Blanketed across seven stony hills, historic Edinburgh easily takes the prize for my favourite city ever. From its medieval Old Town to the effortlessly cool neighbourhood of Leith, there are endless reasons to love Scotland’s compact capital.
Okay, so I’ll admit that since I used to call this awesome city home, I might be a little biased. But after you’ve explored the city’s tapering lanes, fortress-like castle and cosy pubs, I guarantee you’re going to love it just as much as I do. Here’s how to spend a long weekend in Edinburgh.
Morning: Fuel up with a full Scottish breakfast. All good cafes worth their salt will serve this national staple, featuring all the essentials of breakfasts across the border, plus a few added extras: moreish tattie scones, square-shaped lorne sausage, and love-them-or-hate-them black puddings.
After, roll towards the city’s most iconic sight: the castle. Surveying Edinburgh imperiously from atop a brooding rocky crag (actually the remnants of an extinct volcano), this fortress has been fiercely fought over by Scotland and England for centuries. Spend a couple of hours learning about its long and often bloody history, sticking around for the ear-splitting bellow of the famous One O’Clock Gun.
If you’re anything like me, your tummy will be rumbling by now, so make for historic Deacon’s House Cafe on the Royal Mile. With a hidden courtyard, this cute cafe is the perfect place to fill up on Scottish smoked salmon, crumbly oatcakes and melt-in-the-mouth shortbread.
Afternoon: Get to know the Royal Mile, a mile-long street that runs from Edinburgh Castle down to Holyrood Palace. There’s plenty to distract you as you explore this cobbled stretch, including the Gothic spires of St Giles’ Cathedral, the innovative design of the Scottish Parliament, and the peaceful cemetery of Canongate Kirk. Countless narrow wynds and lanes branch mysteriously off the Mile, too, enticing you to explore them. One of my favourites is Lady Stairs Close, a little lane that leads to the hidden Makar Court, which has flagstones engraved with the words of Scotland’s great writers.
Evening: After a busy day exploring you might be tempted to have an early night, but resist: Edinburgh comes to life after dark. Start your evening sampling Scotland’s most iconic meal, the famous (or should that be infamous?) haggis. At the Old Town’s candle-lit Whiski Rooms, this spicy meat dish – served with creamy neeps and tatties – is liberally doused in a rich whisky sauce. It’s honestly still the best haggis I’ve ever eaten. Round off your meal with a cheeky dram of whisky before heading across to the New Town’s bars, pubs and clubs to party the night away. My favourite? The super cool Bramble Bar, hidden in a basement and offering quirky cocktails.
Morning: After a lie in, roll out of bed and make for the Elephant House. This homely cafe, nestled in the Old Town, is where J K Rowling wrote some of the early Harry Potter novels. Get your caffeine-kick with a cup of freshly roasted coffee, then fuel up on Scottish pancakes slathered in maple syrup or go traditional with a deliciously filling bowl of porridge.
From here, head across the road to the National Museum of Scotland. Its vast collection covers the whole of the country’s history, from its geological beginnings through to the modern day. It’s easy to spend hours here, especially if, like me, you get a bit distracted trying on outfits in the museum’s historical costumes section. But, eventually, drag yourself away from the exhibits and head up, up, up to the museum’s viewing terrace, where panoramic views of the capital await. Feeling peckish? Treat yourself to seasonal Scottish produce and more amazing views at the Tower Restaurant, found atop the museum.
Afternoon: You can’t visit Edinburgh without meeting Bobby, the capital’s favourite canine. A bronze statue dedicated to this loyal little terrier (who spent 14 years guarding his dead master’s grave) is found opposite the National Museum. While some claim rubbing Bobby’s nose will bring you good luck, years of friction has severely damaged the pooch-shaped statue. Locals (and the City Council) ask that people refrain from touching the good doggo to avoid further degradation. After admiring Bobby, duck into the atmospheric Greyfriars Kirkyard. This eerie cemetery was once a regular stomping ground for body snatchers and is said to be plagued by a malevolent ghost.
Leaving the cemetery, continue to explore the city’s spookier side below ground. For years I had no idea that beneath the Old Town lies a twisting labyrinth of abandoned streets and vaults. Discover how they came to be there on a tour, but beware: this subterranean city is said to be haunted.
Evening: Back above ground, head for the Grassmarket. Watched over by the castle, this rectangular square might be one of the oldest parts of the city, but it still hums with life thanks to its countless pubs, cafes and restaurants. You can’t go wrong with a pint in Edinburgh’s oldest drinking establishment, the White Hart Inn, which also offers tasty pub grub. Fancy a nightcap? Enjoy a tipple or two at Sandy Bells, a perennially popular pub filled with the energetic sounds of traditional Scottish folk music.
Morning: No visit to Edinburgh is complete without making a pilgrimage to the top of Arthur’s Seat, a humpbacked volcanic plug rising out of Holyrood Park. There are two ways to reach the top: a steady route that curves around the south of the hill or – what I’ve not-so affectionately named “Gollum’s Staircase” – a steep switchback of rocky steps that leads relentlessly upwards. Whichever way you go, I promise the effort is worth it; the peak offers 360-degree views over the city and along the coastline. If the weather stays nice – this is Scotland, after all – enjoy a lazy picnic in the park below.
Afternoon: Looking like it’s popped straight out of a storybook, peaceful Dean Village is disarmingly charming. Stroll lazily along its meandering lanes, lined with colourful cottages and take a quick nip into the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art to spy its substantial collection of Surrealist works. Back outside, follow the leafy path that runs alongside the Water of Leith all the way to the river’s namesake. Once the city’s rough-and-ready docks, the Leith area has undergone a massive regeneration without losing its unique character. Here, you’ll find knick-knack-filled antique shops, eclectic design boutiques and plenty of second-hand bookstores packed with dusty volumes.
Evening: Spend your last night in Edinburgh sampling succulent Scottish seafood along Leith’s vibrant waterfront. There are so many options here that you can take your pick, but I’m a little obsessed with the Ship on the Shore: with harbour-side views and fresh seafood served with a glass of champagne, what’s not to love?
Round off your trip in true Edinburgh style with a little comedy. If you’re lucky enough to be visiting during the city’s world-famous Fringe Festival you’ll be spoilt for choice, but have no fear if not. The Stand, Edinburgh’s only full-time comedy club, offers rib-tickling nightly performances.
Feature photo by JeniFoto, Shutterstock.