Designated in 2004 as the world’s first UNESCO City of Literature, Edinburgh touts its illustrious literary past just as much as it celebrates its modern authors. From “Waverley” to “Trainspotting,” a love of good literature seems to emanate from the hidden alleyways and uneven cobbles of this storied city. So, pack a book and get ready to explore the wonderland that inspired some of Scotland’s finest tales.
Literary Landmarks and Monuments
If you’re a bibliophile, Edinburgh is a great travel destination, as it’s home to real-life locations of many favorite literary locales. These landmarks fill the city and are nestled among the winding streets of the Old Town and along the wide avenues of the Georgian New Town. For Harry Potter fans, a stroll down Victoria Street is a must, as it’s said to have inspired the series’ famous Diagon Alley. In fact, a wander through the Old Town could lead you to George Heriot’s School ― whose turreted architecture recalls that of Hogwarts ― or to one of the many cafés that J.K. Rowling frequented while writing the books. Likewise, if you’re a fan of crime fiction, pay a visit to the Oxford Bar, famous in Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series, or grab a pint at the Conan Doyle, a pub situated across the road from the Sherlock Holmes author’s birthplace.
While the city is full of sites that are featured in novels, there’s also no shortage of monuments dedicated to the authors (or dogs!) who created them. For a slice of history and a breathtaking view of the city, climb the 287 steps to the top of the Walter Scott Monument. Featuring a small exhibit and a statue of the author, the world-famous Gothic monument is a focal point in the center of Edinburgh. Or, head to the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town to look for the statue of Greyfriar’s Bobby, a loyal Skye Terrier who’s known in numerous children’s books and two films, and was immortalized in bronze in 1873.
The Writer’s Museum
If you’d like to learn more about the history of Edinburgh’s authors, be sure to visit the Writer’s Museum tucked away in the city’s Old Town. Wend your way to the grounds through Makar’s Court, a courtyard adjacent to the museum whose flagstones date back to the 14th century and are engraved with quotes from Edinburgh’s famous authors. Once you enter the historic building, you’ll discover the foundations of Scottish literature and learn about three of the country’s Greats: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Complete with rare books, portraits, and personal objects that belonged to the authors, the Writer’s Museum is as steeped in stories as the city itself. And, as an added bonus, the museum charges no admission fees, so you can pop in anytime, free of charge!
With weather that tends toward gray skies and heavy rain ― dreich, as the Scots say ― Edinburgh seems to encourage cozying up and getting lost in a good book. And as a traveler, there’s no better way to explore the city’s literary scene than by exploring its many bookshops. Stop by Armchair Books, a short walk from the Grassmarket, whose shelves bow under the weight of secondhand gems, antiquarian volumes, handwritten notes, and other curious knick-knacks. Or, visit Till’s Bookshop and browse their enormous selection of fiction and nonfiction titles, vinyl records, and pop culture memorabilia. Complete with a burning hearth, it’s easy to spend hours perusing this cozy shop on dark winter days.
The Edinburgh International Book Festival
Deemed the largest literary event in the world, the Edinburgh International Book Festival spans two and a half weeks and fills the New Town’s Charlotte Square every August. The festival boasts various events, workshops, and (of course) books, and brings together around 1,000 writers from around the world. There, you can attend talks and interviews with your favorite authors, cast your vote for the winner of the New Book Award, and celebrate the written word with other book-loving travelers. What more could you ask for?
For those wanting to know more about how Edinburgh earned the title of UNESCO City of Literature, delve into the city’s literary past by embarking on one of its many literary-themed tours. Take a walk with the Edinburgh Book-Lover’s Tour and learn about famed authors in their historical contexts, all with their home cityscape as a backdrop. Or, for something equally informative, but perhaps a little more amusing, try out the Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour. Led by professional actors, this experience will take you on a dramatic and witty romp that explores the city’s pubs while giving insight into 300 years of Scottish literature. It may be less conventional than a classic city tour, but it’s sure to be as informative as it is entertaining.
Happy exploring — and happy reading!
Looking for more to do while exploring Scotland? Read our guide to spending 24 hours in the capital city, or learn more about the country’s literary culture.