Armchair Books has character—which means it fits in nicely with the rest of the city.

  • Sip tea at the Colonnades in the Signet Library. “The elegant Georgian architecture makes this the perfect setting for proper afternoon tea,” says Go Ahead staffer Sarah. “Tea includes an amuse-bouche, a Savory Tower of sandwiches, quiches, and pies, and a Sweet Tower of pastries and scones served with clotted cream and jam. It’s a memorable experience.”

  • Take a hike—we mean that in a good way! There are unreal views to be found almost anywhere in Edinburgh. “Climbing to the top of Calton Hill, Arthur’s Seat, or the Sir Walter Scott Monument is great if you’re looking for a way to fit in some exercise,” says Go Ahead staffer Sarah. “Be sure to check out the ruins of St Anthony’s Chapel on your way up Arthur’s Seat.”

  • Get outside in the Prince Street Gardens. “This spot showcases beautiful flora in the middle of the city, and you get to see the Sir Walter Scott Monument,” says Go Ahead staffer Merisa.

  • Step inside a free museum. If you’re an art and history lover, this will surely be one of our favorite Edinburgh activities. Rainy afternoons are no match for the (free) Botanical Gardens, Scottish National Gallery, National Museum of Scotland, Museum on the Mound, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Museum of Edinburgh...you get the idea.

  • Go on an evening ghost tour. “This was my absolute favorite activity the whole time I was in Edinburgh,” says Go Ahead staffer Allison. “You get to immerse yourself in the local mysteries that have captivated historians for centuries and satisfy your spooky craving.”

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SOUVENIRS TO BUY

Still looking for things to do in Edinburgh, Scotland? Well, we’ve never passed a local shop we didn’t like! Step inside to pick up regional items like well-made textiles—and tartan, if you’re into historic Highlander fashion.

  • Cashmere. “Scotland is known for its soft cashmere textiles,” says Go Ahead staffer Allison. “Get a scarf to keep you warm on the chillier days.”

  • Harris Tweed. To keep following the textile thread (get it?), we’ve gotta mention Harris Tweed. It’s only crafted using fine Scottish Cheviot wool from one place in the world—an island on the top of Scotland—and is even protected by The Harris Tweed Act 1993. Of course, this makes it pricey, but if you want a handbag or jacket that’s truly well made, this is the perfect Edinburgh souvenir. Grab the authentic stuff at Romanes & Paterson, where you can even sit down in the tea room on the top floor.

  • A tartan kilt—there’s nothing more quintessentially Scottish. Tartan, or “plaid,” has been worn for hundreds of years by clanspeople of the Highlands, making it an authentic souvenir indeed (It may not exactly be practical for everyday wear once you leave Scotland, but you’ll be glad to have the memory!)

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WHAT TO PACK

Every city guide of Edinburgh will say the same thing: The year-round coastal weather means you’ve gotta layer, layer, layer. Sure, Scotland has some wind and rain, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its fair share of sunny days, too!

  • Layers. “Edinburgh gets very windy,” says Go Ahead staffer Shannon. “Even if you’re going in the middle of summer, it can get chilly.”

  • A rain coat & brolly (or umbrella). The weather can change at the drop of a dime—but that just makes Edinburgh travel that much more interesting!

  • Comfortable walking shoes. “Edinburgh is such a walkable city,” says Go Ahead staffer Allison. “Especially in the Old Town with the cobblestone streets, you’ll want to keep your feet happy.”

Have you ever visited Edinburgh on tour? Share your best travel tips on our Facebook page!


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About the author | Jamie Gallerani
It was Jamie’s homestay in Germany that made her fall in love with travel (and her studies in Florence that really sealed the deal). When she’s not writing and sharing the magic of seeing the world with others, she’s usually on the lookout for her new favorite memoir, testing out recipes at home, or visiting her family on Cape Cod.

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