Widely considered the cultural capital of Scotland, Edinburgh lives up to its moniker and is a charming city brimming with culture in the form of architecture, food, and history galore. Based on this appeal, my wife and I decided to check it out as a quick extension on a business trip to London. A quick four hour journey from London’s King’s Cross station, Edinburgh sits as the gateway to the South of Scotland and is the perfect destination to get a taste of Scottish culture, whether you’re visiting for two days or two weeks.
WHAT TO DO
If you’re only in Edinburgh for a short window, I highly recommend covering the most ground by doing the hop-on-hop-off bus tour. We chose the City Sightseeing Hop-on-Hop-off bus tour, which costs around 18 GBP per person for 24-hour access. It’s a great way to cover the most territory in limited time, and at your own pace. The bus route covers most of the highlights I’ve listed below.
Edinburgh Castle is the crown jewel of historic sites in Edinburgh and a must-see. You’ll find it’s quite expansive, and contains everything from ramparts and cannons to St. Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest surviving building in Scotland (built in the 12th century). The entrance is flanked by statues of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, which sets the tone for the amount of Scottish history you can learn here.
Pro Tip: I suggest getting a private tour to provide context for what you’ll be looking at. We booked a “Skip-the-Line” walking tour through Viator for around 60 GBP each, and felt it was well worth it for the amount of history we learned (ticket prices to the castle alone are 20 GBP).
The Palace of Holyroodhouse
The Palace of Holyroodhouse is the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh,and steeped in centuries of history. This is the palace where Mary Queen of Scots once lived, as well as where the savage murder of her confidante David Rizzio took place. Despite its checkered history, the palace is beautiful and still very much part of the current British Monarchy. It also features stunning grounds and the haunting ruins of an abbey that fell into decay in the 1700’s.
Pro Tip: From Holyrood park near the palace, if your schedule allows, it’s worth the hike to the top of Arthur’s Seat for views of the city from an extinct volcano.
Across the street from The Palace of Holyroodhouse is the Scottish Parliament building, an architectural stunner that is worth checking out for its design alone. In contrast to the historic buildings on the Royal Mile, the Scottish Parliament building is a modern sculpture of wood, concrete, and glass. You can sign up for a free tour of the building, and if you’re lucky, watch a session of parliament. I’ll forewarn you, though- Scottish parliament has none of the pomp, nor circumstance (nor searing humor) of English parliament, and feels a bit like watching a city council meeting. But if you have any interest in government, it’s still interesting to see how other countries function.
Mini-Civics Lesson: I did not know this until our visit- , Scotland is indeed a country, but it is not a sovereign country. It is part of the United Kingdom, which includes Scotland, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. However, in the United Kingdom (also referred to as Great Britain, or just Britain), England holds much of the power. We visited Scotland during much of the Brexit debate, and learned that many Scots are upset about Britain’s plans to leave the EU. Once more, the notion of Scotland seceding from the UK is gaining popularity, as many Scots want to remain part of Europe.
Harry Potter Mania
If you’re at all a fan of the popular book and movie series, you’re in for a feast of the senses in Edinburgh, still home to series author J.K. Rowling. From seeing the inspiration for Diagon Alley, to Hogwarts, to Tom Riddle’s actual grave, the city is crawling with references to the story:
- Greyfriar’s Cemetery – Home to graves for Tom Riddle and Professor McGonagall.
- The Elephant House – A spot where J.K. Rowling regularly worked on the series, and therefore has been dubbed “the birthplace of Harry Potter.”
- The Balmoral Hotel – J.K. Rowling holed up in a suite in this luxury hotel to write the 7th and final book.
- Victoria Street – This is the inspiration for Diagon Alley. A beautiful curvy street filled with charming spots, including an ‘ah ha ha’ joke shoppe, reminiscent of Zonko’s from Harry Potter.
For more information on Harry Potter sites, check out The Culture Trip.
Scotch Whiskey Experience
Located near the entrance to Edinburgh Castle is the Scotch Whiskey Experience. Though it’s admittedly a bit cheesy and touristy, it’s actually worth a visit to learn all about the regional nuances of scotch and the chance to see an impressive collection (and of course, do some tasting of your own!). The experience starts with an actual ride through the history of scotch making, and ends with a tasting. Visit the Scotch Whiskey Experience website to learn more.
Pro Tip: Pay a bit more for the “Gold” tour and you get to try an additional four Scotch varieties at the end of the tour.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Edinburgh is chock full of great dining options, both for Scottish food and global cuisine. Here are a few we were able to visit in our short stay:
Howies – This Scottish chain is a great intro to Scottish classics, from haggis to mussels, and there are a few locations in Edinburgh. We had dinner at the Victoria Street location, which was in a beautiful historic space. Best enjoyed with a scotch whiskey flight.
The Witchery – This Edinburgh institution is located in a beautiful gothic church just outside Edinburgh Castle, and is named for the scores of women and men on Castle Hill killed for being accused as witches . Its storied history and gothic interiors create a very memorable dining experience, with excellent food and drink.
Panda & Sons – An excellent Speakeasy that takes its cocktails seriously, while not taking itself too seriously. World-class cocktails with lots of pizzazz in a fun, casual environment.
Baba – Serious Mediterranean eats in a colorful, stylish environment. One of Edinburgh’s best.
Other bars recommended to me that we did not have time to visit:
WHERE TO STAY
Kimpton Charlotte Square – Charming boutique hotel across from Charlotte Square. A 10-15 minute walk from most places.
The Balmoral Hotel – A historic, luxurious institution in the middle of the city. If you can swing it, book the J.K. Rowling suite,where the author finished the final Harry Potter book.
InterContinental Edinburgh The George – Built of five Georgian Townhouses, this new luxury hotel provides a world-class Scottish experience. Located just off Prince Street, it’s close to the best shopping and historic sites.