Traveling to Edinburgh and wondering: “What is the essence of Edinburgh?” We probably need to write a book to answer that in earnest. But if you visit Edinburgh for 3 days or 72 hours (and ideally more), this Edinburgh travel guide shares what you could see, eat, drink and otherwise experience to help you answer that question for yourself.
When I think of Edinburgh, I think moody streets, storied alleys and walls of beautiful stone. Then I pepper in some sights, a dose or two of haggis, whisky, and ale at a couple of pubs. Then I throw in some fish and chips, a few jokes and finish it off by listening to that inimitable accent that leaves one puzzling around the pronunciation of the city's name (it's more like ED-in-bra, ED-in-burrah or Edinb'r'h — not Ed'nBERG).
When I first set foot in Edinburgh, I needed time to “get” it. I gave it that wee bit of time, thankfully. Then I felt it.
Here's why. And how.
Edinburgh Setting and Architecture
Said to be built in and around seven hills, Edinburgh is a city of contours further defined in detail by large blocks of stone cut from the hands of old craftsmen. I don’t mind the new architecture, but it’s this old stuff that I really appreciate. When I’m long gone, storytellers will still be writing books about this old stuff, while the new buildings will sit there, fine enough, wondering when someone will ever weave a tale about them. Cobbles and alleys, carved chunks of medieval and neoclassical Gothic revival — that's Edinburgh's architectural stock in very brief.
It comes as little surprise that J.K. Rowling used the city and its physical surroundings as visual inspiration for the setting of the Harry Potter series. It's an easy look, the sort of place that invites stories and ghosts alike to lurk.
Edinburgh Sites: What to Do and See in Edinburgh
Like any good old city worth its salt, Edinburgh is best consumed by simply setting off on foot and letting your curiosity get the best of you. If you'd like to anchor your visit, here are a handful of worthy usual suspects.
The castle is the heart (or perhaps the head) of Edinburgh. Everything else developed around it over the last thousand years or more. The courtyard of the castle has some great views of the city, but it’s worth it to venture inside if you have a few hours. It features museums and exhibitions and further views of the city.
When I first heard of Camera Obscura, I figured it a cheesy tourist attraction. Instead, it’s a place for you to release your inner child, play with imagery and light installations and get a cool introduction to the city from above via the namesake Camera Obscura tour at the top. And if that doesn’t sell you, the views of the city from the rooftop are hard to beat (see the lead photo of this article), particularly when the weather cooperates. Go when there is good daylight. Details: Royal Mile (just near the Castle), opening times vary during the changing seasons and light, £11.95 for adults.
The Royal Mile
This Royal Mile is the main street that leads you from the castle at the top to Holyrood Park and the Queen’s Palace at the bottom. If the Edinburgh Castle is the head of the Edinburgh old town fish, this is the spine. Yes, there are a lot of souvenir shops on this street, but there are also some great pubs, bits of architecture and photogenic curiosities tucked into various nooks and crannies. Be sure to look up to catch the details.
As you walk the Royal Mile, you’ll notice signs at archways with the names of “closes”, or traditional alleyways of Edinburgh that led downhill, in the flow of sewage and waste, to the Nor Loch below. People built their homes and shops around closes; they were deep, narrow and often dark. Some were named after the people who lived there while others were named to indicate what sort of goods were sold in the markets inside. For an introduction to the closes and what life was like in Edinburgh hundreds of years ago, check out the Real Mary King’s Close tour.
Random Edinburgh faux-factoid anecdote, the origins of the phrase “sh*t-faced”: During the Middle Ages in Edinburgh, human waste was disposed of twice a day –- 7 AM and 10 PM — by people yelling “Gardy Loo” (perhaps a variation on the French garde à l'eau! or look out for the water!) and dumping buckets of human waste from their windows. Coincidentally, 10 PM also happened to be closing time for pubs. Imagine a poor drunkard hearing someone yell from the window above and looking up, and there you go. How do you like them apples?
Do a happy dance. Scotland's national museums in Edinburgh are free to the public. Exhibition spaces are really well done and creative. Be sure to check out the fascinating grasshopper clock in the entryway to the National Museum of Scotland. (By the way, this clock reminds me of the giant talking insect-typewriter in the film Naked Lunch adapted from the William S. Burroughs novel.)
Once the sight of public executions in the 17th century, Grass Market today is home to a string of pubs, restaurants, hotels and shops. Be sure to look up for a great view of Edinburgh Castle above.
This is one of the main streets in Edinburgh’s “New Town” built during the mid 18th – 19th centuries. Rose Street is relatively small, full of pubs and cafes and runs parallel to shop-filled Princes Street. Look up to enjoy the neo-classical stonework.
Edinburgh Whisky Tasting
Whisky novices, it’s worth popping into the Scotch Whisky Experience a few doors down from Edinburgh Castle for a tour and some basic tastings. Be sure to ask the tasting staff any question you can imagine – we found them incredibly knowledgeable and happy to share their whisky wisdom. And if your visit is timed with the semi-annual whisky exhibition, you'll get something closer to an aficionados view of whisky. We tasted eight whiskies at the exhibition and emerged lighter than air in mid-afternoon. It was recommended to us to sample Scottish-style blue cheese with some of the whiskies that are stronger on the palate, like Bowmore. Absolutely beautiful.
Hogmanay, Edinburgh’s New Year’s celebration, formed the backdrop for our visit and was a great way to enjoy the city. But Edinburgh hosts twelve major festivals throughout the year, including the famous Festival Fringe each August. Check out the Edinburgh’s festivals calendar to see what might be going on during the time of your visit.
Edinburgh: What to Eat and Where to Eat It
For reasons fried and many, Scotland is not particularly known for its cuisine. Having said that, there are tasty bits and curiosities worth seeking out, trying, and in some cases, absolutely relishing. Note that meal portions in Edinburgh (and Scotland in general) are often quite large. Particularly when a heavy beer or two was involved, we would share one dish or serving between the two of us. This often proved more than enough – better for the gut and better on the wallet, too. If you're still hungry after your plateful of savory, try dessert.
Our first real experience with Edinburgh went to a fish and chips shop. First impression: people are so friendly and helpful. Funny, cheeky, they like to talk, they tell stories, they're gregarious. They exude engaging. I like this.
Fish & Chips:
For perfect batter-fried pieces of haddock the size of an arm and a mountain of freshly fried chips (a.k.a. large-cut French fries), head to Bene Fish & Chips on the Royal Mile. They not only serve up high-quality fish, but they offer one of the best value meals in town: one serving of fish and chips, more than enough for two people, runs £6.50. The family who runs it and the employees? Super sweet.
Details: Bene Fish & Chips, 162 Canongate (on the Royal Mile). This is a take-out place only, but fortunately there are benches across the street near the church (Canongate Kirk) where you can sit and gorge. Wash it all down next door at Tolbooth Tavern.
Fried Mars Bar:
No visit to Scotland is complete without a fried Mars bar. Or two. When we ordered one, we were told: “It will change your life.” A moment or two after my first bite I said, “It still hasn't changed my life.” The response: “Give it time.” Gotta give it the Mars bar frymasters, they've got a sense of humor to go along with that heart attack log. There is something forbidden and evil about it all, like a crack combination of sweet, a bit of salty and fat. You’re in luck in that Bene's above lays claim to having invented the fried Mars bar. An ignominious, if not dubious, distinction.
Haggis Mashed Potato Tower with Whisky Cream Sauce:
An Edinburgh taxi driver steered us in the direction of this haggis refinement. We were sold on the concept and asked just about every local we'd met where we might find the best. Eventually, we hit the jackpot at 1780 Restaurant on Rose Street with their version, the Bard's Haggis. We tried haggis also at Deacon Brodie's, but the 1780 version was our favorite.
Haggis is not something that photographs well. In fact, it photographs as well as it runs off the tongue. Actually, it’s not something that goes down well, either — that is, if you think too much about what it's made of. But, if you just accept haggis in a Zen, at-peace type of way, and ignore that it often looks like poop stuffed innards run through a pencil sharpener, it actually tastes pretty good.
The consistency is that of ground meat. Toss in some herbs and spices and thicken it with something grist-y like ground oats. Together with mashed potatoes, and a creamy whisky sauce, this dish actually turns out to be the ultimate in Scottish pub comfort food. I was happy to have it with a draught Scottish ale (1780 has a decent selection), others drank it with Guinness, and our Scottish go-to gal Kay recommends it with Innis & Gunn bourbon cask-aged blonde. Though the Innis & Gunn rum finish might be a better bet. Gotta go back and get me some more haggis!
Sticky toffee pudding:
The waiter plunked down two plates of this beauty, handed our group six spoons and within about a minute both dishes were stroked clean with an index finger from the mob. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a dessert go this fast. A ball of borderline gooey with a distinct graham cracker flavor, consistency of moist brownie, finished off with a thin caramel toffee sauce and sided with ice cream. It's even better than I've attempted to describe. Where to get whiskey cream haggis and sticky toffee pudding: 1780 Restaurant – 167 Rose Street.
South Asian Curries:
Curry houses have become an Edinburgh (or more like, British) institution.
Zest Restaurant: Unfortunately, Indian restaurants in Europe go too light on the spice thinking that we anglo-euros can't handle it. This is where Zest steps up to the plate and delivers — all the right spices were there, nice Indian flavor separation and proper heat. We highly recommend the North Indian Chilli Garlic Chicken. Address: 15 North St. Andrew Street
Mother India's Cafe: Small plate style eating so you can try multiple tastes in one meal. We recommend the haddock with Punjabi spices and the spicy keema dosa (while not the proper thin dosa consistency, the keema is nicely flavored.) Address: Mother India's Cafe, 3-5 Infirmary Street
This section was added after commenters pointed out the unfair exclusion of dear ol' Irn Bru.
If our experience is any measure, no Scotland experience is complete without a sip or two of Irn Bru (pronounced “Iron Brew”), Scotland's second national drink (that is, after whisky). Irn Bru is an orangish, rusty-colored cola, once more popular than Coca-Cola. Although it's said that Irn Bru is “Made in Scotland from girders” because of its rust color, some say it tastes citrus-y, others say like ginger. To me, Irn Bru is bubble gum-like, not unlike the Peruvian national soda Inca Kola. Even if soda isn't your thing, have a wee taste of Irn Bru, even if it is only to tell your Scottish friends that, “Yes indeed, I tried Irn Bru.”
Flat White (Coffee) Now, we realize coffee may not be considered a meal for some of you but it sometimes is for us, especially when done well. By no means is a flat white, a sort of compromise between a latte and a cappuccino, native to Edinburgh. But there are enough cafes serving it that it seems a fixture of the Edinburgh cafe scene. I should note: Edinburgh was the first time we tried a flat white, a coffee style developed in Australia to be the perfect coffee with just the right combination of espresso and microfoam. Best one we tried (by best, I mean the richest, while being the least bitter) could be found at Urban Angel at 121 Hanover Street (great eggs benedict there, too!). Hat tip to Kirsten Alana for the flat white enlightenment!
Edinburgh Pubs and Beer
The metal tap stem from which Scottish brew pours forth curls up like a punctuation mark. And the sound! Whoosh! Golden. I know Scotland may not be world famous for its beer, but I certainly enjoyed Scottish ales. They are served with a slightly foamy head that doesn't linger quite like a Guinness pour might. An impressive pour, regardless.
Even if you’re not a big drinker, it’s worth visiting a few of Edinburgh’s pubs just to get a feel for the local pub culture. More importantly, they are great places to meet locals — some dressed in kilts, some not — and hear some live music.
Note that there is no table service in a pub; just go up to the bar to order your drinks (and often food, too). On average, a pint of beer will set you back about £3-£4.
Favorite Edinburgh pubs
Tolbooth Tavern: The décor of this place kind of makes you feel like you’re entering the king's drawing room — lavish in a way with chairs whose cushions are luscious red velvet, touched with Scottish accents all around. Come in, get comfortable and stay a while. Tolbooth Tavern offers a nice selection of beers on tap, lots of locals hanging around, and live music some evenings.
If beer is your interest, you are in the right place. Ordering beer was beyond pleasant, friendly. Behind imposing taps, bartenders deliver the goods by pulling foot-tall sticks like a tractor trailer shift. As any good pub in Edinburgh should, they'll allow you to try before you buy. I drank a McEwan's 70 Ale (the locals favorite, they say) and McEwan's 80 ale, both of which I really enjoyed. Scottish ales are slightly foamy off the tap and smooth. These beers are very different from peppier, hoppier Czech and German beers we’re accustomed to.
As heavy as Scottish ales appear to be (they are dark and heady), they go down easy because they're less carbonated. I also noted that McEwan's tasted better at Tolbooth than anywhere else. I attributed this to three factors: my Scottish Ale-in-Edinburgh virgin taste buds, the fact that I needed to wash down my fish and chips from Bene's across the street, and finally to the fact that the folks at Tolbooth keep their taps clean. Try also the Caledonian 80.
Deuchars Scottish IPA: Many pubs, Tolbooth included, carry Deuchars IPA. Not your hipster-neighbor's American-style IPA. Scottish style IPAs are noticeably less hoppy and pronounced. (I don't agree that they are always sweeter, as I've tasted my share of sweet IPAs.) Deuchar's IPA was Audrey's favorite. We both preferred it to others, including the Nicholson IPA.
White Hart: From the moment we stepped into this place on New Year’s Day, we felt welcome. Locals were friendly and very outgoing (some wore kilts, too) as were the bar staff. Good beer, good people. What more can you want? Guinness drinkers: White Hart carries traditional Guinness and also Guinness Extra Cold, if that strikes your fancy. Either way, I found them going down too easily. If forced to choose, I'd choose warmer, particularly on New Year's Day. Address: Grass Market
Stepping back, Edinburgh is a place to wax long and lyrical, stroll slowly, sip slowly. Take it slowly whatever you do, ask questions and allow Edinburgh to reveal itself to you.