A First-Timer's Guide to Edinburgh

By Jessica Russo

Ahh, Edinburgh, Scotland's raved-about capital. Rich with traditional culture and Gothic architecture, this picturesque city boasts historic beauty with a trendy flair.

Picture this: colorful stone streets, hilltop castles, music-filled pubs, and cute cafes galore. Get ready to hear some bagpipes, eat some haggis, and drink some whisky - Edinburgh is waiting!

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Photo by Instagram user @topedinburghphotos

Know Before You Go:

Bring an umbrella

Scotland is known to have quite a rainy reputation. But, is it really as rainy as everyone says? Okay, we won't tell you that it never rains, but we will tell you that the rain is really nothing to worry about. Sure, it may rain (on average) about every other day or every two days, but it isn't usually a pelting downpour. It's usually just a little drizzle or mist! In fact, the locals like to say, "If you don't like the weather, just wait five minutes." But, with that being said, still bring an umbrella (and a hooded, waterproof jacket). You'll be happy you did.

These streets are made for walking...

... and that's just what you'll do! The beauty of Edinburgh is its quaint, walkable nature. Did you know that you can walk from one end of the city to the other in just over 30 minutes? Of course, there are hop-on/hop-off tour buses, taxis and Uber, but we guarantee you'll find yourself walking the most - and why would't you? Walking around is the perfect way to really see a city. Just a little helpful hint: most of Edinburgh's streets are hilly and made of old cobblestone. While that's what gives the city its old-world charm, it's also what makes walking a little bit more challenging. Wear comfy shoes and rest up at night!

A Tale of Two Cities: Old and New Towns

Edinburgh is divided into two distinct areas. There's the postcard-worthy Old Town, dominated by medieval fortresses and historic buildings, and then there's the New Town, which began developing in the 18th century. Lined with Georgian houses, atmospheric cocktail lounges, and trendy stores, the elegant New Town is an artsy shopping haven home to Princes Street and the Scottish national Portrait Gallery.

Don't fear the haggis

Mmm, haggis. What is it, you ask? It's Scotland's national dish! Think: a softball-sized serving of Sheepโ€™s Pluck (heart, liver, lungs) minced with spices, onion, and oatmeal. What? It doesn't sound appetizing? Okay, we admit it - we were nervous to try it, too. But, after trying it, we are here to tell you that we now see why this savory dish is beloved by locals. Usually served alongside "neeps and tatties" (parsnips and potatoes), haggis is similar to a peppery sausage. So, our advice: try haggis, but don't read the ingredients right before you do.

Leave your Braveheart references home.

Or, if you must talk about Braveheart, don't do it with the locals. Let's just say... they're over it.

Photo by Instagram user @littlepblog

Sightseeing Checklist

Edinburgh Castle

Perched atop Castle Rock, Edinburgh Castle is a must-see historic fortress. Gawk at this imposing site from afar, or step inside and treat yourself to a tour! We can't decide what's more beautiful - the castle or the views.

The Royal Mile

What is the Royal Mile? Why, it's the historic stretch of road that runs through the entire city! It connects Edinburgh Castle with Holyrood Palace and is lined with amazing architecture, street performers, and unique shops. Get ready to hear those bagpipes!

Scott Monument

This Victorian Gothic monument will stop you in your tracks. Dedicated to author Sir Walter Scott, the Scott Monument is the largest monument to a writer in the world! While it can be seen from afar throughout the city, you'll want to take a stroll through Princes Street Gardens to get an up-close look.

Palace of Holyroodhouse

This architectural beauty, commonly referred to as Holyrood Palace, is the official residence of the Monarchy of Scotland! Located at the end of the Royal Mile, this palace is surrounded by serene Holyrood Park, home to Arthur's Seat.

St. Giles' Cathedral

Right down the street from Edinburgh Castle sits the grand, Gothic, iconic medieval building that is St. Giles' Cathedral. No trip to the Old Town is complete without a visit to this gorgeous structure.

Photo by Instagram user @loves_edinburgh

Postcard-worthy Views

Arthur's Seat

The highest peak in Holyrood Park, Arthur's Seat sits on an ancient volcano 820 feet above sea level! Although it's a bit of a walk to get up there, it's well worth the hike. Wear comfortable shoes and bring your camera!

Calton Hill

This hill at the east end of Princes Street offers some of the most spectacular views in the city. While you walk up to the top, you'll see that the hill is home to many historical monuments, including the National Monument.
Hint: the walk up Calton Hill is a little bit easier than the walk up Arthur's Seat, so keep that in mind when choosing.

Photo by Instagram user @maudilucchio

Best Traditional Pubs

The White Hart Inn

34 Grassmarket, Edinburgh
Near Edinburgh Castle

Sandy Bell's

25 Forrest Rd, Edinburgh
Near the National Museum of Scotland

Oxford Bar

8 Young Street, Edinburgh
Near Queen Street Gardens

The Last Drop

74-78 Grassmarket, Edinburgh
Down the street from The White Hart Inn

The Three Sisters

139 Cowgate, Edinburgh
Near the National Museum of Scotland

Where to eat the best haggis

Arcade Bar, Haggis & Whisky House

48 Cockburn St, Edinburgh

Whiski Bar

119 High St, Edinburgh

Photo by Instagram user @neznaneza

Off the Beaten Path Excursions

Dean Village

A rural Scottish village within walking distance from central Edinburgh? Yes, you read that correctly. The walk from Edinburgh Old Town to Dean Village is roughly 30 minutes. Stroll into a tranquil stream, picturesque gardens, old homes, and 19th-century buildings.

Royal Yacht Brittania

Her Majesty's Yacht Britannia, also known as the Royal Yacht Britannia, is the former royal yacht of Queen Elizabeth II. It was in service from 1954 until 1997, and now serves as a truly unique attraction. Located in Leith, a hip and happening port city near Edinburgh, an adventure to the HMY Britannia makes for a perfect mini-day-trip.

Royal Botanic Garden

Just north of central Edinburgh, near Bonnington, sits the beautiful grounds of the Royal Botanic Garden. Explore vibrant plant life, spend a lovely afternoon by the tranquil pond, and indulge in a delightful meal at Gateway Restaurant, where the views are as good as the cuisine!

Photo by Instagram user @edinburghlarder

Best Budget Eats


Fantastically flavorful Scottish pulled haggis pork rolls with all the fixins? Yes, please. Take away or take a seat!
82 Canongate, Edinburgh

Nile Valley Cafe

A fan favorite! Authentic, delicious North African food just steps from University of Edinburgh's main campus.
6 Chapel St, Edinburgh

Edinburgh Larder

A cool cafe with artisan coffee and locally sourced breakfast and lunch.
15 Blackfriars St, Edinburgh

The Piemaker

Simple spot for scrumptious pies - both savory and sweet!
38 South Bridge, Edinburgh

Photo by Instagram user @haarkon_

What to do if (and when) it rains

  • Visit the National Museum of Scotland
  • Wander through the Scottish National Gallery
  • Shop at New Waverly Edinburgh, filled with shops and food vendors
  • Drink whisky at a pub!
  • Cozy up at a craft coffee shop

Happy travels!

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