As Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh is renowned for its heritage, culture, and festivals. Among its cobbled streets and Gothic architecture, you’ll find chic hotels and buzzing restaurants. With a newfound dynamism, Edinburgh is topping the lists of many travelers — so use this guide to make your plans in advance.
WHERE TO STAY
No matter where you decide to establish your home base, you’re never far from a sense of history when staying in Edinburgh. Whether you opt for a classic Georgian hotel with castle views, an independent hostel brimming with local knowledge, or a cozy guesthouse on the outskirts of Leith, you’ll be sure to experience the juxtaposition of medieval and cosmopolitan.
Encompassing iconic areas such as the Royal Mile and Grassmarket, Edinburgh’s Old Town is the medieval heart of the city — and it’s chock-full of old tenements and cobbled alleyways to explore. This area offers views of Edinburgh Castle, St. Giles’ Cathedral, the Royal Museum of Scotland, and the ruins of Holyrood Abbey. As the most central area of Edinburgh, Old Town has a diverse range of accommodation. Artsy hostels share the streets with international chains and high-end hotels, allowing visitors of all budgets to stay within sight of the Royal Mile.
As its name suggests, this part of the city isn’t quite as old as Old Town, but it’s still not exactly “new.” It was built over the course of a century, beginning in 1765, in a grid format of Georgian and neoclassical architecture. This area features Edinburgh’s main shopping stretch as well as the city’s famed Princes Street. The streets of New Town are packed with traditional five-star hotels, private apartments, and Airbnb listings.
On the western side of the city center, Edinburgh’s West End boasts charming Georgian streets and crescents, as well as the Haymarket train station. The West End is a prime location for art enthusiasts, with venues such as the Royal Lyceum, Usher Hall, and Edinburgh’s independent cinema, The Filmhouse. If you’re looking to sleep in a fancy, four-poster bed or surround yourself with posh amenities, the West End is the place for you, as this area houses some of the city’s most upmarket hotels.
Built on the shores of the Firth of Forth and around the old port of Edinburgh, the vibrant, fast-paced area of Leith is a located a couple of miles outside the city center. With a noticeably different feel than the rest of Edinburgh, Leith flourishes with cultural festivities, unrivalled estuary-side walks, and a top-notch gourmet scene. This area of Edinburgh is known to be the most affordable, so if you’re looking for accommodation that won’t break the bank, head to the cheap (but cheerful) hotels and guesthouses around Leith Links park.
WHAT TO DO
From museums to art galleries and historical landmarks, Edinburgh offers a variety of things to do.
The Scottish Parliament: Since its construction, the parliament building has been a popular tourist attraction because of its architectural significance and striking features. Outside of parliamentary recess times, the building is accessible to the public — both for those who wish to view the democratic process at work in the debating chamber, and for those who simply want to enjoy a free guided tour.
Scott Monument: Built to commemorate the famous Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott, the Scott Monument is the world’s largest monument of a writer and stands as a touching reminder of how proud the city is of its own. You can either admire it from below or climb the 287 steps to the top for just a few pounds and take in its view of Edinburgh Castle, Princes Street Gardens, and the Firth of Forth.
The Scottish National Gallery: Situated in the heart of Edinburgh, the Scottish National Gallery boasts one of the best collections of fine art in the world. The neoclassical building designed by William Henry Playfair was first opened to the public in 1859 and now houses Scotland’s collection of fine art, including British and international art from the beginning of the Renaissance to the start of the 20th century.
The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art: From 20th-century paintings to German Expressionism and American Pop Art, this gallery offers an impressive collection of international names as well as popular Scottish Colourists. It’s a must-visit venue for modern and contemporary art enthusiasts, and its grounds offer a sculpture park and garden area made for lovers of architecture.
Edinburgh Zoo: Located on a large site on Corstorphine Hill, the zoo is a major visitors’ attraction. In fact, it’s in the country’s top ten. The daily penguin parade has been going on for more than half a century, and still it draws an impressive crowd to this day.
Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh: Founded in 1670, the Botanic Garden is a peaceful spot away from the hustle of the city. There are two dining areas on the grounds — the Terrace Café in the heart of the Garden, which offers a view of Edinburgh Castle in the distance, and the Gateway Restaurant. Aside from scenic views and a quiet atmosphere, the gardens are also home to a scientific plant center that focuses on the diversity and conservation of Edinburgh’s landscape.
Royal Yacht Britannia: One of Edinburgh’s most popular attractions, Royal Yacht Britannia was the Queen’s former floating residence for over 40 years. Including State Apartments, crew’s quarters, suites, and engine rooms, there’s much to explore. Its Royal Deck Tea Room is also a great pit-stop for tea, scones, and lovely waterfront views.
WHERE TO SHOP
With a mix of luxury brands, high-street stores, and independent boutiques, Edinburgh offers a vibrant shopping experience that caters to all tastes, styles, and budgets.
There aren’t many cities in the world where the busiest shopping area boasts a casual view of an ancient castle, but Edinburgh’s Princes Street does just that. As its shops line only one side of the street, shoppers are offered breathtaking views of Old Town’s gardens and cityscape.
Princes Street Gardens is also the venue for seasonal markets, including the Traditional German Christmas Market and the Edinburgh Farmers’ Market (held every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.).
Parallel to Princes Street, George Street is home to many upmarket retail stores and several hotels. The street is one of the grandest in Edinburgh and is bookended by the St. Andrew and Charlotte Squares. There are also several notable buildings along the length of George Street, including the George Hotel, the Dome, and the famous Assembly Rooms.
If you’re looking for a luxury shopping experience, Multrees Walk is the place for you. Home to exclusive designer labels and luxury fashion brands, this area caters to those who aren’t afraid to spend a pretty penny.
Situated only a minute’s walk from Princes Street, the cobbled streets of Edinburgh’s West End Village offer a delightful mix of indie fashion boutiques, cafés, stationery shops, organic food retailers, home-good stores, delis, and flower shops.
Grassmarket and Victoria Street
Edinburgh’s Grassmarket and Victoria Street are your best bet for finding vintage charity shops. This restaurant, pub, and shopping area is located in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle and brims with Scottish designers, artisans, and makers selling everything from crafts and vintage clothing to antiques and street food.
(It’s even been said that J.K. Rowling based Diagon Alley on these narrow, winding streets.)
WHERE TO EAT
Boasting an array of outstanding and award-winning restaurants, cafés, and bars, Edinburgh is a foodie’s dream — no matter what your budget is.
Sheep Heid Inn: Situated in the heart of Edinburgh, this charismatic establishment was a favorite of past monarchs and poets, and today, it’s one of Edinburgh’s oldest surviving watering holes. Perfect for relaxed dining and drinking, this inn is renowned for seasonal favorites and classic pub dishes.
The Table: This Modern European restaurant has just one table and caters to a maximum of 10 diners in a single evening sitting. As the environment is open and customers are encouraged to interact with the chefs as they cook, it’s difficult to know where fine dining ends and performance art begins.
Ting Thai Caravan: What’s better than a pop-up that gets the recognition it deserves? Although Ting Thai Caravan started small and only served four dishes, it now boasts a hearty Thai street-food menu of tasty innovations and thoughtful combinations.
Aizle: Pursuing the concept of bistronomie, this restaurant pairs fresh, local food and informal surroundings with the kind of menu you’d expect from a high-end establishment. It has a fresh, bright bistro look and a display board listing the latest ingredients from which the chef creates his five-course menu.
Timberyard: Situated in an former warehouse space, this family-run restaurant is lead by a extended team of local growers, breeders, producers, suppliers, and foragers — all of whom are dedicated to keeping the artisanal dream alive.
The Gardener’s Cottage: This small, stone cottage tucked inside terraced gardens offers a communal menu made up of sustainable and local produce. Their vision is simple: create a great sense of place with seasonal food that connects the diner with the landscape around them.
Restaurant Mark Greenaway: Run by a talented TV chef and showman, Greenaway brings both professionalism and fun to fine dining while embracing the city’s clash of old and new.
L’Escargot Bleu: Since opening in the home of a former clockmaker in 2008, this bohemian French restaurant fits in nicely among the neighboring trendy coffee shops, independent booksellers, and award-winning butchers.
Dusit: Despite competition from other Thistle Street eateries, this stone-walled, cozy spot remains popular because of its quality cooking. Dusit balances Thai, Japanese, Chinese, French, and Vietnamese flavors with fresh, Scottish produce.
West End and Leith
Locanda De Gusti: With a reputation for its food and service standards, this restaurant is run by chef Rosario Sartore, who was born and raised in Naples. The dishes have a pronounced southern-Italian style, while the decor transports diners into a bright, farmhouse-styled kitchen.
Restaurant Martin Wishart: Run by Edinburgh-local Martin Wishart, this establishment marries traditional Scottish meals, local and seasonal ingredients, and contemporary French cuisine. It’s located along Leith’s waterfront and boasts some of Edinburgh’s best dishes.
Fishers: With locations in both Leith and New Town, Fishers serves fresh seafood in a relaxed, informal atmosphere. Their ethos is simple: honest food, great service, and a relaxing dining experience.
WHERE TO DRINK
Whether you’re looking for a modern lounge or a traditional pub, you can be guaranteed a warm Scottish welcome in Edinburgh’s bars. These selections will get you started.
The Devil’s Advocate: A cozy, but stylish bar tucked away on 9 Advocate’s Close, the Devil’s Advocate focuses on serving the best local ales, seasonal cocktails, and over 100 different whiskys.
Brewdog: With an exposed brick and stainless steel interior, Brewdog offers a warm and lively atmosphere that attracts locals and visitors alike. Their beer menu is both vast and local.
Sandy Bell’s: Purveyors of fine ales and spirits, Sandy Bell’s is small but overflowing with character. It’s held in high esteem by residents, students, and visitors, as it’s best known for its live folk music, which comes in many forms every night of the week and twice on Sundays.
The Abbotsford: Located on Edinburgh’s iconic Rose Street, the Abbotsford is very much an Edinburgh classic. The bar offers a bustling atmosphere, a fantastic range of Scottish cask ales, the finest malt whisky, and a wide variety of imported beers.
Panda & Sons: This prohibition-style speakeasy fused with a vintage barber shop offers some of the most innovative cocktails in town. A newcomer to Edinburgh’s burgeoning bar scene, Panda & Sons is the quirkiest thing to arrive in the capital.
The Red Squirrel: Just around the corner from Usher Hall on Lothian Road, you’ll find the Red Squirrel — a relaxed bar with a wide selection of craft beers. But keep in mind, it gets packed on Friday evenings, as it’s a popular haunt for locals who want to kick-start their weekend.
The Priory Bar and Kitchen: Offering the ideal atmosphere for a post-work escape, the Priory Bar and Kitchen boasts a generous selection of fine spirits and craft beers, as well as a medicinal-themed cocktail menu.
52 Canoes Tiki Den: Tucked under the street of Melville Place, 52 Canoes offers an expansive range of tropical cocktails, a quirky beachside-inspired interior, and a mouth-watering food menu.
Whighams Wine Cellar: Located just off Charlotte Square, this Edinburgh classic has been around since 1983. Whighams is known for its selection of wines, champagnes, and ales, as well as its authentic and relaxing Scottish atmosphere.
The Street: Nestled on the corner of Broughton Street and Picardy Place, the Street is the perfect people-watching location by day and a go-to local favorite by night. As the Street is as strong an option for an afternoon coffee as it is for a Friday night outing, it caterers to all.
Boda Bar: Located on Leith Walk, this Swedish-themed bar offers a range of premium spirits, beers, and ciders, and regularly hosts diverse events, such as jogging clubs, knitting circles, baking classes, and clothes-swaps that encourage locals to mingle throughout the week.
The Carriers Quarters: This cozy landmark bar can be found on Bernard Street at the Shore. As the oldest, unaltered bar in Leith, it’s famous for its history and steak pies. Perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon pint or a lively music session on a weekend, Carriers Quarters is wonderfully unpretentious and as traditional as they come.
Header Image by Devarshi Shukla.