Visiting Edinburgh can be a bit like taking a step “back to the future.” This delightful capital city of Scotland is filled with historical sights, to be sure, and dominated by its Castle. It has an impressive Old Town, once contained behind an encircling wall, and a charming New Town that is also centuries old.
Then, there’s the futuristic, somewhat controversial Parliament Building that seems equally loved and hated. But it’s a unique element in this historic city, as impressive in its own way as Holyrood Palace and Edinburgh Castle. You’ll want to see them all on your CIE vacation.
It’s impossible to escape the history, so you’ll want to at least pay a visit to some of the better known museums, including the National Museum of Scotland and the National Galleries. But get to know the city — and the people — by putting on your walking shoes and getting out on your own.
Head for Gladstone’s Land (also sometimes known as Gledstane’s). Maintained by the National Trust, the building offers a view of 17th-Century life in a six-story building nestled up against the wall of the old town. By the 1800s, the area had become a slum, and the building itself a crowded tenement. Tour two floors of the restored and still inhabited building, and then look for tartans, Scottish woollens and handmade crafts at adjacent shops. Admission is reasonable, but you’ll need to book your tour in advance.
The Museum of Edinburgh, also in the old town, provides a somewhat quirky look into the history of the city. The best part? It’s free, although donations are encouraged.
Another find, if you love the works of Scottish writers, is the Writers’ Museum on High Street. View the ring with an inscription “Teller of Tales” presented to Robert Louis Stevenson by a Samoan chieftain. Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns are also honored at this cozy little free museum.
Explore historic “closes” that along the Royal Mile. Some have intriguing names, none more so than World’s End Close! Feel free to wander into these narrow lanes and be transported in imagination to a time when they were filled only with horses and carts.
If you encounter an occasional “private” sign, respect it and simply follow another path. Mary King’s Close is said to be haunted, and guided tours are available.
Visit Dean Village for a glimpse of everyday Scottish life; take a riverside stroll along the Waters of Leith, and visit the restoration of St. Bernard’s Well, where a natural spring discovered in 1760 became the local destination for “taking the waters.” Find a friendly pub, and lift a glass or two with the locals. It’s all just a short walk from the city’s bustling center.
Don’t miss the Tron Kirk and Royal Mile Market, where you’ll find local crafts and artisan stalls, and visit the tourist information booth. But then hang with the locals and eat street food at one of the year-round farmers’ markets: Grassmarket Market or Leith on Sundays, and Stockbridge every Saturday. They’re worth it for the street food alone, but there’s lots of other fun to be had as well.
Every June in Stockbridge, rubber ducks are released into the Waters of Leith! It’s great fun. There’s also plenty to see and do in this suburban community the rest of the year. Sample locally-made cheese or sip great coffee at a local cafe before a visit to the Royal Botanic Gardens or the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.
Take a 30-minute bus ride from the Royal Mile to Newhaven Harbor, a former shipbuilding community and fishing village. Take a charter boat ride, view the fresh catch at the local fishmonger’s, or visit the historic lighthouse.
It may not be easy to characterize the spirit of Edinburgh, but Scots do love their spirits! However, there’s a lot more to love than Scotch whiskey. You can embrace tradition at a local pub, but you can also go to the source, so to speak. Take a one-hour tour, complete with samples, of Edinburgh’s Pickering’s Gin Distillery, or sample craft beer and even brew your own at Stewart Brewing, located about six miles outside the city.
You will, of course, want to sample some Scottish pub fare, along with suds and spirits. No trip to Edinburgh is complete without a traditional breakfast, a perfectly-prepared steak pie, crunchy fish and chips, or a taste of haggis, served with neeps and tatties. If you don’t know what haggis is, you might want to taste it before it’s explained; it is, however, considered a staple food in Scotland, traditionally served with turnips or rutabaga and potatoes. Wash it down with a “dram” of Scotch whiskey!
Finally, if you’re so inclined, keep watch for reminders of Harry Potter. Much of J.K. Rowling’s inspiration is said to have come during time spent writing in the city’s cafes!