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Edinburgh travel guide, tours & things to do

Only got a couple of days to get to know a new city? Our Big Five City Guides can help. We break each destination down into culture, history, dining, shopping and relaxation must-sees and dos. Barry Johnson checks in from historic Edinburgh...

When Edinburgh-born Alexander Graham Bell first phoned a friend in the 18th century, the whole world took the call.

The Scottish capital has been speaking to visitors ever since, and captivating them with one of the world’s most historic urban centres.

Jubilation after the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow drove the Scots to stretch for independence from British bonds. While the bid narrowly failed, Scottish culture and identity remain powerful in their own right, and nowhere is that more on display than in the capital. Brexit may yet open a new chapter for this extraordinary city.

Enjoy this Edinburgh travel guide.

Edinburgh travel guide
Edinburgh travel guide

Edinburgh for history lovers

History buffs, there is quite literally no end of ways to step back in time in Edinburgh — so prepare yourself for a busy holiday!

For more than 1,000 years, Scottish monarchs surveyed their kingdom from Arthur’s Seat in Holyrood Park. It’s a 1.5-hour hike up to the top of the dormant volcano. See the impressive ruins of St Anthony’s Chapel, or spy on pedestrians in the city beneath your feet.

Edinburgh travel guide
Edinburgh travel guide: Visit Holyrood Palace. Image: Bigstock

Next, pay a visit to Holyrood Palace — the Queen’s official home away from home when in Scotland. From there, you can take a regal stroll up the Royal Mile. It’s crowned by Edinburgh Castle — the medieval fortress that still stands strong (the oldest section dates back to the 1100s). See ancient relics inside, including the Stone of Destiny — which was restored to Scotland from Westminster Abbey in 1996.

Edinburgh travel guide
Edinburgh travel guide: Edinburgh Castle

You can put faces to the names you’ll hear about at the castle by visiting the National Portrait Gallery. Meet Mary Queen of Scots, historical novelist Sir Walter Scott, and Tom Derry — jester to Queen Anne of Denmark.

For a lighthearted take on local history, head to The Edinburgh Dungeon. Crooked judges, dodgy doctors, toothless crones, petty thieves and pious priests all transport you back through the centuries with their entertaining tales.

Top cultural experiences in Edinburgh

Begin your foray into Edinburgh’s cultural scene by witnessing one of the greatest military spectacles in the world.

The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo is performed throughout August in front of Edinburgh Castle. The choreographed mix of stirring music, precision marching, dance and special effects is mind-blowing. The Tattoo is always a sell-out, so book well in advance.

Edinburgh travel guide
Edinburgh travel guide: Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo

While the military elite march in step at the Tattoo, civvies turn out in droves for the annual Fringe festival, also held in August. Former performers at the festival, now world-famous after their Fringe gigs, include Rowan Atkinson, Craig Ferguson and Jo Brand.

There are actually no less than six festivals running concurrently in Edinburgh in August, including the Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh International Book Festival. It’s a fabulous time to be in town.

Edinburgh travel guide
Edinburgh travel guide: Enjoy the madness of the Fringe Festival. Image: Bigstock

Great places to eat in Edinburgh

For a beverage to carry the name of a nation, it has to be something special.

Judge for yourself at the Scotch Whisky Experience, where guests learn about the process involved in creating every precious drop of the drink that has become a cultural icon.

While you’re there, adjourn for lunch at the Amber Restaurant and Whisky Bar. They do a tasting menu of seasonal local specialties, including haggis bon bons and raspberry cranachan, washed down with a wee dram of Scotch whisky.

Edinburgh travel guide
Edinburgh travel guide. Image courtesy of Amber Restaurant and Whisky Bar

Hungry for more tasty local tidbits? Edinburgh Food Safari will introduce you to Shetland oysters, haggis at the Conan Doyle Pub, and the ultimate gooey fusion of sweet and, well, sweet — the deep-fried Mars Bar.

For a romantic dinner for two, book a table at tiny Dubh Prais under the Royal Mile. Aberdeen Angus beef, butterscotch terrine and a traditional Atholl Brose dessert (homemade ice cream with Drambuie and toasted oats) are all on the menu.

Alternatively, drink in the historic horizon from the National Museum’s Tower Restaurant. It offers chic, contemporary dining with an emphasis on local produce.

Where to shop in Edinburgh

Time for a spot of ye olde retail therapy in historic Grassmarket — the liveliest street in the medieval Old Town.

A market is held here every Saturday from 10am to 5pm. Shop for farm fresh produce, and enjoy the street food, live music and magic shows.

London has Harrods; Edinburgh has Cranachan & Crowdie, which offers unique Scottish wares for the canny souvenir hunter. Pick up thistle-shaped shortbread, tweed tablet covers and highland woollen tea cosies.

Edinburgh travel guide
Edinburgh travel guide. Image courtesy of Cranachan & Crowdie

Ways to relax in Edinburgh

Enjoy a memorable meander at Jupiter Artland — an outdoor art gallery where intriguing pieces dot the landscape.

Dozens of artists have contributed works to the sculpture park, which is set amongst ancient willow, oak and juniper trees in the grounds of a former Jacobean manor house.

Edinburgh travel guide
Edinburgh travel guide. Image courtesy of Mad Max Adventures

If you’re one of those travellers who finds relaxation in physical exertion, check out Mad Max Adventures. Chart a course across rural terrain by quad bike or 4WD, compete in a tournament of highland games, or go on a wild goose treasure hunt! If you master the art of caber tossing, contact the Guinness Book of Records. The current record (set by a Canadian!) is a warrior-worthy 14 tosses in three minutes.

Do you have any tips to add to our Edinburgh travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.

Additional images: Bigstock

Barry Johnson

About the writer

Barry Johnson is a freelance writer living in Sydney, but with a trail of Aussie souvenirs scattered throughout previous homes in Europe, America, Asia and the Middle East. Barry believes travelling is an adventure where the highlights push you on to the next trip and the lowlights can be laughed at with hindsight. Without a passport, he’d have missed getting lost in the Californian forest a week after the Blair Witch Project went viral, building a giant Buddha on a Cambodian mountain, camel racing in an Egyptian desert and teaching English to Peruvian children as they taught him Quechuan — the language of the Incas.


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