Between the medieval castle perched atop a volcanic rock, the winding alleys of Old Town, the grid street plan in New Town, the wild nature around the peak of Arthur’s Seat, and the cool seaside borough of Leith, Edinburgh is where the centuries converge.
Ever since she discovered Edinburgh as a student, Stéphanie had dreamed of going back there. This time, she found the atmosphere and magic she had come looking for in several places, such as Dean Village, Circus Lane, or on Calton Hill.
Edinburgh isn’t at all like the stereotypes people sometimes attribute to it – an austere city with gruff people, where you only eat fish and chips or haggis (sheep’s stomach stuffed with offal).
That being said, we did hear bagpipe music coming from a souvenir shop as we set off into the Scottish capital to explore, and one of the first people we came across was a very elegant man dressed in a kilt.
Even if it doesn’t rain every day in Edinburgh, cloudy weather and rain are integral parts of the city’s atmosphere and charm. The (grey) color of the sky goes very well with that of most of the stone buildings.
Towards the end of the day, the sun manages to pierce through the cloud cover, casting its silvery rays over the rows of townhouses. A few moments later, the first raindrops send shimmers across the puddles on the pavement. While dozens of umbrellas seem to open at once, as if in a choreographed dance, we hurriedly stuff our guidebooks back into our bags and pull up the hoods on our raincoats. The rain bounces off the now glistening cobblestones in Old Town, but the Scots continue on their way, unbothered by the sudden downpour. They must be used to it by now… Lovely, sunny days are more of an exception, and a great excuse to go lounge in a park somewhere.
Everyone we encountered in Edinburgh was friendly and smiling. We’d particularly like to mention Mutlu and Zoë from café Fauna (see below), and Colin, and old Scotsman we chatted with on a windy evening at the White Hart Inn on Grassmarket, which is said to be the oldest pub in town. He told us that the wind blowing through the city is “the angels’ share” moving from one whisky distillery to the next, all over the country. No matter if there’s any truth to his tale, his cheerful demeanor and rolling Rs really immersed us in the poetic aspect of local folklore and tradition.
A selection of our favorite discoveries and must-see spots in Edinburgh
The short distances between Edinburgh’s main sights make it the perfect city to explore on foot, to really get the lay of the land and fully enjoy your discoveries.
Edinburgh is divided into two very different parts, that still make up a homogenous whole. Old Town, the historical city center, dates back to the Middle Ages, while New Town was built between 1760 and 1830. The contrast between the tangle of steep winding medieval alleys of the old town, and the grid street plan of Georgian houses in New Town persuaded UNESCO to make Edinburgh a World Heritage site in 1995.
• The views of Edinburgh Castle
The castle overlooks Edinburgh like a ship tethered to a cliff. It can be seen from all over town and is part of what gives the city its identity and unique character. The most ancient remaining part of the castle is from the 12th century, and a number of extensions were subsequently added by several monarchs throughout the 16th century. It’s hard to determine whether the castle watches over the city today, or towers over it.
• Dean Village
Dean Village is an area full of quaint, picturesque houses nestled on the banks of a peaceful river – the Water of Leith. The brick and stone buildings, half-timbered details and flowers that dot this charming neighborhood with touches of color, make visitors feel as though they’ve walked right into Victorian times.
For more than eight centuries, Dean Village was a prosperous hamlet, which certainly contributed to its current charm. In the 19th century, the central building, bedecked with towers, was a tenement for workers at the many mills along the river.
We recommend exploring Dean Village in the morning, in order to make the most of the light.
You can also extend your riverside walk along the Water of Leith, to St Bernard’s Well.
• Calton Hill
The spectacular panorama over the entire city from Calton Hill is well worth the small effort is takes to climb to the top. A firm favorite for Jérôme.
This hill is often described as Edinburgh’s Acropolis, as it is home to the National Monument (which is clearly inspired by the Parthenon), the city observatory (bearing a resemblance to Greek temples), the Dugald Stewart monument (influenced by the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens), and the Nelson monument (built in honor of Admiral Lord Nelson and designed to look like Nelson’s telescope turned on its head).
A walk around the top of the hill will give you a 360-degree view of the city below: the city center with Old Town and New Town in the foreground, and the seaside boroughs of Leith and Queensferry in the distance.
Calton Hill also offers an incredible view of Arthur’s Seat, the famous extinct volcano on the outskirts of Edinburgh.
The end of the day is the perfect time for a walk up the hill to enjoy the sunset over the city (but bring a sweater, as the temperature tends to drop quickly).
• Princes Street Gardens
Princes Street Gardens is a lush green lung between Castle Rock and the traffic on busy Princes Street.
This wooded, 15-hectare park lined with flowerbeds marks the transition between Old Town and New Town and has unbeatable vistas of the castle. The gardens were created on top of an old marsh turned loch, which was drained at the end of the 18th century. Sit down and relax on one of its many benches to admire the castle, and on the other side of the Mound (an artificial slope next to the Scottish National Gallery), enjoy the view of the majestic buildings in Old Town.
Don’t miss Ross Fountain, the charming Great Aunt Lizzie’s house, and a walk through St. Cuthbert’s Kirkyard.
• Circus Lane
Circus Lane is about a twenty-minute walk from the center of New Town, passing by beautiful art galleries and antiques dealers on Dundas Street on the way.
Circus Lane is a crescent-shaped pedestrian street lined with flowers. The view of the little townhouses with the bell tower of St. Stephen’s Theatre in the background makes for wonderful photos.
• The Vennel
The Vennel is a set of steps leading up from Grassmarket to Heriot Place. It offers an iconic view of Edinburgh Castle.
Our food recommandations
The different cuisines of the world seem to come together in Edinburgh: Italian, Mexican, Indian, Japanese, British… All you need to satisfy any preference.
• Café Fauna (19a Queensferry Street): a small neighborhood café. Mutlu and Zoë are lovely, friendly, and attentive. They welcome both new and loyal customers as friends, and their excellent coffee, pastries and open-faced sandwiches are perfect to start your day with.
• The Ivy on the Square (6 St. Andrew Square): for an indulgent afternoon tea. We recommend making a reservation in advance.
• British concepts: Dishoom (Indian, 3a St. Andrew Square), Wahaca (Mexican, 16 South St. Andrew Street), Franco Manca (sourdough pizza, 19-23 South St. Andrew Street).
Topping & Company booksellers (2 Blenheim Place): a labyrinth of literature organized by theme, spread over two floors of floor-to-ceiling books
• Visit the inside of Edinburgh Castle
• Holyrood Palace: one of the Queen’s two official residences in Scotland
• The Royal Mile: a long pedestrian street in the old town, leading all the way up to the castle
• Cockburn Street: constructed to connect the Royal Mile, on top of Castle Rock, with Edinburgh Waverley train station
• Victoria Street: a steep pedestrian street lined with colorful houses
• Grassmarket: a historical square at the foot of Castle Rock and Old Town, where you’ll find lots of pubs, restaurants, and cafés
• Princes Street: one of New Town’s main shopping streets
• The National Museum of Scotland: a journey through the different eras of Scotland’s history, nature, world cultures, technology… Free admission for the permanent exhibit
• Greyfriar’s Kirkyard: a large cemetery famous for Greyfriar’s Bobby, the little dog who guarded his owner’s grave for 14 years, and for having inspired the names of several Harry Potter characters
• The Scottish National Gallery: painting and sculpture, free admission for the permanent exhibit
• The Scottish National Portrait Gallery: a collection of portraits (paintings, sculptures, photos, cinema), free admission
• The Royal Botanic Garden, particularly the Chinese garden
• Inverleith Park: a large park dedicated to outdoor sports, offering a great view of the castle in the distance
• Leith: the seaside borough 3 km from the center of town