Let me introduce to you my greatest love of all – the beautiful, Medieval city of Edinburgh! Located in the Scottish Lowlands on the Firth of Forth, this city is the gateway to the untamed landscape in the north of Scotland. It’s a city which is truly steeped in history!
Edinburgh is a city bursting with myths and stories, which will scare you as much as they thrill you. Nestled in the hills of the Lowlands, this Scottish beauty with its long history and thousands of Legends looks out over the wild sea from its castle on top of a dormant volcano. And, if you listen more carefully in the streets of the Old Town, you can hear whispers from the past between the traditional melodies of the bagpipers. The voices of thousands of buried corpses, whose fates have been lost to history, waft through these streets, which were bricked up for hundreds of years and which have only recently been reopened.
Edinburgh has been Scotland’s capital since the 15th century and the seat of the Scottish Parliament since 1999. It’s the second-largest city in the country after Glasgow, which grew incredibly quickly from the 18th century during the Industrial Revolution. Edinburgh’s Gaelic name, Dùn Èideann, means ‘hillside fort’, which describes the city very well. Back when it was simply a fort, the settlement was still surrounded by moors and lakes but these were drained over time and often turned into parks.
The Old Town and New Town
Edinburgh’s city centre is more or less divided into two parts – on one side is the Old Town, which is where you’ll find most of the historic sights such as the castle and churches. They’re connected by the Royal Mile, which is made up of the streets Canongate, High Street and Castlehill. Just a stone’s throw away on the other side of the Princes Street Gardens is the New Town. Along the main street, Princes Street, you’ll also find a few sights and fantastic shopping opportunities. So, come along with me to Edinburgh and let yourself be swept away by its wild beauty and the dark shadows of its past!
Travel and Accommodation
Edinburgh is well-connected to the rest of the UK and there are plenty of ways to get there! All major airports have domestic flights to Edinburgh, and it’s only a short flight which makes the journey very smooth indeed. Once you’ve arrived at Edinburgh airport, you can take the Airlink Express. The line starts in front of the airport’s arrival hall and takes you straight to the city centre. For adults, it’s £4.50 for a single or £7.50 for a return. You can also take the Lothian Bus 35 for £1.60 but this takes longer. The tram also runs every seven minutes to Princes Street/Waverley Station. This journey takes about half an hour and costs £5.50.
Alternatively, you can take the train – it’s roughly 4 and a half hours from London King’s Cross, for example, and although it’s a longer journey it’s great for admiring the scenery. You can also travel by coach, which is a guaranteed bargain, but the journey is longer again.
Regardless of whether you prefer a hotel or a private Airbnb, Edinburgh has the right accommodation for every budget.
Things to do in Edinburgh – these are the city’s highlights
Edinburgh is a city full of exciting sights! But, where to start and what to do in Edinburgh? Whether you’d like to visit impressive old ruins, hunt for gruesome horror stories or you want to learn more about the famous Scotch whisky, there’s a lot here to satisfy your curiosity.
The numerous castles and ruined fortresses are the first things which come to mind when you think of Scotland. They are at the centre of all sorts of myths. Edinburgh can definitely keep up with the best especially in terms of Edinburgh Castle. The Medieval Castle’s oldest building was built in 1130 and is also the oldest structure in the entire city.
Edinburgh Castle is open between 9:30 and 5 in winter and 6 in summer. Entry costs £17.00. Audio Guides are £3.50.
The castle itself, which has functioned as a fortress throughout history, now welcomes around 1 million visitors each year. That’s quite a lot for a building that was originally designed to keep people out! If you visit Edinburgh Castle, you can join one of the guided tours, hire an audio guide or buy a guidebook, which includes all the information alongside plenty of pictures. You’ll definitely need some kind of information with you, just so you don’t get lost!
The old building, which I mentioned before, is called St. Margaret’s Chapel. This tiny chapel is definitely the highlight of the tour! She is thought to be the mother of King David I and had it built as a private chapel for the royal family. Back then, there was nothing on top of the hill except this little building, which looked out to the sea and braved the winds! Even today baptisms and weddings still take place here.
There are several further highlights in the castle as well as the chapel. The Royal Palace was built in 1430 and served as the accommodation of the Scottish royal family. The Honours of Scotland are also very impressive. They are the oldest crown jewels in the British Isles. The crown, sceptre and the Sword of State were completed in the time of James IV and James V (15th-16th centuries), and, together with the Stone of Destiny, you’ll be absolutely amazed. These were used for hundreds of years in Scottish coronation ceremonies.
Military history runs through the Scots’ blood
Military history is very important to the Scots. They’re very proud of everything that proves the military strength and accomplishments of their country. You’ll notice it everywhere in the castle. There are plenty of objects that stand testament to Scottish warfare in the National War Museum and the Prisons of War exhibition as well as on the western defences of the castle walls. And of course, the enormous cannon Mons Meg (1457) is on display.
There’s also the annual Military Tattoo which takes place here. It’s a massive spectacle where soldiers parade with drums and bagpipes and march impeccably. If you come at the right time you can watch the One o’Clock Gun as well! As you can probably guess by the name, one of the cannons is fired off every day at 1 pm on the dot. The castle itself is built on a dormant volcano which was active around 340 million years ago – the buildings are almost all in their original condition and justifiably attract plenty of visitors. So, get there early and give yourself half a day at least to explore!
Palace of Holyroodhouse
The Palace of Holyroodhouse is the official Scottish residence of the Queen and one that’s a little more modern. At the other end of the Royal Mile to the castle, this former abbey hosts the Queen during Holyrood Week at the end of June and beginning of July. For the ancient ceremony, the whole estate looks its best! It’s a massive spectacle but even during the rest of the year, Holyrood House is just as exciting.
You can visit the State Apartments where the Queen and other members of the Royal Family stay whenever they’re residing in Edinburgh. Or you can view Mary’s Chambers, the lodgings of none other than Mary Queen of Scots when she came from France in 1565. She must have experienced some dramatic goings-on during her stay. You can also visit the adjoining Queen’s Gallery, as well as the abbey. Before 1507, the Palace of Holyrood actually used to be an abbey before being converted into a palace by the then king, James IV. Queen Victoria also spent a lot of time here. She visited very often and helped to restore Edinburgh’s special significance.
A hidden gem – Craigmillar Castle
I’d like to introduce you to a really special titbit now – Craigmillar Castle. If you’re like me and love old, abandoned castle ruins, then this is the perfect place for you! The beautiful and well-preserved medieval ruins are in the suburb of Craigmillar, just south of the city centre. Don’t let the distance trouble you though. The no. 33 bus (eastbound) will take you quite comfortably from Princes St. to Old Dalkeith Road, where it’s just 100m to the castle!
“Often overlooked, Craigmillar Castle is a real hidden gem”
Unfortunately, Craigmillar Castle is often overlooked during sightseeing trips to Edinburgh so it’s a real hidden gem. It was built in the 14th century by the Preston family, the feudal lords of Craigmillar. The family chapel, which you’ll find a little outside the main building, was built in 1532. The whole estate was constantly extended and architecture updated during the course of the 15th and 16th centuries. On many of the walls, you can see traces of the original form such as bricked-up windows or missing floors. There’s another proud link to Mary Queen of Scots here as well. She is said to have moved back here when she fell ill.
The last time Craigmillar Castle was lived in was in the early 18th century by the Gilmour family, who owned the castle at the time and modernised it, before abandoning it in favour of more modern accommodation. Since then it’s served as a romantic backdrop to Edinburgh’s landscape. It was restored once more when Queen Victoria announced her visit in 1886. What makes these castle ruins so special is the thrilling atmosphere! There’s a strong sense of history in these old ruins and thanks to the information boards in each of the rooms you can get a good impression of how people used to live here. It’s a very special experience and there’s a great view of the city and the surrounding landscape from the roof!
Memorials on Calton Hill
Calton Hill is just a short walk away from Princes Street in Newtown. This hill, which was once intended as a recreational park for residents, doesn’t just offer great views of Edinburgh from the top of the steps and well-marked paths. There are also a couple of sights nearby. The Old Calton Burial Ground, the oldest development on the hill, is the final resting place of David Hume, the famous Scottish philosopher. However, the most noticeable thing when entering the park is the Acropolis-like structure in the middle, the National Monument.
The Nelson Monument is just as popular. It stands on the edge of the hill facing the city and is dedicated to the admiral who led his fleet to victory at Trafalgar in 1805. The monument was under construction from 1807-1815 and its slim, tall tower, which was deliberately made to recreate the form of a telescope, can be seen from afar. In 1853, a time ball was added to it so that sailors in Leith could check the time and adjust their instruments. The One o’Clock Gun that you can see at Edinburgh Castle also served as an audible signal.
Whisky tasting – a must
If you ever visit Edinburgh, you should definitely try Scotch Whisky, the national drink, while you’re there! And where would be better than a proper tour where you can learn all about the origins, techniques and varieties of whisky? The Scots’ favourite drink is “uisge beatha” or water of life in English! The Scotch Whisky Experience Tour gives you the opportunity to get closer to the legendary whisky.
You’ll find the building on Castle Hill, just before Edinburgh Castle. Here you can learn all about whiskies from different points of origin across Scotland. Every whisky claims to have its own unique and striking flavour. Each individual technique used to create the drink in the Highlands, Lowlands, Speyside and the Islands is explained clearly and interactively. The enormous collection of whisky varieties is staggering – there’s an almost endless number of single malts, grains and blended. At the end, you can show off your newfound knowledge of whisky at one of the tasting sessions.
The Mysterious Mary King’s Close
What makes Edinburgh so special is its long history. It makes it a very mysterious city too. Beneath the Old Town, there is a hidden labyrinth of old and very narrow streets, or closes, which used to lead to a lake in Princes Gardens. This underground network of alleyways, which today rests underneath the bustle of the Old Town, originates from the 17th and 18th centuries. At that time, the population of the city was growing so quickly that people struggled to find somewhere to live. It didn’t help that the hilly landscape and the moors surrounding the city meant that the space people could build on was heavily restricted. The solution: people started building higher!
This means that in a way Edinburgh had the first ‘high-rises’. As a consequence, however, these narrow streets got less and less daylight. The lack of a sewer system also meant that the smells were terrible. There were so many people packed into the smallest of spaces that when there was an outbreak of plague in 1645 thousands of people died. People who lived in these narrow streets were actually dying so quickly that the others didn’t know where to leave the corpses. Many tenements were simply abandoned.
“According to legend, houses were bricked up even if there were living people inside”
Some people, according to one story, simply bricked up the houses and left the people in there to die due to their fear of the disease spreading. By 1750, the streets were so derelict that the city simply decided to build on top of them. A new shopping street was created and it’s here where you’ll find the City Chambers. The old alleys were hidden out of sight for centuries and lost to history, along with their stories and inhabitants. That is, until 2003, when the streets were opened once more. Today they stand testament to how people lived back then and it’s as authentic as it can possibly be. The streets will be sure to spook you out and even the guides don’t trust certain areas.
Eerie Edinburgh – Greyfriars Kirkyard
One of the best places to visit in Edinburgh might give you the creeps…Yes, Edinburgh loves its ghost stories and the same applies to the graveyard found in the middle of the city. The entrance to the pretty but spooky kirkyard is hidden between the facades of two completely normal-looking houses. It’s these surroundings which make the atmosphere here quite special. It’s a little morbid how the massive gravestones lean up against the walls of the neighbouring houses and paradoxical that the skulls on the graves look out through the gates to the lively goings-on outside the gates. At the southern end, you can you find lots of tombs that have been sealed up and enclosed by solid walls or even iron bars. This trend dates back to the 18th century when body snatching was commonplace. Corpses used to be stolen from graves for anatomical purposes. Many famous names from Edinburgh are also buried here.
Spectacular views – Arthur’s Seat
Something to tick off your list of things to do in Edinburgh: If you want to enjoy an impressive sight over the roofs of Edinburgh, then you should dare to climb Arthur’s Seat. The mountain is in the middle of Holyrood Park and is completely surrounded by the city. The origin of the name is unknown. There are countless theories about how the hill got its name though. Some think that the name is derived from the Gaelic, Àrd-na-Said, which means “summit of arrows”. It’s amazing that after a not so difficult climb, you can have the most beautiful view over Edinburgh’s magnificent historic buildings.
But Scotland wouldn’t be Scotland if it wasn’t home to a mountain with a spooky story! In 1836, some school boys discovered a particularly bizarre burial chamber under slate slabs on the side of Arthur’s Seat. Seventeen really tiny coffins were hidden inside it. Dolls had been buried inside them. They had been carved out of wood and given individual faces. The unknown gravedigger had made each of them a cotton shroud. An eerie suspicion crept into the room. Were the dolls buried instead of a body because the body was missing? Or had innocent people been condemned to death? Did the dolls represent the 17 victims of the serial killers, Burke and Hare, who murdered people in Edinburgh and sold the corpses of their victims? Really creepy!
If you want to see the eight surviving coffins, commonly known as the fairy coffins, you should visit the National Museum of Scotland. The museum isn’t far from the foot of Arthur’s Seat and also contains other exciting exhibitions.
The best restaurants in Edinburgh
We’re now moving on to something a little more relaxed – food and drink! You should definitely head to a pub – there are countless places to get a pint in Edinburgh! If you’re still interested in the history you should check out Bobby’s Bar.
Bobby is a small terrier from the 19th century. He was the loyal friend of a policeman called John Gray and he was so faithful that even after Gray had died in 1858 he would stand by the side of his grave and guard it. When Bobby died, he was buried alongside his master in the graveyard. During the years spent guarding his master’s grave, Bobby allegedly used to pop into the nearby coffee house at lunchtime where he was given something to eat. This elaborate story was even turned into a film by none other than Disney in 1961. In 1872 a statue of the dog was created, which still stands in front of the pub he used to visit. It’s said that if you stroke the nose of this loyal friend, you’ll always find a way back to Edinburgh.
“Visit Greyfriars Bobby’s very own pub…”
You should also visit his pub as well – it’s very traditional with dark wooden interiors, hearty food and a cosy atmosphere. If you want to enjoy a tasty meat pie and a cold pint in a lovely atmosphere in a bustling corner of the city, you’re in the right place here!
Obviously, there are also plenty of good restaurants in Scotland’s capital, like The Outsider for example. The dishes change depending on the season, and they get their ingredients from local producers and are always freshly prepared. It’s a very good change from the typical fast-food you’ll find in a lot of places around Scotland, and it’s very popular with the locals. It also offers its guests a great view of Edinburgh Castle, a chic and modern interior and great value for money.
The following bistros and restaurants are cheap and tasty:
Italian: Origano (236 Leith Walk)
Fast food: Oink, Grassmarket (34 Victoria Street)
Noodle Bar: Red Box (51 West Nicolson Street)
Mexican: Los Cardos (281 Leith Walk)
Edinburgh’s Exciting Nightlife
If you fancy going for a dance after a pint there are plenty of options. Bars and clubs like Panda & Sons promise a great time and don’t charge entry. In the early evening, as you’re having your first beer, find out from the locals where the best places to go are – they know best!
Let yourself be charmed by the unique atmosphere and have a great time feeling like you’ve been transported back to the past as you make your way through castles, ghost tours and whisky!
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