From the medieval tenements, vennels and wynds of the Old Town to the elegance and grace of the Georgian New Town, Edinburgh thoroughly deserves its reputation as one of the most beautiful and fascinating cities in the world.
Built on a human scale and easily navigated, Edinburgh readily gives up its secrets but has more to offer than just history written in stone. It’s a cosmopolitan city too, with Michelin-starred restaurants, a thriving café culture, vibrant and varied nightlife, great shopping and a strong contemporary arts scene.
Of course, you can’t think of Edinburgh without thinking of the International Festival and Fringe, but it’s not just a summer city. As the days shorten it lights up for Christmas and Hogmanay celebrations, but with festivals – from film to jazz to food and beyond – happening every month of the year, there’s no off season in Edinburgh.
Explore our interactive map below for all the local highlights, and scroll down for our suggested day-by-day summary of the best things to see and do…
Get off to a ghoulish start in the Grassmarket, having found the shadow of a gibbet on the paving where public hangings used to take place, before raising your spirits with a visit to Hawico (71 Grassmarket) for the most exquisite cashmere in the city. From there, head up Instagram-ready Victoria Terrace, taking the steps halfway along up to the Lawnmarket for Edinburgh Castle (be sure to book your tickets online in advance on the website).
By the time you’ve finished at the castle you might want to rest your feet, so head downhill to the elegant Signet Library in Parliament Square for a coffee, making a quick detour into the historic Great Hall at Parliament House, home of the high courts of Scotland. You’ll see barristers in wigs and gowns pacing up and down between the fireplaces (lit in winter), conferring with their clients. Remember to look up at the impressive hammer beam roof; there are some very fine paintings, too.
Move on to St Giles Cathedral across the Square and don’t miss the Thistle Chapel where you’ll find a carved angel playing bagpipes. If you’ve a head for heights, book a rooftop tour.
At this point you’re not far down the Royal Mile, but you will want to take a look at Gladstone’s Land to see how a wealthy Edinburgh merchant’s family lived 500 years ago.
By now you’ll be hungry, so if the day is fine grab a picnic from Mimi’s Little Bakehouse (250 Canongate) and eat it in the delightfully hidden (you’ll have to keep a sharp eye out to spot the entrance) Dunbar’s Close Garden (137 Canongate). If the weather’s disagreeable don’t despair, console yourself with champagne and oysters at The White Horse Oyster and Seafood Bar (266 Canongate).
Finish your tour at the Queen’s residence Holyrood Palace (Canongate), not forgetting the Queen’s Gallery, as well as the impressive ruins of Holyrood Abbey. The café does a nice tea and the Scottish Parliament is just across the road.
Come late afternoon, work your way back through the Grassmarket to The Timberyard (10 Lady Lawson Street) for a great-value pre-theatre supper. An early adopter of Scottish-Nordic cooking, it’s one of the most innovative restaurants in the city.
Afterwards, consider catching a production at the Royal Lyceum Theatre (Grindlay Street) just around the corner. With a strong reputation for drama – both home-grown and international – it also has a house ghost, said to be of the great Shakespearean actress, Ellen Terry.
If that all sounds a little too staid, return to the Cowgate to The Cabaret Voltaire (36-38 Blair St), a friendly if cacophonous underground warren of techno and dance music.
A more leisurely second day begins at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (actually there are two, facing off on either side of Belford Road). The permanent exhibition ‘Surrealism and the Marvellous’ at the Modern Two will change the way you look at the world forever.
The grounds of both galleries are charming (look out for the allotments), but do seek out the gate round the back of the Modern Two leading into the fascinating Dean Cemetery – the epitaphs are both absorbing and amusing and the colours magnificent.
Exit at the opposite end of the cemetery and follow the road down to picturesque Dean Village on the Water of Leith. Follow the pretty riverside pathway past St Bernard’s Well (if you’re lucky, it might be open) to Stockbridge, a city village with a popular Sunday market and a great selection of quirky, independent shops – you can buy anything from the best cheese in the city to a paraffin lamp.
Carry on to the Royal Botanic Garden (Arboretum Place) for lunch in the Gateway Restaurant (ask for a table on the terrace if the sun is shining).
If you aren’t keen on green, wander over to Dundas Street where you will find fine art galleries and eccentric antiques shops, as well as a delicious (and organic) lunch at the Archipelago Bakery (39 Dundas Street).
Head back to uphill via Moray Place past the New Town’s finest architecture to the National Trust Georgian House (7 Charlotte Square), or carry straight on down George Street to St Andrew Square and Harvey Nichols (30-34 St Andrew Square). Then walk 10 minutes further east to climb Calton Hill for the money shot of sunset over the city.
Come evening, grab a taxi for a 10-minute ride to Leith where you can choose from glittering Michelin stars: The Kitchin (78 Commercial Quay) or Martin Wishart (54 The Shore); or, for something that won’t melt your credit card, try The Ship on the Shore, a long-standing local favourite (24-26 Shore). Round off the evening at the Port O’Leith Bar (58 Constitution Street), an old-school boozer with a heart of gold.
Edinburgh insider tips
Explore Leith Walk (before it’s too gentrified) for everything from a Hornby train-set shop to street art, carnitas to cocktails.
A Historic Environment Scotland pass gives free entry to any of their 78 paid-entry properties around Scotland, including Edinburgh Castle and Craigmillar Castle. A three-day pass is £31; family £62.
Get round all three National Galleries of Art with the Gallery bus (£1 donation requested).
Did you know?
Keep your eyes peeled for the re-purposed police boxes scattered across town providing coffee, crepes, curries, costumes and much more.
Upgrade any Edinburgh Bus Tour ticket to a Grand24 for £8 and enjoy three hop on/hop off bus tours in a day.
Thinking of staying longer than a week? Try the CoDE Co-living penthouse with lots of space, a good kitchenette and a roof terrace with a fantastic (and private) view of the Festival and Hogmanay fireworks.
More places to stay . . .
Hidden in lush grounds a short drive from the city centre Prestonfield House is the swankiest, most swoon-some country house hotel imaginable. It’s riotously rococo, with bedrooms straight from the pages of bodice-ripping romance plus one of Edinburgh’s favourite restaurants.
There’s nothing stuffy about Dunstane House, its comely original features tenderly preserved in a design-led transformation to sleek boutique. With stylish bedrooms and a classy bar serving modest food all day, all just a 10-minute bus ride from the city centre, it’s a handsome dark horse.
There is nothing subtle about the buzzing Grassmarket Hotel, old on the outside but fun-central inside. Surrounded by the shops, bars, restaurants and clubs of the Grassmarket, Cowgate and Old Town, its all about imaginative but comfortable fun where you flop – shrinking violets need not apply.
What to bring home . . .
Got an urge to splurge? Consider 21st Century Kilts. Not just national dress, but an achingly stylish bespoke traffic-stopper. Be warned, hearts will flutter. Arrange an appointment in advance.
Don’t leave town without some of Iain Mellis’ fabulous Scottish cheeses. With three locations in the city you’re never far from a ‘Blue Murder’ (which is what you’re fellow passengers might be thinking about if you’re travelling by public transport).
When to go . . .
Edinburgh’s population is said to double in August, while Edinburgh’s Christmas and Hogmanay (New Year) celebrations feel nearly as crowded with Christmas markets, rides and attractions, ice skating, bright lights and the famous fireworks and street party. But really, there is no truly quiet season for Edinburgh. Just remember, you do not come to Edinburgh for the weather, so think like a boy scout and be prepared. Autumn and winter are my favourite times of year; the cold clear light highlighting the austerely beautiful architecture and the shorter days making all those pubs with cosy fires even more appealing.
A bright and breezy spring day is delightful as the blossom rushes out in all the parks and squares and the city seems to sparkle. Summer is always busy in the build-up to the festival frenzy of August, but walking down the Mound in the never-ending twilight of a late summer’s evening is a bit of magic everyone should experience at least once.
Know before you go . . .
Tourist information: The VisitScotland website (visitscotland.com) is a useful source of information on where to stay and what to do while you are in Edinburgh. The main Edinburgh VisitScotland Information Centre is at Waverley Mall, 3 Princes Street, EH2 2QP; call 0131 473 3868. There is also a desk in the airport main concourse.
Emergency numbers: Police, Ambulance and Fire – dial 999. To reach the police in a non-emergency situation, e.g. to report a theft, dial 101.
As a general rule, people do not tip taxi drivers in Edinburgh, although some people will round up to the nearest £1 and occasionally tip 10-15 per cent if a driver has been particularly helpful. Similarly it is not usual to tip bar staff. Some restaurants have a service charge (which will be indicated on the menu); otherwise, 10-15 per cent of the bill is usual. It is also worth remembering that locals almost always thank the driver as they get off the bus.
British sterling – Euros are accepted in some shops and hotels. Banks in Scotland print their own notes, so you will see a bit of variety in the appearance of the currency, but don’t worry, it is all good (although you might occasionally have difficulty spending Scottish banknotes in England). If you need to convert Scottish notes to English, the Royal Bank of Scotland West End office (142/144 Princes Street EH2 4EQ) has a cash machine that dispenses only English banknotes.
Take a sweater and an umbrella, no matter what it looks like outside the window in the morning.
Somewhere between New Town ladette and Old Town doyenne, Linda has a passion for tunnock’s teacakes and a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde personality, making Edinburgh her perfect city.
Experience Edinburgh with the Telegraph
Telegraph Travel’s best hotels, tours and holidays in Edinburgh, tried, tested and recommended by our Edinburgh experts.