Planning a trip to the Scottish capital? Here’s a very quick guide to Edinburgh to get you started.
The city of Edinburgh has the wonderfully rich atmosphere of an old bookshop. Its cobblestone alleyways give the impression of narrow aisles, and there is an overwhelming feeling that the buildings are made of volumes and volumes of stories stacked on top of each other. Even just standing within all this, you can feel a pervasive sense of history. When you reach into the shelves and make the effort to crack open the spine of a musty tome, you are rewarded with the uncanny sensation of being transported back into another time and place, an experience that you will want to carry with you forever.
This capital city of Scotland and one of the coolest places in the United Kingdom, Edinburgh is known as the “Athens of the North”. It certainly has lots to discover for the art and history lover, and there are many festivals held here which transform the entire city into one big party. It is the second most visited tourist destination in the UK, attracting over a million overseas visitors per year, which creates a lively and multi-cultural atmosphere for travellers.
A Quick Guide to Edinburgh: Facts
Climate: Temperate Maritime (Chilly, windy, wet in the winter and pleasant and mild in the summer)
Currency: British Pound Sterling
Language: English (heavy Scottish accents can be hard for North Americans to understand, so read up on your slang before you go)
A Quick Guide to Edinburgh: What You Should Know
Old Town, New Town
Edinburgh is divided into two sections, the Old Town and the New Town. However, the New Town still dates back to the Georgian era, so it is only really new in comparison to the Medieval Old Town! There are many great Edinburgh things to do in both the Old Town and the New Town and the city is really fun to walk around and explore.
The Old Town part of the city creates a very historical atmosphere with its narrow alleyways, cobblestone streets, and small courtyards. The city is very hilly, so wear sturdy shoes and be ready to climb up a few sets of stairs or steep streets. Edinburgh is built atop seven hills, and the landscape is rich with craggy rocks and ancient medieval ruins.
The New Town offers gorgeous examples of Georgian buildings that will delight architecture fans. New Town features Charlotte Square, which is the location for the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.
On a sunny day, nothing is nicer than a picnic under a shady tree in the beautiful Princes Street Gardens or in one of the picturesque little squares throughout the Old Town. Oh, and on the topic of food, don’t leave Scotland without giving Haggis a try.
This traditional Scottish dish contains sheep’s heart, liver and lungs minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices and salt and then simmered in the sheep’s stomach.
I know it sounds disgusting, but I was pleasantly surprised when I tried it, as it tasted rich, warm and comforting. It was the culinary equivalent of curling up in a warm woolly sweater next to a roaring fire. Try it with “neeps and tatties” (mashed swede and potato) and a dram of Scotch whiskey.
Edinburgh: Heaven for Literature Geeks
Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and many more of the greatest writers of our time have hailed from Scotland. Edinburgh features the Writer’s Museum, which is crammed with memorabilia and exhibits and offers free admission.
Edinburgh is a great city for hardcore Harry Potter fans, who will want to find the original building that Hogwarts was inspired by and the cafe where J.K. Rowling wrote the first draft of the first book in her epic fantasy series. You will probably encounter tour guides dressed up as wizards, who offer themed tours of the city. If you are a fan of Sherlock Holmes, you might know that although Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous books were set in London, he took his inspiration from the moody and atmospheric streets of Edinburgh.
There are Sherlock Holmes walks that will show you many important locations, including the grave of Dr. Joseph Bell, the real man on which the character of Holmes was based.
The Edinburgh Fringe Festival
The absolute best time of year to visit Edinburgh is during August, during the Fringe Festival. The largest independent theatre festival in the world, the Edinburgh Fringe is legendary and has been emulated in cities all over the world, but there is nothing like the Edinburgh version.
I’ve been to the Fringe Festival 4 times – it’s truly my happy place.
The bustling energy of the Royal Mile, Edinburgh’s main street, is an absolutely unforgettable experience. As you weave through the throngs of people on the historic Royal Mile, you will spot everything from performers on stilts, women in full body paint draped over phone boxes, jugglers in suspenders, choral singers and much more, all within the span of one block! A costumed performer in an 18th century suit or a smiley attractive young comedy club promoter in a brightly colored t-shirt will approach you every few minutes and hand you a flyer for their show, which is “starting just around the corner in only 15 minutes” and is “the best show of the Fringe”!
All throughout the festival, the cities becomes an all you can eat entertainment buffet, where you can absolutely gorge yourself on live theatre, music, comedy, and more for relatively cheap. Most shows are less than £10 and many are free. At any point in the day there are dozens of shows to choose from in a wide range of venues all over the city, and the hardest thing challenge you will come upon is finding enough time to fit in all of the acts that you want to see.
Of course, the Fringe allows nearly anyone to submit a show and the disadvantage of that is you can see some incredibly terrible theatre. However, this is part of the experience and it should not stop you from taking a risk on an unknown performer, because you might miss out on a real gem or at least something memorable. You can rely on the recommendations of other travellers and online and in print reviews to help you find the must-see shows.
Due to the sheer amount of shows, I would advise against trying to plan all of the shows that you want to see before you get there. Even though there is a guide on the Fringe website, you just can’t get a feel for it until you are actually there on the streets. My advice to you would be to choose a few shows that you really want to see, such as a favourite performer or one you have heard lots about, and buy tickets for those in advance to make sure you get in before they sell out.
After that, choose the rest of your shows completely spontaneously by asking other travellers, wandering around the venues, and visiting the half-price hut in the morning for last-minute deals on shows that day. This will give you a bit of structure and guarantee that you will see something that you like, but also leave some room for surprises as well.
If you are a looking for a quick guide to Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival, check out this article I wrote for Price of Travel, A Cheapskate Guide to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
No quick guide to Edinburgh would be complete without a mention of the castle. Perched high on an extinct volcano, overlooking the city, this ancient fortress is a fascinating place to visit for anyone with an interest in history. It is one of the most recognizable national symbols of Scotland, one of the main points of interest in Edinburgh and its story stretches back to 900 BC, which the first archaeological evidence of human settlement was discovered here.
It has been an incredibly important location for many events in Scotland’s rich and bloody history and is home to the Stone of Destiny. The castle is the most popular attraction, and the artifacts here are viewed by over 1.25 million visitors every year.
The Castle’s official website allows you to download free guides that provide you with interesting historical information. They recommend that you allow at least two hours for seeing all of the highlights. The website also allows you to buy tickets online in advance, so that you don’t have to wait in the lengthy queue during the busy season.
When I was in Edinburgh for the first time in August of 2010, I wanted to go on a walking tour to learn more about the history of the Old Town. There are many different walking tours throughout Edinburgh, with different themes to suit your interests, and it is a great way to get a quick guide to Edinburgh and explore the city. While I was choosing one, I spotted a friendly guy in a red t-shirt, and realized that he was a Sandeman’s New Europe tour guide, a company that provides free tours in cities all over Europe. I had already gone on their tours in Paris and Amsterdam, and had a fantastic time, so I knew that I wanted to go on the Edinburgh tour as well.
My friendly and funny (and very handsome) Scottish tour guide took us around on a very thorough journey throughout Edinburgh, telling us all sorts of great tales about scandals, murders, and the famous people who have called Edinburgh home. Particularly fascinating is the gruesome tale of Edinburgh’s most famous serial killers, Burke and Hare.
Taking a walking tour is a great way to get a quick guide to Edinburgh and gain an understanding of the city and how it all fits together. It was also a great opportunity to strike up a conversation with other travellers, and the tour was where I met my friend Mark from Australia, who I ended up hanging out many other times throughout my trip and who I still keep in touch with.
The cool thing about these tours is that all of the guides are young and enthusiastic so they tell the historical stories in a way that is never boring. They live and party in the cities that they are showing you as well, so your guide will be able to tell you the best nightclub, pub or restaurant, and they will probably offer to take you there and have a pint with you!
Go Check out Edinburgh for Yourself
I hope this quick guide to Edinburgh has inspired you to check out this great city. There’s no doubt about it, Edinburgh is one of the coolest cities in the world, but don’t just take my word for it.
Go and see it for yourself! When you do, let me know what you liked about it.