Snow was falling in Edinburgh this week. From Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyrood at the other end of the Royal Mile, history is everywhere evident in this storybook city. Let’s plan your visit to Edinburgh.
As one of the safest and most walkable cities in Europe, Edinburgh is also a great choice for someone travelling alone. Don’t hesitate to strike up a conversation with locals, who never fail to be friendly, upbeat, and quick to help out.
There are endless things to do and see in this historical gem of a city. Here’s my shortlist:
Hillwalking in Holyrood Park
Located within easy walking distance from anywhere in the city is the glorious 650-acre Holyrood Park, which served as a royal hunting estate in the 12th century and has earned mythological status as the home of Camelot. The highest peak at Arthur’s Seat offers a 360-degree panoramic view of the entire city. This preview of the city is something worth doing on your first day in Edinburgh.
Perched atop Castle Rock, this formidable historic castle complex can be seen from most areas in the city. The spot’s use as a fortress dates back 3,000 years. Up until James V built more comfortable digs at Holyrood Palace just down the Royal Mile, Edinburgh Castle served as the primary residence for a long line of Scottish monarchs. With more than a million visitors a year, the castle and the Royal Mile can feel a bit touristy and crowded at certain times of the year. Allow the better part of an afternoon for taking in this bustling part of the city.
The Uni Vibe
The thriving university culture is part of what makes Edinburgh so special. Located in the heart of the city, University of Edinburgh is the sixth oldest university in the English-speaking world. It served as an intellectual center during the Age of Enlightenment, and has spawned the likes of Charles Darwin, David Hume, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and J.K. Rowling among so many others. Take a spin through New College and you’ll feel transported to Hogwarts! A walk through George Square is also a youth-inducing experience. And to really pick up the uni vibe, take breakfast at Olly Bongos, a quaint Turkish cafe with views of the other-worldly Teviot Square student union.
One of the more aesthetically pleasing features of the city is the blending of the old with the new in the city’s use of glass structures—from skyroofs to entire buildings. The National Museum of Scotland’s Atrium is one example. Their Kingdom of the Scots collection is a beautiful visual introduction to Scotland. The city is filled with art museums, including the handsome Scottish National Gallery, situated along the Prince Street Gardens.
A Day Trip to Linlithglow
Just a 20-minute train ride away lies the birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots. The Linlithglow Palace ruins are worth the trip (and trains in Scotland are downright fun), but it’s also interesting to spend time in the provincial village of Linlithglow to get a feel for life in the less famous parts of Scotland. Grab a whisky and homemade soup at Four Marys pub for a fun local vibe. Occupied for more than two centuries by Stewart kings, these ruins were once considered a “pleasure palace” surrounded by exquisite gardens. You may also recognize this place from the STARZ series Outlander; Linlithglow was the film location for those difficult prison scenes with Jaime in Season 1.
Palace of Holyrood
As the official Scottish residence of Queen Elizabeth II, this gorgeous palace and abbey has served Scottish royalty since the 12th century. The original abbey was built in 1128 by King David I, who saw a vision of a cross while deer hunting on the Holyrood estate. Mary, Queen of Scots, lived here briefly between 1561-1567, before fleeing after the murder of her private secretary, David Rizzio, in the palace supper room. Bonnie Prince Charlie set up residence here for 6 weeks in 1745, just before the Battle of Culloden sent him into exile. The palace is filled with treasures, but one you must see is the Darnley Jewel, a Stewart family heart-shaped necklace marked by intricate family symbolism.
Royal Botanic Gardens and Stockbridge
As one of the world’s leading botanic gardens, Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden on 70 acres in the northern section of the city is a feast for the eyes. Even in winter, the glass houses filled with 3,000 exotic plants from all over the world is a peaceful retreat for an afternoon. A 10 minute walk away is the elegant little shopping district of Stockbridge. This village of Georgian and Victorian homes and shops is set on the water of Leith and is one of the most picturesque areas of Edinburgh. With its farmers market and artisan and antique shops, this is the place to do your shopping in Edinburgh.
Where to Stay When You Visit Edinburgh
I’ve had great success with Airbnbs in Edinburgh, and anywhere in the city is safe. My only recommendation is to stay off the Royal Mile, which can be noisy and crowded, especially at night.
When to Visit Edinburgh
Edinburgh’s weather is something of a myth. It is not perpetually rainy, but it is incredibly windy. With all the gardens and green space, it’s a lovely city to visit in the Spring, Summer, and Fall. But Edinburgh is also the perfect Christmas escape with the city alight and the Christmas Market in the Prince Street Gardens.