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Mistakes People Make When Visiting Edinburgh (and What to Do Instead)

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by Katie Scott Aiton Feb 14, 2024

The central train station in Edinburgh is Waverley. It’s in the city’s center, under the shadow of the Old Town’s narrow closes, wynds, courts, the Mound, and Edinburgh Castle. Arriving by train in my teenage years, this grand welcome would leave me speechless. And after living in Edinburgh for over six years, it still does today.

The capital city of Scotland attracts over four million visitors per year. Many come for the famed Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, Hogmanay celebrations, and to explore the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites of the Old and New Towns. Excellent flight connections and its positioning in the Central Belt of Scotland mean the city is also a jumping-off point for exploring all regions of the country.

Edinburgh is one of the most tourist-friendly places in the UK. Over the last couple of decades, city developments have been directly geared towards this market. Locals have lived through transport improvements and noted a huge influx of new restaurants and bars, the construction of a monstrous whiskey experience, and the increased presence of Harry Potter cutouts in store windows. As a local, you know which cobblestone streets will be congested, which restaurants and bars are worth your patronage, and which neighborhoods are still authentically Edinburgh.

If you’re planning a visit, let me assure you that Scots want you to have a brilliant vacation and to leave with an understanding of Scottish history and culture that isn’t played up. We’d also rather you don’t get ripped off at tourist traps and enjoy the slower pace of life Scotland does so well. All of this is possible with some simple planning ahead. Here I list some of the best things to do in Edinburgh and where you’ll get value for money for accommodation and eating out.

When to visit Edinburgh

You get a very different experience of the city depending on the time of year.
Unless you want to partake in the whirlwind of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, avoid the end of July and August. Accommodation books up at the beginning of the year, and due to demand (and because they can), nightly rates of hotel rooms and Airbnbs increase to eye-watering amounts. Outside of this window, other than major holidays (especially Hogmanay), you should find that prices balance out.

Each season in Scotland is special. Mid-spring brings warmth to the soil and transforms The Meadows into a field of daffodils carpeted by cherry blossom petals. Summer can be wet, or it can be gloriously sunny — this can change at the drop of a hat, but if you’d like to up your chances for sitting outside for a picnic, consider June or early July. Fall is magical, as is winter. Don’t shy away from the colder months. Just pack lots of cozy layers and dress appropriately.

How to get around Edinburgh

People walking at Edinburgh greenhouse Palm Houses are dramatic landmarks in Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

Photo: MAD.vertise/Shutterstock

Be prepared to walk. It’s the best way to explore the city. In comfortable shoes, you can easily get from Stockbridge to the center in 20 to 30 minutes or from Marchmont to New Town in around 40 on foot. This does not include time for stops, and you will have many. That’s what makes the relatively compact city a joy to walk around.

Between your accommodation and destination will be great coffee shops, boutiques, stunning architecture, museums, and other cultural places of interest. By walking — and taking side streets — you’ll come across places that are not listed in guidebooks. I promise this will give you a more rewarding experience.

The public transport in and around Edinburgh is also excellent. Waverley Station links all major towns and cities in the UK by rail, and affordable buses run regularly between city neighborhoods, out to suburbs, and beyond. It’s worth noting that the bus link between the Airport and the city center is excellent. You can always Uber or take an airport cab, but the bus is fast, it’s cheap, the drivers are very helpful, and there’s even WiFi on board.

Things to do in Edinburgh (and what to avoid)

View of Edinburgh castle from the medieval streets of the old town one of the best things to do in Edinburgh

Photo: JeniFoto/Shutterstock

There are curated experiences and attractions in the city that feel like Disney World to a local. That’s perhaps the case with all major capital cities. But the notion that you “must” visit Edinburgh Castle, go on a ghost tour to The Vaults, eat or drink on the Royal Mile (or only in the city center for that matter), do a gin or whisky tasting and buy into a Harry Potter-themed anything in order to truely experience Edinburgh is a fabrication. Add in expenses and the hordes of visitors (especially in summer) ticking off all of the above, and a trip to Scotland can end up being not nearly as enjoyable as it can be.

Of course, if you have your heart set on seeing the castle or St Giles Cathedral, you should. They are both spectacular and instrumental when learning the history of the city. But for heaven’s sake, if you do, go first thing in the morning and avoid the busy months around Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

When exploring, there are a bunch of simple deviations you can take, such as going for drink down one of the closes (narrow side streets) off the Royal Mile at somewhere like Devils Advocate, where you’ll find the company of locals and be guaranteed a decent tipple for your money. Below are a few of my favourite things to do in Edinburgh, followed by suggestions on where to stay, eat and drink.

Hike Arthurs Seat

Hiker standing atop a hill at Arthur's Seat one of the best things to do in Edinburgh

Photo: Connorwrich/Shutterstock

The extinct volcano of Arthurs Seat towers over the city. Hiking here is a pilgrimage. Many residents see it as a must-do monthly activity or build it into their fitness routine. You’ll see runners here. Many groups loop the base while others, myself included, tackle the incline to the summit for panoramic city views.

There are a range of routes you can take. The Red Route (Tourist Path) starts near Holyrood Palace and gradually ascends via switchbacks. It’s the shortest and easiest option (around 1.5 miles), offering steady inclines and stunning views throughout. The Yellow (Sally’s Gap Route) is a moderate trail. It begins near Duddingston village and follows a more scenic route alongside Duddingston Loch. Expect steeper sections and diverse terrain, rewarding you with breathtaking panoramas. For the more adventurous, there’s the Green Route (Whins Hike). This challenging path starts near Hunter’s Tryst and involves steeper inclines and rougher terrain. While demanding, it offers thrilling ascents and secluded viewpoints.

Regardless of what route you intend to take avoid mid-day on weekends as it gets very busy. The views are so outstanding you won’t want to share them. I also find a very early summer hike (4 AM) particularly spectacular. There have been mornings where I’ve summited alone. Standing in silence, looking down at the sleeping city, is something you’ll never forget.

The National Museum of Scotland

People enjoying themselves on the roof of the Scottish National Museum. Edinburgh, Scotland

Photo: Ulmus Media/Shutterstock

Visiting the National Museum of Scotland is a delightful way to spend a morning. It’s one of the top museums in the UK and showcases a vast collection of over 8,000 objects that tell the story of Scotland from its earliest beginnings to the present day. End your visit with a takeaway coffee or tea on the roof terrace.

Accessible by elevator or stairs, this tranquil space, designed by renowned sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, provides a panoramic view of Edinburgh’s cityscape, with iconic landmarks like Edinburgh Castle and Arthur’s Seat standing proudly in the distance. The terrace itself is a work of art, featuring locally sourced sandstone blocks and a variety of plants representing different facets of Scotland’s landscapes. The elevator can be a wait. If able, take the stairs from the 5th floor. The terrace is open during regular museum hours, and admission is free with your museum ticket. If morning does not work with your schedule, consider visiting the terrace during sunset or on a clear night. The city lights twinkling below make it a truly unforgettable experience.

National Museum of Scotland: Chambers St, Edinburgh EH1 1JF

Jupiter Artland

Jupiter Artland is a large unusual park with garden, rivers and sculptures

Photo: Lina Lobanova/Shutterstock

Jupiter Artland is located just outside Edinburgh near the village of Wilkieston. It’s about a 20-minute drive or a 35 — 45-minute bus from the city center. Founded in 2009, this award-winning contemporary sculpture park and art gallery isn’t your typical museum experience. It makes for an interactive and fun day out, especially for those traveling with young children. There are over 100 acres of meadows, woodlands, and indoor gallery spaces to explore. Climbable sculptures, a mirrored chamber, temporary exhibitions, events, and creative workshops are entertaining for all. Jupiter Artland is closed during the winter season and reopens in March through to September. Tickets can be purchased online, and advanced booking is recommended, especially during peak season. The cost of admission varies depending on age and season but generally falls within an affordable range, making it a budget-friendly option for families.

Jupiter Artland: The Steadings, Bonnington House, Wilkieston, Edinburgh EH27 8BY

Dr Neil’s Garden

Dr. Neil's Garden, a public park near Arthur's Seat, in Edinburgh, Scotland one of the best things to do in Edinburgh

Photo: Marton Szeles/Shutterstock

Dr. Neil’s Garden is often referred to as the secret garden. I never knew of its existence until relatively recently. In 1963, Dr. Andrew and Nancy Neil, a couple passionate about medicine and gardening, transformed a barren slope overlooking Duddingston Loch into a flourishing sanctuary. They opened to the public in 1982 to anyone wanting to learn about plants and for those seeking solace, connection, and a chance to reconnect with nature. Over the years, the space has evolved into a community hub. The garden is tucked away in Duddingston Village, just a short walk from Arthur’s Seat. It’s a perfect place to relax after hiking the volcano, and there’s a charming little cafe where you can take refreshments.

Dr Neil’s Garden: 5 Old Church Ln, Duddingston, Edinburgh EH15 3PX

Water of Leith

Old Leith Docks at Dusk and Reflection in Water. Edinburgh, Scotland.

Photo: Albert Pego/Shutterstock

The Water of Leith flows 22 miles from the Pentland Hills (excellent hiking, details below) to the Firth of Forth, passing through the heart of Edinburgh. It was once the city’s industrial lifeblood, powering mills and breweries. Today, it is protected by a local charity, and within the stretch is The Water of Leith Walkway — a 12-mile path that follows the river from Balerno to Leith. Doing this walk, or even part of it, is a great way to see the city from a different perspective and to explore some of the neighborhoods away from the busy city center. Depending on your route, you might want to finish at Leith Shore, one of the coolest parts of the city, for food and drinks.

Dean Village

Dean Village in Edinburgh on a beautiful sunny day one of the best things to do in Edinburgh

Photo: Natalie De Winter/Shutterstock

Along the Water of Leith, you’ll also find picturesque the Dean Village. Cobbled streets wind through the residential area, lined with colorful 18th and 19th-century stone houses. And although it’s ten minutes from the main shopping drags of George Street and Princes Street, it feels like a country hamlet. A little further west of the village, a short stroll up the walkway, are the Modern art galleries. They showcase a diverse range of exhibitions, from contemporary interactive art to sculpture parks. Entry to the galleries is free. Head to on-site Café Modern One for Scotch broth, smoked haddock fish cakes, or a bowl of Scottish beef stovies.


Causeway to Cramond Island in Edinburgh, Scotland, emerged at low tide.

Photo: Alicia Fdez/Shutterstock

When living in the West End of Edinburgh, we used to spend many summer evenings paddleboarding and power kiting at Cramond. The coastal village sits on the outskirts of town, at the mouth of the River Almond, where it flows into the Firth of Forth. It’s accessible by public transport, but of course, it’s much easier with a car, especially if you’re lugging gear for the beach. The Cramond Inn — one of Edinburgh’s oldest pubs — is worth stopping at for a pint, but consider packing a picnic, especially if the sun is out.

Day trips from Edinburgh

The Pentland Hills. Photo: SergeBertasiusPhotography/Shutterstock
Crail Harbour. Photo: essevu/Shutterstock
Scot's View, The Scottish Borders. Photo: Ulmus Media/Shutterstock
Gullane Beach. Photo: Cribbes Photography/Shutterstock

Scotland is one of the best countries in the world for a road trip. Its drivable size, varied landscape, and the diversity of culture from place to place make visiting more than one region a must. Due to the positioning of Edinburgh in Scotland’s Central Belt, there are a range of day trips you can take, whether that’s hiking in the nearby hills, hopping between historic fishing villages on the coast, or relaxing in the Lowland’s countryside.

The fishing villages of Fife

Across the iconic Forth Bridge is the “Kingdom of Fife,” a beautiful peninsula between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Tay. In this region, there are a string of charming fishing villages. The historic harbors of Crail, Pittenweem, St Monans, and Anstruther are all within a short drive from Edinburgh city center. One of my personal favorites is Anstruther. Here you can learn about the cultural significance of fishing in Scotland at the Scottish Fisheries Museum, wander through narrow cobbled streets, visit the harbor, and have lunch at Anstruther Fish Bar for (arguably) the best fish and chips in Scotland.

East Lothian’s beaches

The coast of East Lothian (literally east of the city) makes for a relaxing day at the seaside. Here, you’ll find some of the prettiest beaches in Scotland. You can easily get out of Edinburgh on public transport, but if you’d like to take a wee road trip and visit a few villages, you’ll need a vehicle. North Berwick is a popular coastal town. With views of the Bass Rock from Milsey Bay and West Bay, these fine sand beaches have excellent rock pooling and picnic spots. One of my favorite places in East Lothian is Gullane Beach. I’ve surfed here, and the long stretch of sand backed by dunes makes for a nice early morning or afternoon walk. Others worth noting are Seacliff Beach, Yellowcraig Beach, Belhaven Beach, Thorntonloch Beach, and Tyninghame Beach.

The countryside in The Scottish Borders

A little over an hour south of Edinburgh is the region of The Scottish Borders. I was born and raised there, so I am biased, but it is one of the most beautiful parts of the country. As the name suggests, the area stretches across the border of Scotland and England and is peppered with farmland, country estates, and market towns. The Lowland’s topography is less dramatic than the Highlands, but on a clear day, the view across rolling green fields onto the Cheviots hills on the border is simply breathtaking. The pace of life here is slower than the city, and you might want to consider an overnight stay. This means you won’t be rushed and can enjoy dinner and a drink at one of the many excellent local pubs. Look at Melrose (home to rugby 7s), Kelso, or one of the many estates for cottagecore vacation rentals.

Scots are a nation of walkers and that’s because we don’t ever have to go too far to find a hill or mountain. The Pentland Hills is on-route to The Borders. It sit six miles south of Edinburgh and are a haven for hikers of all levels. There are over 60 miles of waymarked paths and countless hidden trails. Many reward you with epic views across the city and onto the coast.

Where to stay in Edinburgh

Stunning detached house in Leith. Photo: Airbnb
Boathouse on the loch, Dundas Estate. Photo: Airbnb
Georgian apartment in Stockbridge. Photo: Airbnb
Historic home in Dean Village. Photo: Airbnb
Two-bedroom garden apartment with garden in Newtown. Photo: Airbnb
Dovecot cottage near Bruntsfield and Morningside. Photo: Airbnb

The hotel scene in Edinburgh is top of its game. From historic hotels offering prized experiences to chic boutique properties, there’s a lot to love. But the high bar of hospitality comes with a lofty price tag. Edinburgh is, for locals and visitors, a very expensive city. Over the past decade, residents have been priced out of the city center, and the rental market has been depleted due to the increase in short-term vacation rentals. Although this makes life hard for locals not on the property market, visitors should take advantage of this.

If budget is a concern, and you would like an authentic stay in Edinburgh, opt for an Airbnb. You’ll save a considerable amount of your budget on eating out, and you can make the most of shopping locally at the city’s exceptional farmers markets, butcher and cheese shops, and bakeries.

Each neighborhood has a distinctive character, and you can easily walk between most areas mentioned below. The development of Leith Shore has increased the number of vacation rentals on or near the waterfront. This Artist’s loft sleeps seven and is perfect for a group of adults or a family. Or there’s a three-bedroom apartment. Previous guests state it has “the best view in Leith,” thanks to its positioning on the third floor of a building overlooking The Shore. If you’d prefer a little more space and a garden, have a look at this stunning detached house. It’s secluded in a tucked-away spot just off Constitution Street (one of the main shopping streets in Leith).

Stockbridge is another popular neighborhood. The streets are lined with elegant Georgian architecture, independent shops, and restaurants, and there are many green parks and gardens (including the Royal Botanic Garden). From Stockbridge, you can walk uphill through New Town, over George Street, and down into the center. Despite its proximity, it has a village ambiance. There’s a lot to choose from when it comes to Airbnbs, too. This Georgian apartment has a garden and is minutes from excellent restaurants and pubs. Or there’s this Victorian Lower Villa in the Stockbridge Colonies, this stylish main-door apartment, or this family-friendly home. All have rave reviews from past guests.

If you’d prefer to be closer to the center, look for a rental in New Town. This
Two-bedroom apartment has a luxurious outdoor space. Believe it or not, Scotland does have a summer. And when the sun shines, you’ll want to make the most of it and spend as much time outdoors as possible. Another area close to main city attractions is the West End. It’s just up the hill from Stockbridge and has some very pretty side streets with converted mews buildings such as this
renovated stables Airbnb.

I mentioned the Dean Village as a lovely place to visit, but you might also consider staying there. The rentals here are limited, and they book up far in advance. If you’re lucky enough, you might find availability at this 1880s historic home. It was renovated in 2015, and although there are nods to the past everywhere you look, it now features a modern open-planned living, kitchen, and dining layout and three plush en-suite bedrooms.

On the other side of town, south of Old Town and sandwiched between The University of Edinburgh and The Meddows, are Marchmont, Bruntsfield, and Morningside. Similar to Stockbridge, these little neighborhoods feel like hamlets, and there are lots of brilliant wine bars, small shops, and superb places to eat. They are also close to the Cameo Picturehouse — the city’s main indie cinema, and The King’s Theatre. When it comes to vacation properties, you might want to look for something with a private door. I may come across as a snob saying this, but I’ve lived in many apartments with a shared stairway in Edinburgh, and it can be a gamble. There’s a nice selection of houses in the area to choose from, but I love this unique dovecot cottage.

If you have a vehicle and would prefer to stay outside the city, you don’t have to go far to get into the countryside or find some rather special Airbnbs. This boathouse on the loch is a popular stay. It is situated on the picturesque Dundas Estate, 30 minutes from Edinburgh center. Or there’s Craigiehall Temple on Craigiehall Estate. Built in 1759, the historic one-bedroom has a castle-like feel and is only 15 minutes from the airport.

Where to eat in Edinburgh

Eating out in Edinburgh is overpriced. But you have the option to pay a lot for excellent food and service or pay a lot for sub-par and, or pretentious dining experiences. There are a few exceptions to this rule.

Where to go for lunch or a casual dinner

For value for money lunch or casual dinner there are a few top-notch spots. Go to Broughton St’s Lucky Yu for BBQ pork belly and kimchi and sweet potato gyozas, Mother India Cafe for outstanding vegetarian Indian dishes, Origano Cafe + Pizzeria for hand-crafted pizzas, and Ting Thai for roti and chilli jam. Valvona & Crolla on Leith Walk is another family favorite. The institution has been around since the 1930s, and the deli and bistro serve some of the finest Italian produce in the city. The arancini are particularly delicious, and plates are based seasonal produce. If you’re a foodie be warned you’ll likely end up with a deli basket full of zucchini flowers, burrata, and freshly sliced prosciutto. At the top of Leith Walk is the Omni Centre. There’s a brilliant street food market there. It opens from mid-day until 11 PM and there’s often live music.

Special places to eat in Edinburgh

Table with wine glass and starter at Montrose Restaurant in Edinburgh

Photo: Montrose

There are a few places I’d suggest visitors to skip. The well-heeled crowd at The Scran & Scallie, The Outsider on George IV Bridge, Baba on George Street, and The Witchery. All are pricey and, in my opinion, fall short of anything rememberable. There are plenty more that fall into this category (the majority of the city center establishments) — but rather than focusing on where not to go, I’d rather celebrate restaurants that are getting it right.

For a special occasion, consider the following: Seafood at Ondine, The Little Chartroom’s five-course set menu with wine paring, Michelin-starred Heron, Timberyard, and their recently launched small plate wine bar, Montrose, and Gardener’s Cottage. Dining at Gardener’s Cottage is, in the words of journalist and food critic Jay Rayner, “one of those experiences that stops the world for a while.” And I couldn’t agree more. Recently, I enjoyed their winter set menu of a light crab tart followed by North Sea cod with apple and samphire, venison loin with pumpkin and dandelion, and spiced pear with chocolate cream. Book in advance for all of the above. You won’t be disappointed.

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