I’m Scottish - like kilt wearing, Jacobite supporting ancestors who fought at Culloden kind of Scottish. However, it wasn’t my Highlander heritage that drew me to Scotland. It was Jamie Fraser.
I love Outlander. I’m not sure if it’s the scenes of the Scottish landscape, the perfect complexity of the storyline, or the fact that Sam Heughan looks damn good naked, but it was enough to get me on a plane and head to Scotland’s capital - and thank God I did.
Edinburgh (ed-in-bra if you’re Scottish) is a fairly small city in the South-East region of Scotland, about a four hour train ride outside of London. What the city lacks in size, it makes up for in history and culture, packed with medieval castles, monuments, and cathedrals. Although by seeing Edinburgh you’re not experiencing the true Scotland, it’s a great place to start on any Scottish road trip. Even if your time is limited, there are plenty of things you can pack into a short visit to Edinburgh - here are some of my favorites.
At the end of the Royal Mile, opposite of Edinburgh Castle is Holyrood Palace, the official residence of Queen Elizabeth II when she visits Edinburgh. This palace has also been home to some of Scotland’s most famous monarchs, including Mary, Queen of Scots and Jacobite leader Bonnie Prince Charlie. Although standard admission is offered year-round, private evening tours are held during certain holiday seasons.
St. Giles Cathedral
Having been established in 1124, Saint Giles cathedral is one of the most important places of worship in Scotland, with a deep involvement in the religious riots and reforms that have torn through Scotland throughout the centuries. Entry into the church is free, but a five euro donation is suggested. Although your visit will be fast, being able to see the jaw dropping interior of the cathedral will be worth the time.
On top of an extinct volcano lies the medieval fortress turned palace, Edinburgh Castle. This is a must-see while in Edinburgh for any history fan. I recommend doing a guided tour of the castle to learn about their extensive history, ranging from the Wars of Scottish Independence in the 13th century to Mary Queen of Scots.
Scots love to drink, and more than that, they love to drink the whiskey made in their honor - Scotch. The Scotch Whisky Experience is a scotch whiskey tasting company that offers tours ranging from 50 minutes to three hours where you’ll learn about the history and creation of Scotland’s favorite drink.
Note: Don’t purchase Scotch at their shop - due to the heavy tourism, their bottles tend to be overpriced. If you want to buy any liquor while in Edinburgh, head off of The Royal Mile.
Themed City Tours
Okay, these tours can be a little cheesy; however, they’re great for anyone traveling with kids. My favorite tours included The Potter Trail tour and the Underground City of the Dead tour. Even if the topic of the tours aren’t your thing, you can still learn a lot about Edinburgh and the people who have lived there throughout the years.
Sunrise at Calton Hill
If you’re an early riser while traveling, catch the sunrise at Calton Hill, where you’ll see panoramic views of the city. The hilliness of the city offers many vantage points for great sunrises, but Calton Hill remains my favorite.
Prince Street Gardens
Edinburgh is one of the greenest cities in the United Kingdom, offering a wide variety of green space in the form of gardens, parks, and cemeteries. With breathtaking views of Edinburgh Castle, Prince Street Gardens is one of the locals’ favorite places to lay out and relax during the summer months.
Holyrood Park and Authur’s Seat
I have never found anything like Authur’s Seat in any other metropolitan city I have traveled to. Seemingly in the middle of Edinburgh’s city is a massive national park with various hiking trails. The most famous hike, Authur’s Seat, brings you to a peak where you can see some of the most stunning views of Edinburgh. Although the way to the peak is fairly flat, make sure to wear sneakers and athletic clothing. It takes about an hour to reach the peak (okay, maybe less than that...I’m really out of shape), and about thirty minutes to get back to the base.
If you’ve Googled photos of Edinburgh, you’ve most likely seen Victoria Street. With brightly colored buildings lining the winding street, this street makes for the perfect photo op. There’s also a variety of great shops and restaurants found here, including multiple Harry Potter merchandise stores.
Fun Fact: J.K Rowling wrote some of the first Harry Potter books in Edinburgh and based Hogwarts largely on the Edinburgh Castle.
When booking my trip to Edinburgh, I originally planned to rent a car and drive from Edinburgh to Inverness and finish off my Scottish road trip in Glen Coe. As my schedule altered, I ended up spending more time than expected in London and wasn’t able to make this road trip work out. I am so bummed out that I missed out on this experience. Scotland has so much natural beauty and the Scottish Highlands are the place to go if you want to get a real picture of Scottish culture. From hiking trails with stunning views, fishing in Loch Ness, to spending the night in converted castles, getting out of the city for a few days can be the best way to visit Scotland.
Can’t commit multiple days outside of Edinburgh? There are day trips that can give you a glimpse of what the Highlands have to offer!
My Favorite Restaurants
(Outdoor beer garden with live music and karaoke)
(Where J.K. Rowling wrote some of the first Harry Potter chapters)
Where to stay
Opinions on staying on The Royal Mile, Edinburgh’s busiest tourist street, are torn. Although it’s touristy and overcrowded, it’s central and close to most everything you’ll be doing in the city. I stayed in a massive apartment right in the middle of Old Town on The Royal Mile. I found it to be really convenient to be in the midst of everything, but your preference all depends on your traveling style.
Want to stay where I stayed? Check out our apartment through Stay Edinburgh City Apartments on Airbnb.
Have you done any of my favorite things to do in Edinburgh? Let us know what your experiences are in the comments below!