A Literary Walking Tour of Edinburgh

By Briana Seftel


“This is a city of shifting light, of changing skies, of sudden vistas. A city so beautiful it breaks the heart again and again.” - Alexander McCall Smith

For centuries Edinburgh has inspired authors from around the globe, from Arthur Conan Doyle to JK Rowling. I was in Scotland’s capital for a few days for the international book festival, which brings together writers every August in Charlotte Square Gardens. Edinburgh is a fitting place to hold such a festival; in 2004 it was designated the first UNESCO City of Literature. On a day free in the capital, I embarked on a walking tour of some of the iconic literary monuments in the city.


I began at the National Library of Scotland, opened in 1925 and holding an astounding seven million books. Among the seven million is a letter written by Charles Darwin regarding the manuscript of his novel “On the Origin of Species" and a First Folio of Shakespeare. It is believed that only 234 copies of Shakespeare's have survived since the first edition was printed nearly 400 years ago. For a Shakespeare fan like myself, it was an absolute thrill to see a first edition copy of the Bard's plays and tragedies.

From the city center, I walked to Old Town and briefly popped in the Scottish Poetry Library. The library holds an impressive collection of contemporary Scottish and international poetry including a separate room dedicated to the works of Scottish poet Edwin Morgan. I quite enjoyed the modern minimalist façade of the library, which provides an interesting contrast to the Reformation-era buildings of Old Town.


Hunger was calling my name so I headed to the Spoon Cafe Bistro on Nicolson Street, which happens to be where JK Rowling first wrote "Harry Potter." While sadly I couldn’t find chocolate frogs on the menu, I found the large sun-filled room a lovely place to rest my feet and enjoy a light meal.

After lunch, I strolled over to the monument dedicated to Scottish author Sir Walter Scott whose most famous work is the novel "Ivanhoe." Designed in a Victorian Gothic style, it is the largest monument to a writer in the world. I huffed and puffed my way up 287 steps to the top and was treated to breathtaking views of Edinburgh and surrounding countryside.


I then visited another famous literary monument on Regent Road near Calton Hill. It is dedicated to the famed Scottish poet Robert Burns and is built in the Neo-Greek style typical of Georgian-era Edinburgh. I couldn't help but hum "Auld Lang Syne" while I circled the monument. Yes, the song sung every New Years Eve is actually a Burns poem!


To conclude my walking tour, I strolled over to the The Writers' Museum on the Royal Mile. Dedicated to the three most prominent Scottish writers - Burns, Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson - the museum houses a small number of portraits, rare books and personal objects. Even if you’re not a bookworm, it’s well worth a visit!


I checked my step count on my Apple watch (nearly 14,000) then rambled to The Oxford Bar in New Town for a dram of whisky. The Oxford Bar isn’t just any old pub; it is heavily featured in Ian Rankin’s acclaimed “Inspector Rebus” crime novels. The no frills bar, open since 1811, was the perfect place to end my day of literary enlightenment in the Scottish capital.

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