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Our pocket guide to Edinburgh

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Christopher Wilson-Elmes

Sawday's Expert

8 min read

Whether you’re a first-timer or an auld hand, our pocket guide to Edinburgh is full of ideas and suggestions that’ll have you walking, eating, shopping and living the best of the city. These are our highlights, drawn mostly from our Edinburgh resident Christopher Wilson-Elmes, alongside insider suggestions from the owners of our amazing places to stay in Edinburgh. You’ll find colourful pubs in the old docks of Leith, city centre gems, leafy walks, fine art and more, with places to stay scattered among the cobbled streets and towering buildings of Scotland’s Capital. 

Featured in this article

Arthur's Seat, Water of Leith Walkway, National Museum of Scotland, The Lioness of Leith, The Beach House, Chez Jules , Royal Botanic Gardens , Hermitage of Braid, Royal Observatory Edinburgh, Armstrongs Vintage, Stockbridge

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Do

Climb Arthur’s Seat  It might feel like a cliché and it will take a moderate chunk out of your day, but the walk up Arthur’s Seat is one of the best things to do in Edinburgh for the sweeping views of the city, the Firth of Forth, and the coast all the way to Berwick. Approaching from town, you’ll arrive at the “high road” that runs round Arthur’s Seat and under the imposing face of the Salisbury Crags. There are paths and steps that lead straight to the top from here, but they are extremely steep and you’ll even end up using your hands at some points. The easier route is to follow the road round to the right until you come to a small body of water known as Dunsapie Loch. From here, much flatter paths lead up to the rocky summit, which has steps with chain railings. There are still some bits of tricky footing at the very end, but you’ll have skipped the worst of it. If you were standing on Princes Street, right in the heart of the city, the walk to the loch and the climb will take you a couple of hours. Consider getting a cab to the park (the loch car park is only open Tues to Thur, 9.30am to 3pm) to shave a bit of time off.     

The Water of Leith Walkway 

If mountain climbing, even to a moderately accessible peak like Arthur’s Seat, just isn’t why you go on holiday, then take the Water of Leith Walkway and wind your flat and merry way through some of the city’s most charming areas. The full route is 12 miles long and starts far out to the west of town, but you can pick it up closer to the city centre at the Gallery of Modern Art, which also gives you the chance to play “spot the Gormleys” as you head for the coast. The artist’s work 6 Times, a series of figures positioned along three and a half miles of the route, was originally installed in 2010, but complications with the installation led to four of the sculptures being removed. All six have now been restored, with the first buried up to its neck in the grounds of gallery and the last looking out to sea in Leith. A wander along the route, with stops at the cafés and shops in trendy Stockbridge and a brief detour round the Botanic Gardens, makes for a lovely day.     

Galleries and Museums 

You’d be hard pressed to avoid ending up in at least one of Edinburgh’s world-class galleries and museums during your stay, with several of them central enough to be stumbled upon by accident, but there are also a couple that merit a bit of a detour. In the centre, the National Museum of Scotland is a stunning five-storey building worth stepping into for the beautiful main hall alone. The Scottish National Gallery and the Royal Scottish Academy are next door to each other just along from Waverley Station and the looming black tower of the Scott monument, with the National Portrait Gallery a few minutes away over Princes Street. Those are easy enough to drop into as you’re passing, but the two Galleries of Modern Art (known as Modern 1 and Modern 2, a pair of buildings and grounds split by a road) are about half an hour’s walk from the centre. There you’ll find interactive sculptures in the gardens, as well as temporary exhibitions that range from the magic of film to drawing sessions, live music and art walks, but if you fancy something really unusual, why not visit a different planet altogether? A half an hour drive to the west will take you to Jupiter Artland, an outdoor sculpture park where conical terraced hills overlooking swan-filled pools is just the beginning. For a real treat, stay within the grounds and have the place to yourself after hours.  

Explore Edinburgh’s architectural marvels >

Top tip:

Avoid festival time, or embrace it. August is a manic month in Edinburgh. If you’re not going for the festivals, consider an autumnal trip instead. If you are going for the festivals, read our Guide to Planning your Edinburgh Festival Stay

Eat

The Lioness of Leith 

Leith’s grungy dockland vibe was always going to be fertile ground for gentrification, but thankfully it still retains much of its original character while throwing up more than a few gems. The Lioness is one of the brightest. The “art” on the walls is a very mixed bag of statuary, plastic animal heads and bright murals, giving you the feeling that you’ve walked into a fever dream about a Moroccan bazaar. The menu is more burgers and pub food than fine dining, but it’s all done superbly and there’s a genuinely diverse and tempting vegetarian and vegan menu that puts most pubs’ token beanburger to shame. Plus, if you get bored, you can always have a go on the arcade machine in the corner.  

 

The Beach House, Portobello (outside in summer) 

You might not think of Edinburgh as a chance for some sand and sun, but the beach at Portobello in the east is a burgeoning local hotspot. Somehow, the area remained undiscovered for decades, but now a sunny weekend sees the mile-long promenade and the long strip of sand divided by wooden groynes bustling with dry robe-wearing wild swimmers, families, dog walkers and strolling tourists. With great bus links to the centre of town, you can go from the castle to the beach in half an hour. There are few places to eat on “the prom” but the Beach House has the prime location, right in the middle of the strip with seating against the low sea wall, so you can sip coffee and watch the waves, feeling incredibly continental. If you’re braving a swim, then local wisdom says to head for the Joppa end of the beach (your right, when facing the sea), where the water quality is much better. 

 

Chez Jules 

The colourful and slightly crazy Chez Jules has been an Edinburgh institution for years. Given its fame and its position a couple of minutes’ walk from Princes Street, it’s still remarkably affordable, with three-course lunch deals of classic French cuisine that come in at the same price as a starter in some of the neighbouring bars and restaurants. It’s not the biggest, so you should definitely try and book, but if you can’t get in and the weather’s good, consider taking to the streets. Down in The Meadows, Edinburgh’s huge city centre park the other side of the castle from Princes Street, there are a couple of food trucks that can send you off to sit on the grass with great sausage rolls, cakes and even a hot chocolate with marshmallow blow-torched to crispy perfection while you watch. 

Explore the best restaurants in Edinburgh >  

See

Arrive by train 

For a wonderful introduction to the city, and for the sake of travelling greener and slower, which we always endorse, we cannot recommend enough that you arrive in Edinburgh by train. From the south, the approach takes you along the coast through North Berwick, giving you beautiful sea views as you turn west and follow the edge of the Firth of Forth to Waverley. Stepping out of the city-centre station you see the Scott Monument towering in front of you, with the castle and a sweep of imposing buildings to your left, and a serried row of spires in the middle distance. If you happen to be heading over North Bridge to where you’re staying, then you also see Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags loom into view as you cross. Even if you don’t have to cross the bridge, it’s worth making sure you’re around at sunset one day, when the castle and the cathedrals are silhoutted in one direction and the crags in the other glow in the evening light. It’s a busy thoroughfare, so you won’t be idling for long, but if you can squeeze some space and look around for a moment, all of Edinburgh’s magic is there to see.     

Top tip: Getting around part I 

Lothian buses (the purple ones) have a “tap tap cap” system. You don’t need to ask for a specific stop or a fare, just tap your card on the reader as you board. It will charge an adult single which will get you anywhere the bus goes. It stops charging after three trips, when you reach the price of an Adult Day Ticket. So you can take as many buses as you need to in a day. 

Royal Botanic Gardens 

The Botanic Gardens are, exactly as you’d expect, a fantastic place to while away a spring or summer afternoon. Huge hedgerows and borders flow with colour and a series of distinct landscapes, from a rock garden to a Japanese lily pond, give plenty of scope for wandering and even picking up some planting ideas. It’s completely free to enter and there are two cafés, one at each entrance, so you can pick up some snacks and coffee to take round with you. While it’s an obvious choice in summer though, it’s also worth considering in winter, for the spectacular art and light show that fills every corner of the gardens. Usually starting in November, the show is ticketed and you’ll need to book a slot to enter, but once you’re in you can wander for as long as you like. Past displays have included lakes covered in thousands of floating lights, trees that seem to have light flowing down their branches and fire sculptures. The highlight every year is the giant arched tunnel of fairy lights, which always make you glad that one duff bulb doesn’t make the whole string go out like it used to.  

 

The Hermitage of Braid and the Royal Observatory 

If you’re based in the south of the city, take a chance to explore one of its lesser-known green spaces and a building that really should be more recognised as part of Edinburgh’s visual landscape than it is. The Hermitage of Braid (the name actually refers to a building in the south-west corner of the park, but has become associated with the whole space) is a sprawling park where you can stroll idly along pathways, or climb up Blackford Hill for views right across the city if you’re feeling energetic. On its northern edge is the Royal Observatory, with its towers and terraces commanding a fine view themselves. It’s still in use for science, teaching and visitor tours, with events and talks always worth checking for.  

Shop

Armstrong’s vintage  

If you’re after an expensive wool jumper or an I HEART SCOTLAND mug, you’ll find one. There are souvenir shops everywhere you turn in the city centre. Just off the Grassmarket, a cobbled street in the shadow of the castle, you can even hit the licensed Harry Potter merchandising outlet if you like. But on the other side of the street is a much more interesting place to pick up a memento – the cave of vintage and second-hand wonders that is Armstrong’s. This is actually one of three Armstrong’s sites in the city, another being on South Clerk Street and a third just round the corner from the National Museum. The Grassmarket location is the largest though, and while you might not come out with a tam o’shanter or a Highland coo soft toy, you’ll definitely take home the experience of rummaging through a true Edinburgh treasure.   

 

Crafts in Stockbridge 

Stockbridge is bucking the trend for declining high streets, with a string of independent shops popping up and thriving, from great bakeries and places showcasing local crafts to Rare Birds, one of Edinburgh’s best bookshops, which sells only books by female authors. It’s the place to pick up souvenirs that are genuinely resonant of Scotland, made by local craftspeople rather than just having a Saltire drawn on them. Stockbridge is about twenty minutes’ walk from the centre of town, in the direction of the Royal Botanic Gardens, so a wander from Princes Street, with a Stockbridge shopping and coffee break before you wander among the trees, is a perfectly pleasant morning’s work.  

 Explore best bookshops in Edinburgh >

Deli diving 

Let’s get the obvious Scottish food associations out of the way first. Yes, there are chip shops that will deep fry anything for you and have Mars Bars on standby. Yes, you should try haggis if you haven’t before. There’s a vegan haggis commonly available now too, which still gives you the spices, if not the earthy flavour of the traditional inverted sheep version. You could also eat out for every meal of every day and not put a dent in the eatery choices, but there are some superb delis on offer if you’re packing up a picnic. Valvona & Crolla, on Leith Walk, has hams hanging from the ceiling and is a treasure trove of jars and boxes of incredible delicacies. If you’re In Portobello you’ll find Smith & Gertrude, The Fine Wine Company and one of a few branches of Twelve Triangles, a bakery that has queues stretching down the street every morning. You can find another branch if you’re staying in the Morningside area, which also puts you near the superb cheesemonger LJ Mellis.    

Top tip:  Getting around part II 

Edinburgh is built on… Edinburgh. And more Edinburgh. And below that, some steep slopes. Accordingly, you can often find yourself separated from your destination by no lateral distance, but considerable vertical distance. If you’re lost, look up and down.   

Stay

Here are some of our favourite places to stay in Edinburgh, along with their owners’ suggestions of even more things to do and places to eat while you’re in town. 

Holyrood Cottage

Perfectly placed for the Arthur’s Seat climb, but also an easy walk to the palace of the same name and all of Edinburgh’s most beautiful spots, this bright little hideaway has everything you need for a few days in town.  

Owner tips from Rebecca McFarland: Visit the Bellfield Brewery for craft beer in their cute beer garden and bar, or walk over (around is easier) the hill to the super-cosy Sheep Heid Inn, Edinburgh’s oldest watering hole, established in 1360. Down Holyrood Rd there’s more food, but with a Swedish twist, at Hemma, or Holyrood 9A for craft beers and burgers.

 

Apartment on Cheyne Street is right at the heart of Stockbridge, which we lauded for its range of shopping option and trendy vive. The flat keeps up that sense of style, with the rustic, gentle tones of an Italian villa.  

Owner tips from Pierson: Following the riverside path to Dean Village and on to the Museum of Modern Art or the Botanic Gardens is a great day out. You can join locals for a morning swim at the Glenogle baths, a wonderfully restored Victorian pool. There’s a great farmer’s market on Sundays too, as well as the range of local shops on the high street.

 

Garden Apartment, St Bernard’s Crescent

A smart little pad on one of Edinburgh’s grand, sweeping streets that always make you feel as if people are going to leap out and start singing songs from Oliver! Head round the corner to Stockbridge for breakfast, take on the town in the afternoon.

Owner tips from Pierson: Everyone should visit Stockbridge’s wonderful Sunday farmer’s market and archictecture fans should take a look at the Robert Adam-designed Georgian House Museum, brilliantly restored to all its early-19th century period glory.

Our featured places to stay

Apartment on Cheyne Street

Edinburgh

  • From £150 p/n
  • Self-catering
  • 1 room for 2

Garden Apartment, St Bernard's Crescent

Stockbridge, Edinburgh

  • From £225 p/n
  • Self-catering
  • 2 rooms for 4

Holyrood Cottage

Edinburgh

  • From £79 p/n
  • Self-catering
  • 1 room for 2

Browse all our special places to stay in Edinburgh >

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Christopher Wilson-Elmes

Sawday's Expert

Chris is our in-house copywriter, with a flair for turning rough notes and travel tales into enticing articles. Raised in a tiny Wiltshire village, he was desperate to travel and has backpacked all over the world. Closer to home, he finds himself happiest in the most remote and rural places he can find, preferably with a host of animals to speak to, some waves to be smashed about in and the promise of a good pint somewhere in his future.
View more articles by this author

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